Tucked away deep inside the narrow winding lanes of West Bengal’s Bardhaman city lies a dilapidated, old temple. Once part of a royal household, the structure is now under thick foliage, its ornate stone pillars and arches showing the ravages of time with fading paint and widening cracks.
But a mood of celebration is in the air. The annual nine-day celebration of navaratri and Durga Puja have begun, and the priests are busy completing the daily rituals. Right in the centre of the inner courtyard of the temple is a portrait of Goddess Sherawali, while inside the corridor is placed a five-foot-tall hand painted scroll (patta) depicting Goddess Durga with her four children — Lakshmi, Saraswati, Kartik and Ganesh.
The erstwhile Bardhaman royals, who trace their history to the mid-17th century, have been organising the grand Durga Puja celebration in the Lakshmi Narayan Jiu temple for the last two centuries. As per oral tradition, the same hand-painted scroll of Goddess Durga has been worshiped all this time. “This temple was established by Maharajadhiraj Mahtab Chand Rai (who succeeded to the Bardhaman zamindari estate in 1832),” says Uttam Mishra, the head priest of the temple, busy wrapping up the morning rituals of the third day of Navaratri.
The grandest annual festival of West Bengal is celebrated with much fanfare in almost every nook and corner of the state. At the Bardhaman Rajbari celebration, however, it takes on a unique form, where the Bengali festive tradition is merged seamlessly with the north Indian variant of Navaratri. “The story in our family goes that when our ancestors came from Lahore in Punjab, they brought with them the worship of Goddess Chandrika (another form of Durga). Consequently, during Navaratri, we pray to Goddess Chandrika alongside the hand painted Durga which is very popular in this part of Bengal,” says a descendant who did not wish to be identified.
Embedded inside this unique Durga Puja tradition is the story of a Khatri Punjabi merchant who came to Bengal in the 17th century and acquired land and power under the Mughals.
In the 16th and 17th centuries, Bengal was absorbed within the Mughal empire and emerged as one of the most important subdivisions (subahs) of the kingdom, ruled by a local chieftain or nawab. The royal family at Bardhaman, like most other local kingdoms in the region, were products of Nawabi patronage.
The Bengal district gazetteers: Burdwan, authored by JCK Peterson in 1910, notes that “according to tradition, original founder of the house (the zamindari estate at Bardhaman) was one Sangam Rai, a Khatri Kapur of Kotli in Lahore, who on his way back from a pilgrimage to Puri, being much taken with the advantages of Baikunthapur, a village near the town, settled there and devoted himself to commerce and money lending.”
However, historian John R. Mclane cautions to look at this story with skepticism and instead analyses the rise of the Khatri Punjabis in Bengal in close connection with the patronage that upper-caste Hindus acquired under the Mughals. In his book, ‘Land and local kinship in eighteenth century Bengal,’ Mclane explains that in the subah of Bengal, the zamindars who collected land revenue for the Mughal government were Bengali Hindus, but they were supervised by non-Bengali mansabdars who came to Bengal on temporary assignments. The higher posts in the revenue and accounts departments were reserved for Muslims and upper-caste Hindus from outside Bengal like the Khatris from Punjab. “They were more likely to have served the Mughals before entering Bengal and known Persian than Bengalis were, and were less likely to have local connections subversive of the imperial interest,” writes Mclane.
It is possible that Sangam Rai entered Bengal in the train of one of these imperial Khatri officers. His son Abu Rai was the first to receive imperial appointment by the Mughals. “During the time of Abu Rai, Shah Jahan was the emperor in Delhi,” says Shyam Sunder Bera who works at Bardhaman University and has been researching on the history and culture of Bardhaman. “Legend has it that when soldiers from Delhi were on their way to Dhaka, they were in need of ration at Bardhaman and were exhausted. The chief of the army announced that whoever can get them ration and other requirements, would be honoured with Kotowal and Chaudhury title.” he says.
Abu Rai was a well established businessman by now, and was quick to arrange for all that the Mughal army needed. Happy, the emperor appointed him Chaudhury and Kotwal of Rekhabi Bazaar.
In 1689, Krishna Ram Rai, the great grandson of Abu Rai, who was head of the family then, received a farman from Emperor Aurangzeb confirming his title as zamindar and chaudhury of the pargana of Bardhaman.
“A handful of Khatri families prospered in Bengal in the first half of the 18th century. This was the period in which the Burdwan raj grew the richest and most powerful landholding family in the province,” writes Mclane, adding that by the mid 18th century it covered some 5000 square miles and was a virtual Hindu kingdom within the weakening provincial Mughal hegemony. He notes further that a considerable number of Khatri families settled in Burdwan district, often as landholders under the Burdwan raj, and gradually assimilated Bengali lifestyles.
In the course of the next centuries, members of the Bardhaman raj entered politics, both under the British and in Independent India. Mahtab Chand, who laid the foundation of the Lakshmi Narayan Jiu temple, was appointed additional member of the Viceregal Legislative Council by the British, the first from Bengal to be so honoured. Mahtab Chand was highly valued by the English government as one of the most enlightened representatives of the landed aristocracy in the province. “At the time of the Santhal rebellion, in 1855, the Maharaja aided the military authorities by forwarding and supplying stores and means of transport. During the Sepoy mutiny in 1857, he did everything in his power to strengthen the hands of the government,” writes Peterson.
The last Raja of Bardhaman, Uday Chand Mahtab, succeeded to the zamindari in 1941. He served as a member of the Legislative Assembly in Bengal from 1937 to 1952. Following the abolition of the zamindari system in 1952, he shifted out to Alipur in Calcutta (now Kolkata), where his descendants continue to live. He handed over his large palatial house in Bardhaman to the Bardhaman University.
“Chandrika, the family deity of the Bardhaman raj family, was placed in the temple by Mahtab Chand in the 19th century,” says Shyam Sunder Bera who works at Bardhaman University and has been researching on the history and culture of Bardhaman. He explains that the deity is worshipped once during the Vasanta navaratri in Spring and then later during the Sharada Navaratri in autumn which coincides with Durga Puja. “During the Sharada Navaratri, the hand-painted Durga is worshipped along with Chandrika,” he says.
The worship of a hand-painted Durga along with the family’s navaratri rituals, is telling of the way in which local religious traditions have been absorbed over time. Hand painted Durgas are a popular feature of what is known as the Rarh region of West Bengal, comprising Birbhum, Bardhaman, Bankura, Murshidabad, and parts of Medinipur.
“The original meaning of patta, is a piece of cloth. In the daily life of rural Bengal we come across a painting activity of narrative scrolls called patachitra paintings by the Patua community, who have been flawlessly painting and singing songs for a living. They depict stories from mythology, society and history,” says Soubhik Bandopadhyay, a tourism expert who has been researching the tradition of the painted goddess, called Pater Durga. “The oldest patta found in Bengal, represented the gods and goddesses which were worshipped as an economical substitute to clay or stone idols. So it can be implied that patta emerged to fulfil the religious and ritualistic needs, which is still present in the villages of Bengal and is also evident from the Pater Durga worship in various districts particularly, in Birbhum, Bankura, Bardhaman and West Medinipur,” he says.
There is yet to be a consensus on why the worship of pater Durga is concentrated in this part of Bengal. Bandhopadhyay says that some probable reasons include, “the form of Tantra and Bhakti worship has been quite adequate in the Rarh region of Bengal, or that it has been more backward economically.” However, economy cannot be considered the sole reason, since many landlord families, including the one at Bardhaman too worship the Pater Durga. “Some researchers have suggested that the reason for the prominent presence of patachitra form of Durga Puja in these areas is due to the economic impacts which the region suffered over the years due to the Maratha Borgi attacks, the Santhal rebellion, the plague and other epidemics etc,” says Bandopadhyay.
Over the years, the Rarh Bengal tradition of Pater Durga has been absorbed with modifications within the family rituals of the Khatri Punjabi household of the Bardhaman Raj family. Though hand-painted, the sharp, slender form of Goddess Durga in Bardhaman, is distinct from the more rounded form of the Goddess that is painted in other parts of rural Bengal. “Unlike other parts of Bengal where khichuri (a rice and lentil based dish) is served as bhog, here we serve chhole, puri and halwa,” says Mishra.
Mishra explains that the hand-painted Durga in Bardhaman is never immersed. “The same patta has been worshipped for the last 200 years. Earlier, it would be given touch-ups every year. However, in the past few decades, it is given a touch up every 12 years,” he says.
During the nine days of festivity, the religious rituals of Navaratri and Durga puja are followed in the evenings by Dandiya dance in the courtyard organised by the Burdwan Gujarati samaj.
Over the phone, the Bardhaman raj family member tells me that descendents of the zamindar family are now spread all over India and abroad. When asked if the younger generation is aware of their Punjabi roots, she laughs. “They are complete Bengalis now. They are somewhat aware of the history, but identify in no way as a Punjabi.”