Kali of Kalighat, Chitpur, Bengal, 1870
  Mother of the universe, Motherland — 2  

  The rite stuff
  Vol I : issue 4

  Gloria Orenstein
  Tapan Raychaudhuri
  Paula Gunn Allen
  Prayag Shukla
Shrikant Verma
  Lakshmi Kannan

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Tapan Raychaudhuri

Painting by Paresh Maity

The iconography of Durga and Kali offers interesting variations. When the gods worship Durga after her victory over Mahishasura, the buffalo demon, she is described as uttama kanakakanti, the colour of fine gold. The seventh century poet Banabhatta describes her as raktachandana rushita, red like the red sandal paste. But the goddess who killed Mahishasura according to the Devimahatmya was the colour of the blue lotus — dark. The clay images of Durga in Bengal present her as bright yellow in colour, perhaps in deference to the gods’ description of the deity as kanakakanti. The popular iconography of the goddess in Bengal is distinctive for a very different reason. Everywhere outside Bengal, both in the past and in modern times, the icon is presented as a solitary figure except for the lion she rides and the demon she is slaying (presumably to fulfil her promise to her victim).

But in Bengal she is worshipped en famille. The image of the avenging goddess on her lion rampant holds lethal weapons in her ten arms; the demon, painted green, fights a lost battle; on her two sides are her sons and daughters, the elephant-headed Ganesa, Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, Kartikeya, general of the heavenly hosts, riding his peacock and Saraswati, the lily-white goddess of learning. Siva, the paterfamilias, is not present, but his picture, often along with that of other deities, is portrayed in the decorative designs above the image. We have here significant departures from the Puranic legends. Kartikeya and Ganesa are indeed progeny of the goddess, but Saraswati is daughter to Brahma the creator and Lakshmi, who arose out of the churned ocean, had also existed before she took shelter in the deep waters. And besides, no Puranic myth or iconographic text suggests that the deity has to be worshipped along with her children: only the demon has a claim to a share of the offerings. I shall discuss presently the implications of this particular form, introduced, according to tradition, by a Bengali Zamindar in the eighteenth century but there are earlier references to this particular iconographic representation.

The sources suggest different images of Kali. She of the lolling tongue, bedecked in human heads and limbs, all dripping blood is described in Devimahatmya. The deity worshipped in Kalighat in Calcutta, one of the fifty-two pithasthanas, closely resembles this demonic conception. But the Kalika Purana describes her as Shyama, i.e., of a soothing dark complexion, her hair unrestrained and body beautiful. In other Tantric texts she sits naked on Siva’s supine body engaged in reverse sexual intercourse. And the form in which she is popularly worshipped in Bengal also draws upon another manifestation of the goddess, Tara "described as standing on the corpse, i.e., Siva… young and smiling yet of awe-inspiring appearance, garlanded with severed heads." The image of popular worship in Bengal is bluish-black in colour and has four arms, of which three carry lethal weapons while one is raised in a gesture of assurance, barabhaya, conferring freedom from fear. The goddess is pretty and naked. She wears girdles of human limbs. Her lolling tongue drips blood. She stands on her husband’s supine body. The reverse sexual intercourse is implied but not made explicit.

The worship of Durga and Kali is central to the religious and cultural concerns of modern Bengalis. There are reasons to believe that the form in which she has been worshipped since the nineteenth century and the emotive affects associated with the act of worship are very different from their earlier counterparts. The sixteenth century text, Chandimangala, which is constructed around two local legends concerning the introduction of Chandi worship, however, projects on the one hand the theological notions I have discussed and, on the other, a clear description of Durga with her supposed family as worshipped in Bengal. The introductory prayer to Chandi describes her as the daughter of the mountain and wife of Siva. In the same stanza, she is also hailed as the mother of the Vedas and of the universe itself, Vedamata viswer janani. While accepting the worship of the hunter Kalaketu, she assumes the form familiar to all her Bengali devotees: she rides her lion, takes the buffalo demon by the hair and pierces his chest with her spear. The weapons held in her ten hands are duly listed. More significant, she has Kartikeya and Saraswati on her left and Ganesa and Lakshmi on her right. Siva on his bull watches from above. No way can one mistake this image as anything but the deity worshipped by her Bengali devotees.

Yet one casual reference in this ballad suggests a pattern of devotion very different from its modern counterpart. The mother is worshipped in every home in the month of Aswin, the poet informs us. The very expensive form of worship as observed since the nineteenth century is something which only the very affluent could afford; the alternative was celebration supported by public subscription, the familiar barwari puja of modern times. The poet Mukundaram apparently refers to something more modest and widespread, something like the periodic or daily worship of diverse deities which the humble householder could afford. Arguably, the transformation of Durga Puja into a grandiose festival, aping the royal style of great princes like the Maharaja of Krishnanagar, was a product of colonial rule and the wealth of the Company’s boom city, Calcutta. Humble piety was inappropriate to the new aspirations.

Humble piety is the dominant mood in the mediaeval ballads celebrating the introduction of various cults into this world. Mukundaram’s Chandimangal is one of these ballads or panchalis. Publicly sung during a prescribed period in the year, their object was to secure welfare for the devotee and his family. The favour sought was indeed modest. As another panchali, written by the famous and learned eighteenth century poet Bharatchandra put it, the devotee, a poor boatman favoured by the goddess, asked for a simple boon, "Let my children have enough rice and milk for their meals" (amar santan jeno thake dudhe bhate). The request is symbolic: milk and rice stand for modest comfort in the Bengali idiom. The prayer was doubly appropriate, because Bharatchandra’s ballad celebrates the worship of the deity in her role as the provider of sustenance, Annapurna. But the poet does not forget the true identity of the goddess. She is the grand illusion, the universe is a projection of her power to delude, she is the ultimate creative power (annapurna mahamaya samsar janhar maya paratpara parama prakriti).

But the gods and goddesses of mediaeval Bengal, very much including Durga and Kali, are close to the rural Bengalis’ experience of daily living. Siva and his consort are portrayed as poor householders, their quarrels provoked by chronic shortage of daily necessities. Their cosmic selves and miraculous powers co-exist with these humble identities. The devotion is low-key, unmarked by any great upsurges of religious emotion. And while there were cult followers who were exclusively Sakta, i.e., worshippers of Sakti, the primeval creative principle manifest as the Goddess, most devotees were eclectic in spirit, worshipping both the great deities of the Puranic pantheon as well as the local gods and goddesses. The sixteenth century reform movement initiated by the saint Chaitanya and centred on ecstatic devotion to Krishna, a manifestation of Vishnu, God the Preserver, induced a more sectarian mood: the neo-Vaishnavas showed great intolerance towards worship of Sakti in any form and this was reciprocated by some Saktas.

p. 1 p. 2 p.3 p.4

Tapan Raychaudhuri is Professor Emeritus at St Anthony's College, Oxford, UK.
This article is based on a lecture delivered at the Ashmolean Musuem, Oxford.