The road leading to Kolkata’s oldest temple has a distraction. The Sarba Mangala Temple, dedicated to a different form of the sublime goddess, is a few paces ahead of the Chitteswari Durga temple. It’s buzzing with activity, its dome is clearly visible from a distance and it can easily be mistaken for being the oldest temple of the area. Chitteswari Durga temple, built in 1610, in contrast, seems more like a residential quarter. It’s quieter, almost withdrawn from the busy stretch of road that also houses, most appropriately, one of India’s oldest weapon factories — Cossipore Gun and Shell factory. “This is in keeping with the history of the goddess here. For centuries, she remained hidden in the jungles before devotees found her again. When she calls out to you, you come here,” says Kashiswar Roy Chowdhuri, the current supervisor of the temple.
The story of the oldest (and for the longest time, only) Durga temple of Kolkata is, indeed, riddled with such ironies. How else would one explain the fact that the city which turns into a swirling mass of celebration every year during Durga Puja, has only one more famous Durga temple apart from this one? The other permanent Durga temple of Kolkata is the 23 Pally Durga Mandir on Harish Mukherjee Road. “In the 1970s, a man saw a dream in which the goddess told him that she wants a permanent abode. Eventually, a metal statue of Durga was installed and a temple built,” says Subrata Saha, secretary, 23 Pally Durga Mandir.
The wooden goddess that is worshipped at the Chitteswari Durga temple, however, is unlike most conventional representations of the goddess that adorn most pandals across the city. It was moulded out of the imagination of legendary dacoit of the region, Chitey Dakat, and is more of a folk version of goddess Durga.
Kashiswar Roy Chowdhuri claims that Chitey Dakat, who resided here almost 600 years ago, was a Robin Hood-like figure. A dreaded dacoit who would loot from the rich and distribute the wealth among the poor. In his historical book, Deb Debir Katha O Kahini, writer Sudhir Kumar Mitra narrates how he would send letters to rich zamindars and tradesmen, warning them about his impending ‘visit’. “One day, the goddess came in his dream and told him that a log of wood would float in the nearby river the next morning and he was to carve an idol out of it. The very next morning, a log of wood did float into the nearby Ganges and he did carve an idol out of it. What you see here is that idol,” says Chowdhuri. The goddess here stands on a horse-lion mount and is accompanied by a tiger. There are no representations of attendant deities, or children of the goddess, Lakshmi, Saraswati, Kartik and Ganesha. “This idol has been here for 600 years. We only paint it once a year for maintenance,” he says.
Chitey Dakat, according to legends, also offered human sacrifice to the goddess. In Calcutta Review, Vol III, (1846), a similar claim is made: “According to popular and uncontradicted tradition, this was the spot where the largest number of human sacrifices was offered to (the) Goddess in Bengal, before the establishment of (the) British Government.” But things changed once the notorious Chitey dacoit passed away. “His reputation was such that no one would venture to even see the shrine. This area was a dense jungle then. People were scared of coming here,” says Roy Chowdhuri. According to Deb Debir Katha O Kahini, after Chitey Dakat passed away, the goddess was almost abandoned. People forgot all about her until a mendicant named Narasingha Bhramachari discovered her and re-established her shrine in 1586. Soon a local zamindar, Gobindaram Mitra, approached Narasingha and offered to build a temple for the goddess. Eventually, the temple was built in 1610, and the goddess has remained here since then. Bhramachari and his disciples took care of the temple, until an unlikely alliance changed things. “The Bhramacharis had to remain unmarried, that was the rule of the ashram that Narasingha built. But the eighth generation disciple got married and had two daughters. Eventually, the baton of caretaking was passed to the Roy Chowdhuri family, which one of his daughters was married into. Kashiswar is a descendant of that very family.
Kashiswar, who was an employee of Airports Authority of India for more than three decades, always knew that this temple was his responsibility. “This temple is the centre of my universe,” he says. But what about the next generation? His daughter, Rituparna Roy Chowdhuri, is an employee of an MNC, as is his son Chandraroop. “Even if we have to leave the city for a few years, we will come back to take care of this temple. This temple is much bigger than our ambitions,” she says.