Last time we read about the temple of Tarakeshwar and its significance during the month of shravan. The temple of Tarakeshwar also has something very sinister associated with it, and that is an illicit relationship and a murder most gruesome.
At the onset, let me claim, that this has nothing to do with the temple, its presiding deity and mythology. I came across this, when I was researching for my last article and since not many outside Kolkata would know, I am writing about it today. Its importance will be dealt with later.
This refers to a famous court case by the name of “Tarakeshwar Affair”. The central characters are Nobin Chandra, a young Government employee, his wife, Elokeshi and the priest or the mahant of the Tarakeshwar temple which took place in the 19th century under the British rule.
|Elokeshi meets Mahant|
Nobin used to work in Kolkata and his wife Elokeshi, stayed with her parents in the village of Tarakeshwar. The Tarakeshwar temple was known for curing barren women and so Elokeshi went to the mahant to seek his blessings. The mahant gave her a medicine which was drugged and then raped her. However, there blossomed an illicit relationship between the two and the whole village was soon discussing this. When Nobin returned to his village and learnt this, he was enraged and confronted his wife.
Elokeshi confessed to the relationship, but sought pardon from her husband. Nobin was deeply in love with Elokeshi and so he pardoned her and both decided to leave the village. However, the mahant came to know about it and sent his goons to stop both of them from leaving the village. In a fit of anger, Nobin severed the head of Elokeshi and then surrendered himself to the police.
|The Fatal Blow|
The matter reached the court and soon the locals started taking sides besides the English court having its own laws to cater to. The mahant was represented by an English lawyer and the whole city came to witness the court proceedings while the dailies carried every bit of the proceedings verbatim. The local population was of the opinion that Nobin was right in doing so and the fault lay with Elokeshi the seductress and the mahant for luring young women into relationships.
In 1873, the Indian jury of the local court acquitted Nobin on the grounds of insanity, but the British judge referred the case to Calcutta High Court which awarded life imprisonment to Nobin and three years to the mahant. However, Nobin was released after two years due to pressure from the locals, the intelligentsia and just about every section of the society.
This affair has been the basis of many a theatres and plays during the period following this incident. While many felt that Nobin was right and in doing so, some felt that Elokeshi was made to submit to the mahant due to the pressure from her father (an angle not worth pursuing). Many held the mahant solely responsible for everything as an aspect of increasing influence and power of the Brahmin class wherein they had started hiring goons, something which was considered to be very common in places like Benaras and other such akhada-oriented religious places. Many women of the nearby areas who visited for getting cured of infertility found themselves raped and dumped in the nearby red-light areas for a life of prostitution, but the matters never came out in the open.
There were social ramifications of this affair. The missionaries who saw this as a disillusionment of the masses with Hinduism and the Brahmin class, while the British saw in this a reason to monitor temple activities. The Bengali intelligentsia saw in this a cause for the upliftment of women and focus on their rights. Many saw Nobin’s love and pardon for Elokeshi as ‘an act of softness towards women, who needed to be controlled’ and his ultimate decapitating her as an act of manliness, albeit delayed. Such debates have raged from time immemorial and traditional way of thinking has not come a long way, though.
The most important development of this affair was that this became a huge subject matter for the Kalighat painters. Kalighat school of painting was known for its unique style which had influenced the likes of Jamini Roy and even Picasso. While they generally depicted mythological characters and events, the painters took a break from that and depicted different aspects of the affair and created a different genre of the paintings, leaving behind a huge body of work.
The case was discussed for many years to come and is referred to similar cases even today as a precedent. No other case had generated so much of debate in Bengal leading while giving a fillip to literature and art!
NB - All the Kalighat paintings featured above have been taken from Wikipedia