City Faith – Durga Mandir, Paharganj
A blessed street.
[Text and photo by Mayank Austen Soofi]
The lane is alive with the sound of a man singing a bhajan. Everything else this afternoon is quiet, as if to keep the sanctity of the sacred lyrics.
The singer is an elderly gentleman in white kurta pajama, sitting cross-legged on an elevated niche, overlooking the cramped lane. The space within is diffused in a lamp’s gold glow. The Durga Mandir is in the backpackers’ district of Paharganj. The singer is the temple’s priest.
The temple has a shivling, a statue of Ganeshji, while Durgaji is perched on a roaring lion. Dressed in red, she has genda garlands draped round her neck, the flowers emitting an intensely strong scent. A young woman walks down the alley. She nods reverently towards the Durgaji’s idol, says “Radhe Radhe, panditji” to the priest, and walks on. Jagdish Prasad cheerily shoots back a “Khush raho.” Between singing and clapping, he informs that the temple is 56 years old — but “I’ve been here for 20 years only, so don’t ask me too much about its history,” he chuckles.
While being the alley’s smallest landmark, size wise, the temple is perhaps its sturdiest aspect. Everything else here seems ephemeral. The adjacent Ajay Guest House used to be packed with backpackers until before the pandemic, but these days the coffee shop inside usually remains empty. Sanjay Parcel Service would teem with foreign tourists getting their packages shipped to their far-off countries, but this moment it is empty, though one of the racks does have a huge parcel marked in black pen for Brazil. The hotels and money changer kiosks in the lane might again get buzzy, but the temple is always pulsating with energy, the area’s dwellers pausing in front of it for a quick prayer, a discipline borne out of devotion as well as habit.
The wall beside the temple is also noteworthy. It is plastered with fliers showing a man who doesn’t look like any familiar Paharganj councillor. This bearded gent in hat is Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement with many social centres worldwide for Jewish travellers, including one that is steps away from the Durga Mandir.
Now a passer-by bows in front of the temple, calling out to the priest—“Radhe Radhe, panditji.”