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How did the figure of Kali become a symbol of resistance in Bengal?

As Kali Puja takes place on the night of Diwali, here is a look at the changing iconography of the deity, and how she came to be associated with uprising in Bengal in the 18th-19th centuries

Priests worshipping the Goddess Kali, 19th century. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Priests worshipping the Goddess Kali, 19th century. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

…a head full of thick curly hair, a red hibiscus tucked behind one ear, the dacoits came charging with a war cry.” Bankim Chandra immortalised thus the image of Bengal’s ill-famed dacoits in his writings. At the turn of the 18th century till the mid-19th century, undivided Bengal was the hunting ground of dacoits, who unleashed terror on the landed rich and the British East India Company. Such was their terror that the English word ‘dacoit’ was especially coined by the British from the Urdu word, ‘dakait’ (from which comes the Bengali ‘dakat’) for official use to record their crimes.

Most of these men came from the lower class and caste, driven to become dacoits by the exploitative social and feudal structure of then-Bengal. Many of the famous leaders of these bands attained Robin Hood-like legendary status because of their financial support to the poor, and became part of literary imagination and local myth of Bengal. Interestingly, tightly interwoven with the tales of these dacoits were tales of their reverence of Goddess Kali – the dark-skinned, open haired, unique mother figure.

In Hinduism, Kali is the first of the Tantric Dasa Mahavidya, the ten forms of Shakti. Her worship in Bengal had always been away from the domestic confines, till Krishnananda Agamavagisha, a 18th century tantric saint from Nabadwip, domesticated the goddess’s form. Saints and poets like Ramprasad, through their poetry and songs, nurtured her transformation into Shyama, a mother and a daughter figure that the households worshipped. Maharaja Krishna Chandra (1710-1782) of Nadia and his landlords patronised the worship of Shyama, and the present form of Dipannita Kali Puja on the night of Diwali was born.

Also read: Do you know the history of the Durga patachitras in Bengal?

Kali, thus entered the homes and hearts of common Bengalis but she remained the natural presiding deity for the terrifying dacoits of the land, blurring the lines between devotion and drawing blood. The day of Dipannita Kali Puja, is a good time to understand her association with dakats and sub-altern, class and caste-related armed resistance. For this, one needs to understand her origin and evolution.

She is a deity who came to being as a result of the amalgamation of the subaltern Magna Mater, fashioned from the imagination of nature as a mother—with elements of fertility, destruction and vital force. The name Kali first appears in the Mundaka Upanishad (5th century BC), where she is one of the seven tongues of Agni, the god of fire. She finds a brief mention in the Mahabharata but rises to prominence in the 6th century AD, Devimahatmy. Then on, till the 15th century, her tales became frequent in puranas and tantras, till her present iconography emerges in 17th century.

Scholars argue that she arises from the pre-Vedic, ancient cult of village goddesses who were frontiers of resistance against dreaded communicable diseases and disasters—the different Chandis, Tara, Kalika, Kali Bai, Kalika mata, Yallamma—all of whom demanded appeasement through sacrifices and self-mutilation. This mother figure of fear and protection blessed and protected (often misplaced) pursuit of resistance and fight. 

Also read: Diwali 2022: Do you know of the many forms of Lakshmi in Bengal?

According to colonial records, dacoity was most rampant in the districts of 24 Parganas—Howrah, Hooghly, Bardhaman, Nadia, Murshidabad, Medinipore, and Jessore (now in Bangladesh). Even today, these areas in Bengal are dotted with Kali temples that were allegedly established by dacoits, colloquially and almost affectionately known as the Dakate Kalis or Kali of Dacoits. In the heart of modern South Kolkata is Manoharpukur Road, named after Manohar dakat, who worshipped a small black kasauti stone as Chhana Kali---chhana being a Bengali word for small or child.

Kolkata was a jungle infested by tigers when around 550 years ago, when Chitreswar or Chite dakat ruled the area that later came to be known as Chitpur Road in Kolkata—now renamed Rabindra Sarani. His reign extended up to Howrah, Hoogly, Nadia and Bardwan and he looted cotton and salt ships of the East India Company, and its merchants on the Bhagirathi and Adi Ganga. Chite saw a dream and fashioned a ten-handed, golden hued Durga idol from neem wood and worshipped her as Kali. A royal Bengal tiger idol was placed next to the Kali idol to pray for safety of his men from the menace of tigers in the area. He established what is the oldest Durga idol in the city of Kolkata in the Adi Chitreswari temple.

One of the most famous Dakate Kali is the 500-year-old temple in Bansberia, Hoogly, established by Raghu dakat. He and his brother were daily wagers who led a band of dacoits along the river Bhagirathi, robbing the rich and providing for the poor. Raghu forfeited dacoity and stopped human sacrifice after coming in contact with the Shakta saint and poet Ramprasad. He began the practice of offering roast Bombay duck to Kali, which continues till date. Raghu also is said to have established the Ratanti Kali temple and the Tribeni Kali temple on banks of Bhagirathi.

Also read: The making of a vegetable sacrifice

In 1900, Sister Nivedita reinvented the image of Kali as the symbol of political resistance by the revolutionaries for the independence movement. In Shantipur, Nadia a group of young revolutionary men started a Kali Puja, the first community Kali worship of the town, which became known as Bombete Kali Pujo. Named after the founding armed revolutionaries, who were called Bombete by the locals, a colloquial word for pirates, Bombete Kali is counted amongst the Dakate Kalis of the state and is worshipped till date.

On 28 September 1905, the day of the Mahalaya, in the wake of the Bengal Partition, thousands of devotees congregated at the Kalighat temple where the priest administered the vow of abiding by the Swadeshi movement. Kali was accepted as a symbol of the motherland. Bengal’s lasting association with Kali was thus etched in the indelible inks of the Partition.

Tanushree Bhowmik is a Delhi-based food historian and development professional

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