Kolkata, West Bengal
The Dakshineshwar Kali Temple is the greatest temple to the goddess Kali in India. It is also one of the preeminent Hindu temples in the city of Kolkata, and one of that city’s most popular tourist sites. Constructed in the 19th century, it is among the youngest major temples in eastern India and one of the best examples of colonial-era temple architecture in the Subcontinent. The temple is closely associated with the popular 19th century Hindu teacher Ramakrishna.
The story of the Dakshineshwar Temple began in the early 1800s with one Rani Rashmoni, a woman of great historic importance in India’s colonial history. Rani Rashmoni grew up in a pious family in the area around Kolkata, where she was married at the age of eleven and widowed not too long afterwards. After her husband’s death she proved herself not only a saavy businesswoman but also a capable leader.
Throughout her life, Rani Rashmoni became known for organizing protests and other resistance against the British colonial government. She was also active in charity work and philanthropy. By the mid-19th century, Rashmoni was a well known figure in Northeastern India. Her work may have later been an inspiration to Kolkata’s other great religious figure, Mother Teresa.
In 1847, Rani Rashmoni prepared to undertake a great pilgrimage with many of her followers to the city of Kashi in order to honor Kali. However, the goddess appeared to her in a dream, and told her that rather than travel to Kashi, she was to build a new temple in Kolkata. This Rashmoni did. The work was completed and dedicated in 1855. Rani Rashmoni died six years later and was buried on the grounds of the shrine.
For the three decades after its dedication, the Dakshineshwar Kali Temple was under the priestly jurisdiction of two of the most popular religious leaders in India during the colonial era: first Ramkumar Chhattopadhyay, then later his brother Ramakrishna. Under their care the temple skyrocketed in importance and popularity. For the last century it has been the most popular Hindu pilgrimage site in West Bengal.
The Dakshineshwar Kali Temple is arguably India’s most non-Indianlike religious structures. Featuring elements that evoke images more along the lines of an Eastern Orthodox Christian church than a Hindu temple, the colorful and playful structure looks like it would be more at home on a turn-of-the century American Boardwalk than in ancient Kolkata. Nevertheless it is an attractive change of pace from India’s endless parade of carved marble giants. Of particular interest are the nine beautiful golden onion domes that can be seen for a great distance in the surrounding neighborhood.
The inner sanctum is dedicated to the goddess Kali, and is one of her greatest shrines in the world. Inside is a massive statue of the goddess standing over a prostate Shiva, both on a massive bed of silver sculpted in the shape of a lotus flower. Immediately next door to the temple (and technically part of its precincts) are a series of twelve identical ghats dedicated to Shiva.
The Dakshineswar Kali Temple is located in the old city center of Kolkata on the east bank of the Hooghly River, approximately 800 miles southeast of New Delhi. The temple is open every day from 6:00am-8:00pm daily. It is currently closed to non-Hindus. There is no cost of admission. Web: www.dakshineswarkalitemple.org (official website).
Rani Rashmoni has been a revered figure in Kolkata since the time of her death. In addition to her shrine at the temple, the Home of Rani Rashmoni in the Janzabar neighborhood is another popular spot for visitors.