May 26, 2012

Kalighat Temple, Calcutta

Before I commence this post, some dedications and thanks are due. This article is especially for Yashika Katyal, who has been a constant support in my life, in times good and bad. In fact, this article wouldn't even have been possible in this form without the motivation, admiration and constant criticism she provided me with. Following her specifications, I have tried to experiment with the writing style and include more of my experiences about the place than write exclusively about history and cultural/architectural significance. This is how I'll be trying to write from now on and hence the posts are going to be slightly lengthy when compared to the past ones. Please bear with me about the same. Suggestions and constructive criticism are always appreciated.


"The ordinary daily practices of the cult (Hinduism) are sufficient to place it beyond the pale of civilization.. A twopenny tram will take you from the centre of Calcutta to the "Kalighat", from which some suppose that the city takes its name, where you may see, in the slimy, swarming precincts of the temple, the ground crimson with the blood of sacrifices, while in a filthy but very sacred backwater of the Hooghly men, women and children not only bathe in their hundreds, but drink the yellow ooze in which their bodies and their garments have been steeped. Hinduism has, indeed, a marvellous gift for extracting bad effects from good intentions, actual ugliness from potential beauty. It is always washing and never clean; some of its practices have probably been hygienic in their origin, yet it is innocent, and often bitterly resentful, of sanitation; it professes a superstitious respect for animal life, but it raises no finger to check the most callous cruelty to animals. It is, in short, the great anachronism of the modern world."
– William Archer, "India and the future" (1917)

Possibly amongst the most revered shrines in the city, visited by millions of tourists and devotees (both Indian and foreigner alike) every year, the ancient Kalighat temple, on account of being one of the most poorly managed and organized temple complexes I have visited in my entire short life, failed to register both a spiritually and mentally soothing effect and a visual and architectural inspiration on my mind and the minds of the friends who accompanied me there. Though certainly I would not contend that the complex is not to my liking – obviously because even being shoved by people and struggling against a tremendous wave of unruly, ritual-crazed humanity rushing and pushing others in order to just witness a stone idol for a fraction of a second is also a unique experience! Even now, when I remember the scene, the entire range of emotional confusion and physical struggle automatically comes rushing back to me. So if undisciplined and angry crowds are your thing, read on! Of course, propelled by the popularly imagined mysteriously magical boon-bestowing capabilities of the complex, friends who are residents of Calcutta are totally in awe of the shrine and are especially intrigued by the practice of "Bali" (ritualistic animal sacrifice) that is still observed here to propitiate Goddess Kali (the primordial Hindu Goddess of universal feminine force, sex, death and destruction) who happens to be the presiding deity. Warnings and words of advise about the do's and don'ts had already trickled down to me prior to visiting the complex from friends who had already been there seen that and I would share the same during the course of this article for the benefit of readers who might not be aware of how things function in some of these temples, especially in those that exist in the eastern part of the country.

Kalighat - The abode of the fearsome mother

But first the elaborate history and cultural significance of the complex – the temple is regarded as one of the 51 "Shakti Peetha" ("Seat of Primordial Feminine energy"), that dot most of the Indian subcontinent including Pakistan and Nepal, whose perplexing origin has its convoluted roots in ancient history's numerous tales where myths and legends conspire alongside hard facts to generate a picture of inexplicable phenomena and locations. I copy verbatim the entire legend from the blogpost about Kamakhya Temple (refer Pixelated Memories - Kamakhya Temple, Assam) where I have already recounted the same – Hindu legends recall the ritualistic sacrificial worship (“yagna”) commissioned by the mythological emperor Daksha in which his own angelic daughter Sati (Shakti) and her husband Shiva, the Hindu God of death and destruction, were unwelcome. Sati, though requested not to go by Lord Shiva but persuaded by an unremitting love for her father and maternal family, nonetheless reached her father’s abode only to be faced with an unrelenting onslaught of merciless abuses and insults heaped upon her all-powerful husband, as an anguished consequence of which she committed suicide by jumping into the ceremonial fire; dangerously enraged and unnervingly grief-struck, Lord Shiva picked up Goddess Sati’s lifeless body in one arm and his frightening trident in the other and began the frenzied “Tandava Nritya” (celestial dance of destruction). The entire world was on the brink of irrevocable destruction when all the Gods and deities collectively invoked Lord Vishnu, the Hindu God of life and preservation, who used his “Sudarshana Chakra” (spinning disc weapon) to cleave Sati’s body into 51 parts since an infuriated Shiva had vowed not to stop his terrible dance till Sati’s body existed. Each of the sacred spots where these 51 hallowed parts fell came to be sanctified as an auspicious “Shakti Peetha” where an intent worshiper channeling the said energy would be endowed with immeasurable intellectual and spiritual prowess. The mutilated toes of Sati's right foot are said to have fallen on the exact spot where the temple presently exists (though some state only one of the toes fell here).

Once upon a time - The temple complex with the adjacent bathing ghats, AD 1887 (Photo courtesy -

The present temple is said to have been commissioned by Raja Mansingh I of Amber (Jaipur) who, as a vassal of Mughal Emperor Akbar (ruled AD 1556-1605), officiated as the Governor of the eastern territories of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa from AD 1594-1606; it was afterwards modified with additions and transformed into the present complex some 200 years back around the year 1809 by the renowned and financially affluent Sabarna Roy Chaudhary Zamindar family of Calcutta. But the shrine's history is said to revert back several centuries and it's antiquity could be gauged from the discovery of coins originating during the reign of Chandragupta II (AD 380-413/15) and the fact that it even finds mention in early 15th-century Bengali religious texts – prior to Raja Mansingh's interventions, it existed as a nondescript shrine housed in a mere meager hutment on the banks of the river Hooghly and surrounded by dense forests incorporating in their territories ferocious wild animals and massive branched trees. The river has since diverted its course and the temple has been assimilated within an indescribably dense concrete jungle in lieu of the ancient fearsome natural forest; only a small artificial canal referred to as "Adi Ganga" ("Adi" translates to "natural/initial") now slithers alongside the shrine. It has also been argued that the anglicized word "Calcutta" has its roots in "Kali kutta", meaning the "Abode of Mother Kali". Devotees believe that the area demarcated as "Kalikshetra" ("Realm of Kali") is teeming with such an immense amount of spiritual energy that it absolves the pious of all their previous sins and guarantees relief from bad karma and an entrance to heavens to all those who breathe their last here. Eons ago, the densely forested area played host to terrifyingly powerful tribal Tantric mendicants whose chants of the Goddess' name would reverberate throughout the night through the gruesome foliage, especially on nights when they'd mercilessly sacrifice humans to appease her, thereby prompting travelers and fishermen to give the region a wide berth, especially during night hours. The temple and the area surrounding it also lend their name to the Kalighat school of Bengali folk painting that once, with its vivid hues and bold brush strokes, proved irresistible to the devotees thronging the temple complex and were quickly devoured by doting patrons; sadly however, the tradition met an unavoidable death at the hands of cheap printed posters and imitations and can now only be witnessed in museums and art galleries.

The "Mahanta" system, where the chief priest chooses one of his disciples as the next chief, is still followed in the temple. Bhubhaneshwar Giri, one of the chief priests, married an illegitimate woman known as Yogmaya and together the two had a daughter whom they christened Uma. When Uma reached a marriageable age, the Goddess appeared in Bhubhaneshwar Giri's dreams and asserted that she no longer wished to be worshiped by ascetic priests and urged him to marry Uma and declare her husband as the next Mahanta – Uma was thus married to Bhabanidas Chakraborty who assumed the position of Mahanta after his father-in-law handed him the entire Kalighat complex as dowry and since then all the "Sebayats" (Goddess' priests) have continued to be married householders.

Commodification of faith and religion

The present state of affairs – The temple is huge, but larger still is the area around its periphery that has been overtaken by shops, both permanent and makeshift, trading in materials required for worship like vibrant flowers and vermillion and religious souvenirs such as trinkets, conch shells, sanctified bangles and small sculptures and photographs of the Goddess and the temple. Engulfing the entire immediate locality are several small shops, predominantly owned by priests ("Pandas") supposedly officiating in the temple complex, selling sweets like peda (thick, semi-soft sweets composed of dried milk by-product, sugar and cardamom flavoring) – visitors are supposedly required to remove their footwear at one of these shops, after payment of a particular sum of money, and walk barefoot from thereon to the shrine. Swarming around these shops are several fraud priests who promise visitors to take them inside the shrine, offer prayers for them and help negotiate the unimaginably crowded interiors, of course for a price that has to be bargained beforehand – not affiliated with the temple but highly organized into a powerful union, most of these priests are charlatans who aggressively ask for large religious payments ("dakshina") and very few of them are actually soft-spoken knowledgeable guides. It is indeed difficult to get into the perennially crowded shrine, but the priests aren't always helpful either – they would take the devotees' money and push them in the crowded sanctum or instead take them to the "Natmandir" (congregation hall) located some distance away from the shrine and ask them to pray from there only. Besides, most of them are pretty greedy and one has to haggle with them to reach a suitable charge. This unbelievable and unforeseen commercialization of religion and the unsurpassably horrible behaviour of so-called priests proved to be a total turnoff and made us want to leave the place immediately. These Pandas continue to harass visitors and earn their livelihood this way, even though their very presence within the temple premises was outlawed several years ago by Kolkata High Court – but like most other laws and regulations in the city, this ruling too is rarely – if ever – enforced. Similarly, animal sacrifice (considered deeply spiritually enriching and minimally agonizing by the officiating priests on account of the single stroke of scimitar employed to finish off the struggling animal) within the precincts as a form of appeasing the deities too was outlawed eons ago, but still continues uninhibited – I might as well add that being a hardcore non-vegetarian who abhors vegetarian food even under duress, I am not really against animal sacrifice as long as the meat is consumed (it is in the temple) and not allowed to waste or rot.

A labyrinth of associated shrines and shops (Photo courtesy -

Instead of paying one of the priests, one of my friends Sunil, who like me is an atheist and detests visiting religious shrines, decided to sit in one of the cubbyhole shops and safeguard our shoes. But the treacherous priests continued to follow us like hordes of irritating flies and deceived us by stating that one isn't allowed within the shrine without a personal priest, which we later found out to be an obliquity – falling for their words, we eventually acceded to hire one for Rs 50 to assist with the worship and supply us with the sweets. Our feet burned as we walked the scorched cemented road towards the main shrine (located quite a walk away from the shops) and some minutes later, the bloody priest disappeared!! Had it not been for Sunil who had decided to stay at the cramped shop, we wouldn't have even got our sweets at the end of the day! Left to our own devices, we reached the shrine, but by now another group of priests had begun following us, trying to impose their unwarranted services. We had already been warned to not let priests accompany us anywhere within the precincts nor assent to their assisting us with the worship, otherwise they would perform some ceremony/prayer that we had not even asked for or even sacrifice an animal in the sanctum in our name and then demand additional money. There are two modes of worshiping the deity ("darshan") here – the first is done from the "Garbha-Griha" (sanctum sanctorum) which encapsulates the idol within its periphery, while the other is essentially from a viewing gallery, known as "Jor Bangla", running around the Garbha-Griha. To our dismay, we noticed that the entry of devotees to the Garbha-Griha is also controlled by priests who would demand money in lieu of letting people in. It is advisable to not tell any of the priests one's name or profession otherwise they would read some prayers in one's name and not allow one to leave without paying up especially exorbitant amounts! And there is no point in arguing with these goons since they would only gang up and create difficulties for the poor visitor who had come seeking spiritual enlightment and mental serenity. For a foreigner visiting the complex, it becomes even increasingly tough and exploitative! With the priests busily engrossed lying to and looting the faithful, the latter were not organized into queues and created quite a ruckus, making it enormously difficult to enter the narrow passageway and even more difficult to protect oneself from the crushing and milling crowds that, themselves eager and impatient to view and worship the fearsome idol, continue to push one around in their bid to have their way even though they too, in the end, are only able to stand in front of the idol for less than a minute before being pushed away themselves! One of my friends Neeraj, a rather weak fellow who had accompanied us to the temple, had more troubles in store for him – the crowd simply carried him out of the sanctum and to the other side of the passageway!

Notice the floral motifs adorning the shrine roof and the numerous cubbyholes shops being run immediately outside. Forgive my bad photography, I don't yet possess a camera.

The Goddess' silver-encapsulated image as depicted in the shrine, possessing three huge eyes painted a terrifying shade of brilliant orange and a thick, excessively long protruding tongue coated with layers of gold, is visually unique and fiercely terrifying, though unlike my friends I somehow found the massive depiction interesting and the dreadful appearance appealing – after all, Kali, despite the alternative projection as the benign mother Goddess granting bliss and blessings to her faithful, is supposed to be the terrible Goddess of death, the primordial feminine punitive deity, dark in color and fearsome in appearance, with disheveled hair, necklaces of severed demonic skulls and a tongue reddened by the quenching of her bloodlust with sacrifices and slaying of demons! The idol, said to have been sculpted by two priests officiating in the temple itself, is said to have been rendered incomplete by them in its original form and the four hands, also made of gold, two of them respectively depicted in aspects of blessing and guidance and the other two holding a scimitar and the severed head of a demon known as Shambhu, were later additions. A small enclosure underneath the sculpture is said to contain the toe fragment of Goddess Sati that fell here and have since fossilized to stone but were said to emit brilliant light when they were discovered in an associated natural lagoon (now transformed into a stepped rectangular water tank) by some saints traversing the area. Many of the female devotees make a shrill cry, called "Hudhudi" and said to the battle cry of Goddess Kali with the considerable ability to bestow feminine fertility and energy to the devotees, with their tongues within the sanctum and I found the incessant shrieking quite horribly ear-piercing till later when some of my Bengali friends explained about it to us.

Those eyes! (Photo courtesy -

The temple is famed for the fine examples of terracotta art it boasts of, or rather boasted of since a lot of it has been ravaged by the vagaries of time and nature. The curved, double-layered Bengali-style roof of the central shrine and the associated temple clusters, with their numerous intricate bands of colored pattern work and floral motifs, appear visually enchanting but I couldn't photograph them to my heart's content primarily because photography is prohibited within the complex. Stepping outside the sanctum, there wasn't much for us to do – the extraordinary crowds made us feel intensely claustrophobic and the pushing and shoving wasn't pleasant at all, especially for the womenfolk. The complex offers several additional smaller shrines with their own individual histories, but we neither visited them nor even spotted them, given that every time we stepped in any direction or proceeded towards any feature that even closely resembled a separate shrine, the horribly deceitful priests would begin yelling at us to not go there or not do something, forcing us to leave the premises at the first opportunity.

Some time back, taking into account the damage to and littering of the shrine with flowers, religious materials and earthen oil lamps as well as the allegations of extortion and thievery leveled against several officiating priests (who, on numerous instances, even stooped to the extent of stripping foreign nationals to their underpants when they were unable to pay the exorbitant sums demanded as prayer money!), the honorable High Court at Calcutta decreed a ban on the entry of devotees to the sanctum. But owing to the pressure exerted by millions of faithful and priests, the Supreme Court had to turn the ruling down. One cannot really take a position on this, matters of faith being subjective to say the least especially in a country as endowed with religious and spiritual fervor and multi-dimensionality – an enforced ban might bring order to the otherwise chaotic shrine, but then if the devotees themselves, most of whom behave rather uncivilly within the shrine and yet claim to be at the mercy of the duplicitous priests, are against it, then what can one possibly do? One cannot of course send police down to threaten or chase the priests out – apart from the constitutional and ethical dilemma raised by it, the latter would simply resort to stating that they exist because the devotees demand their services – supply equals demand in economics! Nonetheless, it is gratifyingly heartening to know that the courts are sincerely concerned about the mismanagement and hooliganism that goes on in these temples and also about the spiritual and emotional well-being and physical security of the hundreds of millions of devotees thronging these shrines.

Talk about eclectic lightning! (Photo courtesy -

Festivals like Kali Puja, Navratris, Durga Puja and Poila Baisakh (Bengali New year) are observed with enormous fervor at the shrine and witness unparalleled crowds of devotees who travel long distances to worship the mother Goddess and offer her their humble tributes. Hundreds of foreigners too visit the temple complex to understand the reason behind its renown and also to try to fathom why Hindus so earnestly pray to the Goddess of death and refer to her as Mother at the same time. It is another matter that many of them return with bitter-sweet experiences (predominantly bitter!), especially relating to the high-handedness of priests and unofficial authorities that is so readily accepted as a norm here. Such undesired commercialization of religion and the violence perpetrated in its name is one of the worst things that could have existed in our peace-loving, spiritual and ethic-conscious country and definitely contribute to tarnishing the country's and the shrine's name and also labeling the holy complex with all sobriquets that a temple ideally shouldn't be.

What occurred to me while leaving was that it is indeed regrettable that none of the visitors even look in the direction of, leave alone making philanthropic contributions to, the Hospital for the Dying and Destitute that was set up by Mother Teresa immediately opposite the sacred temple complex and presently exists in an unbelievably decrepit condition. Wouldn't it have been better if visitors to the hallowed shrine performed community service and donated at the hospital instead of paying the greedy and exceedingly vociferous priests? All I can hope is that someone will be, after reading this article, propelled to visit the temple complex to witness the explosive cocktail of religious frenzy, chaotic disorder and uninhibited greed but will afterwards find themselves tracing their steps to the hospital and make voluntary contributions there. Amen.


Open: All days (Tuesdays, Saturdays, Sundays, Navaratris and Diwali are special days of worship and witness impossibly heavy crowds)
Timings: 4 am – 2 pm and 4 pm – 11 pm
Nearest metro stations: Jatin Das Park and Kalighat stations are equidistant.
How to reach: Buses, taxis and metro can be availed from different parts of the city.
Entry fees: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Precautions: Avoid paying touts and priests who might approach one in the name of offering prayers in one's name or getting one into the sanctum. Do not carry heavy wallets, excessive cash and other precious items since pickpockets and thieves are active in the crowds. Preferably keep currency notes of smaller denominations separately so that if one is forced to pay any priest one doesn't have to reveal how much cash one is carrying.
Relevant Links -
  1. Pixelated Memories - Kamakhya Temple, Assam
Suggested reading - 
  1. - Article " SC stays HC ban on entry into Kalighat temple's sanctum sanctorum" (dated May 21, 2012) 
  2. - Article "Kalighat Pat, a Protomodern Art Tradition?" by Pranabranjan Ray 
  3. - The Kalighat temple 
  4. - Shakti Pith #19: Kalighat Kali Mandir  
  5. - Article "The goddess of light " (dated Nov 09, 2007) by Soumitra Das 
  6. - Article "Calcutta High Court restricts entry into Kalighat temple" (dated April 21, 2012) 
  7. - Article "Kali Mandir of Kolkata" (dated May 09, 2003) by S. Balakrishnan 
  8. - Kalighat


  1. superb work! i think you should cut out the culture part when writing about your own experience because the culture part just doesnt mix! but amazing nonetheless!

    1. The culture part becomes important since I wish to give a complete description of the place & not just "my experiences"..the info mentioned here has been compiled from various sources, including some word of mouth folklores. The reader should know the importance of the place where they are visiting, else it is just a spot like any other & not a point of religious/ecological/spiritual or just picturesque value..

  2. Well written, splendid photography and well, a heart-felt dislike 4 d touts n d priests! :p
    Like a Bollywood Movie though, it was a happy ending and u guys got the sweets that u had paid for.. :) and literaly insightful 4m d Hindu Mythology point of view.. :)

    1. yes & I must say the sweets were pretty lip-smacking too!!
      could not take more pics as like almost all Indian temples, photography is prohibited inside the complex..

  3. ur photography's daam good.......

  4. why is animal sacrifice not banned in supposedly englihtened state like west Bengal. I doubt Mother Kali who is an embodiment of motherly love and affection allows her children in animal form to be sacrificied? Why dont the so called educated Bengalis stop this nonsense. Eons ago when Adi Shankarcharya sought to end animal sacrifice in this part of the world, tantriks and other rascals sent Kapalikas to severe his head. Adi sankaracharya managed to destroy them but that was the last time he set foot in those regions. Rest of the Country, we are fortunate that he completely abolished the animal sacrifice.