There is an old association between the Calcutta area and the Goddess Kali. The very name of the city (Bengali: Kalikata) is thought to derive from Kali-ksetra, “field of Kali”, though other etymologies have been suggested.
Western literature has often associated Kali’s name and image with secretive bands of fanatics. In Calcutta, worship of Kali is mainstream religion. It is non-sectarian, inclusive and pluralistic. Above all, it is a living religion.
Images of Kali are everywhere: on the dashboards of taxis, on the walls of shops, behind reception counters of hotels. Before Kali Puja, an annual festival of the Goddess, billboards can be seen which declare that the local traffic police wish everybody a happy Puja.
As a mainstream community festival, Kali Puja resembles the Christmas-New Year period in Australia. It is a time of street decoration, fireworks and partying. People take part in the festival with or without a personal commitment to Kali, just as Christmas parties here are attended by people with and without a personal commitment to Christ. As in the case of Christmas here, there are sometimes accidents and fights.
Worship of Kali is inclusive, in that anyone can participate who respects the image of the Goddess and knows a little about the customary ways such respect is expressed. You don’t have to be of Hindu ancestry, nor is it necessary to renounce the sacred symbols of other religious traditions.
In other Indian cities, there are temples whose sacred images cannot be seen by foreigners. In Calcutta, my European appearance did not prevent me from seeing Kali’s image in every temple I visited. At one of the temporary (but elaborate) street shrines set up for the festival, I saw a worshipper wearing a crucifix pendant, and another with the turban and dagger of a Sikh.
Kali worship in Calcutta has multiple centers. The oldest sacred place is at Kalighat. Although the temple that stands there today was built in 1809, it stands on the site of an earlier temple, founded in the sixteenth century. The largest and most popular temple is the one in the northern suburb of Dakshineswar built in 1855. Another major temple is nearby, at a place called Adyapeath. There are smaller temples throughout the city. Each temple was founded by an individual or family who felt called upon to do so, and each has its own priesthood and its own traditions.
Alongside Kali herself, people in Calcutta venerate modern saints of the Goddess. This shows the living character of their religion. One whose picture can be seen in many places is the nineteenth-century visionary Sri Ramakrishna (he is not to be confused with the Krishna of the Bhagavad-Gita). Ramakrishna’s popularity goes far beyond the ranks of his organized following (the Ramakrishna Mission), and is certainly not confined to the Dakshineswar temple where he lived and meditated.
Calcutta is one of India’s major centers of industry, commerce and culture, but to westerners mention of this city arouses stereotypes about over-population, poverty, and starvation. These stereotypes are not lies, but half-truths. Improved agricultural techniques have freed Calcutta from the mass starvation of the sixties, but it is still a very crowded city, and a city in which you are not considered poor unless you are hungry. How does the worship of Kali relate to Calcutta’s problems?
Looked at in one way, Kali’s skull-garlanded, sword-bearing form represents fate as a power that brings suffering and death; looked at in another way, it represents strength, endurance, the fighting spirit. Discussing Calcutta, an American travel writer writes of a “sense of admiration for the way life rumbles on with more than a degree of dignity despite all the difficulties” and says that while it may not exactly be a City of Joy, it is definitely a City of Resilience. This resilience can be thought of as a gift of Goddess Kali to a city that honors her images.
(Excerpt from Ferment, A Bimonthly Journal of Study and Vision, of which Mr. Robinson is the editor.)