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Kali and Diwali

It’s that time of the year again in India. Diwali or the festival of lights. Where Indian cities are twinkling with millions of lamps. And the night sky glitters with fireworks.


But in Kolkata the drums also beat for Kali Puja, the festival of the goddess Kali black as the night, her tongue dripping blood, wearing a garland of human heads, the goddess who dances to destroy evil. She is worshipped on a moonless night, carrying a khadga or a sickle in one hand, a severed human head in another. She is naked because no finite clothing can capture her infinite form.
As a child she scared me. As an adult I look forward to her festival, to a city resounding with her prayers even as fireworks go off around us.


This is Sandip Roy in Kolkata

Diwali is the festival most westerners know. Even the White House has a Diwali party. Some people call it the Indian Christmas. Though they happen around the same time, they feel in many ways like chalk and cheese.
Diwali is about trays of sweets and gifts.

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Kali Puja comes with eating 14 greens and lighting 14 lamps to ward off evil spirits from 14 planes.
Bollywood films play up Diwali songs with much singing and dancing and shiny outfits


Kali does not find much space in Bollywood. She is dark and fierce while Bollywood likes its leading ladies fair and pretty. She hangs out with ghosts and monsters, creatures of the night. No wonder one of Kolkata’s most famous Kali festivals happens at the crematorium where a giant goddess Glossy black towers over the crowds. This festival says the announcer is celebrating its 148th year


In another part of the city there are 10 forms of kali. Chhinamasta is blood red and has chopped her own head off. She holds it in her hand. Dhumavati is old and wrinkled dressed in a widow’s white. Shorashi is the beauty of three worlds with skin like molten gold. Mahakali is pitch-black and can devour time while Tara is light blue and the goddess of energy. Together all 10 mark a moment when all the supreme being is envisioned as female.
In Kolkata the ten stand in a row while people pose for selfies and a voice over tells us its time to worship Mahashakti, the great female energy


Diwali meanwhile is about light, sweets and gifts. Sweetshops are jam-packed, buzzing with activiitu like a bakery before Christmas.


Siddharth Gupta, the fourth generation in the Gupta Sweets business rattles off some favourites

SG1: Now it's the era of fusion sweets. What are we serving? Badam Chocolate Ball. Chocolate Rosogoola Then comes your chocolates Sandesh. Fruit Sandesh.

It’s all a far cry from the foods of Kali Puja. In some parts this was the time a black goat was sacrificed to the Goddess. These days its often a symbolic pumpkin though if I was jet black goat I’d still be very careful. The Goddess too has become more genteel. In my neighbourhood her nakedness is covered with a white and red sari, not just mounds of blood red hibiscus flowers.
Children take part in sit and draw competitions, there’s a free eye camp, and poor people get blankets


It all sounds very respectable and well-behaved and demure. But Kali is dancing to destroy evil and she has no time to be demure and well behaved.
Diwali is easier to promote to the west. Come to India and enjoy the festival of lights. Even US presidents get to issue Diwali messages. Their advisors probably wouldn’t let them sing the praises of a goddess who roams the world naked with a sword dripping blood and human heads.
That’s exactly why science writer Angela Saini opens her book The Patriarchs about the origins of patriarchy with the story of Kali.

AS1: I open the book with Kali because, of course, here we have a goddess who is so transgressive, who does not follow any of these ideas about, you know, the submissive woman or the woman who stays in her place. She is she is happily violent, gloriously violent, powerful, strong. And yet at the same time, a mother. 

And this year one foreign visitor seems to agree. Mick Jagger posted a picture of himself standing in Kolkata streets, with the Goddess Kali by his side. And he looks happy like finally he got some satisfaction

This is Sandip Roy in Kolkata for KALW