Kalighat: An Introduction to India

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It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. But are a thousand words worth only one picture?  In our media-saturated environment, we have become overly dependent on the visual medium.  Our language is increasingly one of graphics.  From photo journals to emojis, we are constantly replacing the written word with images.  It is as if we are returning to a time before language when communication was pictorial.

Today, I invite you to take a break from modern mediums and immerse yourself in a world that no photograph or video could ever capture, to use your imagination to invoke all your senses, not just that of sight, and bath in the infinite spectrum of moments that the written word can afford.

Kalighat

I watched as two priests carried a headless goat through Kalighat Kali Temple, its blood forming a thin trail along the muddy white tiles of the courtyard, the red droplets mixing casually with the morning drizzle before being swept away by the bare feet of the faithful. The goat, which had been positioned over a square stone slab used for the ritual sacrifice known as bali, had never made a sound. It never fought back, never tried to run or plea for help even when the knife cut into the flesh of its neck. It just stood there, accepting its fate without emotion as if still in one of the slums on the outskirts of Kolkata rummaging through garbage and masticating dirty grass.

Kalighat Kali Temple is said to mark the spot where the right toes of the self-immolated Sati fell upon her dismemberment.  Sati’s sacrifice was to restore the honor of her husband Shiva, and I wondered if the goat’s stoic acceptance of its destiny was by design or if it simply never realized that it was about to die.

A mustached pandit dressed in a white dhoti slammed into my shoulder, knocking me out of my contemplation as he galumphed beside the long line of people, shouting first in Hindi, then in Bengali, then in English. He was selling absolution. He could save your soul for a price, negotiable in-fact, a sinner selling forgiveness to other sinners.

The crowd swelled, enticed by the intoxicating elixir of vice and redemption. Fistfuls of rupees shot up into the air. Other pandits rushed in, eager to get a cut. I was pushed forward, not by any one individual but by the unseen energy of the multitude, lost in a pavonine sea of saris and reticulated collared shirts; my destination unknown.

Deeper I went within the temple and the sloping-domed pyramid of the white vimana that towered meretriciously overhead on a rainbow of colorful paint supported by a rectangular tower of olive green tiles. Incense and the ferrous scent of blood mingled with the odor of sweat, dirt, and grime; the perfume of Kolkata.

Alongside the rest of the worshipers, I reached a flight of covered stairs leading to an ancient doorway. The crowd pushed and pulled as they fought their way through the door, all oblivious to the finely decorated blue tiles adorning the entrance. Finally, I was forced into the murky inner sanctum and thrust by the mass of humanity in front of the goddess Kali and her empty black pupils. For a few seconds, I stood motionless, gazing at the goddess’ third eye, the all-seeing eye, while the faithful did their best to prostrate themselves in wild elation within the crowded room.

Feeling the tip of an index finger dyed in red ink touch my forehead, I instinctively reached into my pocket and pulled out a twenty rupee note, realizing that even the simplest gesture wasn’t free, not here, not in Kalighat. And then I was hustled outside beneath the grey sky and the light drizzle.

My pants thoroughly stained with mud, I walked back to the entrance where a sweets seller had taken my shoes. I handed the store owner another twenty rupee note and collected my shoes and socks, not bothering to clean my feet before putting them on. A pandit stood by the doorway, silent.

I continued down the street, crossed a large avenue, and purchased a glass of masala chai.  The vendor poured a ladle of light brown liquid in a clay cup.  The tea was hot and sweet, its creamy texture masking the burn of the spices as it ran down my throat. The warmness felt good inside as it fought back the chill of my damp clothes.

While I finished my tea, the rain began to come down harder until it pounded the pavement relentlessly like the beating of a khol drum.  I strained to breathe in the thickened air, the roads quickly becoming awash. Kolkata’s lost children ran out in the street to play in the torrents of water, heedless of the putrid trash and raw sewage that ran through their legs.

Across the avenue, I spotted a long leafy road lined with Hindu stone reliefs. It was too serene to be a temple, too tranquil for the bustling chaos of central Kolkata. Its placidness intrigued me, and I plunged through the knee-deep water accumulating along the curb towards the peculiar lane.  The emptiness of the place beckoned me onward down the road while Shiva, Bahama, and Vishnu danced and gestured from the stone walls. I looked at the last carving, a goat positioned over the bali, knife held to its throat, behind it the flames of a funeral pyre.

At the end of the road, I found myself in an empty courtyard in front of a massive white metallic chimney that seemed to rise and lose itself in the dense rain. I wandered around the crematorium to a small ghat on the other side, its cracked cement stairs leading down to a swollen canal. It was a distributary of the Hooghly, which itself was a distributary of the Ganges, the great holy river of India. For a moment, I watched the garbage being swept by the current as the ceaseless rain plunged into the canal to coalesce with the sanctified cocktail of divine rubbish on its journey to the sea.

Suddenly, the rain softened, and I looked up at the heavens, letting the precipitation settle on my face like falling ash. A crow perched between the foliage of a Rudraksha tree observed me with disturbingly casual blasé. I took another step down the ghat, my movements followed by the black eyes of the crow, the very same black and empty eyes of Kali. It continued to watch me for a little while longer but, eventually, flew away, its shrill cry drowned out by the mournful ululations of a buffalo. And I sat down and thought: about Sati, about Kali, about India…

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One thought on “Kalighat: An Introduction to India”

  1. What a great story. I wonder how many Americans have experience or would dare experience such an event. You have gone to such unusual places and have done things most would never get close to doing.

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