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Milinda Banerjee

Assistant Professor Department of History Presidency University

A Political God in Action? Shandeshwar Jiu Temple in Chinsurah and its Gajan Festival

A Political God in Action? Shandeshwar Jiu Temple in Chinsurah and its Gajan Festival

Milinda Banerjee Assistant Professor, Department of History, Presidency University

The Shandeshwar Jiu (literally, the „revered Lord of the Bull‟) Temple is perhaps the most celebrated Hindu shrine in the former Dutch colony of Chinsurah in the present-day Indian state of West Bengal. According to local legends, as recorded by the antiquarian Sudhir Kumar Mitra, the presiding deity of the temple, a form of the god Shiva, was retrieved by fishermen from the river Ganges in the early sixteenth century, during the reign of the Mughal Emperor Babur (d. 1530).1 The legend resembles other similar myths of late precolonial or early modern Bengal which have been analysed by Hitesranjan Sanyal; in these myths, gods are frequently „retrieved‟ by non-Brahmanical communities. According to Sanyal, such stories legitimated the aspirations to social power of hitherto marginalized groups.2 In the specific case of Shandeshwar Jiu, a local landlord Digambar Haldar placed the god in a shrine; to build this, his son cleared parts of the jungle, killing a tiger in the process. A convenient mythology was soon manufactured according to which the god had originally been the grihadevata or lineage deity of the royal family of Magadha (in present day Bihar state). Mitra notes that during the ten-day long Gajan festival, held during the end of the Bengali calendar year (in April), seven ascetics are worshipped as representatives of this Magadhan royal family.3 It thus seems that a new political theology centring on the god was constructed in early modern Chinsurah, whereby the local god was given a royal identity and Chinsurah became, in a sense, a new Magadha, an heir to the homeland of celebrated ancient Indian dynasties as those of the Mauryas and the Guptas. The Gajan was the archetypal symbolic space for re-enacting this divine-royal dramaturgy. Supporting such claims was the 1

Sudhir Kumar Mitra, Hugli Jelar Itihas o Bangasamaj, vol. 2 (Calcutta: Dey‟s Publishing, 2013, first published 1948), 19-20, 1090-1091. 2 Hitesranjan Sanyal, Social Mobility in Bengal (Calcutta: Papyrus, 1981). 3 Mitra, Hugli, 1091.


growing importance of commercialization through overseas as well as inland trade in the region in which Chinsurah was an epicentre. Chinsurah and adjacent Hooghly were focal nodes in Mughal, Portuguese, and Dutch networks of trade, and this left its imprint in local legends. Thus in the late precolonial tradition of the Satyanarayan/Satyapir cult as enunciated by Ayodhyaram Kavichandra Ray, the merchant hero Ratnakar (literally, „Mine of Jewels‟) worshipped Shandeshwar in Chinsurah in the course of his trading expedition down the coast of India and into the Bay of Bengal.4 Perhaps not surprisingly therefore, this eminently political deity and carnival became the site of contestation between Europeans and Indians. Mitra notes that in 1803 the then Commissioner of Chinsurah, Birch, forbade the playing of dhaks (a musical instrument) during the Gajan festival. When Ghanashyam Haldar, a descendant of Digambar Haldar, refused to obey this order, Birch apparently ordered that an ascetic would have to jump on a ban or sharp-edged spike and remain un-harmed; otherwise the god would be thrown into the river Ganges. When the ascetic jumped, the spike miraculously broke into three pieces; the Commissioner, suitably frightened, offered a bronze panchamukha (five-headed) linga or phallic representation of Shiva and a brass dhak to the god. He also gave a written order in 1805 that no one in future should stop the playing of the dhak during the festival.5 Though Mitra identifies this Commissioner as a Dutch one, and names him J. N. Birch, it is likely that he was in fact Richard Comyns Birch (d. 1808), the British commissioner in Chinsurah, given that the town was under British occupation from 1795 to 1814 (consequent to the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars).6 Later, Daniel Anthony Overbeck (d. 1840), the last Dutch governor of Chinsurah, apparently again offered a brass dhak to the god (in 1824). Both dhaks continue to be played during the annual Gajan festival.7


Kavichandra Ayodhyaram Ray, „Satyanarayan Katha‟, compiled in Byomkesh Mustafi, “Satyanarayan Katha”, Sahitya-Parishat-Patrika 8 (1901):63. The date of this text has been disputed; a late sixteenth/early seventeenth century date is contested by Mustafi; however, Tony K. Stewart has noted more recently that the cult literature “begins to emerge with regularity in the late sixteenth century, following the first known works by Phakir Rama, Ghanarama Cakravarti, Ramesvara, and Ayodhyarama Kavi.” See Tony K. Stewart, Stewart, “Alternate Structures of Authority: Satya Pir on the Frontiers of Bengal”. In Beyond Turk and Hindu: Rethinking Religious Identities in Islamicate South Asia, ed. David Gilmartin and Bruce B. Lawrence (Gainesville: University Press of Florida Press, 2000), 25. 5 Mitra, Hugli, 1091. 6 The Universal Magazine, vol. 9, January-June 1808, 179; The Literary Panorama, vol. 3, March 1808, 847; , accessed 19.12.2014. 7 Mitra, Hugli, 20; , accessed 19.12.2014.


Fabrizio Ferrari has seen in Gajan festivals in Bengal the performance of anxieties about gender roles and masculinity.8 Indeed, in the Gajan of Shandeshwar Jiu Temple, it is not difficult to observe negotiation of colonial state power through the theatrical display of an incipiently anti-colonial ascetic Hindu-Indian masculinity. The success of the shrine and the festival in providing a space for „indigenous‟ mobilization is visible from observations in an early twentieth century colonial gazetteer (by L. S. S. O‟Malley and Monmohan Chakravarti) that the temple attracted large numbers of pilgrims during Baishakh, the first month of the new Bengali year. “The entire month of Baisakh is looked upon as a favourable time for good deeds and for the performance of religious duties. While it lasts, a large number of people, mostly women, come from various parts of the Province to pour water over the Lingam of Siva at Chinsura, called Shandeswar.”9 The fair held near the temple during the whole month of Baishakh10 undoubtedly helped in promoting Chinsurah as a site of sacrally-aided commercial vitality. It would perhaps not be an exaggeration to say that Shandeshwar Jiu has thus become the preeminent Hindu political-theological representation of Chinsurah‟s rich and complex history: a god recovered by fishermen from the river Ganges, the commercial lifeline of Chinsurah and the principal reason for its prosperity since the early modern period, and placed in a shrine which marked the transition from forest to settlement in that locality; a royal embodiment of Chinsurah‟s subtle (if not very successful) claim to be an imperial centre as the new Magadha; a god worshipped by merchants and the patron of trade fairs; a site of conflict as well as cooperation between Europeans and Indians, through which the challenge of colonial rule was co-opted into an indigenous moral cosmology by presenting the Europeans (British and Dutch) as subsumed under the ritual sovereignty of the Indic god; and last, but not the least, as the most popular and carnivalesque deity of the Hindus in Chinsurah today. The displayed god has perhaps successfully bridged the early modern and the postcolonial, turning into subordinated, if ineradicable, accessories of his authority, the symbols and insignia of erstwhile European presence in the town.


Fabrizio M. Ferrari, Guilty Males and Proud Females: Negotiating Genders in a Bengali Festival (Calcutta: Seagull Books, 2010). 9 L. S. S. O‟Malley and Monmohan Chakravarti, Bengal District Gazetteers: Hooghly, Calcutta: The Bengal Secretariat Book Depot, 1912, 103, also 105, 279. 10 Ibid., 105.


A Political God in Action by Milinda Banerjee  
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