Studying religion
Studying religion

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Studying religion

8.6 The Dakshineswar temple

I want you now to follow a worshipper on a ‘pilgrimage in miniature’ around Dakshineswar temple on the outskirts of Calcutta. Before you read further, please study carefully the plan of Dakshineswar temple in Figure 14.

Figure 14
From Christopher Isherwood, Ramakrishna and his Disciples, 1965, Methuen, p. 216. Reproduced by permission of the Vedanta Society of Southern California
Figure 14 Plan of Dakshineswar temple

Dakshineswar temple is ringed by a number of tanks and ghats (steps or platforms) that provide access to water. Bathing plays an important part in the preparations for Hindu worship because, in washing themselves, the devotees achieve not just a state of physical cleanliness but also undergo a purification before participating in the rituals of worship (practical and ritual dimension). For some, a ritual bathe at the temple would precede worship. Having bought flowers from the stalls outside, devotees leave their shoes (closely guarded) at the entrance as they enter the main temple compound. This is a large flagged area flanked by small temples in honour of different deities but overlooked by the imposing temple of Kali, the deity to whom the whole complex is dedicated (the ‘presiding deity’). It would be natural for worship to be offered here first of all. Beneath the mass of the Kali temple lies the ‘womb-room’ – the small inmost chamber where the image of the deity resides. Devotees make offerings of flowers and coins at the door and in the sight of the image but do not go inside. This is where the difference between Hindu temple worship and the types of ‘congregational’ worship commonly found in Britain, for example, begins to hit you. You have to set aside assumptions about ‘congregational’ worship, if this is what you know best, in order to understand what goes on in a Hindu temple. Think of Kali holding court. At certain times of the day, there is a public audience when the priests act like courtiers and present the offerings that devotees bring to the goddess.

To walk around the Kali temple is part of the ‘pilgrimage’. The compound also contains temples to Shiva, the consort of Kali, and to Krishna who with his consort, Radha, is worshipped the length and breadth of India. The devotees go to each in turn. Before they leave they also pay their respects in the room set aside in memory of Ramakrishna, a popular Hindu teacher who was a temple attendant at Dakshineswar in the last century. Hindu temples often provide doles of food for the poor so, on leaving the temple, worshippers might make a donation for this purpose or give alms to the needy who often gather around popular temples (ethical and legal dimension).

Many of the migrants to Calcutta adopt the worship of Kali, the Mother Goddess, because it is so widespread in Bengal, but others ‘bring their gods with them’. Workers from the nearby Indian state of Orissa now live in the heart of the city on and around the Armenian Ghat on the banks of the Hugli. The Orissans living at the Ghat have erected a shrine dedicated to Lord Jagannatha, a name given to the deity Vishnu symbolised in a highly distinctive form that is particularly associated with the Jagannatha temple in the city of Puri, Orissa (Figure 15). Vishnu is worshipped throughout India but is commonly addressed either by the names found in accounts of his appearances on earth, such as Krishna, or by titles such as Jagannatha (meaning ‘Lord of the World’).

Figure 15
Photo: L. Dhawan Brothers, Gaya
Figure 15 Popular image of Jagannath (right-hand figure)

Although Hindus in Calcutta may originally have come from different parts of India and have brought their own styles of Hinduism with them, this will not prevent them from sharing wholeheartedly in the great religious festival that Calcutta has made its own – Durga Puja, the worship of the Mother Goddess. This festival takes over the life of the city and indeed comes close to stopping the traffic at the end of the rainy season.

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