We passed Bhelupur and I recognized an old theatre which had now been converted into a shopping arcade.
‘Vijaya was the name,’ I thought.
The car sped along the congested roads with the chaotic traffic which had always been so characteristic of Banaras. But no, there was a difference now. The roads were wider, well paved, neatly painted and cleaner. Yes, cleaner! That was the key word I had been looking for – clean. I had never thought I would see Banaras clean in my lifetime. But yes, here it was. Well, it was far from being Switzerland, but yes, it was as clean as it could be in the prevailing circumstances.
I turned my head back to see the long cavalcade of cars follow ours as we entered a narrow road, which I recognized as the one leading up to the Durga Kund temple, our first stop. In the distance, I could see the ‘Kund’ or the lake, on the left side. It had been fenced and barricaded now. Long ago it used to be open for people to take a bath in – a ritual bath before going into the temple. But then the people had started to litter it and it had turned into a garbage dump. It had taken a very hard-nosed District Magistrate to get the holy lake/tank cleaned up and fenced and barricaded, preventing people from even touching the waters.
Just before the tank, a side road turned left and I knew if I were to take that road and walk or drive a kilometer, I would arrive at the Assi Ghat, a ghat which we had often visited during our student days at Banaras. It was said that at one point of time the Kund communicated with the waters of the Ganges and therefore the water level of the Kund never decreased. I could, however, never verify the truth of this claim during my stay in the city. Three sides of the Kund were surrounded by roads, the fourth side was the temple itself. Built in the eighteenth century by Rani Bhabani of what is now Bangladesh, the red edifice could be seen from a long distance off.
The car slowed down to a stop a few hundred meters from the temple, near the Kund. This was familiar territory. I had sometimes visited the residential colonies in the nearby areas to meet friends and relatives – Gurudham colony, Kabir colony, Manas colony.
We took off our shoes in the car itself, to walk bare feet to the temple. The ground was freezing. I quickly herded the children towards the temple to shelter them from the cold. By the time our group neared the temple, others too had caught up from behind. All the adults took charge of their wards, and we entered the temple together.
It was like entering a time machine. The temple was EXACTLY the same as I remembered it from my days in Banaras. Right from the people manning the shoe stall to the people selling the flowers, and the shop selling bead jewelry and pictures of Hindu Gods and Goddesses inside the temple courtyard – everything was unchanged. Time had stood still inside the Durga Kund temple.
I may have been mistaken, but I thought that even the mendicants and the ‘sadhus’ sitting on the stone steps of the temple were also the same! This seemed impossible – but anything is possible in Banaras, I can assure you!
We entered the inner courtyard of the temple passing through a set of ornate doors. The sanctum sanctorum of the temple stood on a raised platform and the devotees had to climb several steps to gain access to this platform which led to the ‘dwar’ or the gates of the room housing the deity.
The temple is dedicated to Durga or Shakti, the female deity worshipped as the Divine Mother all across India. The tradition of worshipping the female form as the source of all creation is known as the ‘Shaakta tradition’ – Shaakta from Shakti, which can be literally translated as ‘energy’. Shakti or Durga is the reigning deity in the eastern and north-eastern parts of India which have been known for their Shaakta tradition since times immemorial. Even today, Kolkata’s Durga Pooja festival, or Pujo as they call it, is a time of great festivity all across Bengal. And thus, it was no surprise that this temple – the Durga Kund – was built by a queen from the erstwhile Bengal.
We queued up outside the old wooden doors to catch a glimpse of the stone image of the Mother. An old priest, so thin that his bones protruded from his body, stood just inside the doors behind a barricade or a pedestal and distributed ‘charanaamritam’ or divine water that had washed the feet of the Mother, and ‘prasadam’ or portions of the deity’s food to the devotees. The stone figure of the Mother stood at the far end of the room, covered by a red cloth. Her large eyes, white as pearls, looked directly at us. Her dark face glistened, the color of the stone accentuated by the blood red tilak or vermilion paste which adorned her forehead. We folded our hands, and bowed our heads, praying to the Mother to look after us and our near and dear ones. The Mother stared back, with an impassive expression on her face.
‘The Mother does not take sides, she only restores the balance of nature’, I heard a voice inside my head. Where had I heard this before, I wondered? The priest smeared our foreheads with the vermilion paste and gave us some ‘prasadam’, and we retreated from the door respectfully, making our way back through an ever-increasing crowd of devotees. Coming out from the ‘garbh-griha’ or sanctum sanctorum, we did the ‘pradakshina’ or the clockwise circumambulation around the room which housed the Mother and exited from the temple – happy!
Once outside, we quickly put on our shoes, since our feet were frozen by now, and ran inside the comparative shelter of our cars.
To be continued………………………………….
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