The ‘Fort Shrine’ of Bawe Wali Mata

Sanjeev K. Sharma
On top of a hill, at the bank of mystic Tawi river in Jammu stands a fort housing the popular and revered shrine of Goddess Kali, popular in Jammu as ‘Bawe Wali Mata’. Much before the sunrise, sounds of ringing bells, blowing of conch, Aarti (special prayer in praise of the Goddess) and Vedic hymns from this Fort Shrine fill the air around symbolizing blessings of the deity and giving a peaceful soothe to every soul around.
As the sun rises and moves ahead, visit of devotees starts at the shrine with their number increasing gradually while on certain days like Tuesdays, Sundays and Navratras this number mostly break all the previous records leading to serpentine queues necessitating deployment of cops to maintain extra vigil to prevent any untoward incident at the hands of anti-social elements.
The temple of ‘Bawe Wali Mata’ was built in 1350 BC by Raja Bahu Lochan while the solar dynasty Kashtriya king installed the idol of Mahakali in it. As the idol of Goddess is inside the fort, the deity is also known as ‘Bahu Gadh Rani’.
Some researchers claimed that in 1820 AD, Dogra ruler, Maharaja Gulab Singh had Darshan of the Goddess after which he ordered renovation and reconstruction of the temple. Many years back the temple was surrounded by lush green forests from almost all the sides but presently human settlements have taken place adjoining the fort thereby reducing the forest cover around it. As the forest cover around the temple got reduced, the animals, especially monkeys, lost their natural habitat and consequently they made their intrusions into the temple complex of Bawe Wali Mata as there was nothing left for them to eat because wild fruits on which they used to depend earlier vanished away as the forests made way for human settlements.
Now, throughout the day, the temple remains haunted by these simians who even snatch things especially Prasad from the visiting devotees. How close to hearts is this shrine in Jammu can be easily seen by standing at the Tawi bridge and watching passersby-pedestrians as well as those on vehicles, as almost everyone, while moving through the bridge, bow his/her head towards the Fort Shrine to pay respect to the deity and this act of bowing head has now become an integral part of Jammu culture. Among many things inside the fort is a pond with water and there are stairs made of red sandstone to enter the water body. There is magnificent work of red sandstone on this pond. While some people say that the pond was made so that the people living adjoining to the temple may collect water for their use, others have different views on this. The Fort Shrine is now an Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) protected monument. A big door made of wood called ‘Deodi’ is the first entrance to the shrine and some cops remain stationed there to check the devotees as things made of leather are not allowed inside the temple. Inside the temple lies sanctum sanctorum in the form of an idol of Goddess Kali, which legends say was brought from Calcutta by the erstwhile monarch who constructed the Fort Shrine. The Goddess in the shrine is beautifully attired with rare precious clothes, unique jewellery of gold, silver and precious stones, flowers of many types etc.
A massive copper bell hangs near the shrine entrance which the devotees beat before entering the shrine to have Darshan of the Goddess. Adjoining the main temple there are many other temples, some recently built while others built decades back. At one side of the Fort lies the popular Bagh-e-Bahu Park from where one may easily have a glimpse of most part of the Jammu city. Among many legends describing the glory of Bawe Wali Mata, the one highlighting the Goddess as a divine power always safeguarding J&K is very popular.
As per this legend, in 1965 Indo-Pak war as the planes of enemy entered Jammu to bomb the Tawi bridge, the belligerent pilot only saw darkness everywhere amidst which appeared a little girl in divine red dress with (Jyot) lit earthen lamp in her hands. Many more such miracles are reflected in Dogri folk songs of Jammu especially in Karaks. Tuesdays, Sundays and Navratras are special days at the temple of Bawe Wali Mata as large number of devotees visit the shrine on these days to pay obeisance. Many visiting devotees undergo ‘Jatars’ and ‘Chowkis’ of the Goddess while some visit carrying holy Chaddi. Pandit Mulkh Raj-priest at the temple informed that Mela Bahu Fort is organized at the shrine during Navratras twice a year. During Navratras and on other special days many buses, mini-buses and other vehicles are specially arranged jointly by devotees from villages adjoining Jammu and also from other places to visit the shrine while many other people organize Langars to serve eatables to the visiting devotees and stalls of special dishes for those observing fasts also remains there in place. The time for opening and closing of the temple during Navratras is 4 am and 10 pm respectively and the temple remains closed from 2 pm to 3 pm in the afternoon during these days. On Sundays and Tuesdays, the temple opens at 5 am and closes at 9 pm while on other days it opens at 6 am and closes at 8 pm. In between, it is closed from 1 pm to 2 pm. During special days, many vendors visit this revered place to sell different things while women and girls mostly get Mehandi applied over their hands while visiting the shrine. At shrine many people offer certain things to the deity on getting their desires fulfilled while others perform ‘Kanjak Pujan’ for which many small girls from the adjoining area visit the temple so that the devotees may be facilitated in performing the ritual. Pandit Mulkh Raj also informed that earlier goats were sacrificed at the shrine but for the last some 150 years the practice has been abolished after the Goddess was pleased by certain rituals to accept the live goat which is popular at the shrine as ‘Shili’. “Water with some rice, flowers and vermilion is rubbed over the back of the goat and when it shakes its body it shows that the sacrifice has been accepted by the deity,” the priest said. Outside the temple is a small market with most shops selling Prasad, eatables and other offerings for the deity like Chunri, flowers, garlands, Dhoop etc.
Pooja (worship) at the shrine is done by Baridars by taking turns with three priests remaining at the temple at a time while eight others stay at other adjoining temples to facilitate the visiting devotees. Pandit Mulkh Raj also informed that worship and other religious rituals at the temple were performed by Pandit Neelkanth Khajuria during the rule of Maharaja Pratap Singh in J&K. As Pandit Neelkanth Khajuria had no son, he made his daughter’s son Vishwanath Mangotra as heir to the temple for performing worship and other religious rituals. Today the priests performing the worship and other rituals at the temple are from the dynasty of Vishwanath Mangotra. When asked about demand from certain quarters that a shrine board should be made for the temple as there is lack of development, Pandit Mulkh Raj said: “As the entire complex of the shrine is presently under ASI, so none other than ASI can make any development or change at the shrine area but still the place has all the required facilities available for visiting devotees.” He further said that those who are raising unnecessary hue and cry have vested interests. Many volunteers also visit the temple to assist different tasks during the special days while different departments also press into service their teams for certain occasions. The temple remained close for two years (2020 and 2021) because of nationwide lockdown triggered by deadly COVID-19 pandemic but now in upcoming Navratras of September 2022 enthusiasm is expected to revisit the shrine.