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Part 1

Introduction: The Bus to Mandalay

Calcutta, second largest city in the British Empire, spread along the Ganges called Hooghly, at the top of the Bay of Bengal. Calcutta, big, western, modern, with public buildings, monuments, parks, gardens, hospitals, museums, University, courts of law, hotels, offices, shops, all of which might belong to a prosperous American city; and all backed by an Indian town of temples, mosques, bazaars and intricate courtyards and alleys that has somehow created itself despite the rectangular lines shown on the map. In the courts and alleys and bazaars many little bookstalls, where narrow-chested, near-sighted, anaemic young Bengali students, in native dress, brood over piles of fly-blown Russian pamphlets.

Rich Calcutta, wide-open door to the traffic of the world and India, traffic of bullion, of jute, of cotton--of all that India and the world want out of each other's hands. Decorous, sophisticated Calcutta, where decorous and sophisticated people of all creeds, all colors and all costumes go to Government House Garden Parties, pleasantly to make their bows to Their Excellencies, and pleasantly to talk good English while they take their tea and ices and listen to the regimental band.

You cannot see the street from Government House Gardens, for the walls are high. But if you could, you would see it filled with traffic--motor traffic, mostly--limousines, touring cars, taxis and private machines. And rolling along among them now and again, a sort of Fifth Avenue bus, bearing the big-lettered label, "Kali Ghat."

This bus, if you happen to notice it, proceeds along the parkside past the Empire Theater, the various clubs, St. Paul's Cathedral, past the Bishop's House, the General Hospital, the London Missionary Society's Institution, and presently comes to a stop in a rather congested quarter, which is its destination as advertised.

"Kali Ghat"--"place of Kali"--is the root-word of the name Calcutta. Kali is a Hindu goddess, wife of the great god Siva, whose attribute is destruction and whose thirst is for blood and death-sacrifice. Her spiritual domination of the world began about five thousand years ago, and should last nearly four hundred and thirty-two thousand years to come.

Kali has thousands of temples in India, great and small. This of Calcutta is the private property of a family of Brahmans who have owned it for some three centuries. A round hundred of these, "all sons of one father," share its possession today. And one of the hundred obligingly led me, with a Brahman friend, through the precincts. Let him be called Mr. Haldar, for that is the family's name.

But for his white petticoat-drawers and his white toga, the usual Bengali costume, Mr. Haldar might have been taken for a well-groomed northern Italian gentleman. His English was polished and his manner entirely agreeable.

Five hundred and ninety acres, tax free, constitute the temple holding, he said. Pilgrims from far and near, with whom the shrine is always crowded, make money offerings. There are also priestly fees to collect. And the innumerable booths that shoulder each other up and down the approaches, booths where sweetmeats, holy images, marigold flowers, amulets, and votive offerings are sold, bring in a sound income.

Rapidly cleaving a way through the coming and going mass of the devotees, Mr. Haldar leads us to the temple proper. A high platform, roofed and pillared, approached on three sides by tiers of steps of its own length and width. At one end, a deep, semi-enclosed shrine in which, dimly half-visible, looms the figure of the goddess. Black of face she is, with a monstrous lolling tongue, dripping blood. Of her four hands, one grasps a bleeding human head, one a knife, the third, outstretched, cradles blood, the fourth, raised in menace, is empty. In the shadows close about her feet stand the priests ministrant.

On the long platform before the deity, men and women prostrate themselves in vehement supplication. Among them stroll lounging boys, sucking lollypops fixed on sticks. Also, a white bull-calf wanders, while one reverend graybeard in the midst of it all, squatting cross-legged on the pavement before a great book, lifts up a droning voice.

"He," said Mr. Haldar, "is reading to the worshipers from our Hindu mythology. The history of Kali."

Of a sudden, a piercing outburst of shrill bleating. We turn the corner of the edifice to reach the open courtyard at the end opposite the shrine. Here stand two priests, one with a cutlass in his hand, the other holding a young goat. The goat shrieks, for in the air is that smell that all beasts fear. A crash of sound, as before the goddess drums thunder. The priest who holds the goat swings it up and drops it, stretched by the legs, its screaming head held fast in a cleft post. The second priest with a single blow of his cutlass decapitates the little creature. The blood gushes forth on the pavement, the drums and the gongs before the goddess burst out wildly. "Kali! Kali! Kali!" shout all the priests and the suppliants together, some flinging themselves face downward on the temple floor.

Meantime, and instantly, a woman who waited behind the killers of the goat has rushed forward and fallen on all fours to lap up the blood with her tongue--"in the hope of having a child." And now a second woman, stooping, sops at the blood with a cloth, and thrusts the cloth into her bosom, while half a dozen sick, sore dogs, horribly misshapen by nameless diseases, stick their hungry muzzles into the lengthening pool of gore.

"In this manner we kill here from one hundred and fifty to two hundred kids each day," says Mr. Haldar with some pride. "The worshipers supply the kids."

Now he leads us among the chapels of minor deities--that of the little red goddess of smallpox, side by side with her littler red twin who dispenses chicken pox or not, according to humor; that of the five-headed black cobra who wears a tiny figure of a priest beneath his chin, to whom those make offerings who fear snakebite; that of the red monkey-god, to whom wrestlers do homage before the bout; that to which rich merchants and students of the University pray, before confronting examinations or risking new ventures in trade; that of "the Universal God," a mask, only, like an Alaskan totem. And then the ever-present phallic emblem of Siva, Kali's husband. Before them all, little offerings of marigold blossoms, or of red wads of something in baskets trimmed with shells, both of which may be had at the temple booths, at a price, together with sacred cakes made of the dung of the temple bulls.

Mr. Haldar leads us through a lane down which, neatly arranged in rows, sit scores of more or less naked holy men and mendicants, mostly fat and hairy and covered with ashes, begging. All are eager to be photographed. Saddhus--reverend ascetics--spring up and pose. One, a madman, flings himself at us, badly scaring a little girl who is being towed past by a young man whose wrist is tied to her tiny one by the two ends of a scarf. "Husband and new wife," says Mr. Haldar. "They come to pray for a son."

We proceed to the temple burning-ghat. A burning is in progress. In the midst of an open space an oblong pit, dug in the ground. This is now half filled with sticks of wood. On the ground, close by, lies a rather beautiful young Indian woman, relaxed as though in a swoon. Her long black hair falls loose around her, a few flowers among its meshes. Her forehead, her hands and the soles of her feet are painted red, showing that she is blessed among women, in that she is saved from widowhood--her husband survives her. The relatives, two or three men and a ten-year-old boy, standing near, seem uninterested. Crouching at a distance, one old woman, keening. Five or six beggars like horse-flies nagging about.

Now they take up the body and lay it on the pile of wood in the pit. The woman's head turns and one arm drops, as though she moved in her sleep. She died only a few hours ago. They heap sticks of wood over her, tossing it on until it rises high. Then the little boy, her son, walks seven times around the pyre, carrying a torch. After that he throws the torch into the wood, flames and smoke rush up, and the ceremony is done.

"With a good fire everything burns but the navel," explains Mr. Haldar. "That is picked out of the ashes, by the temple attendants, and, with a gold coin provided by the dead person's family, is rolled in a ball of clay and flung into the Ganges. We shall now see the Ganges."

Again he conducts us through the crowds to a point below the temple, where runs a muddy brook, shallow and filled with bathers. "This," says Mr. Haldar, "is the most ancient remaining outlet of the Ganges. Therefore its virtues are accounted great. Hundreds of thousands of sick persons come here annually to bathe and be cured of their sickness just as you see those doing now. Also, such as would supplicate the goddess for other reasons bathe here first, to be cleansed of their sins."

As the bathers finished their ablutions, they drank of the water that lapped their knees. Then most of them devoted a few moments to grubbing with their hands in the bottom, bringing up handfuls of mud which they carefully sorted over in their palms. "Those," said Mr. Haldar, "are looking for the gold coins flung in from the burning-ghat. They hope."

Meantime, up and down the embankment, priests came and went, each leading three or four kids, which they washed in the stream among the bathers and then dragged back, screaming and struggling, toward the temple forecourt. And men and women bearing water-jars, descending and ascending, filled their jars in the stream and disappeared by the same path.

"Each kid," continued Mr. Haldar, "must be purified in the holy stream before it is slain. As for the water-carriers, they bring the water as an offering. It is poured over Kali's feet, and over the feet of the priests that stand before her.'*

As Mr. Haldar took leave of us, just at the rear of the outer temple wall, I noticed a drain-hole about the size of a man's hand, piercing the wall at the level of the ground. By this hole, on a little flat stone, lay a few marigold flowers, a few rose-petals, a few pennies. As I looked, suddenly out of the hole gushed a flow of dirty water, and a woman, rushing up, thrust a cup under it and drank.

"That is our holy Ganges water, rendered more holy by having flowed over the feet of Kali and her priests. From the floor of the shrine it is carried here by this ancient drain. It is found most excellent against dysentery and enteric fever. The sick who have strength to move drink it here, first having bathed in the Ganges. To those too ill to come, their friends may carry it."

So we found our waiting motor and rolled away, past the General Hospital, the Bishop's House, the various Clubs, the Empire Theater, straight into the heart of Calcutta in a few minutes' time.

"Why did you go to Kali Ghat? That is not India. Only the lowesc and most ignorant of Indians are Kali worshipers," said an English Theosophist, sadly, next day.

I repeated the words to one of the most learned and distinguished of Bengali Brahmans. His comment was this:

"Your English friend is wrong. It is true that in the lower castes the percentage of worshipers of Kali is larger than the percentage of the worshipers of Vishnu, perhaps because the latter demands some self-restraint, such as abstinence from intoxicants. But hundreds of thousands of Brahmans, everywhere, worship Kali, and the devotees at Kali Ghat will include Hindus of all castes and conditions, among whom are found some of the most highly educated and important personages of this town and of India."