|The Brahmo prayer hall in Cooch Behar town after its facelift. Picture by Main Uddin Chisti
A 134-year-old Brahmo Mandir in Cooch Behar has been renovated, but for no one.
The building, which is built in Roman style, stands on Suniti Road, gleaming white in the bright sunshine.
But its prayer hall reverberates with emptiness. The community is all but extinct in this north Bengal town, once a hub of the Brahmo movement.
The Brahmo Mandir, which is the only one in the district, is a reminder of the movement for veterans like 77-year-old Chandrashekhar Pal.
“A young Maharaja Nripendra Narayan was married to Suniti Devi, on March 6, 1878. Suniti Devi was the eldest daughter of Keshub Chandra Sen, the founder of the Nababidhan Brahmo Samaj. However a controversy erupted over the marriage as the bride was a minor.”
This was against Brahmo marriage law and it created a schism in the Brahmo Samaj. In 1880, Nripendra Narayan constructed the Brahmo Mandir so that his wife could pray there, says Pal.
The princes retained their Hindu religion, but Brahmo was one of the state religions.
Nripendra Narayan’s cousin, Kumar Gajendra Narayan, who married Suniti Devi’s sister Savitri Devi, converted to Brahmo religion and would pray at the chapel.
“The Brahmo Mandir is not only a heritage building but a mark of the historical events of that era. I am happy that our civic body had restored it from its ruin-like state. But it is sad that there are no Brahmos left here to congregate there for upasana or even during the annual Maghotsav,” laments Pal, a researcher of folk music and history.
“Today’s generation has no clue of the Brahmo influence in Cooch Behar,” he said.
The chapel is looked after by the Cooch Behar municipality.
Biren Kundu, the civic chairman, said the building could be used as a tourist attraction.
“It is true that there are no Brahmos left in our town to gather at the Brahmo Mandir, but we are trying to develop the spot for visitors. We have built a children’s park there and we are thinking of putting up a display board showcasing the building’s history,” says Kundu.
He said the building was handed over to the municipality in 2000. “It was rundown and covered in weeds. We gradually finished the renovation by 2005. We developed the grounds for a children’s recreation area. The doors of the mandir are kept open during the day. There are only benches inside and we have guards who look after the property,” he added.
Arup Jyoti Majumdar, secretary of the Cooch Behar Heritage Society, says that care should be taken to preserve the building.
“We are happy that the building has been restored. It has to be preserved so that the future generations can be told about the rich heritage and history of Cooch Behar,” he said.
The Brahmo religion had played a major role in ushering in modernity into Cooch Behar. But Nripendra Narayan’s wedding with Suniti Devi, which took place on March 6, 1878, also had a political context.
The controversial marriage, which went on to divide Brahmos into Nababidhan, under Keshub Chunder’s leadership, and Sadharan Brahmo Samaj, which splintered out of the Brahmo community in reaction to a minor from a Brahmo family being given in marriage, enjoyed the patronage of the British.
The British wanted to bring the princely state of Cooch Behar under their influence by introducing reforms through Keshub Chunder. The underlying colonial agenda was to secure as many places as possible against the spreading influence of the nationalist movement.
Many from the Brahmo community were leaders of the nationalist movement.
The British had rightly guessed that the wedding — it was also between a Brahmo and a non-Brahmo — would lead to schisms within the community and that could weaken the nationalist movement.
Soon after the wedding, the British sent Nripendra Narayan to England for studies. On his return, Nripendra Narayan ruled his state with active advice from the British. In his mission to rid the kingdom of “superstition and prejudice”, the young prince established academic institutions: Victoria College in 1888 and later, Suniti Devi College, with the help of Kalika Das Dutta. Philosopher Brajendra Nath Seal was the principal of Victoria College.
According to the journal Madhuparni, in 1881, the number of literates in India was 16,305. In 1891, it rose to 24,986.
Under royal patronage, Brahmo dharma flourished for a while in Cooch Behar. But with its general decline in the decades that followed in all branches of the community, especially after Independence, the community also dwindled in the once princely town. Many from the community left for Calcutta and other places.