How one woman’s curiosity led her to a profound encounter with Goddess Kali, affording her peace in the aftermath of personal loss

By Susan Caperna Lloyd

My inspiration to travel to kolkata was thanks to the saint of the Roma gypsy people, Sara la Kali. I had recently watched her immersion in the Mediterranean Sea during what is known as her annual feast day, on May 24th in Saintes Maries de la Mer, France. 

Sara la Kali is a Catholic saint who is traditionally dressed with 57 robes. Each year, thousands of gypsies carry this delicate, Asian-faced Goddess to the shores of the sea to be submerged. During the event that year, I, too, entered the water. 

I knew this immersion was of Goddess Shakti, although no one mentioned it at Saintes Maries. But I knew Shakti was important. I had followed the trail of other black deities in France and Italy—dark Catholic saints revered in sanctuaries, healing those who came to them. Deities which had mysteriously floated to Mediterranean shores a thousand years ago or more—by all accounts I heard, they had come from the East. 

I noted that the gypsies at Saintes Maries faced Sara Kali to the east when they brought her to the sea. Four horsemen on white steeds sheltered their saint in the water and held tridents aloft. A symbol of the Greek’s Poseidon maybe, or perhaps of the Hindu God Siva? Following her immersion, Sara Kali is then returned to the church to await another feast day and immersion into the Mediterranean Sea the following year.

It is said the Roma have roots in India. They began their westward migration from there a thousand years ago. Perhaps it is within Sara Kali that the Roma had not fully forgotten the Hindu Kali, an important Deity in India? I wondered, “Is there any connection between the two?” These were questions for a cultural anthropologist. So, with my camera in hand, I became something of one, hoping to find answers to questions that so fascinated me.

But this curiosity to find Roma roots or meet the Hindu Kali wasn’t the only reason I went to India. Just a few years before this journey, my two younger sisters had tragically died. Then my father died, and lastly my mother. I was alone. I could not let go of these deaths. My family’s souls were like ghosts that haunted me. Anger and grief hung over me like a cloud, and I now feared my own death. This affected the way I was living; it prevented me from living. 

I began to talk with Hindu friends in the US about the Goddess Kali. She was the female aspect of God. She was dark, they said. I could bring to Her my anger and fears and She would absorb them. I was told that Kali emanated from Durga and battled demons, and that sometimes She got carried away in Her fight. I could easily relate to this in myself. Siva—Kali’s consort—had to stop Her in Her fury and is thus found laying down at Her feet. Who or what might stop my fury, I wondered? And so I went to India, to speak with Kali.

I arrive in Kolkata during Kali Puja (Navararti), at the end of October, 2014. Huge posters of Kali are everywhere in the teeming city—Her fierce face, Her tongue out, six flailing arms, three with weapons and three in gestures of healing. I immediately walk to Babu Ghat, where Kali will soon be immersed in the Hooghly River, a tributary of the Ganga. Tomorrow it begins. Brahmins sleep in the ghat’s entryway. Other pilgrims bathe or gather water from the river in terracotta pots. I am a foreigner, but the pilgrims smile at me as I sit on the ghat’s steps. 

There I ponder the impossible; I have been told that by tomorrow night, 10,000 statues of Kali will come here.

That first afternoon, I visit Kolkata’s Kumartuli District workshops—literally “God’s own Workshop”—in one of the oldest areas of the city. It is here that these sacred forms of the Goddess are created. A guide, Shekar, accompanies me. It is a tented area covering several city blocks. Intricate and elaborate statues of Kali in all sizes crowd the alleyway studios in various stages of completion. Artisans show me how the Kalis are made. From gathered Ganga mud, they are put into molds. Armatures are created from wood and straw. Molded parts are affixed and faces painted on Kali, on Siva beneath Her and on Siva’s Naga, the snake. Black hair is attached to Kali and crimson saris cover Her body. She wears necklaces of the heads of demons. What craftsmanship. I want to take one home with me. There are thousands.

The workers heave the Kalis onto trucks and bring them to the pandals—the Kolkata neighborhood altars where they will be worshiped until their submersion. There are thousands of pandals across Kolkata. Some large with faux marble columns and fine fabrics, all on stages with lights. Some pandals are small and humble. The neighborhoods sponsoring them are proud no matter the size or complexity.

That night fireworks rocket through the sky as priests at the pandals chant prayers to Kali from ancient scriptures. Incense billows as She watches. The priests offer Her sweets, red hibiscus flowers, rice and lentils. Private homes even have mini pandals and hire priests to chant prayers through the night. At one large pandal I am invited to have a late supper in the community room of the apartment block.

This is all building up to Kali’s fate: She will soon be immersed in the Hooghly. All 10,000 images of Her. The pandals must give Kali up. But this is exciting. Her true home is the river. After all, the river, its mud, is what forms Her.

The next afternoon is the big day. I gather my camera gear and head to Babu Ghat. The first Kalis come in. Small ones, maybe three feet tall. Some families bring them in rickshaws. They carry Her down Babu Ghat’s stairs and through the mud. At the river’s shore they turn Her three times clockwise, reverse clockwise, again, repeat, and again. She is now ready for immersion. They take Her into the water and the carriers tip Her. Down She goes. The beautiful Deity floats for a moment, then sinks.

More Kalis come. Now they are ten feet tall, then fifteen feet. The fierce-looking Kalis come to the water. Over they go. They sink. So many beautiful statues destroyed.

Through the night, thousands more Kalis come to the ghat. They get bigger and bigger. By 4am the largest Kalis arrive. Trucks line up for miles, loaded with the Kali from their pandals. Each waits its turn. Emanations of Kali appear—the Mahavidyas, in all Her forms. So many Kalis. I am dumbstruck. The biggest is 40 feet tall. It takes 40 carriers to get Her off the truck, onto a sledge, through the mud and down to the river—a gargantuan effort. The crowd is in a frenzy. They dance around Kali. How can they now tip the gigantic Kali over? It is difficult. A final strain by the crowd of carriers and She goes over. Then down in a huge splash. Her face floats in the water, then She disappears.

Dissolution. Impermanence. I think of the Catholic statues of the Black Madonna I have seen brought to other far-off waters and immersed—Sara Kali being one of them. But these Catholic deities are then saved. I wonder what they are saved for, or what from? From death? They are not destroyed; they are brought back to their respective churches for another immersion the following year.

Here, all of the remains of Babu Ghat’s Kalis are soon fished out of the water. But She is nothing now. Her beauty has disintegrated. A giant crane lifts the remains out of the water; unrecognizable; parts. Who is this Diety? The crane deposits the remains in a giant mountain of debris to the side of the water. Women scramble up the mountain to find a fragment of a sari or perhaps a silver crown. The wooden armatures are recycled. The people tell me they will be reused the next year. Kali will be made again.

With the other women I climb up the heap. I want to experience the dissolution of Kali. Her angry, smashed face, Her parts torn asunder. We step on Siva, as She has stepped on Him. We all step over our fears and our demons. Everything is a jumble. Siva, His face is mixed in with parts of Kali. The Naga, in pieces. All returned to the earth, to the river, and now, perfect nothing.

I have spoken to Kali through the night. I have seen Her fierce beauty. The demons around Her neck which She has killed. I see what Her lesson is. She has concluded, the fury has stopped. She must now return to the river. 

Shakti experienced in a new way. Madness, and anger become nothing. But it is not death. It is something else. Is it possible that by joining with these women on this heap, my own anger and fears can dissipate? I have experienced this dissolution with the pilgrims at Babu Ghat. A ritualization of mourning. Thousands of people with their own special Kalis, perhaps feeling things similar to mine. That is the point. Sometimes one cannot do it alone. I walk along the shore and see remnants of Kali. The water and the tide will soon take every vestige of Her away.

A few days later I take this lesson to Varanasi. There I am on the Ganga proper. Varanasi is called Kashi, India’s holiest place. This place is Siva’s, and it is Kali’s. They are tied together in creation and destruction. She is the mother to whom we must return. There are cremations at the ghats in Kashi. I am fascinated by them. I watch a family at a mother’s cremation. The son officiates. When the body is fully burned, the son finds his mother’s hipbone in the ashes. With a stick he hurls it into the Ganga. She, the mother, is returned to the mother water.

Shakti. Eternal Shakti. Hindus come to die in Kashi so they can return to the mother. I hope some day I can be returned like this to the water. 

And what about the grief I have felt for my family? I talk with a brahmin at Kashi about this. He says I should do my own puja. In my obsession with my family’s deaths, I am hanging onto their souls. This may be trapping them in the in-between. They may not be able to reincarnate yet, the Brahmin says. 

We take a boat to the other side of the Ganga. There, we create panda rice balls for each of my family members and recite mantras. We consecrate the pandas and throw them into the Ganga. I throw my family’s souls away. Like Kali, at Kolkata, they sink into the Ganga. I release my suffering, I feel good. Their souls can now travel on. I then bathe in Mother Ganga.

I experienced dissolution myself. Impermanence. Everything returns to the water, to Shakti. Although I have been raised as an Italian Catholic, I think I am a Hindu at heart. Thank you, India, and thank you, Kali.