Thursday, 25 December 2014

The Jagannath Temple of Mahesh, Serampore

The giant chariot or "Rath" of Jagannath at Mahesh
One of the earliest mentions of the village of Mahesh (pronounced Maa-hesh), now part of the town of Serampore in the Hooghly district of West Bengal, occurs in the works of 15th century poet Bipradas Pipilai. Bipradas is known as one of the contributors to the “Manasamangal” genre, and for having written many of the stories of “Chand Saudagar”. His descriptions of Mahesh are probably from around 1495. But the cult of Jagannath in Mahesh is much older than that. The area was probably under the rule of Oriya Kings, and as Lord Jagannath (Anglicized to Juggernaut) was the royal family’s deity of choice, it found acceptance among subjects here. Mahesh today, remains a centre of Jagannath worship, and is home to the second oldest “Rath Yatra” or car festival in India, after Puri. The story goes that Dhrubananda Brahmachari, a devout man of Mahesh had travelled to Puri to worship Lord Jagannath. It was his desire to give the deity “bhog” with his own hands, but this was prevented by the temple authorities. But right after this debacle, Lord Jagannath himself appeared to the heartbroken Dhrubananda in his dreams, commanding him to return to Mahesh, where he would appear to his devotee. Dhrubananda followed the instruction, returned to Mahesh, and by one account found an idol of Lord Jagannath trapped in the sands of the Ganges’ bank. An alternative version says Lord Jagannath had promised to provide to Dhrubananda, a Daru-Bramha, or the trunk of a Neem tree, out of which Dhrubananda had the idols carved out. These idols were that of Lord Jagannath, his brother Balarama, and sister, Subhadra. They were installed in the original Mahesh temple which dates back to 1397. But this temple is no longer in existence.

What happened to the original temple, I have been unable to discover. What I do know is that the present temple in Mahesh was built in 1755 and cost around Rs. 20,000. This money was donated by Nayanchand Mallik of Pathuriaghata of Calcutta. The original three idols were left by Dhrubananda Brahmachari to his disciple, Kamalkar Pipilai. The “shebaits” of the temple came to be known as “Adhikari”. When they gave shelter to a Nawab of Bengal in a severe storm, the grateful Nawab gifted them a piece of revenue-free land in Mahesh.

The present Mahesh temple
The Rath Yatra or car festival of Mahesh continues to this day. Every year devotees throng to Mahesh to pull the ropes of the Lord’s chariot. They pull the chariot to the Lord’s garden house to the North of Mahesh, and eight days later, return it to its original location. The idols are then carried out of the chariot, and placed back within the temple. A huge fair is held on the occasion. The chariot itself has been changing constantly since 1397. 400 years after the festival began, in 1797, Shri Ramkrishna Dev’s renowned disciple Balaram Basu’s grandfather Shri Krishnaram Basu donated a chariot to the temple. His son Guruprasad Basu renewed the chariot in 1835. But that chariot was destroyed by fire. Kalachand Basu built another chariot in the year 1852 but it was abandoned when someone committed suicide inside it. Bishwambhar Basu made another chariot in 1857, but that also got burnt down. The present chariot is probably the one ordered by the then Dewan Krishnachandra Basu from Martin Burn Co. Being made of iron, it has still survived. It is 45 feet tall and is built in Bengal’s traditional “Navaratna” style, that is, it has nine spires. While some would point to the repeated accidents as evidence of the chariot being cursed, to a rational mind, the explanation is a simple one. The combination of copious amounts of wood, used for the chariot’s construction, and oil lamps, traditionally lit for Hindu worship, can have only one inevitable end.

From right to left, the idols of Jagannath, Subhadra and Balaram in the temple

Unfortunately there was a theft at the Mahesh temple in the early hours of the 22nd of January 2014, and the gold ornaments of the idols, along with silver utensils in which bhog was served, were stolen. In recent times, there have been a series of thefts in Serampore. The Madan Mohan temple, the Chatra Hari sabha Temple and Kali Temple at Mahesh Colony in Serampore have all been victims of theft. Some security measures, such as installation of gates etc. have now been taken. As the Bengali saying goes, “intelligence dawns when the thief has fled”.

- by Deepanjan Ghosh


I am grateful to Supratim Chowdhury for being my guide around Serampore


Temples and Legends of Bengal – P.C. Roy Chowdhury

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