September 03, 2013

Kankalitala Shaktipeetha, Birbhum

The simplest of all "Shakti Peetha" ("Centers of spiritual power") that I have come across so far during my sojourns, Kankalitala temple in Birbhum (Bengal) is also by far one of the most unadorned temples that I have ever been to – to sum it, the main shrine consists of just an ordinary colonnaded rectangular hall with a small enclosed sanctum on one end. The square sanctum, surmounted by a typical pyramidal roof, possesses only a nondescript, thoroughly garlanded portrait of Goddess Kali (the Hindu Goddess of death and destruction) that is kept surrounded by adornments and articles of worship. What was more shocking was that this simplicity of the shrine continued even during the holy Hindu month of "Sawan" that is dedicated to the worship of Shiva, Goddess Kali's consort and the primordial Hindu God of death and destruction – being an important center of pilgrimage visited by devotees throughout the year and especially during Sawan, one would have assumed the temple to be beautifully decorated, but nothing of that sort! Unaware of the significance of the holy month and its subsequent effect on the temple's daily footfall, we were in for a shock when we visited the shrine complex – there were at least a thousand "Kanwariyas" jostling for space not only within the complex  but also along the streets and in public buses – we literally felt we have landed in the middle of a small, boring and very poorly oganized fair where everyone decided to dress up in saffron! Every Sawan, millions of these men, women and children, collectively referred to as "Kanwariyas" and dressed in saffron for easy identification, throng to the river Ganga armed with slender ornamental poles (imaginatively decorated with miniature plastic tridents, idols of Shiva, snakes and other symbolism associated with Lord Shiva according to Hindu mythology) affixed with water pots on each side. Travelling in large groups on foot/buses, these people embark for the journey from their native places and head to the sacred river where they fill the water pots which they later empty either at the temple they regularly visit or at one of the mythological hallowed sites such as a Shakti Peetha – owing to the belief that completing the journey on foot will avail greater spiritual benefits, especially in the afterlife, most of the Kanwariyas prefer to cover the journey on foot and even children as young as 7-8 years walk several hundred kilometers! Incredible India, isn't it?!

The image of Goddess Kali gracing the sanctum. Notice also that Lord Shiva has been depicted lying under her feet, an iconography derived from another Kali legend that has been previously discussed here – Pixelated Memories - Kali Puja, Durgapur.

The mythological lore governing the existence of each of the 51 legendary Shakti Peethas throughout the Indian subcontinent has been discussed in detail here – Pixelated Memories - Kamakhya Temple, Assam (Kamakhya Temple happened to be the first such shrine I visited).The Kanwariyas, who look for such indisputably holy spots to empty their quota of the water from Ganga in exchange for spiritual well-being, throng to these Shakti Peethas like bees to honey and Kankalitala temple, where the Goddess’ cleaved waist is said to have fallen, is no exception to this – the thousands of pilgrims jostling to pay respects to the mother Goddess are witness to this and ensured that we could not get clear photos of either the temple or the sanctum. And that's not all, we couldn't even get standing space in the bus we took to reach the temple and had to actually sit on its roof while the skies rained and thundered heavily.

The central temple at Kankalitala

But the temple's simplicity does not mean that it does not hide impressive surprises – the first of these, a huge gateway crafted by local sculptor-artists and decorated with painstakingly executed terracotta panels, greets visitors at the very periphery of the complex itself – the magnificence of the gateway is derived from, but not limited to, its thick cylindrical pillars embossed with panels depicting royal processions, traditional dancers and elephants.

Design motifs on the entrance gateway to the temple complex

As mentioned earlier, the sanctum is a simplistic square sanctuary capped by a pyramidal roof which is further topped by a metallic spire shaped like ceremonial pots of gradually decreasing sizes placed atop each other. The Natmandir, where visitors and devotees sit and pray from (the raised pillared hall already mentioned) is three bays wide and four bays long. Unlike other Shakti Peethas, here Goddess Sati’s organs aren’t reverentially placed in the sanctum but are said to be submerged in a square tank (“Kund”) which is located close to the central temple and lead to by a flight of stairs on each side. Devotees, mostly women, descend down to the level of the venerable tank and take the sacred water in their palm to rub it on the forehead (assuming from what I observed in the short while that we stayed at the temple, here too, like Kamakhya Temple of Assam, drinking the hallowed water and thereby polluting it with saliva is prohibited).

On the other side of the temple is a sacred tree on which are hung numerous marigold wreaths and rounded stones tied via threads – a Bengali tradition to pray for pregnancy and safe childbirth. The Kanwariyas had left their now-emptied poles against the tree and the colors of the ornamental, vibrantly-colored poles contrasting against the bark of the old tree seemed visually attractive, but the incessant rains hampered any chances of clicking photographs, in fact we remained throughout the stay at Birbhum perennially afraid of damaging the cameras!

The sacred crater supposedly formed due to the impact of Goddess Sati's waist hitting the earth. It subsequently got filled with water.

The temple complex is actually very large, however there aren't many permanent structures within the campus – the associated Shiva temple, lined with marble and adorned with vermilion motifs, is located a couple of hundred meters away, close to the entrance gateway. The venerated Shivalinga (symbolic of Shiva’s phallus placed atop the Goddess' vagina) is made of hard black stone and adoringly referred to as "Shambhu Baba" and "Ruru Bhairav". Interestingly, at first sight the thick phallic construction appears to be buried in a deep crater which too, like the rest of the shrine's floor, is faced with spotless white marble on all sides; in fact, the priests who chant invocations while showering the linga with ceremonial water, flowers and condiments stand on a much higher plane compared to the deity they revere. The linga was once complete and protruded from the ground in all its majesty, but was destroyed base upwards by a viciously iconoclast 16th-century Muslim General popularly known as "Kala Pahar" (literally "Black Mountain", perhaps referring to his unparalleled physical strength or his terrible stone-heartedness) when Bengal was ruled by Afghan Pathan warlord Sulaiman Khan Karrani, a vassal of Mughal Emperor Akbar (ruled AD 1556-1605). That such a thick monolith was broken to pieces speaks of the animosity Kala Pahar felt for Hindus and their ancient traditions, though it is said that he himself was a convert from Hinduism and later notoriously excelled in destroying temples and religious sites. Also, the original structure of Assam's Kamakhya temple too was demolished by this ferocious General, as revealed in the earlier article here – Pixelated Memories - Kamakhya Temple, Assam.

The pit where the Shivalinga exists in its broken form

Opposite the Shiva temple is another roofed pavilion where the ornamental chariot used for the “Rath Yatra” (“Chariot journey”) of the deities is housed. The temple complex also boasts of a large cremation ground. As already mentioned, the temple was teeming with pilgrims and Kanwariyas on the day we visited; but, I do not expect the number of devotees to be that strong on other occasions, even though the temple is associated with “Bauls” (traditional mystic singers-composers) – one should properly time their visits, especially to religious sites, to avoid crowds if the purpose is architectural photography. Kankalitala is not part of the usual pilgrim circuit; richer and better located Shakti Peethas such as Kalighat (Calcutta) and Kamakhya steal the spotlight, but the crowds at the temple only prove how revered it is amongst devotees, many of whom come from afar. If only it were more developed and not so desolate!

Location: Birbhum, Bankura, West Bengal
Open: Sunrise to sunset
How to reach: Buses are available for Kankalitala from Siuri, Rajarhat and Bolpur divisions of Bankura district. The shrine can also be accessed by taking train to Bolpur/Rajarhat and from bus there on.
Entrance Fees: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil
Time required for sightseeing: 45 min
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