Our time in Kolkata was very special. A very happy diary clash meant that we were in Kolkata for both Diwali and Kali Puja. These happen at around the same time, and so we were able to join in with all of the festivities.
What is Diwali?
Diwali (or Deepavali) is known as the festival of light. It celebrates the glory of light over darkness, good over evil. It is a huge multi-day festival and is celebrated all around the world. People make lanterns, let off fireworks and visit their friends and families with gifts. Special sweets are shared and prayers are offered. The main day of Diwali is the darkest evening of the holy month so that the lights seem to burn all the brighter.
What is Kali Puja?
In a nutshell, this Hindu celebration commemorates the Goddess Kali, the destroyer of evil. She is worshipped by Shaktic Hindus and tantric worshippers. Shakti is the belief in the universal power of change and feminine power, and this is how it is personified.
Celebrated mostly in the North-Western states of India, Kali Puja takes place over five days and the largest celebrations are those in Kolkata.
Everywhere we turned, elaborate clay models of the Goddess Kali stared out at us. A few days before we arrived in Kolkata the ritual of painting on the eyes had taken place. Maybe that’s what made them so enigmatic.
On the walk home from watching the fountain light show, we came across something that really made me giggle.
I am pretty immature, and even more so back in 2009. Imagine my joy, coming across a huge tent with this emblazoned across it:
Sniggering like teenage boys, we made our way inside and had a look at the heaps of fire crackers, roman candles and huge rockets. There were fireworks here that you would never be allowed to buy legally as a normal person back in the UK. Feeling considerably less daring than our fellow shoppers, we purchased a pack of sparklers. Well, you can’t celebrate Diwali without a bit of light.
Just a few minutes from our hostel there was a stage that had been erected in a small square. A large statue of the Goddess stood opposite. We sat and watched a presenter entertaining the crowd. Children jumped up and down, shouting and trying to join in while the adults sat back in their chairs and surveyed the scene. The whole thing was in Hindi, so it washed over our heads but we could feel the excitement.
A Quick Note
I don’t have anywhere near as many photos as I would have liked of the evening, but I will endeavour to try and share with you the experiences we had.
A City Takes to the Streets
The crowds crushed in, hot clammy and eager in anticipation. Looking down, all I could see was shuffling feet. Kitten heels scuffed the street. Brown leather men’s shoes pigeon stepped beside sparkling sandals. Looking up was a riot of colour. Fireworks shot up into the air in random bursts. The usual disregard for safe launch distances ruled. Just don’t stand on a fire cracker and you’ll be fine!
Around the streets, huge temporary temples called Pandals had been created. They glittered with flashing lights. Archways led the way to these special places of worship. We meandered through these gaudy structures and saw joy and devotion on peoples faces.
Underneath the Goddess Kali, you can see her significant other, the God Shiva. He is often depicted in this position, prostrate and relaxed beneath the Goddesses foot.
We Give it a Go
Deciding it was time to join in, we pulled out our sparklers and a hastily purchased lighter. The lighter was struck and held to the end of the sparkler…
We tried again but still, nothing happened.
We held the lighter until our thumbs burnt. Matches were donated but were equally useless at getting the thick sparklers to ignite. This small spectacle began to draw a crowd. A gathering group of challengers joined in. Each, in turn, took a match to the end of the sparkler but failed to triumph. They stepped back with a head wobble of resignation.
Come On Sparklers!
Eventually, a bright chap had the idea of striking the stick against a rough bit on a motorbike that stood nearby. The sparkler flared and the watching crowd nodded approvingly. We could then light the other sparklers with the first.
Awkwardly we waved them around as the entire crowd looked on, not joining in, but not walking away. I have rarely felt like such an anticlimax!
When the last sparks fizzled out, the people dispersed, back into the ebb and flow of the throng.
Squeamish? Skip to the next heading….there are no pictures between now and then.
Everywhere, amidst the bubbling conversation and bursting fireworks, the bleeting of goats filled the muggy night air. Part of the Kali Puja celebrations is called bali. This means animal sacrifice. It takes place in or around the Shakti temples. It is actually illegal but unless someone complains, no charges are brought. With it being so integral, I don’t see that happening all that much.
As the evening progressed, we heard less goat noises and realised that the slaughter was underway. We passed one temple where the heads of over 30 goats were being displayed, the sticky, red blood dripped onto the street. I am assured that the goats are eaten, so it is not a complete waste of life. For that I am thankful but being tied to a monument and then beheaded can’t be the most humane way to die.
India is full of colour, but it really comes to life during its hundreds of celebrations. We were incredibly lucky to have been bang smack in the centre of two of the most fantastic festivals.