Kali Puja is celebrated on the New Moon day of the Hindu calendar month Ashvin. This is also the same day on which the famous festival of light, Diwali, is observed. Throughout this occasion, an intensely festive atmosphere pervades Kolkata: strings of holiday lights decorate buildings, flashing signs line the city streets, candles and lamps burn everywhere, and fireworks explode throughout the night. Although there is a lot of overlap with Diwali, for Bengalis this is definitely Kali’s special day.
A row of Kali murtis awaiting further work
As with Durga Puja, pandals are erected and murtis placed inside. These are displayed for a number of days, ritually worshiped, then taken to the river and destroyed. Before this festival, I visited Kumartuli on two occasions to photograph the murtis being made. I was pleasantly surprised to discover not just images of Kali being sculpted, but also a rather charming array of ghosts, demons, and ghouls. Exploring the city during the preceding weeks, themes of horror and the occult became noticeably apparent. I found that many book stalls were selling paperback manuals dealing with magic. All of this combined to lend a touch of the bizarre to Kali Puja, imbuing the holiday with a Halloween-like feel.
A flesh-eating female bhut (ghost)
An artisan applying wet clay to a fearsome array of evil spirits
The horrific visage of a malefic female spirit
Kali Puja is definitely a much smaller scale affair then Durga Puja, but I found it to be even more enjoyable for that very reason. The intense crowding associated with Durga Puja is not really an issue during Kali’s holiday, so getting around the city is easy. I visited the Kalighat mandir to see what was going on and found the temple too crowded for darshan, however there was a lot to see and do in the surrounding areas, so I went exploring.
A lovely, fair-skinned Kali murti just outside the Kalighat Mandir
Close to the front entrance of Kalighat was a large pandal with a very beautiful image of a fair-skinned Kali that stood about 20-feet tall. I decided to visit the nearby Shahnagar cremation ground and was glad that I did. There I found a busy scene with throngs of people moving to and fro. In what is normally an open area, I saw a pavilion that had been erected with the center piece being a very tall image of Smashana Kali–Cremation Ground Kali–that had offerings placed before it and was receiving ritual worship. A dhak (large barrel drums played with sticks) troupe added rhythmic accompaniment to the arati (light waving) ceremony. Upon the funeral pyre a fire was burning, but there was no corpse being immolated, this fire seemed to serve the same devotional function as the many candles and diyas (small oil lamps) which were placed about as votive offerings. As I was exiting the cremation ground, I found a group of musicians performing near the gate, here is a short video clip of that:
In terms of sound Kali Puja is a very active celebration. The night before the holiday musical performances were held at larger pandals throughout the city. During the actual day of the festival I saw many musicians roaming about performing with the aid of portable sound systems. Loud reports of firecrackers resound throughout the city streets over many days. It is now November 1st and I can still hear dhak drummers playing throughout the day and night as trucks drive by transporting Kali statues to the river for immersion.
A Kali Puja murti bedecked with a sequined crown
I collected several recordings of dhak performances over the course of the Kali Puja festivities and am adding three of them here. The volume dips in and out a bit on the last recording as I was following a troupe who were making rounds, stopping to drum in front of various shops as they paraded down the street. I particularly enjoy this one because the drumming is accompanied by a man playing a shehnai:
What made this holiday a great experience for me was seeing the juxtaposition of opposing themes: everything from images of ghosts and demons to lights and fireworks all set to a ceaseless soundtrack of dhak drumming. It seems that like the goddess Kali herself, Kali Puja is a holiday in which themes of light and darkness blend together into a unified whole. JAY MA KALI!
"Mother incomparably arrayed, hair flying about, stripped down. You battle-dance on Shiva's heart. A garland of heads bounce off of your heavy hips. Severed arms for a belt, corpses of infants for earrings. Those lips, and teeth like jasmine. Your face a lotus blossom, the laugh. Body dark like a storm cloud, and feet whose splendor is increased by blood. Prasad cries out: My mind is dancing! Can I take much more? Can I bear this impossible beauty?"