I might not have gone near Kolkata’s Kalighat Temple at all if I’d read some of the comments about it on www.tripadvisor.com beforehand. “Horrible,” laments one past visitor. “Priests harass you and fleece you… Inside, cleanliness is not a priority and money decides how fast you are in and out!” Another thunders that a “(v)isit to Kalighat Temple is a shame in the name of religion. Home to one of the most revered gods of Hindus, Goddess Kali, this place is one of the most corrupt and mismanaged… The pandits are more like touts than priests. They are a shame to the temple and should be slaughtered right in front of the goddess herself.” A third writes despairingly, “Infested with thugs… who will start harassing you as soon as you are 200 metres near the temple… Please stay away.” And there are horror stories about people being pickpocketed, being threatened, being overcharged and – when they refused to pay up – being insulted and sworn at, even in the supposed sanctity of the temple’s main shrine-hall.
I’ve noticed that most of these comments have been posted by Indians, well-to-do Indians from the look of the pictures accompanying them. When I was at the temple, I had a few people sniffing about me in the hope of making a little cash, but it was nowhere near the scale of the scary tales on www.tripadvisor.com. I’ve certainly experienced worse hassle elsewhere. Maybe for once my foreignness offered protection. I saw a few Westerners wandering the temple grounds who bore the full, unashamed ‘backpacker’ look – i.e. their clothes appeared not to have seen a washing machine for a long time and they themselves appeared not to have seen a bath for a long time either; and they generally gave the impression that they didn’t have two rupees to rub together. Maybe the priests and pandits – a pandit is a Brahmin scholar, although around this temple the only thing the pandits seem scholarly in is how to fleece people – have reasoned that if all foreigners are as poor as these ones obviously are, then they aren’t worth hassling. Better to target those comfortably well-off Indians instead.
Predictably, around the temple compound and along the street heading towards the local Metro station, there are a vast number of souvenir stalls laden with mementoes of Kali, the goddess whose image dominates the temple’s shrine-hall and who’s surely the most formidable figure in the pantheon of Hindu deities. Mind you, in one stall, I noticed dangling amid the Kali-esque wares a plastic bag containing a plastic cricketing set – proof that even in the holiest of Indian places, thoughts are never far away from the national sport.
I also saw a row of carriages, tilted forward and propped on their front poles. These were ‘pulled’ rickshaws. Their operators don’t even have the luxury of a bicycle to sit on and pedal – they just struggle along on foot, towing carriages and passengers behind them. According to Wikipedia, “(t)he pullers live a life of poverty and many sleep under the rickshaws. Rudrangshu Mukerjee, an academic, stated many people’s ambivalent feelings about riding a rickshaw; he does not like being carried around in a rickshaw but does not like the idea of ‘taking away their livelihood’.” That was the attitude of several Indians I talked to – they didn’t like what the pullers do, but at the same time they didn’t want to deprive them of business by not using them.
At the temple-compound, a long queue of people waiting to enter the main temple-building extended back through a gateway in the wall and out among the souvenir stalls. I managed to blag my way into the compound and spent the next half-an-hour mooching around, looking at stuff, without trying to enter the temple-building itself. It was difficult to escape from the sun, which by then, midday, was directly overhead. Every scrap of shade cast by a piece of roofing or a parasol had people crowded onto it. Occasionally a PA system would cough into life and a shrill voice would spend a minute or two yelling about something-or-other. So frantic was the voice that I wondered if its intention was to get the queuing multitude suitably psyched up before they had their appointment with Kali.
Along one terrace men sat making chains of red paper hibiscuses – Kali’s symbolic flower – and were flogging them off to passing worshippers. Darker in purpose was a tiled area occupying an opposite corner, where men who were either stripped to the waist or wearing vests polka-dotted with blood were at work. Here, sacrificial offerings at the temple were slaughtered. Looking in there, I saw a dais with a pile of severed goats’ legs arranged neatly on top of it, while an oozing heap of goats’ entrails lay beside the dais’s base. No wonder half-a-dozen dogs were circling, eager to scavenge.
The compound was chaotic and messy. Beggars crouched in various nooks and crannies and pedlars harried the queuing worshippers, trying to sell them flowers. And the offerings that people made to Kali didn’t seem to last long before they ended up in the garbage. I saw a wheelbarrow crammed full of pulverised flowers parked in a corner. A ledge running along an outside wall of the temple bore, for a time, a stubble of smouldering incense sticks left by the visitors. Then a temple workman ambled along with a broom and disdainfully swept them all off the ledge.
Rising above the confusion, the temple-building was a two-tiered structure, each tier curved – almost breast-like – and bordered with bright, arcing lines of green, yellow and red. Its vertical surfaces were tiled. The queue snaked up some stairs on one side of it, while folk who’d attended the shrine inside were constantly being disgorged down some stairs on the other side. I finally decided I would like to look inside it but without spending an eternity in the queue. So I resolved to take advantage of one of the touts who’d been occasionally been pestering me with offers to, for a fee, ‘fast-track’ me through the temple and give me an abbreviated version of the ‘Kali experience’. When the next tout, a shifty-looking wee guy, approached me, I found he was willing to take me through the building for 200 rupees.
First, I had to remove my shoes and socks. However, I didn’t fancy taking my chaperon’s advice and leaving them on a ledge outside. I had a feeling that when I returned to that ledge later, shoes and socks would be gone, kidnapped, and there’d be a ransom to pay. Luckily, I was carrying a shoulder bag and I stuffed my footwear into that.
And then… I was bundled along the side of the queue, up the stairs and through the temple entrance into a narrow passageway adjacent to the shrine-hall. I have to say that the Indian worshippers seemed so focused on seeing Kali that nobody complained as the little tout, and the considerably bigger me, came burrowing and barging through them. It was bedlam. Like a rugby scrum. Somehow, a dog had managed to get into the passageway and it looked battered and scared as it tried to negotiate the countless pairs of oncoming feet. (That was the only harassed-looking dog I saw in Kolkata. Usually, they seemed totally unfazed by the humans around them while they wandered about and dozed on the pavements and roads.)
There was a window-like gap in the wall between the passageway and the shrine-hall and my escort urged me up onto its ledge – this was as close to Kali, who was on the other side of the gap, as I got. Beyond and below me, worshippers streamed around the shrine in the same chaotic way that they streamed through the passageway behind. Immediately in front of it, some stripped-to-the-waist priests, who looked more like bouncers than clergy, kept things moving and made sure that nobody loitered for too long. All was confused, noisy and emotional – just a little way short of hysterical. On the ledge beside me was another priest, who (1) gave me some hibiscus flowers to throw onto the deity; (2) dabbed some colour onto the centre of my forehead; (3) said a prayer on my behalf; and (4) demanded money. Seeing as I was in Kali’s presence, I thought I’d better oblige. Though he looked a little put-out when he realised that I’d only contributed another 50 rupees to the Kalighat Priest / Tout Retirement Fund.
Of Kali I’ll say more in a minute.
Then my chaperon bundled me down from the ledge, along the rest of the passageway and out of the temple’s other side. Just before the exit I felt small hands grab at my ankles – two beggar-kids crouched on either side of the door, trying to get people’s attention before they departed the building. Thereafter, I was whisked through some ante-rooms attached to the temple where more priests dabbed more colour on my head, said more prayers for me and demanded more money. By this time I felt I’d already parted with enough. So I would point at my chaperon and say brightly, “Oh, I gave all the money to him.”
And that was it – done in less in ten minutes. Outside, the wee tout tried to interest me in buying some souvenirs, but I said, “No thanks,” and hurriedly walked away. I walked away a little too hurriedly, in fact. The moment I stepped out of the shade, the soles of my shoeless feet were scalded by the compound’s paving stones, baking-hot in the sun.
To quote Wikipedia again: “The image of Kali in this temple is unique. It doesn’t follow the pattern of other Kali images in Bengal.” Indeed not. Though some of the more familiar Kali features are present – the three eyes, with the central one arranged perpendicularly to the other two; the great flowing tongue (but golden, not red); and the four arms, one brandishing a sickle-like scimitar and another gripping the severed head of the demon-king Shumbha – the goddess here is a humped, truncated-looking thing, her arms stumpy and only just discernible. I have to say that she resembles a cross between one of H.P. Lovecraft’s elder gods and Eric Cartman in South Park. Photography isn’t allowed inside the temple, but here’s a picture of a mural of her that I saw painted on a wall whilst walking back to the Metro.
Across that wall-image, I noticed, someone had fastened a semi-circle of red paper hibiscuses. Even when she exists as graffiti, Kali commands respect.