KOLKATA, India — Kali, Hinduism’s dark goddess, occupies a revered spot in the hearts of devotees the world over, and Kolkata is home to the sacred Kali Mandir at Kalighat.
The very word, Kalighat, or Kali landing, is said to be the origin of the name Calcutta.
Hinduism expert Subhamoy Das describes the deity:
Kali is represented with perhaps the fiercest features amongst all the world’s deities. She has four arms, with a sword in one hand and the head of a demon in another. The other two hands bless her worshippers, and say, “fear not.” She has two dead heads for her earrings, a string of skulls as necklace, and a girdle made of human hands as her clothing. Her tongue protrudes from her mouth, her eyes are red, and her face and breasts are sullied with blood. She stands with one foot on the thigh, and another on the chest of her husband, Shiva.
Quite a vision.
The symbolism Das describes is equally fascinating. For instance, “Kali’s garland of fifty human heads that stands for the fifty letters in the Sanskrit alphabet, symbolizes infinite knowledge.”
I should admit up front that like many Americans, whose understanding of the world has at least been tinted by the filter of Hollywood, I did not know very much about Indian culture besides what I saw as a 12-year-old kid in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” (Yes, Thugees were real, they were dangerous and they worshipped Kali, but that’s about where the similarities end — no zombies, no blood, no child labor — according to “Why Did It Have To Be Snakes: From Science to the Supernatural, The Many Mysteries of Indiana Jones” by
Lois H. Gresh.)
Understanding that the Kalighat Kali Temple, established in the 15th century, was one of the most sacred sites in Kolkata, I made my way there one morning, not knowing what to expect. Reaching Kali Temple Road, I saw my first swastika since setting foot in India, and set off toward the mandir.
I found the following description of Kali Mandir in The Hindu newspaper:
The Kali Mandir at Kalighat is situated in a crowded and congested area. Once one enters the outskirts, he is ‘assailed’, more so if one is not a Bengali, by vociferous and determined flower sellers, sweetmeat shop owners, and more strident of all, by self-appointed touts who offer their services to take you inside the shrine! Unless one is firm and determined, one loses the eagerness to go inside and pray! The sanctum sanctorum is situated in a small room and circumambulation is difficult.
Thankfully, my experience was slightly less intense at the outset.
Approaching the Kalighat Kali Temple, I was approached by a slight, balding gentleman dressed in white who asked if I wanted a guide to get into the heart of the temple, where I would ostensibly see the Kali shrine devotees had traveled to see. He held up a lanyard holder he wore around his neck. In it, there was a photo ID of him.
“I’m Brahmin,” he said.
In India’s caste system, Brahmin specialize as “protectors of sacred learning” — trustworthy, or at least that was my impression.
“OK,” I replied, not having known of admonitions against hiring a temple guide. Besides, he seemed earnest and on the level, even as I braced for a shakedown.
The man suggested I put away my camera, which I did, and suggested that I ready a monetary offering to Kali, leading me on a circuitous route around an adjacent dirt pen that was freshly soaked with blood from a goat sacrifice that morning. Goats and buffalo, I was told, are dispatched, quickly and efficiently, with a scimitar twice a day. (A court in northern India has since outlawed the practice. “Sacrifice causes immense pain and suffering to innocent animals. They cannot be permitted to be sacrificed to appease a god or deity in a barbaric manner,” it said, adding that such rituals “must change in the modern era.”)
Then, we headed toward a stone structure the size of a small garage, with throngs of worshippers funneling into a narrow, jam-packed passageway, with a din of voices in prayer approaching a fever pitch, sounds of indistinct chanting ringing in my ears.
We stepped into the corridor, and at one end of the temple, maybe 20 feet wide, stood an abstracted face of Kali, the holy black-skinned goddess of death and destruction staring back at me with her three red eyes, representing past, present and future, the one on her forehead vertically aligned. For a brief second, I saw only Kali and no other senses registered, as if time had slowed to a crawl. I held my breath.
Smoke wafted through the temple. Sounds were reduced to white noise. Worshippers served up marigolds and sweets as offerings. I blinked.
A second later, I was flowing through the other side of the people chute, my guide, ahead of me, looked back to see if I was all right. I was, then exhaled and found my bearings. The throngs continued to pass through the mandir, and the devoted chanted their prayers.
We walked away from the buzz and to the quieter area of the Kundupukur, the Kalighat Temple tank. Its water comes from the Hooghly River, a distributary of the Ganga, or Ganges, and considered to be the original sacred river.
Here, I finally reached for my camera again and made an image or two of the jade-green water before thanking my guide and forking over a few more rupees for his time.