Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Tales of Dacoits and one unique story... dating back three centuries!

I came across an interesting article on the net. It is a story steeped in history... or rather in a historically-heightened folkloric feel that will start to draw you in. It is a heady combination of legend, folklore, a dream, of faith, of a chilling end and an unique tradition... all dating back to over three centuries. Let me share it with you here.

Kali's wrath and a stone: On Saturday (17th Oct) the twin cities of Kolkata (nee Calcutta) and Howrah were dotted with small and big images of Kali for her annual puja on the amavasya after Durga puja. But a small village in Bagnan, Saharah, had none of that, although not because the villagers are staunch non-believers. The village resonated with the sound of the 'dhak' and 'conch shell' on Saturday midnight. But instead of the fierce image of Kali, Saharah residents worshipped a black stone covered with a thick layer of vermilion.

Legend has it that anyone in the village who worships an image of Kali will incur her wrath. And so for over 300 years, the village has steered clear of the Goddess' image.

Sukumar Sarkar, 75, one of the two 'sebayets' (kind of hereditary priests... usually belonging to the family who owned the temple property) of the Kali temple in which resides the black stone, said: "Kali appeared in a dream to the Maharaja of Burdwan, the erstwhile zamindar of Saharah. She told him that he must retrieve her from the south-west corner of 'Kali pukur' (a pond) and place her in a temple near the pond. After scouting the spot, villagers found a black stone with the image of Kali engraved on it. Since then everybody in our village has worshipped the stone."

Another story on the origin of the stone worship does the rounds too. Some say one Chandrasekhar Mullick, a resident of Saharah, established a Kali temple and placed the stone there after it was retrieved from 'Kali pukur'.

Despite the disputed origin of the temple, the villagers worship the stone as Kali and take great pride in their unique tradition. Bidesh Das, a student of ancient history, said: "I am proud of our old legends. The puja is performed according to the scriptures in keeping with the tradition. We do not regret missing out on pandals and idols."

Yogendranath Chakraborty, a resident of Saharah and author of 'Sankhipta Pallichitra', a book on the history of his neighbouring villages, told the chilling tale of a villager who dared to worship a Kali image. Kamal Lochan Chakraborty made an image of the Goddess and worshipped it. He was killed by a tiger, said Chakraborty. According to him, the area around the Kali temple was covered in dense foliage and was home to a number of tigers. The village even has a pond called 'bagh pukur' (tiger pond) that was once supposed to be a watering hole for the big cats.

According to legend, Goddess Kali kept night vigil in the village on a tiger. Some villagers claim to have seen the Devi near the temple sitting on her majestic mount. The temple has its own legend. Set amid a dark forest, it was visited by dacoits (an armed gang of bandits) at night, who worshipped the fierce goddess and sacrificed animals to appease her.

Today, the temple is looked after by two 'sebayets'. The expenses are met from farming on a small plot donated by the Maharaja of Burdwan, said Sukumar Sarkar, a descendant of one of the 'sebayets' appointed by the zamindar. On Kali puja day, the temple and the adjacent 'aatchala' (meaning 'eight-roofed') are decorated with lights and 'dhak' beats reverberate in the tranquil ambience of the village of the "stone goddess". Note: 'Aatchala' means 'eight-roofed'. 'Chala' refers to the sloping roofs of huts. Thus a roof can be 'dochala' - with two segments or 'charchala' - with four segments. The 'aatchala' temple doesn't have terracotta work but that is compensated by the colourful paintings on both the outer and inner walls.

Is it only 'blind' faith/belief... or 'something' more... that 'something' which cannot be described in mere words... ???

Tales of Dacoits: The history of northern, central and easten India is studded with the names of notorious and outlawed dacoits who roamed the hills in the name of Kali, robbing the rich, comforting the poor, and in general spreading terror and rough justice. It is said that the dacoits of yore... were extremely devoted to Goddess Kali, and before leaving for any 'mission', they would worship Kali. Some of these gangs even offered 'human sacrifice'. According to some, this 'human sacrifice' originated from the practice of sacrificing prisoners-of-war (PoW). Here is a compilation of 20 stories, "Bengal Dacoits and Tigers" by the Maharanee Sunity Devee, C.I. of Cooch Behar. It is a full text free book... and even contains a story of the legendary 18th century dacoit/brigand, Raghu Dakat ('dakat' is bangla for 'dacoit' or 'daku'). You can read them all: HERE. The download link: HERE.

However... I will narrate one of these stories (from among the 20) over here.

'Girl as Kali-Ma': A large and well-to-do family lived happily in a country place in Bengal. One day their peace was disturbed by an anonymous letter. The writer warned them to expect a "dacoity" (burglary). These Indian outlaws always make it a point of honour to inform their intended victims, and always come with drums, torch-light and a sort of war-cry. There was much valuable jewellery in the house and the family, thinking discretion the better part of valour, gathered all together, packed it securely and, taking it with them, left their home about sunset for safe quarters.

Somehow one of the younger ladies with a tiny infant was left behind. Unaware of the warning letter or desertion of the family, she slept peacefully through the early hours of the night. But later, she was awakened by the sound of drums and loud cries, which she recognised as the signal of the dacoits. Rushing out of her chamber she discovered that the burglars were already in the house and that none of the family were to be found. From room to room she fled, finding none to protect her, and realised that she was alone and helpless. Even her husband was gone! She was a high-spirited and resourceful girl. She knew her life and the baby's as well were in danger and she determined to outwit the burglars.

She had a swarthy complexion like Kali, the dacoits' divinity. Often had her mother bemoaned its darkness! Now it should serve her. But was she black enough? To make assurance doubly sure, she caught up a bottle of ink, which she knew where to find, and hastily smeared her face and limbs with it. Then, hiding her baby in a safe corner, she uncoiled her heavy hair and let its luxuriant black tresses fall about her like a cloak. Her preparations complete, she placed herself in a large niche at the head of the stairs. The dacoits found nothing below worth attention and trooped upstairs. The flickering glare of their torches fell upon a life-like image of Kali the Terrible. With protruding scarlet tongue and fixed staring eyes, the girl stood immovable and breathless, silently invoking all her family gods to come to her aid in her bold design.

With an awe-struck cry of "Mercy! Mercy! Kali-Ma!", the thieves fell prostrate at her feet. The girl held her breath. Was it possible that her plan had succeeded? The slow seconds passed. The Chief arose. "Come, brothers, we touch nothing where Mother Kali is worshipped." With hasty and reverent steps they descended the stairs and left the house. Long after the dacoits had gone the girl stood there. Then the strain snapped and she relapsed to her normal self. Fear swept over her and she rushed out of the house. But her trembling limbs could not carry her far. She fell in a dead faint on the pathway. The neighbours, who had heard the dacoits enter the house and seen them go away silent and empty-handed, came to learn the mystery and found her there. When the family returned next morning, the neighbours abused them soundly for leaving the girl and her babe behind. The girl herselfwas so hurt by the neglect that she had scarcely strength enough to relate the strange happenings of the night.

Her husband found it difficult to make his peace; he said that he believed her to be with the ladies of the family. In zenana families even the most devoted husband has little voice in his wife's movements, as all arrangements are left in the hands of the mother-in-law. There were several ladies and children in the family and the mother-in-law had thought the girl was with some of them. Friendship was however finally restored. All generously admired her ingenuity and realised her bravery. From the white-haired old father to the smallest child, everyone was grateful then and always after for her presence of mind on that memorable night.

You can read the story titled, "The Terror of Kings" (published in the Time magazine on July 19, 1954 HERE.

There is this 1960 film - "Devi" (The Goddess) - directed by one of the greatest auteurs of 20th century cinema - Satyajit Ray - where the teen-aged Sharmila Tagore turned in an outstanding performance in the title role. Based on the story "Devi" by Prabhat Kumar Mukherjee, the film is 93 minutes long and is shot in black and white. The music is by Ustad Ali Akbar Khan.

The Plot: Kalikinkar Roy (Chhabi Biswas, who also appeared in 'Jalshaghar') has a revelation that his daughter-in-law, Doyamoyee (Sharmila Tagore), is the incarnation of the goddess Kali. When his son Umaprasad (Soumitra Chatterjee, introduced in 'Apur Sansar' , the final film of 'The Apu Trilogy') returns from university in Calcutta, he is appalled to find that his wife has been made a virtual prisoner of his father's obsession. Doyamoyee is decorated as a living goddess and forced to sit all day in the temple where people come to offer her prayers.

When an impoverished man brings his only son to this reluctant goddess and he is cured, everyone believes that she has performed a miracle. Then her beloved nephew Khoka gets sick. Will another miracle happen? Or is simply believing not enough? Dark and brooding, this is another powerful human portrait by the Svengali of Bengali filmmaking. Ray exposes the underbelly of twisted human desire and the overwhelming compulsion to rob others of the right to control their own destiny. How all this plays out leads to a conclusion that is open to interpretation. A lot of the film is in shadows, but there is always light on the whites of the characters' eyes. This is a story about changing values and about faith and the whole production is wrapped in this kind of aura. There is always a background of sitar music, which adds to the atmosphere.

Author's note: You can read my previous post on Ma Kali, titled, "For this Kali, 'bhog' is noodles and chopsuey... !!!": HERE.

The legend of Ma Kali and the mythology behind it can be read: HERE. Some more info on the devi along with the Kali Mantra can be found HERE.


Some info gathered, Courtesy: Wikipedia.

Link courtesy, The Telegraph newspaper, dated: Oct., 18th 2009 (here)

Photographs: 1. The cover page of a book on 'Raghu Dakat' (courtesy: link). 2. The black stone worshipped as Ma Kali in Bagnan village.

3. The 'Kali pukur' - the pond where the stone was found according to legend.

4. A poster of the film - 'Devi' - designed by Satyajit Ray (Pic courtesy: link)


  1. Interesting read. You do come up with diverse topics. Having lived in bengal,I know a bit about the legend of the Dakats. There were many movies on the same subject. There was one on human sacrifice-horrifying! Since on the subject of dacoits, do check out this link:

  2. Bengali's Dacoits stories are really legendary .... and we have so much of reference in Bengali Literature as well ....

  3. @ Deepa: Thanks Deepa :)

    I just write about whatever interests me... and am glad that there are several, like you... who read them :)

    Thanks for the link... I haven't watched the movie though... but it does sound to be a riveting story.

    ... And Kali Puja without 'tales of dakats'... ?!! Not done!

  4. @ Dhiman: Really... Bengal has soooo many stories, apart from the legendary dacoit stories, that are yet to be explored.

    And Kali Puja is incomplete without 'tales of dakats'... What say... ???

  5. Very Nice post... :)
    Well, in childhood I have been in Calcutta; and I have seen Kali Puja... It's gr8.. :)
    In Tantra Philosophy...Kali ji is Considered as the greatest of all deities... :)

    I liked the story very much... :)
    Well, Phoolan Devi (Bandit Queen) and Man Singh were from U.P.
    I do not know much about them..however I would try to know more and write a post on them... :)


  6. Roshmi, your chocie of topics and the content is amazing. wonderful. Do you ahve any thoughts on the following topic. Would be great if you write on it.

    India- my country. All its diversity causing it challenges now

  7. Interesting and informative post!!
    Roshmi, you do amazing research for your posts!! Great work and keep it up!!
    Cheers! :)

  8. @ Amit: Will look forward to reading that post :)

    However... it may be more interesting to write on the lesser known ones... what say... ???

  9. @ Ved: Thanks Ved... for those encouraging words :)

    The topic you have suggested/mentioned... does make for a very 'interesting' topic... to write on. I'll take it up soon.

    It may require more than one post. 'coz I may want to explore... as to how and why... this diversity has become a liability/challenge now.

  10. @ Shilpa: Thanks Shilpa! Good to see you back :)