The Ghat of Kali, Kolkatta

What a serene forest it was. The trees grew close to each other, their high reaching branches interwoven thickly to form one huge canopy through which a little sunlight dappled here and there. The chirping of birds and the roars and growls of wild animals added further charm to the enchanting orchestra that Mother Nature herself was conducting amidst these tall trees. Somewhere nearby one could hear the Ganges rushing through the forest in gurgles and splashes. The whole place reverberated with some power that was way beyond the ordinary.

Kapalikas freely roamed the forests, choosing places for performing their tantric worship to propitiate Shakthi, in her form of Kameshwari (She who quenches Shiva’s creative lust). On the other hand, rishis, sanyasis and sadhus had also set up ashramas by the banks of the Ganges, worshipping Lalitha Tripurasundari, the mother in her benign form. Shastra and tantra mingled freely adding to the already mystical powers of the place.

One such sanyasi was Brahmananda. He too had set up his own ashrama and was engaged in penance unto the goddess. He was dutifully served by his disciple Andaram. Andaram held guru-seva as his most important priority and he believed that this ashrama was equivalent to a temple. Everyday, on a routine basis, when Brahmananda sat in his Samadhi state trying to merge his mind with the lotus feet of Amba, Andaram went to the river to have his daily ablutions and collect flowers for his guru’s pooja and his own guru-pooja.

On that fateful day too Andaram had left his guru, sitting on his tiger skin rug, and proceeded towards the Ganges. Suddenly, without any preamble, the third eye (the mystical eye of knowledge) of Brahmananda threw itself open and Brahmananda beheld the vision of a glowing flame. Elevated to the highest stages of ecstasy, Brahmananda started to follow the flame which was moving slowly. His eyes were still closed and he allowed the flame burning in his mind to lead him, totally devoid of his other senses. And then he slipped and fell. Gone was the flame, the vision and all. Brahmananda pulled himself up and realized that he had fallen into a puddle and the reason for his fall was a tall black stone sticking jaggedly out of the waters.

Brahmananda touched the stone gingerly and immediately withdrew his hand. “This is not an ordinary stone. It is overflowing with some energy.” he thought. And then he saw the imprints. On the stone were the impressions of four toes from the right foot of a woman. With his Gnanadrishti, Brahmananda realized that these toes, each accessorized with a toe ring, were indeed the toes of Dakshayani, the daughter of Daksha. They had fallen here when Vishnu had cut her burnt body into bits with his Sudarshana Chakra (Refer Daksha’s yagna). Brahmananda felt blessed beyond words and he closed his eyes to thank the goddess for this find.

There, the flame reappeared again. “What now, oh gracious Devi” he asked the flame. Once again he followed the flame, eyes closed and still reeling from the overwhelming bliss. He felt the Ganges wetting his feet but he didn’t stop. The flame continued guiding him to the very depths of the Ganges and there Brahmananda felt a rock touching him gently. He opened his eyes.

Shiny black in colour, glistening with the wetness of water, the stone revealed itself to Brahmananda. And there, twelve feet tall, with an imposing presence stood Kali. Her beautiful face, the elongated tongue, her hands, her waist were all exquisitely carved on the stone. Every detail was beautiful beyond description except the four toes missing from her right foot.

This sight was a tad too much for Brahmananda, who had already reached the heights of his adrenaline level that day, and he swooned on top of the rock. Slowly, carrying the weight of Brahmananda, the rock floated along the Bhagirathi, bobbing gently.

Meanwhile, Andaram was overcome with shock on not finding his guru at the ashram. With anxiety making his heart-beat sound like hammer on anvil, he rushed hither-thither, calling out to his guru but only in vain. At long last he caught sight of his guru floating in the middle of the Ganges on the top of a rock. Relieved to find him, Andaram waded into the waters and pulled his guru out.

Brahmananda slowly regained consciousness and to Andaram’s surprise, gave him a smile. A smile that glowed with the knowledge of having realized the meaning of Brahman. He showed Andaram the puddle where he had discovered, or rather where She had made him discover Her four toes. He then installed the stone statue from the river next to the puddle and built a small hut around it to provide a shade residence for the Mother. Andaram was still surprised at the whole incident. He was happy beyond belief that the goddess had chosen his guru and himself to be the first people to have her darshan but he was still struggling to figure out why Devi had chosen this place to manifest herself.

Brahmananda once again smiled at his pupil. “The ways of our gods are not so transparent Andaram. They play their games their own cunning ways but finally it is all for the good of the people like you and me.” he explained. “There is a reason to her games as there is also an answer to your question.”

“Himavan was the king of the prosperous kingdom lying nestled in the shadows of the Himalayas. Blessed with immense riches, respect and law-abiding citizens, Himavan and his queen Maina had but one wish – that they have a child on whom they can lavish their love and riches alike. Every temple they visited, every yagna they performed and every time they played host to a rishi, they had but the same prayer.”

“Sometimes all that you need to do is ask and it shall be given. Pleased with their prayers, the gods smiled on the royal couple. Maina conceived shortly afterwards, to the great joy of the entire kingdom. Nine months later she gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. Being the daughter of Parvatharajan (the king of the Mountains), she was named Parvathi.”

“Parvathi was none other than Dakshayani, who had jumped into the Yagna fire at Daksha’s sacrifice, her final prayer to Shiva being that at least in her next birth she should be blessed with a father whom she could be proud of. Realising this, a number of rishis and sanyasis set up their ashramas on the green slopes of the Himalayas so that they could constantly see and worship Uma, who roamed the forests with her royal friends. The forests burst into blooms and rivers ran free to embrace the land which had been blessed with the touch of her holy feet. Parvathi too bloomed with the flowers into a beautiful maiden full of divine grace”

“One day, the trikala-gnani Narada happened to visit the kingdom. Himavan welcomed him with all due respects and offered him many priceless gifts. The time was right for Narada to begin his trademark work – cause chaos”

“Playing into his bait, Himavan, burdened with the weight of a daughter who was of marriageable age, asked Narada to tell him about the future of Parvathi.”

“Narada cast his glance on the face of the goddess and then he held her hand and looked at her palm. Finally he asked the royal astrologer to bring in Parvathi’s horoscope and spent a good deal of time poring over it. Himavan waited with bated breath”

“Finally with a long sigh Narada opened his mouth. ‘Oh King’ he said, ‘Your daughter is blessed with immense goodwill, morals and angalakshanas. She is indeed very gifted and unique. She has got all the qualifications to be worshipped by you as well as all the citizens of this earth and heaven alike. She will be praised as Bhavani, Uma, Lalitha and so on. Her planetary positions could not have been more exalted. She is nothing short of divine. But still she too has a dosha.’ Narada’s words distressed Maina and Himavan. ‘Oh best of Munis’ cried Himavan, ‘what dosha is it? What is the parikara that is to be done to get rid of it? I will not tolerate any dosha that causes pain to my daughter.’”

“Narada smile. ‘Himavan, have you forgotten that fate cannot be altered by mortals? But still here it is. In spite of all her good qualities and beauty, she will marry a man who is nowhere a match. He will not have a Rishi to trace back his roots to, neither will he have a mother nor a father. He will be gifted with no good gunas but neither will he have any negative qualities. As and when he wishes, he will smear his body with ash from the cemetery and dance ferociously in the graveyards. He will ride on a bull and will sport a garland of skulls around his neck. Totally devoid of desire and hatred, he will be the one to take your daughter’s hand.’ finished Narada.”

“Himavan was shattered at this prediction. How could he let the prestige of the royal lineage go into the ditch because of his daughter’s marriage. Maina fainted at the very thought. Slowly, looking much older than he did a few minutes ago, Himavan approached Narada. Narada smiled inwards at the success of his task but then looking at Himavan’s piteous condition, he told ‘But don’t worry, oh great king. Ask your daughter to undergo penance unto the lord of Kailaya. If he wills, your daughter will have a blissful married life, though the bridegroom will still be the same.’ And he disappeared. Himavan sat up, his mind much clearer than before. He then ordered Parvathi to go into the forests and perform tapas to gain the grace of Shiva. Parvathi at once obeyed her father and left home.”

Parvathi performs her penance

“Parvathi, the royal princess who had lived with every comfort at the palace, now resorted to the forests in seek of Shiva. For the first thousand years, she ate the fruits that grew in the forest. For the next thousand years she drank water alone and lived on it. For the next thousand years, she took in nothing but air and based her survival on it. Her skin, which had once glowed with the softness of the moon, had now become black and wrinkled. It was then that she heard an oracle from the skies- ‘Parvathi, go home. Your penance has been answered. The time has come for your groom to come in search of you. Inform your parents to start the preparations for the wedding.’”

“Overcome with joy, Parvathi ran home, and conveyed her parents the happy news that the oracle had announced. Himavan too was thrilled beyond words. The contagious happiness spread around the kingdom, and the king and the subjects alike eagerly awaited the arrival of the bridegroom”

“And arrive they did. But what a strange sight met Maina who had come to welcome the bridegroom at the gates of the kingdom with her arathi plate. A whole horde of people  or rather indescribable beings stood at the borders of the kingdom. They were led by a man on a bull (who Maina assumed to be her future son-in-law) holding a trident in one hand and a small damaru in the other. Snakes played delightfully on his body which was freshly smeared with ash from the graves. Accompanying him was the richest looking king she had ever seen, seated on a majestic white elephant with four tusks. And as if this pair was not weird enough, there were more people behind, all dressed in various states from priceless ornaments and colourful silks to human teeth necklaces and tree-bark coverings. Some of them had two heads, some had none. Some had one arm while some had ten. Further, each was riding on an animal that ranged from donkeys and dogs to pigs and rams.”

” Her subjects had scattered in all the four directions at this sight. Maina herself felt her heart shudder as she recalled Naradas words – ‘Himavan, have you forgotten that fate cannot be altered by us mortals’. Who was she, but a mere human, to have not realized that it was Parameshwara himself who had come asking for the hand of her daughter, accompanied by Indra, the devas and his entire retinue of Bhoothaganas.”

“It was then that Narada appeared at her side and informed her that it was none other than Neelakantha who presently stood at the gateways of her kingdom, waiting to be welcomed inside. How blessed she must have been to behold a sight that many rishis and munis have not been able to achieve even after years of undergoing the toughest of penance.”

“Joy rippled through the crowd that had gathered behind Maina as she returned to her senses and welcomed the protector of the seven worlds into her kingdom. Soon the people of Himachal had penetrated the ranks of devas and ganas freely mingling with them, giggling and laughing.”

“‘Oh you handsome ,bewitching, charming groom,

Smeared with dirty ash from the graves of doom.

The skulls are your garlands; a bull is your seat,

Is this how you come to sweep our princess of her feet?’

The citizens of Himachal howled with dire sarcasm at Shiva. Eshwara took all their jokes in good jest just as a father would love his son to say that his beard felt too prickly for planting a kiss. But of course the rest of the groom-side saw no reason to take this jibe lightly. They too ridiculed the bride to be in their choicest vocabulary

‘With the complexion of the deep night does the bride await,

Her shadow indiscernible from her body, on an evening this late

The crows will find her pleasing, her excellent fairness I say

But stay away from the fire, lest the coal dust burns her away’

To Parvathi, whose intense tapas had robbed her of her former beauty, her queenly gait and her fair complexion, these remarks felt like stabs with a sharp knife. Ashamed to show even her face to the assembled marriage guests, she accepted the Mangalsutra around her neck without lifting her bent head”

Gowri Kalyana Vaibhogame

“The marriage was over and the divine couple had retired to their home in Kailash. One day Parvathi had Shiva to herself, without the constant presence of his loyal attendants around him. The mother decided to move her pawn and she broached the topic with the bluntness of a broken pencil. ‘ Manaala, when your entire retinue made fun of me, why were you silent without asking them to be quiet? Were you enjoying it too?’ she asked, her eyes welling up with tears”

“Parameshwara laughed. ‘Oh Kali’, he said with a grin. ‘What is there in a colour? You are black, you are white and you are red too.’ This feeble attempt to calm her only added fuel to Parvathi’s anger. “Look, even you called me Kali (the black one). Until there comes a time when this black complexion goes away and you yourself call me Gauri (the fair one), I am going away from Kailash to once again undergo tapas, and that too fixing my mind on you.” she blurted and immediately left her hilly abode”

“And it is she who had left Kailasa that day who has reached me in the form of a stone today, Andaram”, said Brahmananda ending his narration. “But don’t be fooled by this game. Don’t you dare think that she is capable of being fooled by the mere colours of the skin. She has come here to prove that this sthala is a powerful shakthi peetha where the toes of Sati had fallen. Birth and death are natural occurences, Andaram, and so is rebirth. This Kali here is a perfect example of the concept of rebirth. She has manifested herself where her toes had fallen in her previous birth, to teach us that she is beyond this mundane cycle of life and death. This you must understand and worship her. She will remove the fog of Maya that clouds our life and grant us the bliss of Brahmagnana.” said Brahmananda, absent-mindedly stroking his long beard.

And thus did Kali arrive on the banks of the Ganges by the western coast of India. What was a thick dark jungle ten centuries ago today teems with concrete buildings and busy shops. The temple to Kalika stands amidst busy streets, with the Ganga gurgling nearby. Since Kali was found by the banks (Ghat) of the Ganges, the place came to be known as Kalighat and over time it’s pronunciation changed to what we know today as Kolkatta.

Kalighat's Gopurams

The temple was built on a piece of land that was gifted by Mansingh, the commander-in-chief of Akbar’s army, to Kali for fulfilling a dear prayer of his. Out of the 595 Beeghas of land that were transferred to the temple’s name, the present day temple occupies just one beegha. Topped with low parabolical towers painted white, the temple faces south towards a graveyard locally called Kevdathala. Everyday, Kali smiles at the many corpses that are brought to be burnt at this cemetery, rejoicing at the opportunity for the departed soul to be reborn in this land of hers.

The temple in its present form is only 200 years old and was build under the patronage of the Sabarna Roy Choudhary family. They replaced the temple that was built by Mansingh. It is believed that one day when Santos Roy Choudhary of the Sabarna family was walking by the forest, he was attracted to this sacred spot by the sound of a blowing conch and was blessed with the vision of several rishis worshiping Kali. Being a staunch Shakthi Upasaka he regularly started coming to the place and later built the temple for the Mother.

Kalighat Shri Kalika Devi

There are six entrances to the temple and one can have a clear darshan of the Mother standing at the entrance of the southern doorway. It is not an exaggeration when people describe their first encounter with her as scary or bone-chilling. Twelve feet tall, with three large eyes, showing a commanding insight into the past, the present and future alike, and sharp teeth glistening over a long hanging tongue, the goddess strikes fear and dread into the hearts of evil doers. But at the same time, her bhakthas find her eyes to be full of grace, ever ready to protect her children. Her nose-ring, teeth and tongue are all made of gold. She has four arms each holding a sword, a human head, the varada and abhaya mudras. The arms are made of gold too, each weighing a whooping 10 kilograms. Around her neck hangs a garland of human heads, also carved out of gold. Her head is covered with a priceless golden crown while her fingers play host to many rings with precious stones. But she is decked with red hibiscus flowers, and bright red sarees cover her from head to toe, so that the pilgrims get to see her graceful face alone.

Interestingly, swords are given as an offering to the goddess. People buy swords of various shapes and sizes made of wood, steel, silver or gold and place it at her feet, later offering to the temple. Draping the goddess with a red saree is another practice in vogue. Shops outside the temple are decked with sarees which cost anywhere between Rs 50 to several thousand. Pilgrims enter the temple with the purchased red saree, a few pieces of Peda, a garland of Shuli flowers and a one rupee coin. They place the coin on the goddess’ left hand, unburden their sufferings at her lotus feet, drape her with the saree and take the Peda as her Prasad.

Soshti thala

The lake to the east of the temple is today named Kali-kund. Fed by the Ganges, it is believed that it was here that the toes of the goddess were discovered by Brahmananda. Pilgrims usually take a bath in this kund before entering the temple. A curious sight meets you on stepping into the temple. People place their heads on the Bali Peetha facing the Sannidhi, a custom not seen anywhere else. It is a symbolic request to the goddess to cut this cycle of birth and death and give us eternal moksha. Right opposite the main entrance, at what is known as the Harkath Thala, there are two other Bali peethas that reek with blood. Here, goats and chicken are sacrificed to the goddess by various people, thanking her for her blessings in their lives. A little further down, the Samadhi of Brahmananda is marked by a small raised altar bearing a little cactus plant. Known as the Sosthi Thala, there are three flat stones embedded on the platform representing the goddesses Sosthi, Sitola and Mangol Chandi. Pujas over here are exclusively performed by women priests alone. From this spot, looking across the Ganges, one can have an excellent view of the beautiful temple dedicated to Dakshineshwari, the goddess who was once worshiped, woken up, fed with sumptuous food and put to sleep – every single day with loving care by none other than Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa.

Behind the main Sannidhi at Kalighat is the Stala Vriskha with a shrine dedicated to Manasadevi at its base. Pilgrims whisper their wishes to her and tie threads onto the tree, a practice commonly followed throughout the country in many temples.

Just like any other Shakthi peetha, Kolkatta too is graced by a Bhairava moorthi named Nakuleshwar. This linga is believed to be a swayambhu and many claim that it too was found by Brahmananda immediately after the arrival of Kali.

Every day is a festival at the Kalika temple that sees a constant inflow of visitors. During the daily noon arati the goddess is offered with a hodge-podge of several vegetables and rice cooked together, which is known as Bhog. This Bhog is freely distributed to the devotees after the arathi. Durga Pooja that comes during the Shravana Navarathri and Kali Pooja that takes place amidst much dance and song on Diwali are two of the temple’s biggest festivals. The temple literally bursts with people during these occasions.

On the full moon day in the month of Jyeshta, the right foot of the goddess is washed with a fragrant mixture of milk, sandal and water and the abhisheka liquid is distributed to the devotees as Charnamrit. It is believed to bestow one with happiness and cure many diseases if ingested with devotion and belief.

The temple is situated bang in the center of Kolkatta and is easily reached by various forms of transport. The Bengalis swear in her name and her power. For them she is the beginning and the end, the reason for life and death and the journey beyond it all. Though Kolkata is famous for the tantric practices of shakthi worship, rigidly followed by the many Kapalikas who roam the graveyards and crematories, pilgrims still visit the place in large numbers, invoking the goddess in their own simple ways, believing that her grace alone is sufficient to cross this ocean of bonds and ultimately merge with her. And I couldn’t agree with them any more.

Jai Maa Kalika



~ by deepaksaagar on December 2, 2010.

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