It’s a queer corner to have a place of worship. A narrow passage between the temple and the wall of the Gandhabanik Mahasabha Chhatrabas, or boys’ hostel, gives way to another narrower passage where devotees gather for a glimpse of the deity. On Baisakhi Purnima, the place is choc-a-block with people from all sections of the community thronging the shrine to offer prayers. This year was the 79th Gandheswari Puja, the presiding deity of this tiny temple in North Calcutta.
The Gandhabanik community (which literally means merchants of fragrance) are traditionally traders of spices, vermillion, cardamom, sandalwood and even deer musk in Bengal. Their history and existence dates back to Dhanapati Saudagar, Srimanta Saudagar and Chand Saudagar, the wealthy merchants who travelled the world. Today, the merchants are modern businessmen who have diversified into other trades like medicines and arms like the families of gun merchants NC Daw and AT Daw. Sovabazar’s eminent businessman, Butto Kristo Paul or BK Paul, was also a Gandhabanik.
Gandheswari, the deity worshipped by the Gandhabanik community, is an incarnation of Durga. The goddess is seen seated on a lion that is standing on a demon, Gandhasur. The four-armed goddess is seen killing the demon with her trident. In traditional paintings of the goddess, one can see another young woman seated near the deity’s feet. This is Gandhabati, who had worshipped the goddess to save her from Gandhasur. The North Calcutta temple is located in Chorbagan, near Thanthania Kali Temple. It is the only temple consecrated to the deity in Calcutta. It was founded by the members of the community way back in 1343 of the Bengali calendar. “The foundation of this temple was laid by Harishankar Paul, BK Paul’s grandson,” said Sanjay Dutta, a member of the Gandhabanik Mahasabha. The astadhatu (alloy of eight metals) idol is almost three-feet tall, a rare example of such a large image.
Gandheswari Puja on Baisakhi Purnima is a grand occasion and the deity is offered an elaborate spread of khichuri, fritters and chochhori (a mix of vegetables) which are then served to devotees at the temple. The enclosed natmandir in front of the temple serves as the dining hall. “Everyone is allowed to attend the puja and must have a sumptuous meal on this special day,” said Dutta. The temple is run by the Gandhabanik Mahasabha, the larger body that runs several other philanthropic and literary organisations in the city,” said Balaram Kundu, the president of Gandhabanik Mahasabha that has stepped into its 95th year.
“Our oldest philanthropic organisation is the Gandhabanik Databya Sabha which is 130 years old. Here the underprivileged members of the community find assistance in various ways. We arrange for medical treatment for ill people, we provide a small fund for women who have been forced out of their homes after marriage and try to do all kinds of philanthropic work for our community people,” said Sanjay Dutta, a member of the executive committee of Gandhabanik Mahasabha. He is also secretary of the Databya Sabha. The Gandhabanik Siksha Samity helps in educating the underprivileged children of the community. The Gandhabanik Patra Publishing Society has been publishing a magazine titled ‘Gandhabanik’ for 75 years.
The boys’ and girls’ hostels, run by the Mahasabha, however, are open to all. Students from remote villages who come to study in Calcutta get to stay at the hostels against a nominal fee. “Those who are affluent try to help the underprivileged people of the community through the Mahasabha. Many well-known, aristocratic families of Calcutta are associated with the Mahasabha,” said Dutta.