In Dhaka, close to the historical fort of Lalbagh, one of the few large Mughal monuments in the region of Bengal, stands a temple that gives the city its name. The Dhakeshwari temple is a historic monument: Bangladesh’s most important Hindu place of worship, the Goddess Durga installed in it is supposed to be Dhaka city’s presiding deity.
The exact age of the temple is unknown but legend has it that it was founded by the Senas, the rulers of Bengal through the 11th and 12th centuries AD, although the temple as it exists today is probably much more recent. Now squarely in the heart of bustling Dhaka, at an earlier time, it was situated in the thick Bengal jungle outside the city – hence the temple was covered, or “dhaka” in Bengali – by the forest canopy, which then gave the deity its name: Dhakeshwari.
The modern temple has a Durga temple – the idol of Dhakeshwari is said to be made of gold – alongside four beautiful shiv temples. The Shiv temples are a common feature of Durga and Kali temples in Bengal but the ones at Dhakeshwari are unique in having a fusion of the classical sloping Bengal roof (char-chala in Bengali, made to resemble the roof of a thatched hut) and shikhara, spire, more common across other parts of the subcontinent.
The temple has seen some tumultuous times of late. In Bangladesh’s 1971 freedom struggle, Pakistan, as part of its policy of persecution of Bengali Hindus, destroyed parts of the temple and used it to store ammunitions. In the early 1990s, the temple saw repeated attacks by mobs, reacting to the movement to destroy the Babri Masjid in India.
In 1996, though, accepting a long-standing demand of Bangladeshi Hindus, the Awami League government declared Dhakeshwari to be the jatiya mandir, national temple of Bangladesh. The Awami League is a bit like the Congress in India and follows much of the same model of “secular” politics, where large token gestures are used to garner minority votes. This Bangladeshi version of secularism means that the country has both a national mosque – the Baitul Mukarram – and a national temple.
Both places of worship have special prayers during days of national importance. “We carry out a day-long Gita paath,” said Anil Chatterjee, a priest at the temple. The paath, or reading of the Gita, he said was last held on the death anniversary of “Bangabandhu”, as Bangladesh’s founder Mujibur Rahman is called.