Kumors have continued the tradition of creating the mother goddess despite life-threatening challenges.
Beginning his career with the Press Trust of India in 1979, Amlan Home Chowdhury served different media houses in senior journalistic positions in New Delhi and Mumbai. He served The Times of India, Hindustan Times, The Free Press Journal and Afternoon Despatch and Courier. As a Feature Writer in Hindustan Times, the author wrote over 278 full-page research-based articles on Indian archaeology, art, literature, culture, and philosophy in a section styled as “Heritage”. The author holds a P.G. Diploma in Journalism from the Werner Lamberz College of Berlin in Germany. He has travelled extensively in India, Europe, Russia and Asia.
Silently moving their mud-stained fingers in rotary motion, as if weaving some sort of a “Jaadu” (magic), they paint the intensely expressive eyes of Goddess Durga with a brush adding the final touch to the murti known as “Chakshu Daan". Within “Chakshu Daan”, the Mother Goddess Bengali worshippers believe, life flows. The murti now looks like a sculptural “Jaadu.” Perhaps it is this divine “Jaadu” that has been warding off the evil eyes of those opposing Sanatana Dharma for the last 700 years at Kumortuli in Kolkata.
Kumors, the murti makers of Kumortuli, successfully weathered repeated onslaughts on their Mother Goddess worship by Delhi Sultanates, the Mughals and other European powers that began with Muhammad Bakhtiyar Khilji raiding Bengal in 1202 and continued until 1885 led by the Christian Churches.
But all efforts to stop the worship of the Mother Goddess, central to the Sanatana Dharma, failed. In the bargain, many Europeans in Bengal turned worshippers of the Mother Goddess, primarily Durga and Kaali. Take Hensman Anthony and Hindoo Stuart, as examples. Both of them were worshippers of Durga and Kali. Truly, the eyes of Durga or Kali really have “Jaadu.”
Portuguese Hensman Anthony, popularly known as Anthony Firangi in Bengal, who died in 1836 was also a devout worshipper of Kali. He even built a Kali temple at the Bowbazaar area of Kolkata known as Firingee Kalibari. The worshipping of Kali continues in this temple till this day.
Now come to Hindoo Stuart. Born as Charles Stuart, this officer of the East India Company’s army was a great devotee of the Mother Goddesses also converted to Hinduism. In his book, Vindication of the Hindoos written in 1808, Stuart criticised the attempts of European missionaries and churches to convert Hindus in Kolkata. He used to collect a large number of murtis of Hindu gods and goddesses and was a great worshipper of Lord Krishna. He died in 1828 and was buried in the South Park Street Cemetery in Kolkata.
Unbroken Tradition of Worshipping of Mother Goddess
How interesting that the Kumors have been creating their Creator at Kumortuli since 1606; 84-years before the birth of Calcutta in 1690. Just imagine that in 1606, there were only about six Kumor families living in the squat little village of Kumortuli in Kolkata. Now it has risen to 550 who create about 5200 earthen Durga murtis annually in their 425 studios, a part of which sojourns to 86 countries across the world.
The Non-Resident Indians are a great patron of Kumortuliand. One of the richest Indians, Laxmi Mittal, originally belonging to Kolkata, also sources Durga murtis from here for the London Durga Puja Dussehra Committee. The first patron of Mother Goddess in Kolkata, however, was Zamindar Laxmikanta Roy Mazumder. But that was in 1610: at a time when Bengal was totally under the Mughals.
A very strange fact about Bengal is that even though repeated onslaughts were made on Sanatana Dharma since the time of Bakhtiyar Khilji, the Muslim rulers or the Christian churches could convert only a small fraction of the Hindus to Islam and Christianity. An example of forced conversion into Islam is Raja Jadu who changed his religion from Hinduism to Islam intermittently from 1414 to 1435 to save his kingdom in Bengal. Though Raja Jadu became Jalaluddin, most of his relatives did not convert and continued worshipping the Mother goddess.
Ever since 1574 when Mughal Emperor Akbar conquered Bengal, large scale effort was made to convert Hindus and stop murti worshipping. Between 1574 till 1712, there were 29 Muslim Subedars or governors who ruled Bengal. They took several efforts to stop the Mother worship, but ultimately failed! No wonder, Kumors of Kumortuli of Kolkata have been creating Durga clay murtis since 1606 when Pran Kshirna Halder was the local zamindar. After four years, Laxmikanta Roy Mazumder also started holding Durga Puja though those were the times of the Mughals who owned the three villages of Kalikata, Sutanuti and Govindapur what is now Kolkata. Kumortuli existed at that time.
After Raja Savarna Roy Chaudhury sold Gobindapur, Sutanuti and Kalikata to the agent of British East India Company Job Charnock in 1690, the onslaughts of the Christians began but the murti makers of Kumortuli could not be budged from their faith in Mother Goddess Durga. When you talk to Kumors of Kumortuli, you would know that they trace their history to at least the last 700 years and say they never heard from their elders about any major conversion to other religions.
When Shaista Khan was appointed as the Governor of Bengal by Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb in 1664, massive efforts were made to convert Hindus and stop idol worshipping, particularly of the Mother goddess. After Shaista Khan was retired in 1689, Aurangzeb appointed Ibrahim Khan as the new governor of Bengal. He too tried to stop idol worship and conversion of Hindus into Islam. But it had no impact on Kumors.
Since the victory of British East India Company in the Battle of Plassey in 1757, the Catholic Church launched hectic efforts to stop Mother Worship and even coaxed and cajoled the potters of Kumortuli to stop clay modeling and turn Christians. But it failed. We know Kolkata witnessed massive waves of Christianity from 1750 till 1885. The town and its adjoining areas were thronged by the French, Armenians, Danes, Dutch and Portuguese besides the British. They built their respective churches.
Creating the Mrinmayee
Creating the creator –Mother Goddess Durga—is not an easy thing. There are several “Pujas” and rituals that these Bangla speaking artisans of Kumortuli perform before embarking upon the task of making the murti. There are three different stages of murti-making, first being “Kathamo Pujo” or invoking the Goddess before creating the rough structure made of wood, bamboo and straw. After that, the second phase of putting clay or mud on the structure starts to give shape to Durga, Lord Ganesha, Saraswati, the Lion and Mahisasur, the demon.
Most surprisingly, a handful of “Punna Mati” or sacred soil is brought from the house of a harlot living in Calcutta’s red light area and mixed with the heap of “entel mati” or sticky soil of the Hooghly river. And the process of building the image starts. The head, feet and palm of Durga, her children, the lion and the demon lord are created separately and attached to the main frame after it is over. Once the murti is ready, it is painted with motley colours, clothes and exotic pieces of jewellery.
The final stage is “Chakshu Daan.” The Goddess turns alive. The tradition of worshipping of Mother Goddess goes on despite onslaughts on Sanatana Dharma for over the last 700 years in Bengal!
Pictures courtesy - Manish Sinha, Gandhipath, Mithapur, Patna - Kumhar Toli