Kalkattewali: The Goddess and Her City

"It is not surprising that the goddess has been reclaimed time and again as a political symbol of protest in the face of brute exploitation."

A temple in the northern part of Kolkata, the Thanthania Kalibari has a marble slab, on which “Shankar’er hridoy majhe, Kali biraje,” (Kali reigns the heart of Shankar) is engraved. The unknown author of the engraving plays a trick with the name Shankar. Shankar (or Shiva) is the consort of Kali, upon whose chest she stands. The temple was built in 1706 A.D. by a certain Shankar Ghosh who was also a Kali devotee. 

Strolling around the city of Kolkata you will hear various  forms of proverbs, poems and oral narratives alluding to a certain Goddess Kali in one or other of her many names. Kali is a Hindu Tantric goddess, revered and feared for her many powers. However, through love and fear, prayers and festivals, darkness and light Kali easily crosses the threshold of the temple to enter the everyday practices of Calcuttans. When a mother berates her daughter’s stubbornness and unjustified anger by calling her Rono Chondi (Chandi is another avatar of the goddess; Rono refers to war, alluding to the insatiable anger of the goddess in the warfield), or when the same mother promises the goddess a sacrifice for her daughter’s long life during her sickness, Kali is invoked. Come across a popular bengali adda (coming together to talk of anything under the sun) place and you might hear bantering chants of Jai Kali, Kalkattawali (All hail Kali of Calcutta). As a matter of fact, many historians believe that the city gets its name from its beloved goddess, the former name Calcutta being an anglicised version of Kalikshetra, the land of Kali. The ubiquity of the goddess is apparent in the numerous murals of Kali in the walls of the city, the sheer number of shops named after her and small and large temples dedicated to her at every street corner. In Calcutta, Kali transcends categories of caste and class to attract the devotion of multitudes of city-dwellers.


It is not surprising that the goddess has been reclaimed time and again as a political symbol of protest in the face of brute exploitation. The image of Kali is captivating- frightening, yet hopeful, destructive, yet nurturing. The goddess is as dark as a full-moon night, her hair let down, black curls running down her bare back,  tongue, reddened with the blood of her enemies, sticking out of her mouth. She stands on the chest of her consort, Shiva. In popular mythology Goddess Durga, in the primordial war with Mahishasura (the demon king) turns into the much fiercer Kali to defeat the demon, Raktabeej. She appears in idolatry in nothing but a garland of demon skulls around her neck and waist and she holds a sword dripping with blood in her hand. In lore, her rage is known to have outlived her purpose. It is said that in blood lust she  continued to rampage and kill until, to stop her macabre destruction, Shiva laid down at her feet. In a popular image of expressing shame, Kali is therefore represented (in popular Bengali iconography) with a foot on Shiva’s chest and her tongue stuck out. She is often seen along with two of her demoness associates- dakini and yogini. While mythology shifts and may be Bramhanised, as it has over time, Kali sustains her relationship with the marginalised. This is aided by both her roots in Tantric tradition and her image as an angry and anarchic Goddess. She gave them the language to protest against their oppressor.

Pre-colonial Calcutta was known for its wealthy, and often ruthless, zamindars (landlords)  whose power was challenged exclusively by the notorious thugs. Kali was the patron goddess of these thugs. Some believe that the first thugs were born from the very sweat of Kali, in her fight against the infallible Raktabeej. Lore connects Kali’s anger to the ruthless methods of bandits who would infamously strangle the zamindars. Thugs and dacoits, as they appear in many Bengali novels, worshipped Kali, sacrificed animals, and occasionally even humans before setting out on their nightly ventures. Often these thugs, lower caste peasants who were exploited by wealthy zamindars in the day, picked up arms to kill and loot their oppressors by night. Kali and her feminine shakti (power) was then a symbol of rebellion. In her destruction lay the hope of the powerless. 

About a century later, while the British East India Company was taking over the Indian subcontinent, one William Henry Sleeman arrived in the port city of Calcutta in 1809, as a  cadet for the Bengal Army. He was known to play a huge role in suppressing the activities of the thugs and dacoits. Tantricism in general, and Kali in particular, was the subject of vast fetishism among Christian missionaries and the British administrator found the image of a nude goddess and her blood-lust barbaric, violent and exotic. As the terror of dacoity was gradually brought under control, Kali remained the goddess who reigned over the “uncivillised” and the burial grounds. This continued until the famous Saborno family of Kolkata founded the Kalighat Temple in 1809 on a Shakti Peeth that existed even during the Gupta period. The Dakshineswar Temple was built soon after by Rani Rashmani. This is when the course of Kali worship took a turn and the Goddess of the “uncivilised” entered the forte of Bengali Middle Class Babus

The Adoration of Krishnakali; art by the Bengal School Source: tallenge.com

Ramkrishna Paramhamsa, the main priest at the Dakshineshwar temple, a brahmin who took to Tantric ways of worshipping the goddess, played a huge role in bringing Kali worship into the mainstream Hinduism of Kolkata. He received the patronage and devotion of leading Babus of his time- from reformers like Babu Mathura Mohan Biswas to theatre stalwart Girish Ghosh and Hindu reformer Swami Vivekananda, patronage became abundant. The main proliferation of Kali as a motif for violent anticolonial protest  started in 1905 when Lord Curzon, the viceroy of India, attempted to partition Bengal. It is around the same time that the Swadeshi movement gained a platform in the cities and the suburbs of Bengal, and along with it, there was a rise in nationalist fervour to redefine Hinduism and Tantricism. With slogans of Vande Mataram (Hail Mother) and the iconography of Bharat Mata (Painted by Abanindranath Tagore in 1905), alongwith the revival of Shakta worship reinforced Kali as a symbol of protest and rebellion. She became the ever-nurturing mother who blesses her children and destroys enemy forces. The Swadeshi used the image of Kali, whose dark, scary and alien demeanour made the British uneasy since they arrived in Kolkata. Kali found her way into Swadeshi brand logos, names, shops and everywhere else. In 1907, a certain advertisement of a Swadeshi cigarette brand, called Kali Cigarette, printed the image of Kali in an advertisement published by Calcutta Art Studio, that managed to provoke the British so much that it indirectly led to the drafting of the Press Act of 1907. Herbert Hope Risley was anxious regarding the image of Kali in the advert as she seemed to be wearing a garland of severed European heads around her neck. 

While Kali has been a part of folk culture in Bengal since what seems like an eternity, it is the colonial period that brought her into upper caste and middle-class homes and popular imagination. Today, she stands at the threshold of civility and incivility, death and life, the mainstream and diaspora. Almost every major and minor crematorium in Bengal has a temple dedicated to her. Tangra, a locality within Kolkata, known for the tanneries and animal hyde trade, houses a Kali Temple. The place, incidentally, is also known as the settlement for Kolkata’s Chinese diasporic communities, most of  whom are mostly Buddhists and Taoists. The temple is today known as the Cheena Kali Mondir (Chinese Kali Temple) and was reported to serve chowmein as a prasad to the goddess during Kali Puja. Albeit a solitary incident that was reported as a popular practice, the Temple’s syncretic nature is apparent from the regular visits and patronage by y Chinese families in the neighbourhood. It is even taken care of by a Chinese family. The people of Kolkata, even today, keep ascribing meanings and expressions to this revered Goddess of time and death. Just like the many dualities she represents, her image has also oscillated between the religiosity and politics of the city throughout the latter’s history.