The planning for the trip to India on January 5th 2015 is continuing at a steady pace. A return to Asia is an event to be celebrated, but it does bring with it some trepidation and anxieties, not least around health. My main considerations have been about how to build on the last 2 visits where I was a part of the 2013 Kumbh Mela in Allahabad and the celebrations in Kolkata for Durga Puja, also 2013. A whole year has passed without any return to India to continue with my plans to document ritual worship sites along the river Ganges.
Originally I had hoped to understand why the Ganges was considered a Goddess in the Hindu faith but my exposure to India and to the worship of people literally in their millions and further reading has added layers of complexity unanticipated originally. The answer to my query just does not lie within an understanding of the Hindu faith but must also include geographical, historical and socio-economic factors which provide context to the main religion of India. Any attempt to understand the phenomenon of mass ritual worship without taking into account this bigger picture would be as inadequate as trying to comprehend the aetiology of an illness just by taking a temperature. Greater consideration of other factors, and importantly having conversations with a patient about lifestyle, is required for a more comprehensive and accurate picture.
My experiences so far have been entirely privileged; walking through the multitudes of people worshiping as the sun rose and set on the banks of the Ganges at Allahabad was an experience not to be forgotten. The willingness for people for me to share and photograph those rituals spoke of an honesty and frankness about lifestyle I have met everywhere I have been in India; very few people have not wanted me to share, photograph and celebrate their activities, customs and lifestyle. It is in direct contrast to attitudes within the west where privacy is more guarded, spirituality exercised with an almost apologetic reservation and efforts to photographically document lifestyle are met with questioning, suspicion and allegation of some deviant intention. How the west has lost out! Spending most of the night with the Juna Akhara sadhus at the Mela was another magic moment; watching a group of ascetics who have renounced all that the west celebrates make their preparations for their dawn bath, spreading sacred ash on their naked bodies and celebrating their eucharist with their first chillum of the day.
Finally the month in Kolkata late last year also brought understandings to my quest; spending time in the potter’s quarter of Kumortuli and watching idols being created out of Ganga clay, then being dragged on canes through the streets or being transported away on boats, being decorated and celebrated in the many pandals around the city and then finally being ceremoniously drowned and recycled in Ganges water suggested a marvellous and enduring cycle of life and death, of being born and recycled as part of a greater whole. Durga is India’s equivalent of earth mother, created by the other gods in female form to represent good defeating evil, but is entirely secondary to the bidding of goddess Ganga, who gives and then re-absorbs.
Other areas of Kolkata which inspired were the flower market, where garlands used in ritual activities across the whole west Bengal area are created and sold and the expanse of riverside ghats stretching from Mullick Ghat to Kumortuli. It was along here that I watched the ritual offerings throughout Durga Puja over the 6 days of the festival and the final drowning of the idols.
The first part of the trip in January will be travelling 80 miles or so east to the Bay of Bengal. Here on Sagar Island up to half a million pilgrims will descend on the tirtha where this section of the Ganges enters the Indian Ocean and offer prayers at the Kapil Muni Temple. The history behind the Temple and the pilgrimage here is typical of Indian mythology, involving Gods, death, rebirth and wheeling and dealing on a cosmic scale between great deities. Significantly the aftermath of the scenario left the Ganga remaining on Earth, signifying her birth on Earth, and 60,000 sons killed by the saint Kapil Muni ( an incarnation of Vishnu ) for having being falsely accused of stealing a Kings horse, restored from Hell and returned to life ( Moksha ). The Kapil Muni Temple was the ashram of the vishnu incarnate, Kapil Muni..
The festival is held on Makar Sankranti, the traditional arrival of spring in India, 14th January, though in 2015 the festival starts on the 15th of January.. Below is a video showing some of the festival from 2014.
Many uncertainties remain regarding this festival. It is currently unclear where I shall sleep and how long I shall be staying for. Stories of snakes, mosquitos and other insects fill me with alarm.
Following this I plan to return to Kolkata and spend several weeks there, exploring the parts of the city marked on the below map.
Of most relevance to my ambitions will be searching for punya mati, also called the dust of Sonagachi. This dust is highly coveted by artisans who make statues of the Hindu goddess Durga. for the annual Durga Puja festival. The dust is not just an important ingredient to make the statues–it’s also a mandatory one, and any statue made without it is considered inauspicious. Punya Mati is dust collected from the door of prostitutes, particularly from the area of Sonagachi, the largest red light district in Kolkata.
Translated, Sonagachi means The Golden Tree.
The theory behind this traditional practice is suitably murky but the following explanations have been offered to explain the practice :
- To make otherwise ostracised members of society feel included
- Clients visiting ‘houses of vice’ leave their virtues outside the door, making the soil here virtuous
- To purge prostitutes of their “sins”
- As a fertility ritual
- To honour ‘courtesans’, traditionally famed for their proficiency in the arts of love
A poignant interpretation of the origin of the tradition is as follows :
Like every other girl, she had a grand vision for herself and the hand of luck had a big part to play in it. Yet the gods played truant to her prayers and providence had something very different in store for her. Either her hunger pangs or the very thought of her family wriggling through the tight fist of poverty ensnared her in the world of no escape. She chose to satiate her needs by dancing to the tune of the animal in him- he who surrendered his virtues at her porch to behold her voluptuous body sway to the music engendered by the dark cavern of his desires.
While he became a slave of his lust, she accompanied him in the act of drudgery by becoming his courtesan. And hence the virtues of both these slaves was believed to have left the doors and ensconced in the soil of her porch- the soil of the forbidden territories that bore the appellation of ‘nishhidho pali’. That’s how ‘punya mati’ was born, and its sanctity spoke louder than the abode it hailed from.
Every year the soil on her porch would reach the nooks and corners of the country in the manifestation of the idol of Maa Durga – the omnipresent ten handed deity and slayer of the asuras. It would emit the positive vibes that it garnered from the slave and his courtesan, even in households that neither believed in the ritual nor had any cognizance of it.
For once in a year, men who shunned her for her lifestyle wouldn’t dread to visit the forbidden territories to beg her for a handful of soil from her porch. They would thereby be cleansing themselves of their sins or the sins of other males in their families by venerating the lowest form of feminity. Their act would indirectly pay obeisance to every woman who had carved a niche in their life.
As Durga puja approached, she wondered if she should feel happy about the veneration for “a day”. And one day was not good enough to help her escape the realm of darkness. As the sun rose after the eve of Durga puja, she would be looked upon with the same light as before. She pondered on the thought of it.
Next she wondered why her kind- the ones ostracized by the society that moored to its beliefs on sanctity, was chosen to give the magical touch to the ‘punya mati.’ It dawned on her that she could be indirectly related to any man who knocked on her door, for he or his relatives could have garnished her porch with their virtues at some point of time. Probably, he was asking for forgiveness and attempting to take back his lost bounty via the “pristine clay.”
As she ruminated on the possible reasons behind the moribund ritual, it flashed through her head that the undercurrents of this custom probably hinges on the fact that everyone is equal in the eyes of the Supreme Power and it would be apt to include the even most excluded types of women in the making of the ultimate divine feminine figure. A subtle smile embellished her face, from the mere thought of it. Yet, as usual it was short-lived. This year there would be lesser number of men who knocked at her door than the yesteryear.
Her porch bore testimony to the fact that the custom was fading away. Every year it looked fuller than the previous one’s. What had changed? What wrong had she done? Was she growing impure with time? Why was ‘punya mati’ losing its value?
The warp and weft of reasoning clouded the tender textile of her mind. Loneliness was her worst enemy now, ever since her parley with morals. The deafening silence wounded her ears. As she stared at the deity of Maa Durga, her qualms were alleviated as the shell of loneliness was shattered. Maa had been with her all along. Those eyes, which were the only witness to the heart that had so much to cry for, seemed to gaze at her with consolation.
Within moments, once again her solace was shadowed by a sudden vision in which she picturized herself as the woman behind the fallen male. Yet, all along she had been the same social pariah, and she knew that she was not the sole cause of his ignominy. She had cheated no man, broken no family, and pilfered no coffer. Her mind was free from desires and her body corroborated with the mere needs of her stomach.
Still something had grown wrong with time, and this change preyed on her happiness. It was not about the veneration for a day, there was a tinge of morality to it. If she had not, changed what had?
Probably it was man who had changed with time- there were no virtues left in him to shed off by the time her entered her porch nowadays. She smiled to combat the tears stranded in her eyes that refused to pour out.
Finding and photographing this dust should prove interesting.
Another area of Kolkata I wish to spend time in is the city slums. There are several large slum areas , recognised as being some of the largest in India after those at Bombay, and I have yet to choose which one might be most suitable. There are several near Howrah station, specifically Tikiapara and Pilkhana districts. It is hard to find a spiritual significance for wanting to visit and photograph a slum, other than just wanting to meet, experience and document the poorest and harshest living conditions imaginable. I am fearful that I may convey a sense of voyeurism, even more so than at Sonagachi which is essentially an unfortunate working environment. The slum areas though are concentrations of families, lives and people who essentially have very little and live in the presence of open sewers, disease and infestation. How can this remain possible within an India which is sending rockets into space and evolving as an industrial and economic superpower?
The descriptions of a slum in the novel Shantaram have stayed with me ever since I read it and of course a slum is well portrayed in the film Slumdog Millionaire. I am sure the actual experience will be overwhelming.
Tangra ( Chinatown )
I plan to visit Tangra, a region in east Kolkata that traditionally housed a large number of tanneries owned by people of Hakka Chinese origin. Most of the standing structures have been built, over many years, by the industrious Hakka Chinese, upon marshy and reclaimed low lying land. Over the past several decades, it has served as the location of Calcutta’s Chinatown. This is not a coincidence; the Hakka Chinese of Calcutta have gradually turned this part of the Kolkata into an important destination for sourcing finished and semi-finished leather. The Hakka Chinese specialized in the manufacture of leather and turned it into one of the major industries of West Bengal, providing employment to tens of thousands of local inhabitants. In addition to the huge volume of exports to the developing and developed countries, finished leather is supplied to the major shoe and leather goods manufacturers all over the country. Many made-to-order shoe shops in Kolkata are also run by entrepreneurs from this community.
Food from Tangra is a distinct variety of traditional Hakka Chinese cuisine adapted to Indian ingredients and the Bengali palate. This has spread to the rest of India, along with the recipes earlier unique to Tangra. Tangra is now the most popular destination for Chinese food. Chinese food sold in Tangra restaurants are now known all over the world as ‘Hakka Style” Chinese food.
Kolkata Chinatown is changing rapidly. The population is no longer renewed by waves of migration and many traditional professions such as dentistry, laundry and tannery are no longer the preserve of the Chinese. The West Bengal government, under direction from the Supreme Court, recently moved all tanneries to Bantala, a suburb in the east of Kolkata. However, Tangra has been an integral part of the culture of the Chinese community in India.
The success of “Hakka style” Chinese food in the rest of India encouraged a migration of many Chinese families to other cities as the economic fortunes of Tangra decayed. Many landmark Chinese eateries, including Nanking, Waldorf, Peiping and Fat Mama have closed or changed hands and fortunes. The once prosperous Calcutta Chinese community is now clearly in decline. However, a boom in Tangra’s unique Indian-Chinese food is attracting a lot of attention these days and the cuisine will probably live on in Kolkata and in the global Indian Diaspora.
It will be interesting to spend a day or two looking at what is left of Kolkata’s Chinatown.
Kalighat and the Adi Ganga
I plan to revisit Kalighat. Originally a Ghat (landing stage) sacred to Kali on the old course of the Hooghly river (Bhāgirathi). The name Calcutta is said to have been derived from the word Kalighat. The river over a period of time has moved away from the temple. The temple is now on the banks of a small canal called Adi Ganga which connects to the Hoogly. The Adi Ganga was the original course of the river Hoogly (the Ganges). Hence the name Adi (original) Ganges.
The famous temple Kalighat Kali Temple dedicated to the goddess Kali is situated in Kalighat. This is one of the 51 Shakti Peethas. The right toe of Dakshayani is said to have fallen here. The Shakti here is known as Kalika, while the Bhairava is Nakulesh. It is a very famous place and a pilgrimage for Shakta (Shiva and Durga/Kali/Shakti worshippers) followers within the Hindu religion.
The shrine is revered as a Shakti Peetha by the Shaktism sect of Hinduism. The mythology of Daksha yaga and Sati’s self immolation is the story behind the origin of Shakti Peethas. Shakti Peethas are divine seats of Shakti formed due to the falling of body parts of the corpse of Sati Devi, when Lord Shiva carried it and wandered throughout Aryavartha in sorrow. There are 51 Shakti Peeth linking to the 51 alphabets in Sanskrit. Each temple have shrines for Shakti and Kalabhairava. The name of Shakti here is Kalika and the Kalabhairava as Nakuleshwar. It is believed that Sati Devi’s Right Toes fell in Kalighat Shrine.
The image of the deity is incomplete. Only the face of the deity was made first. The hands, made of gold and silver, the tongue, the Shiva statue and all the jewellery were added over the years. On snanyatra day, while giving the divine Mother the ceremonial bath, the priests tie their eyes with cloth coverings. On auspicious occasions like Kali Puja, Durga Puja, Poila Boishakh, the Bengali New Year day and sankranti large number of devotees throng the place with offerings.
This concludes the first part of this yatra or journey. Another entry will describe the next part, which will be a journey to Patna and then Varanasi. There is much to tell of that.
The photograph is of a deserted balcony on the road from Othery to Aller, on the Somerset Levels. I have driven past this many times and always wanted to photograph it. Several days ago I stopped and did just that. Another grey, murky and damp winter day. But again photographed with the Sigma DP 1 Merrill. Handled itself well I thought.