So I was lazily sauntering around the Horniman Museum last week when I stumbled across this (see below). A paper-mache statue of Kali standing on Shiva which F.J. Horniman bought back with him after his visit to Calcutta. I’m staring thrilled and transfixed – the black rage and more importantly, she’s stepping on a man and not just any man, Shiva (one of the primary Hindu male Gods). It’s a week day and I’ve got the museum pretty much to myself so it’s just me, Kali and Shiva for awhile.
I remember when I was young, I was amazed at the difference between the churches and the temples. I used to follow my grandmother to the Mother Mary church at Novena (Btw, when I was a kid, I thought Mother Mary was a Goddess. That’s what my grandmother told me). And she seemed so nice, loving and calm – the sort of Goddess one would like to have. I always thought if you had a problem, Mother Mary would embrace you and tell you everything would be alright.
The Hindu Goddesses were another matter altogether. I couldn’t get my head around it when I was younger. Of course, there were the nice ones but then there were also the angry ones. They were everything my mum and society told me I shouldn’t be. They were full of rage and wrath, they had severed heads of men in one of their arms, knives in the other and their hair and eyes were all wild. I was equally terrified and fascinated. Terrified of their raw energy which really disturbed the nice, peaceful vision of the world I wanted. And fascinated because when I was young, this was the only time I saw this type of female representation. She seemed so powerful yet she wasn’t a man. I just didn’t get it.
When I asked my grandmother about the Goddesses, the general gist seemed to be – pray to her as much as possible unless you want her to get angry at you. But that’s far from what she is actually meant to represent. Take Kali for example (painting below by Raja Ravi Varman):
Her skin is as black as night: to symbolise death, change and destruction but also, the universal womb from which everything is created. Black is meant to be the colour that everything returns to.
She is naked: There is nothing in the physical world that can clothe her form. She is beyond this realm
She wears a garland of skulls around her neck and a girdle of human hands decorate her waist: a reminder that our bodies, everything return to her in the end – “There, after life, all mortals and their wishes, dreams and reflections, come to their fruition, a pile of worthless ashes.”
Skulls: also represents the destruction of ego
This particular pose is after she was called upon to destroy a demon (Rakthabeeja or RB as we will now call him) who was taking over the world. RB had been granted a boon – every time a drop of his blood was spilt on earth, a clone of him would form (someone should really speak to the person who granted him this boon, I mean really?). So the usual Gods were having lots of trouble getting rid of him, even the fierce Goddess Durga. Durga got angry at RB’s expanding army and from her concentrated rage Kali burst forth. RB’s many clones didn’t get a chance to clone again as Kali simply drank up all their blood before it even touched the earth, destroying RB.
After that, she started a frenzied victory dance (as one does) that got so out of hand that it looked like the world was going to be destroyed. So Shiva (her partner) took one for the team and lay down on her path and when she accidentally stepped on him, her frenzied energy finally subsided.
It’s funny. Now I find the image and symbolism of Kali, more appealing and comforting than Mother Mary. Yes, Mother Mary is still lovely but it’s Kali – she who refuses to smile and comfort you, who unsettles you with her stare, forcing you to face up to change, confusion and chaos that I find more real and reassuring.
“It’s going to be a wild ride but don’t run away,” she seems to say. “Hold on, you worthless lump of ash.”