Our guide warns us that it would become very loud. It’s 10:30 P.M. and we are standing inside a small temple. Men and women are segregated, with men standing on the right and women standing on the left. Above our heads there are six large bells. Ahead, Sankata Devi is center stage on the alter. She has so many garlands on her that you can only see her face. Her eyes are huge and bulging.
The priest smashes a coconut in offering and quite suddenly the power goes out and the arti (prayer) begins. In the dark temple, a torch wielded by the priest lights Sankata Devi’s face. He holds a huge goblet of flames and swings it back and forth in front of her in wide arching patterns, while the whole congregation chants. More priests appear and begin ringing the bells to mimic the speed of the chanting. Simultaneously, from another room comes the sound of a deep base drum, so deep it vibrates my body. Sometimes sound is heard, but here in the humid night air, sound is being felt. Together, voices, bells, and drums increase to a rapid pace. The main priest waves the fire in fast, wild circles and the faces of the priests ringing the bells are focused intently on Sankata Devi.
The scene is intense.
I close my eyes and feel power coming from the sounds. They envelop my body completely. I resist the urge to cover my ears from the piercing pain caused by the sound of the bells. Once the bells and drums cease people continue chanting. Prasad is distributed, holy water is consumed, and rose petals are offered.
There are many Hindu gods, but I am partial to the Goddesses, known as Devis. Among them, Kali is my favorite. Hindu mythology is detailed, complex, and varies depending on where the information comes from. In order to tell the story of Kali, you first have to know about Durga. The Goddess Durga is the warrior goddess, she rides a lion or tiger, and is wife of the great Shiva. The word Durga can be translated as ‘invincible’, and her stories often depict her defeating evil and protecting good.
Kali, meaning the black one, is a destroyer of evil forces and is easily recognized because she is painted black, her tongue lolls out, and she wears a skirt of human arms and a necklace of skulls. Kali is most famous for her battle with the demon Raktaija. In this legend Durga and her army of goddesses, known as the Matrikas, wound the demon Raktaija with a variety of weapons, only to discover that every time his blood touches the ground he produces a clone. Surrounded by demons Durga calls on Kali. Mythologies vary, in some renditions Durga transforms into Kali, in others Kali jumps from Durga’s mind. Kali appears wearing a necklace of skulls and a tiger skin, tongue lolling fearfully, and eyes a deep red. She drinks the blood from the severed head of Raktaija and all his duplicates; this is why she is depicted as black. Kali becomes drunk with demon blood and proceeds to kill all sinners (humans). Shiva, fearing that Kali might destroy the world, stops her by laying on the ground so she steps on him and realizes what she has done. Because Kali drinks blood and almost destroys the world, many Hindu’s fear her and worship her in hopes of keeping her happy and not incurring her wrath. Every Kali statue is built on top of 3, 5, or 7 human skulls. She also worshiped as a defeater of evil.
Kali is a badass.
This evening in the temple we are worshiping Sankata Devi, one of the Matrikas of Durga’s army. She is the Goddess of Sorrow. I can feel her power through the ringing of bells and vibrations of the drum. Though Kali is my favorite, I love all the Devis, their epic stories, and the thought of them bringing power to women in this patriarchal society.