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An (Un)holy Experience

by Geetashree Chatterjee
(New Delhi)

“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

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Apr 06, 2012
I empathize
by: Jitendra Mathur

Geeta Ji,

Namaskar and Shubh Aprahn.

I have gone through this post very carefully, word-by-word and now I can empathize with the protagonist of this story (if it is a work of fiction) or yourself (if it is your own experience in the real life. My experiences with the religious places and the people involved there have been less favourable, more adverse. The ultimately worship done there by those (and other associated people) does not seem to be of the Lord but of the money lying in the pockets (and purses) of the devotees. I had read a novel of popular Hindi pulp fiction writer, Ved Prakash Sharma which was titled as Bhagwaan Number Do (God No.2). Yes, money is now God No.2 only which seems to be capable of buying even God No.1.

Well, the fears of the little child cannot be dismissed as childish ones or imaginary. Innocent men, women and children are to be wary of various adverse things likely to happen on such places and later on nobody listens to the victims because who can point a finger at the HOLY people and the HOLY places.

Geeta Ji, after going through many bitter experiences at the various religious places linked to different religious faiths(in India) visited by me, I have got disenchanted with such visits. Now I feel, the most grandiose as well as the most holy temple of the Lord is my own heart only. I can worship, see and feel my Lord in that.

Hearty compliments for writing this impressive piece.


Jitenda Mathur

Apr 06, 2012
by: Sneha

Geetashree, your writings never seem to escape touching some chord of my heart always! I am reminded of Kolatkar's account of Jezuri that he so beautifully described in verse - you may get it online if you want to delve deeper into it. I do not quite endorse idol worship, but believe in connecting deeper, spiritually. While I'm aware of the semantic pitfalls of glorifying the past, I do want to recount and mention that in the olden days; trees, sea, rainfall, mountains, sun, moon and other natural elements were regarded as the "all pervading power." Slowly, with our human temperament came the need to 'name' all gods and compartmentalize them, if I may say so; with 'castes' attached.
The experience I am sure was one that continues to haunt you, like you mentioned. But as they say, beyond darkness, there's light at the end of the tunnel!

Apr 06, 2012
So true...
by: Geetashree Chatterjee

You are correct. Heart is where He resides. Contrary to your assumption, I was in my adulthood when I visited this temple. So the fears were not exactly imaginary or fictional. It did happen with me. Regards

Apr 06, 2012
by: Geetashree Chatterjee

Thanks a lot for reading this article. In fact God's presence, as you rightly said, is felt in Nature and our natural surround. It is the man made chaos around that I have objection to.

Apr 08, 2012
by: isabel

Still holding my breath and suspended. What a gripping story you have shared Geeta... Scared too after reading this. I would never subject myself to rituals; I used to have a neighbor who became obsessed with rituals and later in her life. I was not sure if it was because of dwindling faith or major changes in her life. I was sure then that it was not healthy and unholy and so I made sure to stay away... way, way far.

Apr 13, 2012
by: Geetashree Chatterjee

You are right, subscribing to rituals has its own flip side. The incident is still so fresh in my memory.

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