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West Bengal’s first Saraswati temple was established a century ago in Howrah

1 February, 2023 12:23:29
West Bengal’s first Saraswati temple was established a century ago in Howrah

Though we celebrate Basant Panchami in Bengal every year as Saraswati Puja, in every nook and corner, in every para, in every school and college, Ma Saraswati usually never resides in a temple just like Maa Dura, Kali, Shiva, and Krishna do. In Bengal, Devi Saraswati is the presiding deity of students and creative people. Educational institutions also celebrate the day and makeshift pandals (a shed or arbor constructed for temporary use) are constructed where the idol is worshipped with piety and fervour. But does it not seem peculiar that although there are numerous temples dedicated to various deities in different parts of the state, there is not a single temple for the venerated Goddess? Strange as it may seem and unknown to most of us, there is indeed a temple dedicated to Devi Saraswati, where she is the presiding deity and is worshipped daily (‘Nitya Puja’). Not very far from the city, on the west flunk of the Hooghly River, is a stone-built Saraswati temple, the first and possibly the only one in Bengal, according to the Das family of Panchanantala Road, Howrah. 

The name ‘Saraswati' means 'elegant', 'flowing', and 'watery' and this is indicative of her status as one of the early Aryan boundary rivers. The Saraswati River, just like the Ganga River, flows from the Himalayas and is considered a sacred source of purification, fertility, and good fortune for those who bathe in her waters. The sacred river, again like the Ganga, then developed into a personified deity. While Devi Saraswati is the Hindu goddess of learning, wisdom, music, and aesthetics. She is also known as Bharati (eloquence), Shatarupa (existence), Vedamata ('mother of the Vedas'), Brahmi, Sarada, Vagisvari, and Putkari. As Vac, she is the goddess of speech. Saraswati first appears in the Rigveda and in later religious texts, she is identified as the inventor of Sanskrit and appropriately, gives Ganesha the gifts of pen and ink. She is also a patron of the arts and sciences, and the wife of Brahma although the Vaisnavites consider her first the wife of Vishnu. Saraswati is also worshipped as the Goddess of learning in Jainism and by some Buddhist sects.

Now coming to the only Saraswati Temple of Bengal, located on Umeshchandra Das Lane next to Bankim Park and adjacent to Panchanantala Road in Howrah. This was established almost a century ago, around 1923. Strangely, even a majority of locals of Howrah are not aware of this heritage shrine. In fact, this temple was the only Saraswati shrine in the state before other smaller ones came up. A pristine marble carved idol is worshipped daily in the temple on Umeshchandra Das Lane. There are a few unique customs followed here and those include offering a special type of huge ‘Batasha’ (a kind of light convex sweet drop of sugar or molasses) and also fruits in 108 clay pots.

The idol was set up by Umeshchandra Das, the patriarch of the family in the early part of the 20th century. The family originally hailed from Banshberia, an ancient flourishing mercantile capital city of ancient Saptagram (aka Satgaon) in Lower Bengal. In 1537, the Portuguese shifted base to Hooghly following the decline of Satgaon. In 1632, the Mughal army expelled the Portuguese from Hooghly. Hooghly was also the first English settlement (1651) which was later abandoned in 1690 for Calcutta. The prosperous land became the target of repeated attacks by the Marathas after that. The Marathas (locally termed ‘Bargi) invaded Bengal five times between August 1741- May 1751, causing widespread economic losses in the Bengal Subah. During their occupation, the Bargi mercenaries of the Marathas perpetrated massacres against the local population. According to one memoir, perhaps close to 400,000 Hindus in western Bengal and Bihar were killed. Fearing for their lives, many residents, including the Das family moved to Barasat in 24 Parganas (now under North 24 Parganas).

Das was the headmaster of Howrah District School from 1856 to 1887 and relocated to Howrah and built the present house on Panchanantala Road. The narrow lane adjacent to Bankim Park on Panchanantala Road is named after him. Umesh Chandra was an erudite man and he encouraged education. All his four sons and many in the later generations were highly qualified professionals who made a name for themselves with their expertise in their respective fields. Umesh Chandra encouraged learning at home and in the vicinity and it was with this intention that he took the initiative to install the ‘Idol of Learning’ at his family home. 

Umeshchandra’s son, Ranesh Chandra Das, moved to Rajasthan on business. The marble idol was specifically carved and brought from Jaipur as per his deceased father’s wish. Umesh Chandra could neither see the idol nor establish that temple because he died in 1913. According to a plaque in the temple, after the idol was brought from Jaipur on March 20, 1919, its worship began at home. Finally, on June 28, 1923, a decade after Umeshchandra’s demise, the temple was established on June 28, 1923. It was renovated extensively in 2001.

The temple spire is coloured yellow. Metal tridents and chakras on top are conspicuous from a distance. The four corners of the walls are shaped like flowers with four swans, the vehicle of the Goddess, sitting pretty next to the flowers. Large Veena and conch shells are carved below the flowers. Beautiful terracotta inlay works are displayed on the top. Flowers and ‘kalka’ (an indigenous motif) motifs adorn the walls of the temple. There is a large wooden door at the entrance to the temple with iron bars. The door opens to a huge iron pillar followed by another iron door. Then there is an enclosed open space (‘chataal’). The temple roof is wooden beamed and so is the entrance to the temple. The inside walls of the temple are also sculpted with terracotta figurines. The exquisite idol of the goddess is the focal point of the sanctum sanctorum (‘Garbhagriha). The deity, her vehicle, the swan, her veena -- everything is carved out of a single slab of stone.

The idol, carved out of white marble, is four feet tall. She stands tall with a swan next to her and holds a Veena (a musical instrument) on her left land. On the day of Saraswati Puja, the idol is draped in a bright yellow (‘Basanti) coloured saree. Traditionally, the colour yellow symbolizes knowledge and also denotes mustard fields that are associated with the arrival of Spring. Although the idol is worshiped throughout the year, special arrangements are made on the day of Saraswati Puja. Preparations begin in right earnest. The temple is decorated magnificently with flowers, garlands, and lights. All the members of the extended Das family as well as worshippers from the locality converge here to celebrate the day together and offer prayers to the deity.

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