In Calcutta, where I grew up, one often hears the phrase ‘baro mash-e tero parbon’, which roughly translates to ‘thirteen festivals in twelve months’. So as a child, I grew up watching a lot of festivities around me, Diwali being one such. But it was only when I moved to Delhi at the age of 19 that I witnessed the magnificent magnitude of celebrations in north India. Funnily enough, the culuture shift also opened me up to the unique character of celebrations back in Calcutta, where the day is reserved for the worship of goddess Kali—a wild woman with dark skin, red rage and blazing eyes.
As the days begin to shorten and nights get longer, the time of the year—especially the night of worship, gilded by a new moon—comes to signify a battle between the forces of darkness and light for certain strains of Hinduism. The goddess herself, considered pre Indo-Aryan in genesis, is the natural and visual opposite of Laxmi, also worshipped by Hindus on the same night. The story here is multi-pronged, spanning faith, nature and culture.
I decided to start digging for clues at Calcutta’s Kali Ghat, dubbed one of the most significant spots for the worship of the goddess. It is considered to be one of the 51 Hindu shakti peethas; legend has it that when Shiva performed his grief-stricken tandav, carrying the lifeless body of Sati in his arms, her body parts fell onto 51 locations on Earth. These places were eventually turned into shrines to the goddess in her various forms. One of these (forms) is Kali.
The Kali of the tantric tradition comes from an old line of goddesses. Unfortunately, with lived religions, sometimes the traditions and practices live on while the stories and the etymologies fade away. While most priests and pandas across the city are well-versed in the practices and traditions, it is hard to find someone who would delve into their stories and significance. This is where I had to take the help of memory in order to understand traditions better.
As a little girl, I remember living in a time-worn house in North Calcutta, a part of the city crawling with old tales and traditions even today. On the eve of Kali Pujo, I remember putting marks made of sandalwood paste, ash and sindoor on our doors. We believed that this would protect us from the spirits that accompany Kali during the dark night of the festival. The night before Kali Pujo is observed as Bhoot Chaturdoshi, when ghosts and ghouls run wild. Most versions of mythology take these ghouls and ghosts to be the companions of Kali, who signifies the destruction of evil, to pave the way for rebirth and revival. This makes sense since this time of the year is also the harvest season in most parts of India, which in itself is a symbol of cessation and regeneration. A night where ghosts run wild may sound familiar to the urban millennial. This is because it is also believed that Halloween originated from a harvest festival, which was a time for remembering spirits and ancestors, once again symbolising death and rebirth.
One of the most fascinating things about Kali, according to me, is her form. She is always envisioned as a dark goddess, hair askew, stark naked, holding decapitated heads of men or demons. One of the most significant aspects of this form is the outstretched tongue, which is described differently in different legends. As a child, I was always told that the tongue symbolises modesty and respect for her husband Shiva, who attempted to stop her rampage by laying in her path. The story goes that when she stepped on her husband’s body, she was overcome with shame, and bit her tongue in response. However, as a woman of our times, who has seen the figure of Kali become indoctrinated as a feminist symbol in this millennium, I find it a little hard to believe that a woman so powerful would be overcome by such emotions for accidentally stepping on her husband’s body. And sure enough, there is an etymological explanation to this form of the goddess.
According to the host of Kali Katha (a popular Bengali show on the radio) Jagannath Basu, prior to the 16th century, Kali was worshipped without a form in the tantric traditions that give rise to the practice of animal sacrifice and presenting alcohol to the goddess, practised even today. According to Basu’s research, it was a tantric named Krishnananda Agamavagisha from Nadia who first envisioned the form of Kali in the way that we see today. It is said that Agamavagisha originally worshipped the goddess without a form, but longed to be able to worship her in a form that he could visualise. This is believed to have led to a dream where he heard Kali’s voice, telling him that he was to ascribe her form to the first person whom he saw the next morning. And it so happened that the first person he saw in the morning was a tribal woman, with wild hair and scanty clothing. Upon seeing a stranger, she was shocked, and stuck her tongue out in embarrassment. Agamavagisha took this to be a sign and fashioned the image of his patron goddess in the form of this woman, using the soil he found in rural Bengal, which agave Kali her characteristic dark complexion.
It is safe to say that Diwali in Bengal is unique and powerful in its celebration of feminine forces and their role in the triumph of good over evil, as opposed to the Ramayana’s male-driven narrative. In Calcutta, the festival mixes the eerie and the auspicious, the matriarchal and the macabre—a true representation of the dichotomy of light and darkness.