Tuesday, October 20, 2009

For this Kali, 'bhog' is noodles and chopsuey... !!!

Three days ago i.e., on Oct., 17th... I, along with my best half, had been to the Bengali Association (Ulsoor) on the occasion of Kali Puja... which coincides with 'Diwali'/'Deepavali'... the 'festival of lights'. While the rest of India celebrates 'Deepavali'/'Diwali', 'Naraka Chaturdashi', 'Govardhan Puja', etc... we, in the eastern part of India (Bengal, Orissa and Assam) and the vast diaspora spread all over the world... celebrate 'Kali Puja'. The enthusiasm for 'Kali Puja' in West Bengal (or for that matter among the bengalis/Oriyas/Assamese... anywhere) is the same as the one conspicuous for 'Diwali' in the rest of India. The only apparent difference that one can see is that... while the rest of India worships Goddess Lakshmi on this day, in West Bengal (as well as in Orissa and Assam) Goddess Kali is the chief deity for the occasion.

At the association... the deity being worshipped was the blue-skinned and benevolent 'Shyama Kali', the relatively benign avatar of the mother deity... instead of her dark-hued twin with fearsome eyes and blood-smeared lips and tongue - i.e., the goddess in her 'rudra roop' (terrible form.) It was the same last year as well. Perhaps the goddess in this avatar (Shyama Kali) is the antithesis of what worshippers seeking solace would like to see in these violent times. Hence the growing popularity of 'Shyama Kali' with a countenance that almost smiles at you, and someone who can be visualised as a member of the family.

I prayed before the Goddess and then took a seat in the 2nd row... as there was a 'cultural programme'... that was to commence shortly. The programme was quite a memorable one. There was a band of five... 2 guitarists, a santoor player, one on the percussion and a sarod player. They performed several compositions. The sarod player - Siraj - was a grandson of the great sarod maestro, the late Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and had received training from his son Ustad Aashish Khan, himself an eminent Indian classical musician, known for his virtuosity on the Sarod - and who in turn had been trained by his illustrious grandfather, Ustad Alauddin Khan, a singular phenomenon in the 20th century Indian classical music, and founder of the "Senia Maihar Gharana" or "Senia Maihar School" of Indian classical music. Together they put up a great and commendable performance... in what turned out to be a memorable evening. Incidentally, Ustad Aashish Khan is the brother of Annapurna Devi... the very accomplished Surbahar (bass sitar) player of the Maihar Gharana (school).

Since the puja was to be performed late in the night... as is the norm for Kali puja... we could not wait for the 'bhog' (the food offered to the deity... and later distributed among the worshippers). Therefore... we had to give the 'paan' a miss as well. No, I'm not referring to the "Benarasi Paan" of the "khaike paan banaras wala... khul jaaye bandh akal ka tala, phir to aisa kare dhamal, sidhi karde sabki chaal... chhora ganga kinare wala" fame... and immortalised by the ultimate onscreen paan connoisseur, Amitabh Bachchan aka Big B and his 'trying too hard to be a xerox' - the neo jumping jack - Shahrukh Khan aka SRK respectively... for over three decades. But the two each on a stick, to be popped in whole, chewed and savored... slowly. The soft "Maghai Paan"... one of the forbidden pleasures *wink* Paanalicious! Paantastic... !!! Anyway, the 'paan' has ascended to an art form in this competitive 'paan-and-dagger' world of 'good paan' and 'bad puns'... !

Outside the association building, there were banners exhorting people to tone down the celebrations and not burst crackers... in solidarity with the recent flood victims of North Karnataka, as well as to bring down the 'noise pollution'. I fail to understand the logic behind this. The smoke from the crackers kill a lot of insects, virus' and other micro organisms present in the atmosphere... and thereby cleanse the environment. The crackers bought... are a source of earning/livelihood for the poor people who make them. If people bought less of them or none at all... that'll translate into loss of earnings/livelihood for these poor people (who depend on the heightened sales during this festive season to supplant their meagre earnings) as well as loss of business for the shops selling them. Therefore, the economic activity... that is usually generated around this time... will take a plunge. That is not good news... for anyone. Also... the flood victims themselves have celebrated 'deepavali' with all the enthusiasm they could muster... since 'hope' is something they do not want to give up on. And we should not give up as well. An atmosphere of (forced) mourning... does not do anyone any good... that is my firm belief.

The floods have been occurring at regular intervals... unfailingly. Wonder why the infrastructure required to handle it... has not been put in place... still. The administration needs to be hauled up, the teams/resources for disaster management needs to be put in place. The World Heritage Sites of Hampi/Pattadakal, etc., needs to be protected... so that the refugees along with their belongings and pets/cattle do not take shelter over there for days on end... leaving a trail of litter behind. Treating the interiors of the temples (the sanctum sanctorum) as granaries, kitchen, living room, washing area, with children peeing and defeacating all over and the cattle grazing on the lawns and dropping dungs everywhere... is simply not acceptable. Its just not done. Period. The administration got to pull up its socks and do some serious work... else this is going be be a 'trend' every year. Asking people to not burst crackers... is not the panacea for this. What say... ???

About Goddess Kali: The name "Kali" means "black", but has by folk etymology come to mean "force of time" (kala). Despite her negative connotations, Kali is today considered the 'goddess of time and change'. According to Hindu mythology, Goddess Kali is the first of the ten incarnations of Goddess Durga. Depicted with a fierce face and terrifying look... she is regarded as the more aggressive form of Goddess Durga. Ma Kali's most common four-armed iconographic image shows each hand carrying variously a sword, a trishul (trident), a severed head and a bowl or skull-cup (kapala) catching the blood of the severed head. Two of these hands (usually the left) are holding a sword and a severed head. The 'Sword' signifies 'Divine Knowledge' and the 'Human Head' signifies 'Human Ego' which must be slain by 'Divine Knowledge' in order to attain 'Moksha'. The other two hands (usually the right) are in the 'abhaya' (fearlessness) and 'varada' (blessing) mudras, which means her initiated devotees (or anyone worshiping her with a true heart) will be saved as she will guide them on earth and in the hereafter. She has a 'garland' consisting of 'human heads', variously enumerated at 108 (an auspicious number in Hinduism and the number of countable beads on a 'Japa Mala' or 'rosary' for repetition of Mantras) or 51, which represents 'Varnamala' or the 'Garland of letters' of the Sanskrit alphabet, Devanagari. Hindus believe Sanskrit is a language of dynamism, and each of these letters represents a 'form of energy', or a 'form of Kali'. Therefore she is generally seen as the 'Mother of language, and all mantras'.

Ma Kali is depicted as the consort of Lord Shiva (the 'destroyer'), on whose inert or corpse-like form/body she is often seen standing... usually right foot forward to symbolize the more popular Dakshinamarga or right-handed path, as opposed to the more infamous and transgressive Vamamarga or left-handed path. Her dark skin stands in contrast to her consort, Lord Shiva, whose body is covered by the white ashes of the cremation ground (Sanskrit: śmaśāna) in which he meditates, and with which Ma Kali is also associated, as 'śmaśāna-kālī'. She is shown as very dark as she is the 'Brahman' (ultimate reality) in its supreme unmanifest state. She has no permanent qualities — she will continue to exist even when the universe ends. It is therefore believed that the concepts of colour, light, good, bad... do not apply to her — she is the pure, un-manifested energy, the 'Adi-shakti'. She is also revered as 'Bhavatarini' (literally "redeemer of the universe") and is the foremost among the Dasa-Mahavidyas - the ten fierce Tantric goddesses.

The oldest mention of Kali dates back to the Rigvedic age. The 'Ratri Sookta' in the Rigveda actually calls her as Goddess 'Ratri' and regards 'Ratri' (darkness/night) as the Supreme force in the universe. In the Tantras, she is regarded as the 'Shakti' (Power) of 'The Great Mahakala' (a form/epithet of Lord Shiva - 'Great Time'... which is interpreted also as Death). Her portrayal on dead bodies in the crematorium symbolizes her presence in the hearts of devotees who have killed their Earthly desires and want to attain 'Supreme Consciousness' in the lap of the 'Ultimate Mother', Kali. In another form, she is regarded as the 'destroyer', the ten-armed 'Mahakali' (the Great Kali) as 'Kali Tantra' says - "kali kalanat" meaning "Kali is the one who finishes". 'Kalika Purana' depicts her as the "Adi Shakti" (Fundamental Power) and "Para Prakriti" or "beyond nature". In the ten-armed form of 'Mahakali' she is depicted as shining like a blue stone. She has ten heads, ten arms, ten feet/legs, three eyes, and has ornaments decked on all her limbs. Each of her ten hands is carrying a different instrument/weapon... which vary in different accounts, but each of these represent the power of one of the Devas or Hindu Gods and are often the identifying weapon or ritual item of a given Deva/God. The implication is that 'Mahakali' subsumes and is responsible for the powers that these deities possess and this is in line with the interpretation that the 'Mahakali' is identical with the 'Brahman'. While not displaying ten heads, an "ekamukhi" or one-headed image may be displayed with ten arms, signifying the same concept: that the powers of the various Gods come only through Her grace.

Ma Kali is worshipped as the Mother Goddess... who is known to 'destroy all evil and is a fierce fighter for the cause of justice'. Popular guises and names for Goddess Kali include: Shyama, Adya Ma, Tara Ma, Dakshina Kalika, Chamundi/Chamunda, Maha Kali, Shyama Kali and Bhadrakali (a gentle form of Kali). Kali Puja is celebrated on the 'Amavasya' or the 'no moon night' in the month of 'Kartik' (October/November). In spite of her seemingly terrible form, Kali Ma is often considered the kindest and most loving of all the (Hindu) goddesses, as she is regarded by her devotees as the 'Mother of the whole Universe'. She has millions of devotees but prominent among them are: the 18th century bengali poet and one of the notable figures of the bhakti movement, Ramprasad Sen; the 19th century bengali saint/mystic and an influential figures in the Bengali Renaissance, Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and the great mystic and worshipper of the tantric cult, Bamdev, more widely known as Sadhak Bamakhyapa. A significant portion of Bengali devotional music features Ma Kali as its central theme and is known as 'Shyama Sangeet'. Mostly sung by male vocalists, today even women have taken to this form of music. One of the finest singers of 'Shyama Sangeet' is Pannalal Bhattacharya.

I will walk you through the legend of Ma Kali... in my next post. While surfing the net... to have an 'armchair detour' of the Kali Puja celebrations in Kolkata... i.e., in the heart of West Bengal... I came across an interesting article and feel like to share it here. It was about the puja at Kolkata's Tangra area - India's own Chinatown and the truly unique 'bhog' (the offering of food... to the deity.)

For this Kali, bhog is noodles and chopsuey: There is nothing different about the Kali idol. But one look at the 'bhog' - noodles, chopsuey, rice-and-vegetables dishes - and you realize this isn't just any Kali temple. In the heart of Kolkata's Tangra area - India's own Chinatown - stands this unique symbol of cross-cultural assimilation. The 'Chinese Kali Temple' (so the marble plaque says) is not only a bridge between Chinese and Indian cultures, but also strengthens bonds within the Chinese community. For most of the year, the ethnic Chinese and their Hindu neighbours rarely mingle. But on Kali Puja, most Chinese residents of Tangra take the day off and get together in front of the temple. On the average weekday, you would catch the Chinese residents pause, take off their shoes, and pray for a moment in front of the idol.

"Kali Puja is special for us. Our activities start early in the morning. Most of us have been given our responsibilities for the day. Some get the flowers, some fruits and sweets for the prasad and a few oversee the preparations. The 'pandit' (a Bengali Brahmin... priest) comes here every day for the morning and evening aarti,'' says an enthusiastic Ison Chen. The 55-year-old has been selected by the community to be in-charge of the temple. But how did the temple start off? The site is about 60 years old, says Ison. In those days, it was a couple of sindoor-smeared black stones under an old tree. Local people worshipped these stones. Seeing them, the Chinese started following suit. "The story goes that a 10-year-old boy of the Chinese community was once very ill. Even doctors could not cure him. His parents had lost hope and lay him down near the tree and prayed for several nights at a stretch. A miracle happened. The boy got well, and the site became special for all of us. Most of us are Buddhists and some are Christians, but we are great fans of the Kali temple. We consider it an integral part of the community,'' says Ison.

The granite walled temple was built 12 years ago. The two stones are still there. Two traditional Kali statues have since been installed. Every Chinese family in Tangra donated money to build the temple and the idols. At least 2,000 members of the community gather here on Diwali night to witness the puja, participate in pushpanjali and partake of the prasad. While the mantras and the way in which the puja is conducted is completely Hindu, some typical Chinese traditions have crept in. "We light tall candles on Kali puja night. We also get special Chinese incense sticks and light them, so the aroma you get at the temple is different from what you get at other temples or pandals. It is typically Chinese,'' says 70-year-old A K Chung, who owns a leather finishing unit.

Another quaint tradition is that of burning handmade paper to ward off evil spirits. Even the way in which the pranaam is done before the goddess is typically Chinese. Women of the community are especially attached to the temple. "I had prayed to Goddess Kali for a son. On Diwali night, 10 years ago, I prayed for a bonny boy and the next day, Mark was born. So, this idol and the temple is of great importance to my family,'' says Michelle Wong, who also has an eight-year-old daughter. The mother-daughter duo visit the temple every evening for prayers despite the fact that they are of Roman Catholic faith.

In these troubling times... it is really wonderful to see the uniting factor of faith/religion. That is the true essence of all faith/beliefs...

Note: Some info gathered, courtesy: Wikipedia

Sadhak Bamakhyapa (also called Bamdev or Vama khyapa): More info HERE.

Rāmprāsad Sen: (Bangla: রামপ্রসাদ সেন) (ca. 1718 or 1723 –1775) was a Shakta poet of eighteenth century Bengal. His bhakti poems, known as 'Ramprasadi', are still popular in Bengal—they are usually addressed to Ma Kali and written in Bengali.

Ramakrishna Paramahamsa (February 18, 1836 - August 16, 1886): Born Gadadhar Chattopadhyay. He was considered an avatar or incarnation of God by many of his disciples, and is considered as such by many of his devotees today. He became a priest of the Dakshineswar Kali Temple, dedicated to goddess Kali (built by Rani Rashmoni) which had the influence of the main strands of Bengali bhakti tradition. Though conventionally uneducated, he attracted attention of the Bengali intelligentsia and middle class. He was a teacher of the philosophy of Advaita Vedānta... his most famous disciple being: Narendranath Dutta (Swami Vivekananda)... who founded the Ramakrishna Mission. Here are some of his sayings: Link.

Link: Courtesy: The Times of India newspaper, dated 16th Oct., 2009 (here)


1. Kali Puja (Pic courtesy: Wikipedia).

2. A 'Paan' vendor on MG Road (Pic courtesy: link.)


  1. So informative post about Kali and I too have heard about this 'Chinese kali Puja' in Tangra though never been there but did know about it....It very nice that you always come up with so detailed posts about our traditions and mythology ....

  2. @ Dhiman: Thanks Dhiman! :)

    I feel that most of us are unaware or ignorant about our culture, traditions and mythology... and maybe that spurs me to write what little I know.

    btw... did you not visit the Bengali Association, the one at Ulsoor... during the Kali Puja... ???