November 14, 2012

Kali Puja, Durgapur

Today is Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights & crackers. It is believed that on this day, King Rama returned to his kingdom in Ayodhya (in modern day Uttar Pradesh) after spending 14 years in exile in the various forests of the country, & since it was a (dark) new moon night, the people of Ayodhya welcomed him by lighting lamps at their doorsteps & terraces & boundary walls, & at all those places where they could place a lamp. Hindus believe Rama to be an ideal human being – epitomising the qualities of “Dharma” (literally “religion”, but actually meaning “a way of life”), & of course he is also considered by many as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu, the Hindu God of life & preservation. During his exile, which was a result of a plot by his step-mother Kekeyi who wanted to place her own son Bharata on the throne of Ayodhya, Rama travelled as far as Lanka (which is supposedly the modern island of Sri Lanka) to free his wife Sita who was treacherously kidnapped & imprisoned in a garden-orchard by Ravana, the lord of Lanka, often believed to be an embodiment of evil itself & portrayed with ten heads & ridiculously large moustaches. As I had promised in the “Navaratris” post (refer Pixelated Memories - Navaratris if you still don't know what Navaratris are, or just to see the photographs), I shall be covering more of festivities & celebrations in this blog. However this post is not about Diwali – sadly, once again I am struck in Durgapur where Diwali is not celebrated with as much gaiety as North India. Instead, Bengalis celebrate Kali Puja (“Puja” = "worship") on the day of Diwali. Huge pandals (tents made after covering humongous bamboo scaffoldings with cloth & other decorative material) are set up according to a pre-decided theme, wherein an idol of Goddess Kali is housed. Visitors come & go, each one with hands folded & heads bowed reverentially in front of the idol. The pandal theme usually shows one or the other cultural &/or traditional aspect, sometimes seemingly bizarre, for instance I have seen pandals made with jute & coir to promote the local cottage industry, & I have also seen pandals designed to look like the Egyptian Sphinx, complete with varied hieroglyphics & housing a Kali idol where the treasure was supposed to be!!

Pandal - Benachity Market, Durgapur, 2012

While in the rest of the country, Goddess Lakshmi, the Hindu Goddess of wealth & prosperity, & a sister of Kali, is worshipped, Bengalis worship Kali – the dark skinned Goddess of death & destruction, often considered to be an embodiment of time itself. Kali is the consort of Lord Shiva, the Hindu God of death, & while Shiva himself wears serpents as his neckpieces, Kali wears a necklace made out of severed demonic heads, her tongue jutting out of her mouth thirsting for blood, & her swords & scimitars flashing their sharp blades. She is the annihilator of evil forces, who runs around naked, killing demons & wrongdoers in her wake, & consuming everything around herself like an ever-growing fire. The image of Kali is a fierce one, several of my friends avoid going to even the famous Kali temples (such as Kalighat, Calcutta, refer Pixelated Memories - Kalighat) & idol-making workshops since they are terrified of these images. But not me!! A day before Diwali, & we (that is, me & my friends Kshitish & Aakash) find ourselves standing outside a workshop where Kali idols are made by skilled artisans in anticipation of this day.

The dark one

The workshop is in Benachity, which is a large market place in the heart of Durgapur (which literally means “the land of Durga”, Durga is another sister of Kali). We aren’t afraid of Kali – she is also the bestower of boons, a mother diety, who when appeased fulfils one’s desires & helps overcome all obstacles. She is also associated with sex, lust & tantra (which has come to be associated only with Black Magic & Voodoo, but is also the appeasement of Goddess for financial & health gains, as well as attainment of “Moksha” – independence from worldly shackles & bonds & an inculcation into the “Supreme Being”). Tantra also considers Kali as the primordial deity, who devours everything, even the Gods themselves, at the end of creation. She is Shakti, the bestower of strength & power.

Naked divinity

Kali Puja is one of the foremost festivals in Bengal, & idol-making is a big business here (just like effigy-making is in Tatarpur, see Pixelated Memories - Ravana making in Tatarpur, New Delhi ), with the entire families helping out in the process – which begins with accumulating the proper kind of soil & sand to create the idol’s framework, & includes the designing of frame, painting it in vivid colours, & decking it up with beads, decorative accessories & cloth in dazzling shades. The artists who make these idols are skilled & design these idols in a uniform manner, but with varying colours & an assortment of forms – so there are idols varying in size from 3-30 feet, coloured blue, black, or cream & covered with white, red, or yellow tiaras. Kali is usually shown naked in order to show her transcending the boundaries of consciousness by not covering her femininity, however since many patrons prefer not to take the naked Goddess home, there are even versions covered with beautiful transparent cloth – in shocking red, white & greens.

Spoiled for choice!!

The idols at times do look scary indeed, the blood-red tongues darting out of the black & blue faces, the three eyes, the dishevelled hair, the large headgear shining in the little rays of light that are able to enter the dingy & dark workshops, the waist girdle made with severed hands of dead men, & the neck pendants made of evil-looking heads. Often the Goddess is shown carrying skulls & thigh bones, rather than swords & battle axes, making her even more ferocious. But then, always her two right hands are shown showering blessings & favour on devotees & easing their pain & terror at her appearance.

Is she on our side??

The workshop in Benachity belonged to one Shambo Das, who claimed to be an idol-artist for the past 25 years & believed the Goddess is a harbinger of good luck to him. A modest man, who wanted us to tour the idol-workshops of Calcutta & the rest of Durgapur, before calling his idols stunning, he allowed me to take as many photographs as I wanted to. Here there were even idols of Durga, Shiva, Ganesh (Shiva-Durga’s son, the elephant-headed, pot-bellied God of wisdom, beginnings & goodluck), Ganas (the followers of Shiva, shown as short & stubby men with large tummies & cute expressions) – to portray the entire family of Kali. Of course they forgot that Kali had 8 more sisters (some say they are all incarnations of one another – Bhavani, Gauri, Rajeshwari, etc).

All in the family!!

Then there is the prostrate Shiva who lies under Kali’s feet like a mattress, the snakes clinging to his body flinging violently, their aggressive expressions in contrast to Shiva’s calm & soothing face. According to one myth, when Kali was invoked in the war against the demon Raktabija (literally “Blood-seed”, each drop of blood from his body could assume a new demonic form), she appeared in her wild form & drank all of Raktabija’s blood in order to prevent him from producing more duplicates. But she did not stop after slaying him, but went on destroying friends & foes alike who stood in her path, severing their heads, mutilating their bodies & feasting on their blood & flesh. Soon the balance of the world was disturbed by her destructive activities & ruthlessness, & Lord Shiva was invoked to soothe her. Unable to avail of any method to prevent her from more killing & torture, Shiva went & lay at Kali’s feet, immediately calming her. Since then she is shown standing upon her husband’s body & also to this day, meat & spirits are offered instead of the usual sweets at her temple. Kali Puja sees the sacrifice of numerous goats, buffaloes & fowl at the temples & community prayer grounds. Bells are rung, mantras (invocations) chanted, the idols are smeared in vermilion & devotees pray all night long to appease the Goddess. Kali dominates the Tantric texts & iconography, & the Tantriks & Siddhas (followers of Tantra & devotees of Kali) take special pleasure in celebrating Kali Puja – slaughtering goats to propitiate the Goddess’s anger & to win her favour. They decorate their houses with skulls – not just human, but animal alike, & often partake of blood themself. The Tantriks believe in facing Kali in the cremation ground, her home turf, to overcome all fear of her & to be able to look at her like a mother, a source of infinite power & energy. But in non-Tantrik Bengali households, feasts are held, that include a multi-course dinner ending with the delectable Rasogulla. But almost everywhere, the Goddess is offered pure wine (“Soma ras”/”Madira”) which is said to find special favour with her.

& here is another one!!

Before I end this post, I have to tell you about the pandals – they are just awesome, & reflect the creativity of the people who envision them & the skill of the artists who craft them out of seemingly simple material. With nimble limbs, the workers rapidly climb up bamboo poles & scaffolding to cover & decorate them. & decorate they do with much gusto – the simple yet intricate designs reflect their passion & reverence for the Goddess. People visit these pandals from far & near, special prayers are organized here & one can even spot women uttering strange shrieks – said to be Kali’s battle cry, & supposed to bring fertility to women – shrill & fierce, these cries add a fearsome gusto to the proceedings. Musicians playing “Dhak” (large drums fitted with feathers & leaves) reach a crescendo with the prayers & the dance. Wafts of incense travel far to pull one & all to the pandals. & of course, there are beautiful girls in traditional attires to talk to!! 

Seated in a pandal

It is interesting to note that Kali finds little, if any, mention in the ancient Hindu texts, & the festival of Kali Puja came to be celebrated in Bengal only after Maharaja Krishna Chandra (a fief holder of Bengal) popularised it in 18th century & expected the people in his domain to organize it with much fanfare. Before that the Puja was celebrated at a very small scale every year in certain localized areas of Bengal. Later, Krishna Chandra’s grandson Ishwar Chand along with the other landlords began patronizing the Puja, & this influx of money & resources ensured that Kali Puja took enormous proportions & became one of the main festivals of the Bengali community. The Puja is today organized in almost all parts of the country & abroad – wherever a sizeable Bengali community has settled. Also it has become much more inclusive than before, so in addition to the worship to Kali, many pandals also organize large fairs complete with miniature Ferris wheels & food & sweet stalls to provide something for the Non-Bengalis & the kids.

Just felt like posting another pic!!

The Puja goes on all night, & also intermittently on the next two days. On the third day after Kali Puja, the idols are immersed in a stream of flowing water, usually the sea or a river. The Goddess waits in the infinite abyss, waiting for her insurrection the next year, thirsting for fresh blood all that while.

When : Kali Puja coincides with Diwali & falls on Kartik Amavasya (Kartik is a winter month in the traditional Hindu calendar, while Amavasya refers to the new moon night). Usually in late October - early November.
Where : Throughout Bengal.


  1. Kali is the consort of Lord Shiva, the Hindu God of death, & while Shiva himself wears serpents as his neckpieces, Kali wears a necklace made out of severed demonic heads, her tongue jutting out of her mouth thirsting for blood, & her swords & scimitars flashing their sharp blades.Great.

  2. The Puja is today organized in almost all parts of the country & abroad – wherever a sizeable Bengali community has settled. Also it has become much more inclusive than before, so in addition to the worship to Kali,

  3. What a amazing images of goddess Durga. Kali is the concert of the Lord Shiva. Bengalis worship Kali the dark skinned Goddess of death & destruction. people worshiped Maa Durga with very sacred feeling.thanks for sharing this knowledge able post about Maa Durga.