Kali remains the presiding deity of Calcutta though of late the grandeur of the four-day long festivities of Durga Puja seems to have overwhelmed every other festival. Today, not many historians are willing to accept that the goddess gave her name to Kalikata but the endearing address, ‘Kali Kolkatawali’ (owner of the city) indicate the inextricable link between the city and the deity which watches over its fate. The dark-complexioned goddess with the red lolling tongue strikes terror in the heart of enemies but is a provider to her devotees. The city’s Kali temples date back to even days before Job Charnock set his foot on this side of river Hooghly; the goddess, stood guard as Calcutta grew from a dihi to a Metro city. The temples were also incidental to the growth of Calcutta; the city’s first road was marked by the travellers who traversed on foot through the forests from Murshidabad to Kalighat or the emergence of its oldest neighbourhood, Chitpore which owed its name to the Chitteshwari Kali temple in its vicinity. To trace the link between Kolkata and its patron deity-Kali, one has to travel through the chapters of history.
“Baro mashe tero parbon.” Calcutta was once truly a land of festivals, celebrated round the twelve months of a year. Rass, Rath, Janmasthami, Charak – every festival was celebrated with much fervour in those days. Since a large number of rich men were mostly Vaishnab most of the temples were of Radha- Gobindo in their myriad forms. But among the masses, Shiva and Kali had quite a following and hence several temples of Shiva and Kali were established in the past few centuries which are still worshipped with same fervour and gaiety. Kali was of course a deity which gained much popularity due to resurgence of the tantric way of worship. Interestingly, the goddess was also the patron deity of thugs and dacoits who worshipped her at the dead of night before going out on their expeditions. It was Sri Ramakrishna who revealed the benevolent mother in Kali to the world at large. The revolutionary groups also worshipped the goddess.
Historians are divided about the origin of the name Kalikata which was later anglicised into Calcutta. But undoubtedly this part (from Bohula to Dakhshineswar was known as Kalikhetra among the Hindus. According to Puranas the little toe of Sati’s right foot had fallen within this Kalikhetra when Vishnu had dismembered her body in pieces with his Sudarshan Chakra in order to pacify her livid husband, Shiva. Hence, Kalighat is considered to be one of the sacred Shakti peeths mentioned in the ancient scripture- Peethamala. The manifestation of Shakti at Kalighat – among the oldest and revered temples of Kali – is known as Dakshina Kali and Shiva, her husband is worshipped in the form of Nakuleshwar Bhairab. Vishnu is worshipped here as Syamaraja. There are several legends about the discovery of the Kali idol at Kalighat which was set in the thick of forest, infested with dacoits and sacrifices (even humans) were made; and the legends are mostly related to the forefather of Sabarna Ray Choudhury family, Laxmikanta Mazumder. It is said that his mother Padmabati had found the stone imprinted with Sati’s toe while she was bathing in the adjoining Kalikunda praying for an heir. The family had the rights to the small temple and the adjacent land yet they could not develop this spot which drew large number of pilgrims. However it is said the present temple was constructed in the old bed of Ganges about a mile or more to the south west of the older temple which was in Bhawanipore.
The anecdote about the present temple is interesting. When Raja Nabakrishna suddenly amassed great wealth, his sudden rise as a Goshtipati or the head of the society drew the ire of many rich including his neighbour Churamani Dutta. Their rivalry went on for several years. When Churamani was in his deathbed, he was taken by the holy waters of River Ganges in a huge procession which passed by the Sovabazar Rajbati with drums being beaten and a show of great pomp. In a few days time Churamani died by the river but trouble was awaiting his son Kaliprasad. He was told that the Kayasthyas and Brahmins will boycott the funeral feast because of his irreligious way of life. He was accused of spending nights with a Mughal bai dancer. Feeding of Brahmins is an integral part of the Hindu funeral rites. Kaliprasad then sought help of Ramdulal Sarkar since most of the Brahmins residing in Calcutta were on the pay roll of the Rajbati. Ramdulal convinced Santosh Ray of Barisha, considered to be quite prominent among the Brahmins to partake in the final feast. Santosh Ray came with his followers but bade them not to accept any money. A grateful Kaliprasad then donated Rs 25,000 for the construction of the temple which ended in 1809 after the death of Santosh Ray. The 90 feet high temple had cost Rs 30,000 in those days and the hands, tongue and the other ornaments made of gold were donations from various wealthy men including Gopimohon Tagore. The door is made of solid silver with the images of ten mahavidyas engraved on it. The face of Kali is of fine black stone. The Haldars who have been sebayats for generations take care of her daily worship.
Another famous Kali temple is that of Chitteshwari Kali temple which gave its name to the neighbourhood of Chitpore. Makaranda (some say Manohar) Ghosh, the forefather of Srihari Ghosh (still remembered for his munificence in the proverb, Hari Ghosh er gohal or cowshed) had established this temple in the year 1610. He was in the service of Raja Todar Mal who reformed the revenue system during Mughal rule. He had amassed great wealth during this period and set up two temples of Sarbomangala and Chitteswari in Chitpore at a time when the Mughal general, Raja Man Singh was fighting the Afghans. It is said Man Singh introduced the worship of Shakti in myriad forms in Bengal. The temples were set up on the Pilgrim road which led to Kalighat. However, Makaranda’s descendents left the area for Chandanpukur near Barrackpore since Chitpore became a place frequented by dacoits who worshipped and swore by the goddess. Another myth says that the temple was set up a dacoit named Chitu. None among the two temples has survived.
A prominent Babu of 18th Century, Govindram Mitter- the black zemindar of Calcutta had set up the five storey temple on Chitpore Road in 1730 which was known as Black Pagoda. A symbol of opulence its top stood above the Ochterlony’s Monument before it was ruined by a cyclone on September 10, 1737 and then completely devastated by 1820.The temple was a fine example of aatchala architecture with a cupola and its remains were painted by a number of artists. The damage was beyond repair and so Govindram built a small nabaratna (nine storeyed temple) nearby. Govindram’s grandson, Abhoycharan Mitter then established the Siddheshwari Kali Temple near the erstwhile temple. It had Doric columns influenced by Western architecture.
A temple of Kali is also found at Bowbazar Street which is popularly known as Phiringhee Kali and many people attribute the name to Anthony Phiringhee, who was a kabiyal or minstrel or to his grandfather, Antony – the Portuguese agent of the proprietor of Calcutta in Charnock’s time. But according to HEA Cotton, this deity was established by a low-caste, Srimanta Dom who performed the duties of a priest for about 70 years. He also used to treat people afflicted by small pox and hence an idol of Sitala was kept in the adjacent. Dom became very popular among the Eurasian residents of this area who were cured of the fatal diseases and used to send offerings to Kali and therefore acquired the name of Phiringhee Kali. There is also a small temple of Shiva. At present Brahmins serve as priests. It had been once a fine example of aatchala style of architecture.
The Kali temple at Thanthania was established by a Brahamachari Udaynarayana but it was Babu Sankar Chandra Ghosh of Thanthania who erected this temple in 1210 according to Bengali calendar. Although an old temple yet renovation work has completely robbed it of architectural value. It is associated with Sri Ramaktishna who frequented this temple.
Near the old crematorium at Nimtolla Ghat stands the temple of Anandomoyi. It has an image in form of Sasane Kali. Established nearly two centuries back by a Mahanta, zemindar Madhav Chandra Banerjee of Nimtolla Street inherited this temple with the two feet high black stone image of the goddess and restored it. It was embellished with stone etchings and is an example of dalan (open verandah) architecture in temples. The Punte Kali temple in Posta has the image of Dakshina Kali and owes its name to a legend. According to it, once while performing the yajna the priest suddenly saw a small fish (punti) burning in the fire. He was initially devastated in thinking he had performed some mistake but then prayed to the goddess that if he had performed her puja with enough dedication the fish should survive and she granted his wish. The temple’s pinnacle resembles the architecture followed in the Jagmohan of Jagannath Temple at Puri.
Although many of the Kali temples were once examples of fine architectural heritage of the city they have been ruined during recent renovation undertaken by eager devotees. The ceramic tiles or the glossy paint on concrete have covered up the terracotta work or the embellishments on wooden or stone panels. Unfortunately, there is not much evidence left of the ancient history except for the various legends and myths revolving around Kali and Kolkata.