In 19th Century, the issue of widow remarriage had raised the hackles of the Hindu society. But its advocators had another concern. Are those willing to marry widows a sincere lot? A worried Vidyasagar voiced his concern to Rani Rasmoni. She agreed to test them. During Durga Puja at her palatial mansion in Janbazar, she ordered her servants against clearing away the soiled floor after the first batch of the guests had finished eating. Those who were willing to marry a widow must eat entopate or in a soiled place, she decreed. Vidyasagar, himself was willing to take part in the test but Rani barred him since his commitment to the cause was beyond doubt. Most people left and only those sincere in their commitment remained behind – so goes the legend.
Contrary to beliefs ‘Rani’ was not a title bestowed upon her. Though she truly reigned in the hearts of her poverty stricken subjects due to her compassion she was actually named ‘Rani’ by her mother who died when she was only seven. Rani Rasmoni was born in 1793 at Halisahar to a poor but deeply religious Vaishnav family. Her father, Harekrishna Das knew how to read and write Bengali and even taught his daughter. Meanwhile, Rajchandra, younger son of Pritiram Marr (Doss) of Janbazar had lost his second wife within a year of marriage; his kin spotted the fair complexioned, beautiful Rasmoni at the bathing ghat and chose her to be his wife. In 1804, Rasmoni got married at 11 years of age.
In that very year, her father-in-law, Pritiram Marr began construction of their mansion at 71, Free School Street. All deeds and documents including that of the Temple at Dakshineswar were recorded in this address. Raj Chandra completed it at the cost of Rs 5 lakh. As the family grew and the property got subdivided even the garden and water bodies on the western end were filled up. Even today one can see old, derelict statues weathering heat, rain and dust rubbing shoulders with latest models of cars in one of these courtyards. The house with no less than seven quarters, has more than 300 rooms.
Rajchandra Marr was also noted for his philanthropy and built shelters for the dying at Nimtala, ghats like Babughat and at Hathkhola, donated amply for Metcalf Hall and Hindu College while giving up land for Beleghata canal. He had also built the private road leading from his house till Babughat which was barricaded by Rasmoni when the British prevented her subjects from holding religious procession. They had four daughters-Padmamoni, Kumari, Karunamoyee and Jagadamba. In 1831, both Rasmoni’s father and her third daughter, Karunamoyee died. After the death of Karunamoyee, her husband, Mathurmohan Biswas got married to Jagadamba. He became Rasmoni’s estate manager and Sri Ramakrishna’s first disciple. Rajchandra died in 1836 and his shradh ceremony was performed at the cost of Rs 55,000. Rasmoni, a truly intelligent, pious and a brave heart immersed herself in religious tasks and overseeing the property.
Rasmoni’s in-laws worshipped Raghunath Jiu. Once when the house was attacked by gora (soldiers), Rasmoni stood guard at the doorway of the temple with a sword in hand to prevent them from desecrating the idol. She ordered a huge silver chariot for Raghunath Jiu on the occasion of Rathayatra. Though at that time, such orders usually went to a British company, Hamilton, Rasmoni relied on the skills of local artisans from Sinthee and Bhawanipore, long before the concept of Swadeshi or Hinu Mela came into vogue. It had cost Rs 1.22 lakh in those days.
Durga Puja was started by her father-in-law and the tradition continues even today. The idol is 14 ft in height and width and modelled by a chitrakar family instead of a kumor. The goddess has the complexion of tapta kanchan, (molten gold) reminding you of the stalk of shiuli blossoms typical of autumn. The chalchitra depicts Chandi and Dus Mahavidya. The Puja begins from the day after Mahalaya and every day the priest models a Shiva linga and then immerses it on that very day after worshipping it. It is said Sri Ramakrishna who visited several times during Durga Puja had once assumed Sakhi Bhav and even Mathurmohan failed to recognise him and asked his wife, who was that lady beside her, fanning the goddess?
Rasmoni owned a market at Beleghata, still called Rasmoni Bazaar and another one at Bhawanipore. Once a garden house of a judge of the Supreme Court, Robert Chambers this was purchased by Rani Rasmoni to set up a market. She gifted it to her grandson Jadunath Choudhury, the son of Kumari and Paarimohan Choudhury. The bazar named after Jadunath is more popular as Jagubabu r bazar. Her daughter, Jagadamba built a smaller replica of Dakshineswar temple at Barrackpore where Rani owned 500 bighas of land. It is said that Eden Gardens was also part of her property and donated it to Emily Eden after she sent a British physician to cure Rani’s daughter.
She had also constructed ghats at Halisahar and Kalighat along with a shelter for the dying. She constructed a road from Subarnarekha till Puri for the pilgrims. Rasmoni then decided to set up a temple at Varanasi and bought a piece of land. Grand preparations for a boat ride to Varanasi were made with a huge entourage comprising physicians, guards, servants, kin and enough food for the long journey. But she dreamt that the goddess was bidding her to set up her temple at that very spot. At that time there was a great famine ravaging the countryside and Rasmoni distributed the food among the poor brethren.
In spite of her best efforts she could not procure land at Uttarpara and Bally. Mathurmohan then bought the factory house of John Hastie-an attorney of Calcutta Supreme Court beside a Muslim burial ground and land belonging to Gaji Peer, spread on 54 bighas of land for Rs 42,500. Work began in 1847-48 and was completed in 1853 at the cost of Rs 2 lakhs. However, after completion of the temple, Rani faced stiffer opposition from a section of Brahmins since she was a Shudra (lower caste). All including her family priest turned her down but Ramkumar Chattopadhyay of Jhamapukur, the elder brother of Ramakrishna decreed Rasmoni should donate the temple to a Brahmin who would offer bhog to the goddess on her behalf. Other Brahmins then relented and took part in the inaugural function held on 31 May, 1855. According to an amusing anecdote, Prince Dwarkanath had taken a loan of Rs two lakhs from Rajchandra and offered to be her dewan after his death. A clever Rani told him to write over his property at Dinajpur and Rangmahal. When she converted the temple to debottar property (dedicated to the goddess) before her death in 1861 the revenue from these plots took care of its daily expenses.
Initially, Ramakrishna was engaged as a beshkar (dressed the goddess) but took over the responsibility of worshipping Radhakrishna when its priest accidentally broke the idol’s limb. He chided Rani when asked whether the idol should be replaced. “Would you leave your son-in-law if he broke his limb?” Ramakrishna asked and repaired the broken limb. Following the death of his elder brother he became the priest of ‘Bhabatarini’ Kali. When criticised for his unorthodox ways of worship, Rasmoni and Mathurmohan stood in support of ‘Chotobhatcharjee.’ Yet when Vivekananda visited the temple after his return from the West, Trailokyanath Biswas, Rani’s grandson placed an advertisement saying that the authorities did not invite him.
The rest is truly history. At a time when the religion was at its lowest ebb, with attacks from Christian Missionaries, theosophist and reformist movements like Brahma Samaj and Arya Samaj, Ramakrishna brought forth a new dawn which was heralded to the world by his true disciple, Swami Vivekananda. And Rani Rasmoni had prepared the ground for this resurgence.