Getting anywhere in Kolkata is a battle. Most taxi drivers are the first generation out of the villages and can’t read their own language on maps, let alone understand your requests in English. Despite its fame, none of the drivers near our ill chosen hotel on the city outskirts understood our request to be delivered to the Kalighat Temple. Searching out a driver willing to attempt our journey set us back a good hour on our day of sightseeing.
Even the entrance to the temple, once we finally arrived, was a struggle to find. Walking to and fro on the spacious road outside, it seemed like a simple thing to spot the temple roofs and use them to guide us, but the clutter of stalls with their high, tattered awnings hid any clue to the location of the gateway. Clearly tourists and clearly confused, men were constantly approaching us asking us to follow them to a spot to dump our shoes and allow them to guide us through the building dedicated to Kali. We were wise to their ploys and avoided their herding arms, stuffing our shoes into our bags. Eventually someone pointed us in the right direction, down an alley with an atmosphere made dense by the myriad of vendors, the rank water that flowed freely here and there and the hum of the people clotting the narrow alley. Pushing our way past people trying to sell flowers, icons and beads we eventually made it to the turn style entrance and pushed our way into the courtyard where, bathed immediately in sunlight, the sordid atmosphere of the alley was easily shaken off.
Within the walls of the temple life was moving at no less a hectic speed and determining which of the buildings was actually the temple was at first a struggle. Our shoeless feet picked up grit and dirt as we wandered about on the unkempt floor. Our attention was captured by the interior of a small, dark building in which a ceremony was being performed for a small audience of around 4 people. Trying not to appear nosey we hung around the doorway, stealing glances into the small shrine and trying to determine why several goats were straining against the grip their masters had on their ears. Also apparently awaiting entry to the shrine, the men were rubbing flowers into the heads of their small black goats and chanting over them. The goats were clearly distressed but eerily silent. They had sensed their fate before it dawned on Livi and I. The thwack of a sharp object encountering some resistance echoed out of the shadows and we turned towards the door with milliseconds to leap backwards avoiding the headless body of a goat which was about to make its slippery way over our feet. A man dangling the innocent head by its limp ears wasn’t far behind. Of course, I had read somewhere that goats are a common sacrifice to placate the angry God Kali, it had just been pushed from my mind to make room to cope with the manic needs of making it through a Kolkatan day. I felt immense pity for the next goat who was dragged by his ears across the bloody trail of his companion into the slaughter house.
I had enjoyed the company of a young Kolkatan man traveling to his childhood village for 11 hours of a 38 hour train I took from Kolkata to Agra and these goats had come up in our conversation. Very forward thinking, compared too many of the Indians we had met so far, he was incredibly disdainful of these sacrifices which have no root in ancient history or tradition. He claimed they were purely to drive a trade for the goat farmers who then sell the meat as having been blessed. They invented the practice based on no ancient legends of the God, but purely to crate a “tradition” from which their families could gain blessings.
Our resolve was fairly broken at this point and we gave in to a young boy who wished to show us through the central shrine to Kali. Pulling at my sleeve he dragged us through a ragged queue of people, up a short set of steps and into the most crowded area I have ever experienced. Picture the writhing mass most people see when they think of Indian shrines, with humans seeming to ooze out of any gap and packed so close as to be indistinguishable. That is the scale I am talking about. I had no control over my own movement, but was washed forwards straight past the opening that lead to shrine itself towards the other end of the 20m corridor. Whether it was our obviously non-Indian nationality, dress or just that we weren’t assertive enough, we weren’t allowed to enter the inner shrine. I don’t know, but we still handed our guide rupees of a sum ending in 1, as this is deemed lucky at this particular temple. Images of the god portray a black face of three glaring eyes, shrouded in fiery colours. It fit splendidly with the glance I got of the inner temple, seething with people as if it were a crowded pit of fiery hell. I could perceive nothing reassuring in this god, just people desperate to placate her fury and spare themselves.
We were blessed with a suspect red substance on the forehead, which I desperately hoped was the usual crushed rock and flowers, not blood of goats that had already sated Kali’s vengeful hunger. As soon as we were spat back out onto the street by the turnstile exit we rubbed the mark from our foreheads and trouped back to the comparative calm and normality of the busy market street. We searched for a Tuk Tuk to ferry us to the Zoo where we hoped to hide from Kali’s scalding vision, but were persuaded by a decrepit old man of about 5’5 to hop into his rickshaw. And thus began a whole new ordeal, as he trotted off with us in tow.