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RASHMONI, RANI (1793–1861)

Rashmoni, the founder of the Dakshineswar Kali Temple, was born in 1793 in Kona, a small village near Kolkata. By birth she belonged to a shudra or ‘untouchable’ caste. Her father was Harekrishna Das, a labourer. When she was 11, Rajachandra Das, a very rich man, was struck by her beauty and married her. In 1817, Rajachandra inherited the large family fortune from his father, but he died at 48, leaving Rashmoni and her three married daughters. Rashmoni, though a very religious person, was nevertheless aware of the material interests of her family. With consummate skill and the help of her son-in-law Mohandas Biswas she managed the assets and prosperity of the house, and also contributed generously to charity. There are many stories of her fearlessness; when drunken soldiers broke into her house to loot it she posted herself with a sword in hand at the door of the temple in her home, while other members of the family sought safety in a neighbour’s house.

The turning point in Rashmoni’s life came in 1847 when, guided by a vision of the goddess Kali, she started the construction of the temple at Dakshineshwar, four miles north of Kolkata. In 1855 an auspicious day was fixed for the installation of the deity at the temple. Since she was a shudra, Rani Rashmoni could not prevail upon any orthodox Brahmin to officiate as the priest. She consulted many renowned scholars, and one of them, Ramkumar Chattopadhyay, guided her out of the dilemma. She made a gift of the temple to her guru, a Brahmin, and provided funds for its maintenance by purchasing a big estate in Dinapur and endowing the temple with its income. Ramkumar Chattopadhyaya was appointed the priest of the temple, and after him his brother Gadadhar took over. Gadadhar was so thoroughly immersed in the contemplation of Kali that many people thought him mentally deranged. Rani Rashmoni was advised not to appoint him, yet with her intuition and insight she was convinced that his strange ways only showed the intensity of his religious fervour.

Once during the time of worship, Sri Ramakrishna sensed that her mind was engrossed in commercial matters and slapped her on the back. Outraged, the astonished people demanded that she dismiss and punish him. She silenced them by saying that the Divine Mother had illumined her heart through Sri Ramakrishna. She donated generously to the then Imperial Library (now the National Library of India) and Hindu College (now Presidency College). By blocking the shipping trade on a section of the Ganga river she compelled the British to abolish the tax imposed on fishing in the river, which threatened the livelihood of poor fishermen. When Puja processions were stopped by the British on the charge that they disturbed the peace, she defied the orders, forcing the government to withdraw them. A memorial shrine to her stands in the precincts of the Dakshineshwar Temple.

Rita Dalmiya
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