By Pallavi Bhatacharya
Kalighat temple in Kolkata is famed for its tantric rituals and blood sacrifices. This ancient temple reverberates with extraordinary stories of tantriks and their devotion to the goddess.
The Kalighat Kali temple in Kolkata is one of the 51 pithosthans (centers of pilgrimage where Goddess Sati’s body parts fell) in India. As the mythological tale goes, when Vishnu cut Sati’s corpse with his chakra, four toes of her right foot fell in Kalighat. This Puranic tale bestows an antiquity to Kalighat. Indeed, we get the legendary reference about the creation of pithosthans in ancient texts Kalika Purana and Mahabhagat Purana, though the name of Kalighat has been omitted from these accounts. The Puranas have mentioned a place called Samotat referring to the forested region of south Bengal where present-day Kalighat is situated.
Geologists confirm that in the ancient past, this region of Bengal was under water and gradually with alluvial deposition, the area developed to firm earth. In the present day the Kalighat Kali Temple premises house a large number of small temples of different allied deities. The main temple housing the deity of the goddess Kali follows the atchala (eight-roof) hut-pattern, which is the traditional thatched roof construction pattern of Bengal.
It is believed that the legendary mutilated fragment of the Goddess (called Soti-ango in Bengali) is preserved within the temple room, which is bathed once a year on the auspicious day of Snanjatra. It is a secret where the Soti-ango is exactly kept—it may be placed just beneath the image, within a small iron chest.
Only a few worshippers of the temple are entitled to know where it is actually kept. The face and four hands of the deity are exposed. The face is most probably made of touchstone. Myth says that it was engraved by the god Vishwakarma and was originally found floating in the Ganga.
As far as the practice of Tantra in Kalighat is concerned, the texts Pithmala Tantra and Nigam Tantra refer to a place named ‘Kalikshetra’—an area that is bow-shaped and extends for about 16 miles from Bahula to Dakhineshwar. It was believed that a part of the mangled corpse of Sati had fallen centrally within that arched area. The Tantra Chudamani acknowledges Kalighat as a ‘Kali pith’ (centre dedicated to the worship of Kali). In the Mahanil Tantra the presiding deity at Kalighat has been named as the Guhya Kali, the Kali who is not revealed.
References in ancient texts say that in the past, Kalighat was inhabited by the kapalikas who would worship the Goddess with human sacrifices. On new moon nights, they would chant Kali’s name, which would reverberate in the dense forests of the area. Boatmen would warn travelers not to stop over at Kalighat else their lives would be in danger. Once when the kapalikas decided to sacrifice a little boy to the Goddess, his widowed mother pleaded with the Goddess to save her son’s life. As the story goes, the Goddess did answer her prayer. She brewed up a storm. The boy sought shelter under a cactus bush when it started to rain heavily. The kapalikas were unable to find the boy and dispersed in the storm. The cactus bush under which the boy hid got the name sosthi tala; it’s well known that Kali is also known as Sosthi—goddess of child welfare.
The benign Goddess wished human sacrifices to stop. It is said she wanted householders only to worship her. It was upon her wish that a girl child was born by the union of a Brahmachari and a Vairavi. She got married to a Brahmin named Bhagwandas Chakraborty of Jessore district. Bhagwandas felt that since his wife Uma was an illegitimate child, her descendants should not be allowed to worship the Goddess. He realized that it was a better idea to appoint specialized persons from outside to take care of Kalighat. Thereafter the Haldars started worshiping the Goddess at Kalighat.
There have been heated debates in recent times about the sacrifice of animals before the altar of the Goddess. Santi Pada Bhattacharya, chief ritual and scriptural advisor and head priest of Mahapith Kali Mandir, says, “Non-vegetarians do eat meat. When goats are killed in butchers’ shops, it is often done mercilessly and those who buy the meat usually don’t feel any gratefulness to the Goddess for the food they are eating. Goats are killed in the temple with minimal pain, by just one stroke of the sword. Vegetarians can offer coconuts, pumpkin and sugarcane to the Goddess. Sacrificing a vegetable has the same symbolic significance and value as sacrificing an animal.” The tradition of animal sacrifices that prevails in Kalighat is on the lines of Tantric scriptures.
Kalighat has always been an important center of Tantric pilgrimage. Tantra is open to men and women of all castes. Prevailing misconceptions often associate Tantra with black magic and sex. Tantric practices in Kalighat cannot be categorized so myopically. Also, when genuine Tantriks imbibe meat and alcohol, it is not for hedonistic pleasure but with faith that that they are tasting the Divine Goddess through the consumption of these.
Says Santi Pada Bhattacharya, ‘Brahmananda Giri, a renowned Tantrik of India, practised in Kalighat. He underwent penance to reach out to Goddess Kali. In the scorching heat of summer, he would be deeply immersed in prayer after having lit fires around him. On bitterly cold winter nights, he would immerse himself neck deep in the water of the Ganga and pray to the Goddess. Finally, he was blessed with the divine form of the Goddess. Kali promised Brahmananda that she would be there for him whenever he asked for her. The Goddess put herself in a stone which still exists and can be seen below the altar of the Goddess in the temple.’ Adds Santi Pada’s brother Mukti Bhattacharya, ‘A true sadhak can be called a true Tantrik. Lokhnath Brahmachari, Ramakrishna Paramahansa and Vivekananda would come to Kalighat to worship the Goddess.’ Tantra is the path to realise and make optimum use of one’s innate shakti (power) through the worship of Goddess Shakti.
Tantriks still come to Kalighat to take vows of self-discipline. But how can one identify a true Tantrik? Not everyone who is dressed in red robes is a Tantrik. ‘Unfortunately there are many fraud Tantriks in Kalighat, making brisk money in the name of Tantra. A true Tantrik will not want to reveal his identity and the secret of Tantra,’ explains Santi Pada. After all, the ultimate aim of Tantra sadhana is to merge individual consciousness with the Cosmic Force.?
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