Standing on a porch of the two-storey Brahmo Samaj mandir (temple) at Loyal Street, Patuatuli, Pranati Samaddar - a Brahmo woman - struck a brass bell only once before starting the weekly prayer session. The brief tintinnabulation seemed so soft that it had quickly vanished amidst the noises of Old Dhaka.
When the prayer hall clock struck 6:30 pm on Sunday, Acharya Dipak Paul started the prayer saying Om - the primordial sound of 'creation.' Afterward, Pranati and Shrabani Guha Roy, the enlisted singers of the mandir, rendered a Tagore song: "Aguner Parashmoni Chhonwao Prane" (Give a touch of the fiery magical stone to my life).
The prayer session continued for 25 minutes with rendition of Brahmo songs and recitation from Vedas and Upanishads. Following a tradition, a chandelier was lit until the prayers ended. The pews were all empty. There were only three people in the large hall where at least 90 devotees could congregate at a time.
"Due to the busy weekday, Brahmo devotees hardly can manage time for the weekly gathering," said Dipak.
However, he added that a large number of people meet together on the academy premises on Bangla 11 Magh during the Maghotsab celebration (anniversary of Brahmo mandir formation in Kolkata), on 6 Bhadra (formation of Brahmo Society by Raja Rammohun Roy) and on the Pohela Boishakh.
Dipak did not reveal the total number of Brahmo devotees in Bangladesh.
Historians estimate that the number of Brahmo devotees has shrunk to a small group from what it was around 150 years ago. In the 1860s, construction of Brahmo mandirs in Dhaka and some other districts became a necessity to accommodate a huge number of followers of Brahmo morals.
Educationist Jatin Sarker, a distinguished fellow of Brahmo society, said, "The Brahmo activism in Dhaka, once the centre of East Bengal Brahmo society, has lost its glory. During the British and Pakistani colonial periods, the society members had successfully influenced social reformation.
Even after the independence of Bangladesh, the society enlightened the people through education."
Of history and social reformation
Popularity of the Brahmo morals was so wide-spread in the 1900s and mid-2000s that members of the society could convince the British rulers to abolish the cruel Satidaha Pratha - a custom of incinerating Hindu widows alive.
The Brahmo fellows spearheaded movements against child marriage and motivated the superstitious Hindu community to accept remarriage of widows.
They fought against the divisions of castes and the practice of ostracising someone based on 'untouchability.' They organised the social reformation because Brahmo people always worship the 'incorporeal God' and believe that people irrespective of caste, creed, religion and race must be treated equally.
Educated in British style, Raja Rammohun Roy founded the Brahmo Samaj (society) in Kolkata on 20 August 1828. Initially, activities of the society were mostly confined in indoor philosophical discussions and publication of magazines.
After the demise of Roy in 1830, Maharshi Debendranath Tagore - father of Rabindranath Tagore and a fellow of Brahmo Samaj - established a group "Tattwabodhini Sabha" and a magazine "Tattwabodhini" to spread the Brahmo morals and practice guidelines.
One subscriber of Tattwabodhini and the then deputy magistrate of Dhaka, Braja Sundar Mitra, founded the Dacca (now Dhaka) Brahmo Samaj on 6 August 1846.
Like their Kolkata fellows, Dhaka-based Brahmo members started to establish educational institutions as they believed that only education can enlighten a society.
On 23 February 1863, they inaugurated Brahmo School in Old Dhaka. Students could learn the traditional curriculum and Brahmo morals without fees. The school later became the Jagannath University in course of time.
"Braja Sundar Mitra, Deen Nath Sen, Prabhaticharan Roy, Anathbandhu Mallik and others, who were the Brahmo society members, had facilitated education in Dhaka as a part of their socio-religious movement during the era of Bengal Renaissance," said Tapan Kumar Palit, assistant professor of history department, Jagannath University.
The Brahmo morals provided significant impetus to the cause of female education in Bengal.
Prankumar Das, Bangababu, Nabakantababu, Biharibabu and some other members of a Brahmo-oriented philanthropic association Shubha Sadhini Sabha, established Eden Girls School at Farashganj in 1873, according to a history book "Purba Bangalar Brahmo Samajer Itibritta" by Sree Banka Bihari Kar.
The institution was the first girls' school in Bengal. In 1926, the school was transformed into the Eden Mohila College, Dhaka.
Not only in Dhaka, Brahmo society members helped spread education facilities for women all over the country.
The renowned Bengali feminist thinker, writer and educationist Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, popularly known as Begum Rokeya, appraised the Brahmo activism several times in her speeches and writings.
A Brahmo Samaj safe haven
The mandir that is now a listed heritage site in Dhaka city has a profound history.
To carry out the activism and prayers for self-purification, the Brahmo people felt a necessity to establish a sacred building. The then Dhaka Brahmo Samaj general secretary Deen Nath Sen first proposed the construction of a large mandir.
On 25 August 1866, a nine-member committee was formed to implement the project. The committee appointed Rammanikya Singha as the constructor and Umakanta Gosh as the architect. In April of the very next year, Abhaykumar Datta laid the foundation for the mandir.
Dhaka Brahmo Samaj mandir was inaugurated on 5 December, 1869. The Brahmo fellows celebrated the day in a festive spirit. There were distinguished guests present, including the nawab of Dhaka, Khwaja Abdul Ghani, as well as Hindu and Armenian Christian community leaders.
Describing the building's architecture, architect Taimur Islam, organiser of Save Old Dhaka Campaign and CEO at Urban Studies Group, said, "Built in neo-classical style, the monument (mandir) is rectangular in plan."
According to Taimur, the façade is divided into three segments with two solid rectangular blocks covered with rustication on two sides supporting a five bay colonnaded arcade of engaged order. The colonnade is formed by almost 20 feet tall, slightly tapered double height engaged columns of Tuscan order.
True to the classical order, the column shafts are fluted and rest on tall pedestals. The colonnade supports an entablature of a relatively shorter section, topped by extended eaves and a stylised parapet with a crowning triangular shaped decorative pediment.
The interior of the double height main prayer hall is flanked by mezzanines on two sides adding to the grandness of the building. The prayer hall, devoid of any deity, has a church-like sitting arrangement for devotees. But the general layout has a strong similarity with the Quaker-Church that is known as a meeting hall in the United States.
After inauguration of the mandir, some guidelines on how to use the mandir were set, with one provision that the mandir premises be used as a venue for Brahmo society programmes and be open to people of all religions and races.
A library and resilience
To enlighten the society through knowledge, the Dhaka Brahmo society established a public library on 18 January 1871. Named after Raja Rammohun Roy, the library was the first library in Dhaka.
The society members invested a large amount of money and effort to enrich the book hub. To accommodate the growing book inventories, a two-storey auxiliary building was erected on the mandir premises.
Unfortunately, 50 years ago, the Pakistani army almost destroyed the library during the 1971 Liberation War. Many rare book collections got damaged in the raid.
After our independence, the library was restored with limited stock of books. The library rooms became fragile over time and were relocated to the mandir's first floor.
The mandir was renovated in 2012. But the auxiliary building, where the library was situated, was left uncared for. After a couple of years, RAJUK declared the library building 'unsafe' and ordered it to demolish it.
This gravely upset Brahmo Samaj members because this building is the last standing memory of Raja Rammohun Roy. So they filed a writ petition in the High Court.
And consequently, the demolition order was withheld.
According to the present organisers of the society, the library was visited by prominent writers and cultural activists including Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, littérateur Qazi Motahar Husain, poet Sufia Kamal and many others.
Although the library remains open from 11:00am to 5:00pm (Monday and Saturday), very few people visit it these days.
The society trustees once operated 45 funds to facilitate student stipends and allowances for deserted women. However, Ranobir Paul Robi who has been serving as the general secretary of Bangladesh Brahmo Samaj for more than 10 years, did not say which funds are in effect at the moment and the size of the existing funds.
In winter, the society's activities are limited only to distribution of warm clothes among the poor, according to Robi.
In a message published in Purba Bangalar Brahmo Samajer Itibritta, Ranobir termed 1846-1910 as the golden period of Brahmo Samaj.
"Our pioneers had played a crucial role in social reformation. At present, the pulse is missing. People are less interested in Brahmo Samaj. It is not feasible for us (organisers) to spread the Brahmo morals door to door," Ranobir said.
Educationist Jatin Sarker, although admitted that a pale existence of Brahmo Samaj would not be a big issue as most of the present generation Hindus are freed from old-age superstitions (as an outcome of Brahmo movement).
"However, the Brahmo morals are still relevant. If the cultural movement initiated by the Brahmo people persisted, sectarian clashes would not have taken place in the country," Sarker concluded.