How did the presiding deity of Dhaka end up in a North Kolkata bylane? Why does her lion look like a dragon? Where are her weapons? And why are her hands referencing the Vedic equivalent of Thor’s hammer?
There are some intriguing stories hidden in the details of the Ma Dhakeshwari idol worshipped in Kumartuli, Kolkata. These tell a tale of an ancient India intricately connected with its neighbours and their cultures, and of a daring rescue mission amid the horrors of Partition.
Dhakeshwari is an incarnation of Durga / Devi, the Mother Goddess.
Amid the violence of Partition, when what is now Bangladesh was East Pakistan, this idol was spirited away from Dhaka and brought to Kolkata on an aircraft, wrapped in newspapers and old clothes, in 1948. Newspaper reports of the time herald the news of her arrival.
So powerful was she back home that it is from her name that the capital of Bangladesh gets its name. How did she get hers? From the Bengali word “dhaka” which means “hidden”.
Legend has it that a ruler of Bengal’s Sena dynasty, Ballal Sen (1083-1179), saw the idol in a dream and eventually located it, buried in soil and hidden by thick foliage. Thus she came to be known as Dhakeshwari, or the Hidden One.
The vajra is the weapon of Indra. Indestructible, signifying great energy and potency, it is used to summon rain and thunder, something akin to Thor’s hammer in Norse mythology.
She was believed to wield unique powers; Sen’s rule, for instance, was a golden period for the dynasty and its people. Dhakeshwari came to be loved and revered for the good fortune she brought to the region. How old the idol might be has never been determined scientifically, but look closely and one sees traces of a syncretism that goes far beyond India.
The 1.5-ft-tall, ten-armed deity is a striking bronze painted over in gold, mounted on a lion in the form of Mahishasurmardini Durga, the demon-slayer. To her right and left are her four “children” in Bengal’s folklore: Lakshmi, goddess of wealth; Ganesh, remover of obstacles; Saraswati, goddess of knowledge; and Kartik, god of victory and war. Above is Shiva, her divine consort, seated on his Nandi bull. So far, so familiar.
Except, the lion she rides has flourishes in its mane, headdress and tail that are reminiscent of the dragon, revered as an icon of good fortune in Tibet and China.
Another unusual detail: Other than the trident in one right hand, Dhakeshwari does not hold any weapons. Instead, each hand exhibits the same mudra, over and over, all around her; one where the index and little finger are held straight out, the remaining two fingers and thumb pinched. Look even closer and one sees that all the other deities hold the same mudra; even Shiva; even the just-slain Asura.
This mudra, called the vajra-dharan, is associated with the Buddhist teacher Padmasambhava, said to be instrumental in introducing Vajrayana Buddhism to Tibet in the 8th or 9th century.
It gets its name from the vajra, described in the Vedas and Puranas as the indestructible weapon of Indra. Signifying great energy and potency, it is used to summon rain and thunder, something akin to Thor’s hammer in Norse mythology (though it looks very different). In depictions of the Buddhist master holding the vajra-dharan mudra, he grasps a vajra in his thumb, middle and ring fingers, while holding up the index and little finger.
In the mudra held by Dhakeshwari, there is no vajra, but the thumb, middle and ring fingers are pinched in the same gesture, as if wielding an invisible vajra. With the index and little fingers extended outward, the mudra is also said to depict the primordial cosmic sound Om or Aum. Then again, the upheld index finger is said to represent the well-known Vasishtha star, while the little finger is the small and unknown Arundhati star. The mudra is said to simultaneously represent the known and the unknown; the duality of sakar and nirakar (with-form and formless); dvaita and advaita (duality and non-duality).
And so it is that in this found idol, elements of Hindu, Buddhist and Tibetan thought, and an ancient exchange of ideas, come together in a most unusual form.