Updated: Jan 29
The historic Dakshineswar Kali temple was built by an extremely liberal woman, Rani Ramani, whose life was dedicated to Kali. The Rani’s life story is mysterious, and so is the story behind the building of the Kali Temple.
The Rani was born in Kona, a village located about thirty miles north of Calcutta. Her deep devotion-from an early age-to Mother Kali sustained her and her family, for they were very poor. Although she was born into an indigent farmer’s family of the lowest Hindu caste, destiny had singled our Rani Rasmani to become one of the richest, most influential women in Calcutta.
She was exceptionally beautiful. One day, when she was bathing in the Ganges, a wealthy landlord form Calcutta observed her from his luxury boat. Silently, the boat passed the girl, but the rich man could not get her out of his mind. He was so stunned by her beauty that the thought of her remained in his heart and he returned at a later date to ask the farmer for the hand of his daughter.
Rani Rasmani became the wife of Rajchandra Das, and, overnight, the poor girl became a multi-millionaress and lived in a mansion in Janbazar, Calcutta. But her years of marriage did not last long for Rajchandra suddenly fell ill and died. The Rani became a widow at age 44 and was left to manage single-handed four young daughters and a vast estate.
Contrary to dire predictions by relatives, the Rani managed Rajchandra’s properties with great skill. She ruled with love, intelligence and wit. Her devotion to Kali made her fearless, and she became an outspoken champion for civil rights. When the British government imposed a tax on fishermen whose livelihood depended on fishing in the Gages, the Rani took up their cause.
“I want to buy the fishing rights on the Ganga from Gushuri to Metiabruz,” said the Rani. And as soon as the British sold her the rights for the then enormous sum of 10,000 rupees, she erected a barricade by putting chains across the river. No ship could pass.
When the British demanded that she remove the barricade at once, she replied, “Your ships disturb my fish which cost me 10,000 rupees. But if you return my money and abolish the fishing tax, I’ll be happy to do as you want.” The British government had to abolish the tax.
On another occasion, the Rani fought the British over the rights to perform religious services. She had started Durga worship at her mansion in Janbazar, and since the ritual calls for fresh water from the Ganges, a priest would go early in the morning to fetch the water. To the great chagrin of a certain British gentleman, a procession of musicians with drums and cymbals accompanied the priest thought Janbazar, a noble section of Calcutta where many wealthy Europeans lived. Being awakened early in the morning by the religious music, he yelled and threatened and finally filed a formal complaint against the Rani at the police station. The Rani was summoned by the British and ordered to stop all devotional music in the morning.
She disobeyed and was fined 50 rupees. Rani Rasmani paid without a word of complaint, but on the same day, she erected a bamboo barricade across Babughat Road, which she owned. Not traffic could pass from South to North Calcutta and vice versa. The British government repeatedly asked her to remove the barricade, but the Rand did not give in until the British returned her 50 rupees and allowed her devotional procession to fetch water form the Ganges early in the morning.
The Rani’s fearlessness and courage had a lot to do with her total dependence on Mother Kali. “My Mother Kali will protect me, and if She doesn’t, none in this world can save me,” the Rani often said. One day, a group of rowdy, drunken British soldiers forced their way into the Rani’s mansion. Since all the men happened to be away at the time, the Rani herself took up arms and stood ready to confront the soldiers. Fortunately, an officer of higher rank passed by and stopped the soldiers from harming the Rani or her property.
Sri Ramakrishna said about the Rani that she was one of the eight companions of the Divine Mother. Among her many other noble qualities was a genuine sympathy for the poor. Many times, she distributed gifts and fed poor people. But today, when people think of her, they probably remember her most for her devotion to Kali.
In 1847 she decided to go on a pilgrimage to Kashi because she had an intense desire to offer special devotions to Vishwanath Shiva and to the Divine Mother in the form of Annapurna.
In those days there was no railway line between Calcutta and Kashi and it was more comfortable for the rich to make the journey by boat. The Rani planned to travel with her entourage by boat. We are told that her convoy of twenty-four boats was made ready with provisions for six months. There were seven boats for food and other supplies, one for herself, three for her three daughters and their families, two for the guards, two for their servants, four for the other relatives and friends, two for her estate officials, one for the washer man, one for four cows, and one for fodder…
The devout Rani Rasmani’s mind had reached a climax of fervor and delight at the prospect of the holy pilgrimage. But the night before the journey, Mother Kali intervened. (Another version of this story tells that the Rani started out on her pilgrimage, and her first stop over night was near Dakshineswar.) She appeared to the Rani in a dream and said, “There is no need to go to Kashi. Install my image in a beautiful spot on the bank of the Ganga and arrange for my daily worship and food offering; I shall manifest Myself in the image and accept your worship daily.”
The next morning the Rani gave orders to cancel the pilgrimage. All the piled up food and provisions were distributed among the poor and needy. All the money meant for the journey was now put aside for the holy undertaking of building a temple. The inscrutable way of destiny was accepted by the Rani with full devotion and humility, for had not the intervention come from her Chosen Ideal, Mother Kali? Through the engraving on the official seal of her estate did she not proclaim to the world that she was “Sri Rasmani Dasi who only longed to attain the feet of Kali?”
After an intensive search for a suitable place to build a Kali temple, the Rani found a 20-acre plot of land in the village of Dakshineswar on the eastern bank of the Ganges. The ground had the shape of the back of a tortoise. Part of this land belonged to an Englishman. The remaining part consisted of an abandoned Muslim burial ground, associated with the memory of a Mohammedan holy man. Such a burial ground, according to the Tantras, is very suitable of the installation of Shakti and Her sadhana.
The Rani began construction in 1847, and it took eight years at great expense to complete the Kali Temple compound, which also included a Vishnu Temple and twelve Shiva temples. She spent 50,000 rupees for the land, 160,000 rupees for the building an embankment along the river, 900,000 rupees for the Kali Temple complex, and 226,000 rupees for property used as an endowment for the maintenance of the temple.
When the temple construction neared completion, the Rani contracted a sculptor to make the Kali image. The sculptor carved a beautiful, black image of Kali in basalt and used white Italian marble for the form of Shiva. Once Kali was completed to the satisfaction of the Rani, the statue was safely packed into a box lest it should be damaged.
Since the day of the temple’s consecration was to be a big day in the Rani’s life, she began to prepare herself early by practicing severe austerities. She bathed three times a day, ate only simple food, and spent many hours in japam and meditation.
Time went by and, still, the Rani had not fixed a date for the temple consecration. One night, she had a dream wherein Ma Kali appeared and said, “How long will you keep me confined this way? I feel suffocated. Install me as soon as possible.” When the box which stored the image was opened, workers found the statue of Kali moist with perspiration.
The Rani quickly fixed the installation ceremony of Ma Kali on the day of the snana-yatra . All was ready-almost. While building the Kali Temple, the Randi had overcome many obstacles at great expense and energy, but the greatest came at the end. This obstacle threatened to bring the entire project to a halt. Its point was the subject of caste. Even thought the Rani had gained the respect from Brahmins and many high-caste Hindus, she, in spite of all her wealth, was looked upon as a person of low birth. And as such, she could not possibly own a temple and hope to feed Brahmins with cooked food.
The Rani consulted with many pundits, but none could come up with a solution to her problems until Ramkumar, Sri Ramakrishna’s elder brother suggested consecrating the temple in the name of a Brahmin and thereby bypassing the strict caste rules prevailing at that time.
The temple was consecrated in the name of Rani’s guru, and Ramkumar, officiating priest, installed the image of Kali in the new temple with great pomp on Thursday, May 31, 1855. Many professors of the shastras (scriptures), Brahmin pundits, and famous scholars came from faraway places like Kashi, Orissa, and Navadvip.
The extremely liberal-minded Rani, who desired to bring all people-irrespective of cast and religion-to the Kali temple achieved her goal soon after Kali was installed. Monks and pilgrims on their way to Gangasagar or Puri, all stopped at the Dakshineswar temple for darshan and prasad. Sadhus liked Dakshineswar for its holy atmosphere, easily available food, and surrounding secluded places for meditation.
“At certain times,” said Sri Ramakrishna, “particular kinds of sadhus gathered in large numbers in Dakshineswar. At on time, the sannyasins, at another the paramahamsas. Once a sadhu stayed here who had a beautiful glow on his face. He used to sit and smile. He came out of his room once in the morning and once in the evening, gazed on everything-the trees, the plants, the sky, the Ganga-and then beside himself with joy, he danced with both his arms raised. He sometimes rolled with laughter and said, “How wonderful is Maya.” That was his worship. He had the realization of bliss. “On another occasion, a sadhu came who was inebriated with divine knowledge. He looked like a ghoul. He was nude, with dust all over his body and head, and he had long nails and long hair. On the upper part of his body he wore a wrapper of shreds that looked like he had picked them up where dead bodies are burnt. Standing before the Kali Temple, he looked at the image and then recited a hymn with such power that the whole temple seemed to shake. Mother Kali looked pleased and smiled.”
The 19-year-old Sri Ramakrishna was also present at this auspicious occasion. Noticing him as the brother of Ramkumar, the Rani and her son-in-law Mathur Mohas Biswas asked him to become a priest in the Vishnu Temple. At first Sri Ramakrishna did not want to accept any kind of binding engagement but, later on, he had to yield.
Ramkumar, who served as priest in the Kali Temple, died within a year after the dedication ceremony, and Sri Ramakrishna took over his duties. Sri Ramakrishna’s worship was unique. Whenever the Rani got a chance, she tried to listen to Ramakrishna’s songs of devotion to Kali.
One day, the Rani sat inside the Kali shrine while Sri Ramakrishna sang a song full of longing for the Divine Mother Kali. Suddenly he stopped, turned and slapped the Rani’s face. “What,” he shouted. “You are thinking worldly thoughts even in this holy place.”
The temple guards rushed forward to protect the Rani and drag Sri Ramakrishna out of the temple. “No, don’t disturb him,” ordered the Rani. “The Divine Mother Herself punished me and illumined my heart.” She wondered how Sri Ramakrishna could have known that she was thinking about a lawsuit.
The Rani fell seriously ill in 1861.
The best doctors of Calcutta tried their utmost to cure her but, at last, gave up hope. They then suggested that she be moved to a healthier place. It was Rasmani’s desire to go to her garden house at Kalighat, in Southern Calcutta, which was on the bank of the Adi Ganga, a small stream flowing into the Ganga.
Rasmani knew that her death was imminent and there was one task which she had left unfinished. The property which she had bought in Dinajput (now Bangladesh) as an endowment for the maintenance of the Dakshinswar temple was still not transferred to the temple trust. She executed the deed of endowment on February 18, 1861 and died the next day.
Shortly before her passing away, she was brought to the bank of the Ganga. Seeing some lamps lighted in front of her, she exclaimed: Remove, remove these lights! I don’t care for this artificial illumination anymore. Now my Mother has come and the brilliance of Her form has illumined the whole place.” After a short pause she passed away, saying, “Mother, you have come!”
Although the Rani was a farsighted woman and had purchased a huge property for 226,000 rupees to assure proper temple maintenance after her death, she could not foresee the 1947 partition of India. Her land was located in a zone that became Bangladesh, and the government confiscated all her property. From then on, the Dakshinswar Kali Temple had to be maintained without income from this property.
Excerpt from Kali: the Black Goddess of Dakshineswar, Nicolas-Hays, York Beach, 1993, (pp. 159-168).