An (Un)holy Experience
by Geetashree Chatterjee
“Dada, why don’t you visit the Chandeswartemple? It’s right on the Bengal-Orissa border easily accessible by rickshaw,” suggested the friendly hotel manager to Kaku (my paternal uncle).
It was the autumn of 1990 – a week’s vacation onDurga Puja. I and Kaku had escaped the humid heat of Kolkata to take a break from the daily rut and chill out by the shores of Digha, a sea resort,approximately 180 Km. from the city. It was my first rendezvous with the unending blue expanses, and needless to say, a love at first sight. Having scoured the beaches thoroughly, though you could never get tired of it, we were looking for other avenues of sight-seeing.
“Chandeswar or Chandaneswar boasts of the only temple, in the whole of India, where the mighty Lord Shiva is worshipped in His Niraakar Swarup. As the word goes, there is no Linga or idol of the Lord enthroned in the temple but only a Kund(a deep well) dominates the premise which symbolizes His formless omnipresence.” We were definitely intrigued as Mr.Bhattacharjee, the hotel manager, described the significance of Chandeswar to us.
That very morning we hired a rickshaw to reach the spot by midday. The approach to the temple was through a village, which I was told, fell within the boundaries of the neighbouring state of Orissa. I missed the elemental beauty of the rustic landscape as what hit the eyes more was the bleak and grim picture of unredeemable poverty and privation.
As I look back now, the uncared, moss-ridden domes of a temple gone grey with time, emerge before the eyes - its façade as unpresentable as its interiors. As we took off our shoes to enter the sanctum sanctorum, the grounds felt slippery and wet, infested with bird droppings. No sooner had we reached the threshold that we were literally dragged inside the temple by the Pandas who insisted that a Puja was a must. Of course, the Puja was no ordinary one. In the almost unlit sanctum, where a lone candle flickered miserably in one corner throwing more shadows than light, I was forced to squat by the well. Most of what I remember of the experience is heavily reliant on presumptions because I could hardly see what was going on inside. A pair of rough hands pushed my head down as a cacophony of incomprehensible mantras, recited by a group of invisible priests (or pandas), rose in air,gradually increasing in pitch, it reached its crescendo like a swirl of thick smoke,colliding with the walls of the temple and ricocheting back in the dark,till no other sound could be heard other than the eerie chorus of chaotic babble. I wanted to call out to Kaku but it was impossible to do so in the din. Presumably he was also being submitted to a similar, mindless ritual, I thought. In the midst of the chaos I could hear the tinkle of mettle faraway –perhaps a lota(brass pot) hit the bottom end of the well- a splash of water- and then the noisy chant subdued all other feeble notes.
The Puja seemed interminable. As the unintelligible incantations graduated from one octave to the other, the pressure of the hands on my head increased -now the fingers dug deeply into my scalp.I could feel the presence of silhouetted figures around – devotees, pandas, ageless sadhus – but they seemed strangely distant. The only thing that prevailed was the mind boggling darkness like a palpable barrier disabling human contact. An inexplicable fear growing silently within now paralysed me. What if the hands strayed surreptitiously beyond the realms of propriety and permissibility? What would I do? Even if I screamed who could hear me amidst this chaos? How could I possibly find my way out if I wanted to run away from the miscreant? What if…Innumerable dangers lurked in my mind!!!
What augured my forebodings was the ominous blackness around, the blinding opacity that engulfed everything till all existing forms,nay,the entire surround itself became indistinguishably one with the daunting darkness – a one unfathomable, invincible, impenetrable black hole. With the increasing discomfort the only feeling that ultimately ruled was the overpowering desire to escape.
But the mossy, uneven floor felt wet. A carpet of crushed petals and leaves drenched in the ‘holy’ water of the Kund came to touch. A false step on the residuals of a half-hearted worship might add to casualty. Thus,I succumbed to status quo.
Actually it might not have taken more than fifteen minutes that our Puja was done and we were out of the temple. But those were my life’s most formidable fifteen minutes. I heaved a sigh of reliefas we came out in the open after a while - the sunshine momentarily dazzling us by its unfazed brightness.“What a release”, I said aloud as though we had just been saved from the clutches of a demonic tyrant. Kaku laughed and made light of the whole incident. Surprisingly, I don’t remember whether we stumbled out on our own or were led out after the Puja. But what I can distinctly recall is the Panda losing interest in us as soon as the Puja was over and the Dakshina for the same cleverly extracted from usand safely pocketed.
Since then years have passed by. Kaku is no more. My memory of the visit has blurred in patches with the passage of time. But what has stayed on with me, and hauntingly so, is the benumbing dread and desperation-induced-panic associated with the sojourn in the temple…the uncomfortable crouching position, the ruffian hands forcibly pinning me down to the ground, the smothering darkness arresting movement…and above all, the incoherent recital of the Pandas vibrating within the claustrophobic environs of the temple like a recurrent pounding ache in the head!!
On hindsight, I attribute the illogical fear, experienced during the Puja, to immaturity and lack of faith. But a few years later, when one of my friends referring to her sister’s (a senior lecturer in Calcutta University) trip to Chandaneswar spoke of a similar frightful experience inside the temple, my doubts returned.
As I write now, I am somewhat embarrassed of my tendency to overreact to any given situation. However, it makes me probe too - deeper within. Was the extreme unease that I felt inside the temple concoction of an over-imaginative mind? Or was the atmosphere (inside the temple) deliberately conjured to infuse a sense of doom and despair – another warped way of gathering God’s favour by invoking the primeval fears and inherent insecurities deeply entrenched within the labyrinthine reaches of human subconscious?
The answer eludes me…..still… The End