“I am your daughter!”
The words were barely audible, but Maya clearly heard every bit of it. Immediately, her heart began to beat wildly as blood raced through her frenzied body, unsteadying her frail frame. She quickly extended her arm and tightly gripping the adjoining pillar, blankly stared at the black maiden in front of her, a blanket of disbelief shrouding her senses.
Who had uttered those magical words? Had she really heard them or was the entire thing just a figment of her imagination?
She looked all around. In the entire temple, there was not a second soul. The rectangular enclosure facing the deity which regularly reverberated with the sacred chanting of the devotees, was right now blissfully empty. Even the structure seemed to have slipped into a state of slumber, with only the ancient fan awake, laboriously and lazily doing the rounds, the abrasive sound of the ball bearings slicing into the surrounding stillness.
The gigantic frame of Kali towered in front of Maya. The jet black goddess was completely bare except for a string of bleached skulls round her neck and interlinking severed hands shrouding the groin. From one of her eight extended arms dangled a detached head. Her fearsome countenance was further accentuated by a blood-dripping cantilever tongue and a train of tresses embracing her stark nudity.
“Oh Mother! Please don’t play pranks on me!” Maya threw herself at the feet of the goddess and while she was still in the horizontal posture, she heard the magical words once again. The repetition of the event demolished all doubts in her mind that a moment before it was indeed the goddess who had spoken to her, with a declaration of being her daughter.
Shivering in ecstasy, Maya swiftly picked herself up and rushed out of the temple in search of the priest. She discovered him in the adjoining garden and hearing her excited narration, the otherwise dull eyes of the old man immediately started to sparkle.
The minuscule settlement of Kalir, sandwiched between the sea and a string of seasonal rivers, does not merit even a dot on the regular map of India. Yet this place has a distinct and unparalleled claim to fame which has dyed it with a holier hue as compared to many other so-called hallowed hot spots. For the place has witnessed and continues to witness the descent of the divine from higher heavens to the earth on a select day every year.
The phenomenon began a few decades ago when the present priest of the temple, then just a young man, received directions in his dreams from goddess Kali to unearth a brahmashila (sacred stone) buried under a mound and install it in a proper temple.
The divine instructions were promptly carried out and since then, Kali became the reigning deity of the place, name of which was subsequently changed to Kalir (in local lingua it means “belonging to Kali”).
The spirit of the goddess was content to remain confined in the casket of stone all days of the year except one, when she would emerge from the idol and assume a mortal form. Coinciding with the date of the dream, on that auspicious day of autumn, sharp at midnight, the humanized version of the deity would step out of the inner sanctum and appear amidst her devotees. People from all corners of the country thronged the temple to witness the miracle.
“This year the goddess has chosen your daughter as her medium of descent. The girl must have done something really worthwhile in her previous birth.”
Maya was rendered tongue-tied. She could hardly believe her luck that her daughter, the insignificant daughter of an illiterate village woman had been chosen for the honor.
Maya’s parents had passed away long ago. She regarded Goddess Kali as her mother and true to the spirit, treated the temple as her maika (parents’ home) to which she retreated whenever the burdens of mortal existence became too overbearing- her good for nothing son who regularly siphoned off his earnings in gambles and pleasures of the flesh purchased at weekly markets, the difficulties encountered in groom-hunting for her dusky daughter and so on. Whatever plagued her; she would just head for the temple and download her woes at the feet of the goddess after which, a workable solution would seem to emerge- an alliance for her daughter would suddenly start making headway or the wayward son would seem to have mended his ways. Of course, most of the times they would fizzle out after a few days, but Maya consoled herself with the logic that the goddess too was overworked - having only two ears to hear the plight of so many. But, if for a long time her prayers went absolutely unheeded and there was not the slightest change in her state of affairs, she would threaten the goddess with boycott.
“What is the use of me coming here if you are not listening? Two seasons have passed and still Moti (her cow) is as barren as ever. You better do something about it, or else I would rather not waste my energy on you.”
After that, within a fortnight, as if by miracle the cow had displayed signs of impending motherhood. Maya, though pleased with the result of her prayers, was also struck with a realization which she shared with other women of her neighborhood.
“This is really Kaliyug (bad times), when only threats and strong words have any effect, even when it comes to deities.”
However, now she was in a different state of mind as she stepped out of the temple.
“I am mother of the goddess!” For the first time since the last two years when her husband’s untimely death had plunged the family into a bottomless pit of penury and plight, she felt a sense of lightness.
Maya raced home helter-skelter and forcing open the flimsy door of her feeble shelter, stared in awe at the sleeping face of her just-teenage daughter. The girl, down with a out of fever, was tossing and turning in visible discomfort. The combination of her charcoal complexion and jet-black serpentine mane encircling her head like a halo, made Maya feel as if she was seeing not her daughter, but the deity whom she had just met at the temple.
“Tara!” she called out to her with overwhelming affection and pride as she sat beside the feverish girl and lovingly unknotted the strangulated strands.
Over the next few days, life for Maya’s family underwent a sea change. In accordance with tradition, Tara was whisked away to the temple to be temporarily quarantined from the society and undergo a process of purification for containing the divine presence.
The girl would stay in a small room at the back of the temple where she would lead a spiritual life free of all earthly distractions.
“For turning a wasteland into a beautiful garden you need time, effort and devotion!” The priest explained to the somewhat bewildered mother–daughter duo.
Initially Tara was reluctant at the arrangement as she had never stayed away from her mother. But when she learnt that a month later she would be back with her family, the young girl immediately agreed.
The void in the household caused by her absence was filled with an overload of gifts and goodies donated by devotees in the name of Kali- a share of which now landed up in the home of the girl-goddess. Expensive clothes, exquisite food and loads of money- the impoverished family felt as if they were in the midst of a regal dream from which they never wanted to wake up.
Maya gave up her job of a cook in the neighboring houses and instead concentrated on counting the coins, the ceaseless jingle of which was her constant companion. Tara’s brother bought everything that he till then had his eyes on but never hoped to have. Maya too was tempted to tread the path of her son but decided to wait till Tara returned and began visualizing the times when she would embark on a shopping spree and return with booty enough to evoke the envy of the entire neighborhood.
The mother’s wait finally ended. The night of the new moon arrived bringing with it the auspicious occasion of Kali Puja, an event which explores and illuminates the rich meaning of feminine divinity. The tiny settlement Kalir, like all the previous years, had exploded into a sea of surging humanity, everyone eager to witness the goddess in flesh and blood and seek her blessings. A thriving local economy had evolved in response to the regular influx of pilgrims. The road leading to the temple snaked through an assortment of shops and stalls selling a bewildering array of things- myriad collection of miniature Hindu deities, metal utensils, masks and statues, handicrafts, puja items, prayer beads, plastic toys and many more. The lanes and by lanes were chock-a-block with grimy guesthouses offering shelter to the faith seeker at exorbitant rates.
The temple, adorned with lights and flowers, wore a festive look. Inside too, preparations were going on in full swing. Kali, the bloodthirsty goddess, is supposedly satiated only by sacrificial blood and during the earlier days, boli, the ritualistic immolation of animals was an everyday affair. But, with the changing of times, the frequency of the bloody rite too had dropped considerably. On normal days, the deity is offered only coconuts. The fruits is considered a vegetarian substitute for ceremonial decapitations, the round shape symbolizing the head. The religious rules dictate that the head must be severed from the body with one blow––a decree which ensures a swift, humane end for the sacrificial animal. In line with the logic, breaking open the fruit in the first attempt by hitting it against the hard ground is considered as the synonym of
However, on the auspicious autumnal night when the goddess assumes a mortal form, the traditional rituals too make a glorious return. Fifty two goats are sacrificed at the temple to appease the goddess and seek her advance blessings, one goat demarcated for every week of the upcoming year. After completion of the ritual, the courtyard floor fronting the temple gets coated with coagulated blood, forming a carpet on which the goddess would tread to bless her devotees, who had been camping near the temple for days in eager anticipation of the divine appearance.
Midnight was fast approaching. The narrow street leading to the temple was packed with people. In the temple courtyard, a mound of just-severed goat heads were arranged in pyramidal fashion. The bodies had already been shifted to the temple kitchen for cleaning and cooking– they would form part of the bhog (food) offered to the deity the next day and subsequently distributed amidst her devotees.
Accompanied by deafening drum beats, the assembled crowd cheered as the last goat was taken to the sacrificial altar. Soon, the decapitator accomplished his task with one swift downward swing of the weapon, its sharpened steel edge glistening against the backdrop of the night. Once the succession of sacrifices was over, a sudden stillness stifled the crowd.
Everyone was waiting with baited breath as to what would happen next- was the goddess satisfied with the proceedings and would she make an appearance , or had there been some error which had evoked her anger? Old timers recalled how once, a few years ago, the goddess had got upset and decided not to give darshaan (divine appearance).
Suddenly, with a deafening sound, the gates of the temple were flung open and a collective cheer erupted on sighting the deity stationed at the door. She appeared every bit like her stone clone, with the exception that she had only two arms instead of other’s eight. In one, she held the severed head of a goat from which blood was still dripping, while in other was a shining kharga, the weapon of sacrifice. The bright blade dazzled and cut shining sparks in the surrounding darkness. The deity’s breasts were bare and bold with a garland of fully-bloomed Hibiscus flowers dangling in the deep recess between the two. Her wild wavering mane freely flowed past her knees and almost touched the ground. The texture of her body was well-oiled and exhibited a strain of smoothness, generally unseen in mortals. The look in her blood-red bulging eyes was that of a proud entity completely at ease with her nudity and eyeing the assembled mass with deep disdain. With slow, stout strides she stepped out and immediately the stationary crowd swung into action.
The drum beats got wilder and the crowd crazier. A closely-knit barricade of bamboo had been erected on both sides of the deity’s path but as she progressed, the temple volunteers had a tough time keeping the crowd at bay. Everyone wanted to touch the bare goddess. Some people even fell to the ground and writhing like snakes, tried to squeeze through the bamboo fencing.
Maya too was present amongst the crowd. Her immediate reaction on sighting the goddess was one of severe shock and shame. She was unable to accept that she was seeing not her daughter, but the deity stationed at the temple, with whom she held conversations almost every day. Other years, she easily and unquestioningly accepted the occurrence as a divine phenomenon. But this time, she found it extremely difficult to digest the scene of people vying with each other to touch her naked daughter.
“Please let me go!” she pleaded, trying to get away. But her every attempt of retreat was prevented by the advancing crowd, attempting to inch closer to the goddess.
A few hours later, the night was in its last leg and literally dragging its feet along. The divine moment had long passed and the goddess had once again retired into her shell of stone. The temple grounds, after the midnight mayhem and madness, had surrendered to silence and were completely soulless. Only one shadow hovered near the temple gate, a moving shadow of a mother biding moments in the biting cold, awaiting the return of her daughter. From far off floated a dull hammering sound, resembling that of a woodpecker working on a stubborn tree trunk.
Suddenly there surfaced a creaking sound, that of a door being opened cautiously. It was the temple priest, emerging from one frame of darkness into another. His silvery hair shone in the starlight and behind him was the silhouette of the structure shrouded in a porous darkness.
“Where is my daughter?” Maya asked, with a sigh. For the past few hours she had deliberated about the future course of action and come to the conclusion that the only option left for her daughter to lead a respectable existence for the rest of her life was to run away from this place under the cover of night and melt into obscurity. She would take her daughter to another place where people had not seen her bare and they would begin life afresh. But Maya was unsure as to how the task could be accomplished, for all her life; the village had been her only universe. She had never stepped out into the world that existed outside its boundaries.
“Bring her here. Quickly! I can’t wait for long.”
Sensing the urgency in her voice, the old priest held his head high and concentrating on his surroundings for a moment, instructed the woman to follow him to his den at the backside of the temple. They crossed a narrow, dimly-lit corridor and entered a depressing enclosure, the dingy walls decorated with pictures of the goddess. Most were old, only one was brand new and it starkly stood out amidst the tainted walls.
“A miracle happened. Your daughter is now a part of the goddess.”
“What?” the distraught mother exclaimed.
The priest was mentally prepared for such a response. Leaning towards the woman, he, in a low tone elaborated how after returning to the temple, the girl-goddess had instructed everyone to leave the hall and closed all the doors.
“That was the last anyone saw of her. After someti me, when the doors were opened, in the entire hall there was just the idol of goddess Kali in her customary position. Your daughter was nowhere to be seen.”
He paused for a while, allowing the logic to sink in and take roots in the mind of his listener and continued.
“Everyone has seen your daughter in the most primitive state, without clothes. Today, she is regarded as the goddess. But from tomorrow, she will be back to what she was- an ordinary girl. But will she be able to face the society again? She will be called characterless, people will throw sludge at her and no one will want to marry her. Then, what will happen to her? Out of shame, she will be forced to end her life.”
“It is in the best interests of all concerned that your daughter never returns. Once a human being is invested with divinity, she merges with eternity!”
Maya was rendered speechless at the priest’s commentary. But as the implication of the words dawned on her, she was suddenly inundated with an inexplicable sense of grief and…………… RELIEF. Her heart hammered at the thought that she would never get to see her daughter again. But the demon in her head somehow convinced her that there could not have been a better end to the entire episode. Henceforth, she would be regarded and revered as the mother of the divine- a title which would stay with her till the end of her days.
After Maya had left, the priest stepped out into the open. He paused for a while as his trained ears tried to hear the air. The hammering sound had stopped completely which indicated that the job was over. The mortal goddess was now sleeping her final sleep in the womb of the earth.
The show had ended. But next year, it would again get enacted. Another new goddess would emerge, bless the people and disappear not as per divine dictate, but mortal handiwork, his handiwork.
The old man stared at the discolored walls of his room. A brand-new, recently-hung picture of the goddess brilliantly concealed the fresh arcs of blood on the dingy walls - the deep-seated stains silently bearing witness to an age-old grizzly practice practised by the priest since the time when his hair had just started sporting streaks of silver. Conducted annually under the garb of divinity, it dictates and demands virgin sacrifice before the abominable goddess if one wants access to tantric or black magical powers.
However, there was one condition which the priest could not fulfill- the sacred scriptures state that the killing is considered fruitful only if the sacrificial virgin offers herself willingly and does not show any resistance.
And this is where he had failed, despite his best efforts.
Like the other girls whom he had slain over the years, this year too, even tranquilizers couldn't lull the impoverished girl to her divine end, about she had been constantly brainwashed over the last few days. The priest and his men had to gag the girl and pin her down on the earthen floor before the goddess. The victim had kicked out, screamed in fright and attempted a fruitless fight for freedom right up to the moment she was decapitated. With a stone face, he had watched the girl bleed to her death in minutes and after that he had wafted incense over her, shaved her, sprinkled her with holy water and rubbed the still-throbbing body with ghee (clarified butter).
"O woman, through my good fortune thou hast appeared as a victim; Therefore I salute thee ... I have slaughtered thee to-day, and slaughter as a sacrifice is no murder."
Continuously chanting mantras (hymns) to invoke the "mother" goddess, the priest, like the previous years, had proceeded to saw off the girl’s hands, feet and breasts, placing the body parts in front of a miniature idol of Kali. After that, he had mediated before the idol for a considerable amount of time, but the stone goddess had not responded or bestowed him with any magical powers.
Though disappointed, he was equally determined not to give up till he was able to unravel the ultimate underlying powers that he believed rested in the murderous magic of a virgin sacrifice at the feet of goddess Kali.
Regarding his own risks of being nabbed, the old man was completely unperturbed.
Past experience had made him confident that no one would bother for long about the disappearance of a dusky girl hailing from the lowest strata of the Indian society. Her illiterate family, presently floating on a high due to the flood of material gifts, would never suspect anything. The aura of divinity surrounding the girl’s disappearance would dissipate all doubts, if any, thereby paving way for the legend of the mortal deity to feed on and flourish in the minds of the country’s faith-hungry millions.