Kali Puja – Bengali Diwali

Kali Puja, the second most important holiday in West Bengal, coincides with the nation-wide Diwali festival. Kali, the most fearsome and ferocious form of shakti, the feminine energy, is worshipped in the night time. Temporary altars, called pandals, full of gore creatures and skeletons, pop up all around the city. During the holidays, people light candles, enjoy the fireworks and have fun at numerous fairs.

I stayed in Kolkata for two months, mostly because I wanted to see two Bengali Hindu holidays which happen shortly one after the other. Kali Puja was very different from Durga Puja. Even though there were still plenty of temporary altars with idols set up in the streets, there were never overcrowded. This made my explorations much more enjoyable. On the other hand, the pollution became quite bad over that period.

A large neon gate in a shape of a temple lit at night of Kali Puja in Kolkata
Light decorations on the street during Kali Puja

Kali Puja, Lakshmi Puja and Diwali- it’s complicated

Barely 3 weeks separates Durga Puja, the most important holiday in West Bengal, from Kali Puja. Kali Puja coincides with the pan-Indian Diwali holiday. Both celebrate the victory of good over evil by lights and fire-crackers. Diwali in most parts of India is a festival of Lakshmi, goddess of wealth. In Bengal, just three illustrious clans belonging to the kshatriya (warrior) caste worship Lakshmi that day. The rest of the Bengalis celebrate Lakshmi Puja shortly after Durga Puja.

A golden, temporary altar set up on the street next to a small stage where a concert takes place to celebrate Diwali in Kolkata
Diwali and Kali Puja take place on the same day

What is Kali Puja?

Kali Puja is the worship of goddess Kali, another form of Durga, Siva’s consort. Kali represents the feminine energy at its most fierce and fearsome.She is the only god in the Hindu pantheon which requires animal sacrifice. Unsurprisingly, Kali’s cult is strong among the Tantrics. However, in Bengal, she is one of the most popular deities, worshipped daily by ordinary people. Kali has ten roopas (forms). She can be black or blue, look ugly or pretty, scary or benign. Most Bengalis worship the benign Dakshina Kali. She is depicted stepping on her husband, Siva, and sticking out her tongue in embarrassment.

An idol of blue-coloured Kali wearing a skull-garland, holding in one of her four hands a head and stepping on her husband Siva
Kali, wearing skull garland and stepping on her husband Siva, sticking her tongue in embarrassment

Kali Puja is often organized by local clubs or by extended families. During the holidays, the idol of Kali is placed in a temporary outdoor altar called pandal. The immersion of Kali in a river or a pond a few days after the main ritual ends the celebrations.

Pandal hopping – the best Kali pandals in Kolkata

The Kolkatan pandals for Kali Puja are smaller and more modest than those made for Durga Puja. Most of the famous, large pujas take place in South Kolkata. Some puja committees organize cultural programs or fairs which can last up to 10 days after the holidays. If you want to see more extravagant celebrations, head to Barasat, 45min by train from Kolkata, where the pandals are enormous and richly decorated. 

A temporary temple called pandal is set up for the Kali Puja on a narrow street in north Kolkata
A small Kali Puja pandal in North Kolkata

Kalighat and Chetla pandals

A day before Kali Puja, I visited a couple of pandals near the famous Kalighat temple and in Chetla district. It is a perfect area to explore since very diverse pandals are within walking distance from one another.

Kali Puja decorations: a scary, monstrous dakini demon with massive teeth eats a human, a howling jackal beneath her
A dakini or a yogini devouring a body and a jackal at one of the pandals in Chetla

I started with the pandal at the Keora Tola Shamsan  cremation ground dedicated to the Kalika roop– a ferocious form of Kali. Two female demons or dakinis, easily recognisable by their long fangs, stood by her sides. A jackal (an animal believed to drink the blood of babies) and two skeletons also accompanied the goddess. This roop of Kali is worshipped according to the tantric ritual at midnight.

Devotees pay respect to the huge idol of black-skinned goddess Kali wearing white headwear and skull garland, holding a human arm and stepping on Siva. Figures of female demons and skeletons stand by her sides.
Kalika Kali at the cremation ground near Kalighat

Asking around for directions, we tried to find our way through a labyrith of narrow lanes of Chetla district to search for the best pandals in the area. Soon, we arrived at a splendid pandal devoted to Chinamasta– the fearsome roop of Kali who cut her head and held it in her hand. Three streams of blood were coming out of her decapitated body: Dakini and yogini demons, as well as Kali’s head, were drinking that blood. Chinamasta stood atop a copulating couple: Kam and his consort Rati, both representing sexual desire and lust. A blade used for goat sacrifice was lying on the ground in front of the pandal.

A Kali Puja idol of Chinamasta goddess, holding her own head, wearing skukll garland and stepping on two copulating deities. Blades for animal sacrifice stand before her.
Blades for animal sacrifice standing in front of the Chinamasta Kali pandal

The same day, I saw also Kali riding a donkey and a lion, a thousand-hand Kali, a five-headed, red Kali, Kali with flowing hair, Kali represented as goddess Tara and as a Lord Krishna. I’m sure I missed many more: Chetla area has 80 different Kali Pujas!

A green-colour Kali with a lion at her side and thousand hands represented on a semicircular background behind her. A Kali Puja at Chetla in Kolkata.
Sahasra Bhuja Kaali , Kali with 1000 arms (depicted at the circular background)

Finally, I admired the famous idol of Chamunda, an equally dangerous roop of Kali, set up at the ABS Chetla Sporting Club, just beside the Durgapur bridge. It was an example of a monstrous version of Kali with an enormous tongue lolling out. Just like two dakinis on her sides, she was bare-breasted.

Black coloured, monstrous Chamundi Kali with red eyes and a grotesquely big red tongue lolling out at Kali Puja pandal in Kolkata
Chamunda Kali

Parnasree pandals and fair

The temple-shaped pandals in Parnasree, which I visited on the night before Kali Puja, were one of the biggest in the whole city. Dhak players were drumming viciously in front of the idols while the steady flow of visitors paid respect to the goddess.

A large, temple-shaped Kali Puja pandal in Parnasree district of Kolkata visited at night by devotees
Parnasree Club puja
A large, white, temple-shaped pandal set for Kali Puja in Parnasree district of Kolkata
Parnasree Recreation Club puja
An idol of black-skinned Kali goddess inside a temporary temple called pandal decorated with fold design. Parnasree district of Kolkata
Surya Sangha club’s puja

The streets and houses were illuminated with strings of fairy lights. The festive atmosphere was in the air. A large fair stretched between three major Kali pandals in Parnasree area. I spent a few evenings enjoying the rustic ambience of this mela. I shot to balloons from an air gun, tasted various fritters and browsed through stalls selling anything from plastic jewellery to kitchen appliances. I was thrilled to discover a real relic from a bygone era: a bioscope. It was a hand-wound box showing images of Bollywood actors and exotic animals through a couple of magnifying glasses set in the box walls.

Weronika and a little girl look through the bioscope- a box with magnifying glass held by a street vendor at a fair set for Kali Puja in Kolkata
Enjoying a bioscope, a retro-style entertainment at the fair in Parnasree

North Kolkata pandals

A few days after the Kali Puja, I went to north Kolkata to continue exploring the pandals. Anywhere I went, I would stumble upon small and middle-sized pandals. The pandal just next to Girish Park metro station was among the biggest and most original ones.

Blue coloured, beautiful looking Kali idol flanked with scary black demons, at a Kali Puja pandal in north Kolkata
Halloween-ey pandal in North Kolkata
Folk-art styled Kali sitting at the Girish Park pandal in Kolkata
Folk-art style depiction of Kali at Girish Park puja

Bhoot Chaturdashi (14th day of ghosts)

A day before Kali Puja Bengalis illuminate their houses with countless oil lamps and candles. As the moon is not visible the 14th night of the lunar cycle, the ghosts are believed to roam freely. Maintaining the entire house well lit keeps the evil spirits at bay. At the same time, 14 candles inside the house shows the way to 14 ancestors who visit their living relatives to protect them. When it became dark, my in-laws lit candles and placed them on the balcony, on the roof and at each doorframe.

A group of men lits candles on the fence as part of Bhoot Chaturdashi celebrations in Kolkata
Decorating homes with candles for Bhoot Chaturdashi

The night of Kali Puja and Diwali is also the time to play with crackers, fireworks and sparklers. Standing at the rooftop, we could watch fireworks and paper lanterns floating in the air. Unfortunately, all those fireworks and crackers caused severe air and noise pollution. The air quality drastically plummeted to dangerous levels for days after Kali Puja. The streets and houses remain beautifully lit with fairy lights for a couple of days.

Two young men lit a firecracker on a small lane in Kolkata to celebrate Kali Puja
Lighting up firecrackers on the streets in the residential area

Kali puja rituals

The tantric, midnight worship of Kali requires animal sacrifice and is often conducted at cremation grounds. Most of Bengalis worship Kali in a main-stream, Brahmanic ritual though.

Kali Puja ritual: two women cover the idol of Kali goddess with a sari, two banana leaves filled with lit oil lamps in front of them
Women cover the Kali idol with a sari during Kali Puja

Kali Puja I witnessed started after 10 pm and lasted for a few hours. Dozens of miniature clay oil lamps were lit and placed on large banana leaves in front of the idol. Later, two ladies spread a sari across the dais where the priest was conducting the puja.

A priest throws something into the holy fire called yagna set in front of Kali goddess idol as part of the night-time Kali Puja ritual
A priest performing yagna ritual during Kali Puja

Once the sari was folded, the priest prepared for a fire ritual called yagna. He poured liquid ghee (clarified butter) over the fire and started chanting mantras, all the while burning leaves of sacred plants.

Family celebrations of Kali Puja on the roof: man holds smoking clay pot in front of the idol while the drummers play
A small , roof-top puja held by a few families

That evening we were also invited for a puja prepared by our friend and his neighbours. They decorated the roof with colourful cloth and lights and made a tiny pandal for a knee-height Kali idol. We ate bogh (blessed meal) consisiting of kitchuri (rice boiled with dal) and another vegetable dish. We also watched men dancing traditional dhunuchi dance to the rhythm of dhak drum.

Dhunuchi dance

Next night, I got the chance to watch dhunuchi competition, organised by a local club. This religious dance, performed both by men and women, is performed only during Durga Puja or Kali Puja. The male or female dancer dances in front of an idol, holding large clay pots filled with burning coconut fibres. The most skilled dancers can keep the burning pot in their mouth or on top of the head! The cinders shouldn’t fall to the ground even when the pots are upside down.

A woman dances dhunuchi with two clay pots in her hands. The people from the neighbourhood, sitting on plastic chairs set up on the street watch by.
Amateur dhunuchi dance competition

Since it’s easy to burn oneself, the performers I watched chose a safer option of dancing with unlit pots. The majority of competing ladies were middle-aged, but some younger and older women took part as well. In fact, the elderly lady wearing a sari was technically the most impressive.

A woman dancing dhunuchi lifts claypots in front of the Kali idol during Kali puja in Kolkata
Lady participating in Dhunuchi competition dances in front of Kali idol

The immersion

Due to fairs and cultural programs accompanying Kali Puja, the clubs perform the immersion of the idols a few days after the celebrations. On the 4th evening after Kali Puja, I went out to the streets of the neigbourhood to witness some of the immersion processions.

A procession carries Kali goddess idol through the streets illuminated with fairy lights to immerse it in pond
A Kali Puja immersion procession

A procession would carry the idol on a little truck or a platform placed on top of a bicycle. Some people would be walking while others- usually drunk men- would be dancing wildly to a drum accompaniment. At times, women would play with sidur. That is, smear each other’s faces with red powder symbolizing marriage. The statue of Kali would be rotated a few times around its axis before landing in the pond.

Drummers playing dhak and men dancing with each other in an immersion procession during Kali Puja in Kolkata
Men dancing wildly at the immersion procession

PRACTICALITIES

When and where?
Kali Puja dates change every year, according to the lunar calendar. Kalil Puja could fall between end of October/ beginning of November.

The two best places to see Kali Puja are Kolkata and Barasat, a town 45 min by train from Kolkata. To get to Barasat , take a train from Sealdah station.

How to get to the pandals in Chetla district?

Start with taking metro to the Kalighat station. T
ake an autorickhaw going south to Behala/ Taratala/New Allipore Petrol Pump.
Ask to be dropped off before Durgapur bridge.
The ABS Chetla Sporting Club is just under the flyover.
From there, it’s easy to reach Chetla Agrani club (marked on Google maps).
Next, take Rakhaldas Addy Rd to get into the maze of streets full of Kali pandals. Explore the area between Allipore Rd to the west and Judges Court Rd to the north.
You could then cross the Tolly canal to get to Kalighat temple or go to Chetla-Sahanagar bridge.
Your last stop is Keoratola Mahasashan (cremation ground) puja. It’s 20min walk from the Kalighat metro.

How to get to the pandals in Parnasree district?
Take a metro to Kalighat station.
Take an autorickhaw going south to Behala and get off at Behala Thana (police station).
Cross the street to the other autorickhaw stop from where autorickhaws to Parnasree go.
Go to the end of the route to see the fair connecting 3 large pujas: Parnasree Club, Parnasree Recreation Club and Surya Sangha.

Click here for more practical info on how to get to Kolkata, how to get around and where to stay.

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