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Kālī and the queen: religion and the production of Calcutta’s pasts and presents

Deonnie Moodie

The Victoria Memorial is perhaps the most widely recognised icon of Calcutta (now Kolkata).1 Its white marble dome, columns and portals are both regal and imposing and stand on 57 acres of sprawling green lawns and gardens right in the centre of the otherwise overcrowded metropolis.2 Queen Victoria carved from marble stands triumphantly on a dais with sceptre in hand underneath the central dome. This is a memorial to the woman who reigned when India first became the jewel in the imperial crown with Calcutta as its capital. There is no starker illustration of the imperial legacy of this city than this and. in turn, the place this city occupied in the British Empire. Today, an estimated 34 lakh (3,400,000) tourists visit the memorial each year.3 On the southern side of the city, there is another icon of Calcutta that evokes a very different legacy and that feamres a very different sovereign at its centre. The dark goddess Kall resides in the inner sanctum of the Kalighat temple complex in a crowded neighbourhood populated by priests, sex workers and beggars. Thousands of devotees flock to this temple each day to make offerings to the powerful goddess within. This is not just any temple, but a Saktiplth, signifying the goddess’ presence there since the mythic satya yuga (age of truth). In stories that are told about this site, and in efforts to transform it into a heritage site today, Calcutta is imagined not as a British or imperial city, but as a Hindu city made great by its first inhabitant, Kall.

By juxtaposing these two icons, I examine the ways Calcutta’s citizens wrestle with the past and create their heritage. The past does not simply exist to be recalled or remembered but requires active cultivation from the writing of history books and creation of museums to the installation of busts and plaques. Often, these projects are engaged in order to either complement or overturn other heritage projects, so that in examining them, we gain a window into the active process by which city residents assert particular pasts over others. Of course, these projects are never only about the past. They animate life in the here and now, and they imagine various futures for Calcutta’s citizens (see Chakrabarty 2008: 248; Hancock 2008: 3).

This chapter on religion in Calcutta disrupts the neat divisions by which Smriti Srinivas argues scholarly attention to Indian cities often abides: sacred, colonial or developmentalist (2012: 70).4 Despite previous attempts to either ignore or erase religion from urban pasts,5 religious sites, peoples and practices have been central to the creation of cities the world over and to their ongoing lives (see Knott et al. 2016; Orsi 1999 for examples from Europe and America, respectively). Recently, scholars in the fields of anthropology and religious studies have turned their attention to religious sites and practices that constitute urban spaces in India that have not traditionally been thought of as sacred cities. The creation of religious sites and the presence of gurus and spirits, for example, sacralise cities like Chennai, Puttaparthi and Delhi (see Waghorne 2004; Srinivas 2010; Taneja 2018, respectively). Religious processions provide alternate ways of mapping and inhabiting high-tech cities like Bangalore (Srinivas 2001, 2015). Meanwhile, Mary Hancock argues that the creation of religious heritage sites addresses the nostalgia urbanites feel in the wake of India's economic liberalisation and its “urban regimes” (2008). Small shrines as well as giant monuments constnicted along roadways in and between urban spaces furthermore provide new opportunities for fast and convenient darsmi (divine visual exchange)6 (see Larios and Vbix 2018; Jain 2016,2017). In other words, the Indian urban - whether sacred, colonial or developmentalist -is constituted by landscapes of vibrant religious devotion and innovation and is infused with divine presences.

Thinking with this literature, I want to look at Kalighat in Calcutta in two distinct ways. Firstly, I examine the way a religious site is employed by city residents to challenge the predominant narrative of Calcutta as a colonial city built by and for Britons and their commercial purposes. In stories about Kalighat, the colonial project is simply a blip in the divine and eternal history of the goddess - a history that supersedes human time and humans themselves. While much scholarship has focused on the use of temples in anti-Muslim agendas throughout India (see Brass 1997, 2004; Davis 1997; Hansen 2001; Varshney 2003), the way rhetoric and renovation projects are mobilised around Hindu temples in anti-colonial agendas in the postcolonial period requires more scholarly attention and understanding. India gained independence over 70 years ago, and yet in the midst of the neoclassical domes and columns that dominate Calcutta's city centre, the colonial past feels very near. As such, attention to Kalighat in Calcutta provides a different lens through which we might think about how Hindu sites become part of urban India’s story of itself. While anti-colonial projects can swiftly be subsumed within anti-Muslim projects as we have seen time and time again, they need not be. It is worth paying attention to examples where they have not (at least not yet).

Secondly, I examine the ways that sites leveraged for heritage purposes produce particular narratives of the city while at the same time resisting attempts to fix those narratives in time. By all appearances, the continued existence of the Victoria Memorial fixes British dominance in the heart of the city. Upon closer examination it becomes clear that the memorial provides a site through which curators and visitors subvert the aims of its British creators by actively wrestling with Calcutta’s imperial history, drawing on Bengali intellectuals’ advances in science, literature and religious reforms to do so. More radically. Kali's presence and devotees' relationship to her mean that despite the historicist projects that seek to turn Kalighat into a heritage site, it will not become a heritage site like any other.

People go to the Victoria Memorial to witness the past as represented by the figure of a deceased queen. But when people go to Kalighat, they encounter the living goddess. Whether or not a particular visitor or tourist believes in the goddess, they enter a space where thousands of others are in relationship to her - asking her for things, receiving things and having the goddess' demands put upon them. Kall's presence, like all divine presence, is invisible and illegible in modernist constructions of the city (Orsi 2016: 5), and yet it is very real for thousands of Calcutta’s residents. As such, the goddess thwarts all attempts to leave her in the past.

Two icons

The Victoria Memorial is located in the centre of Calcutta at 1 Queens Way. Lord George Curzon, then viceroy of India, advocated the construction of a memorial to the late queen of the British Empire in 1901 in this way:

A traveller might come to India and leave it with the impression that, since the days of the great Moguls, whose tombs and temples are the wonder of the East, it had had no history that was worthy of concrete commemoration, had produced or seen no great figures, but had only been fortunate in the enjoyment of an administration which had been lavish in endowing it with law courts, town halls, educational instimtions, secretariats, and gaols.

(Curzon 1901: 953)

Curzon was sure that the British would long be remembered for bringing modern institutions to India. But he was not so sure that the glory of their empire would live on. It was on this basis that both Europeans and the Indian princes who supported them were so forthcoming in donations to fund the site. They all realised that heritage had to be made and that they had the power to make it. The project was not without its detractors, who argued that such funds should go toward a charity rather than a building such as this (Tillotson 1997: 10). However, Curzon felt strongly that the creation of a cultural monument would impart upon citizens a more valuable and lasting lesson. The site selected for the memorial was the vast maidan about a mile away from Fort William at the centre of what was then "White Town” and what still remains the centre of the city. The Prince of Wales laid the foundation stone in 1906, and 15 years later, the memorial was completed.

The Kalighat temple that stands today was constructed between 1799 and 1809 by the former zaniindars (landholders) of this area - members of the Sabarna Roy Choudhury family. The temple they built replaced one that stood before it, but it is unknown for how long the previous one stood, or if there was one that preceded that. What we do know is that the murti (image) of Kall - the large black stone with a crown, three bright orange-red eyes, a golden tongue and four hands affixed to it - pre-existed the current structure.

The structure of Kailghat's garbhagrha (inner sanctum) follows a characteristically Bengali dtcala design resembling the thatched huts traditional to the Bengali landscape (McCutchion 1972: 32). Devotees queue up around the platform of the lower structure and then enter the garbhagrha to have darsan of Kall. When devotees approach her, they offer sweets and flowers they have purchased at nearby shops. In front of the garbhagrha is a natmandir where devotees sit to pray, recite mantras or read sacred texts. Behind the natmandir is the sacrificial arena just large enough for two sets of stakes. Devotees bring goats here to be sacrificed to the goddess. Separate shrines within the temple complex include those housing Radha-Krsna, four separate Siva lirigas, a fire pit for performing homa and a manifestation of SasthI in the form of a tree.

Calcutta’s first inhabitant

In the decades directly following the establishment of Crown Rule in 1858, historians began to create historical narratives of the city's origins.7 British historians in particular were keen to mark the city as theirs - as grand, controlled and beautiful. They wrote what is by now a familiar story. Job Charnock landed on the banks of the Hooghly River in 1690, thus founding the city (Cotton 1907: 9). He and his compatriots saw the land of the three villages that came to comprise Calcutta (Govindapur, Kalikata, Sutanuti) as a kind of terra nova - a vast spread of relatively uninhabited marsh and jungle that was ripe for their own settlement. These historians then write of Calcutta's British inhabitants building up magnificent architectural structures in what became known as "White Town,” turning this once marshy wasteland into a “City of Palaces” (Rainey 1876: 5).

Kalighat featured in these histories as epitomising the primitive past of this place - part of a "dim twilight of legend and poem” that would be replaced by "real history” with the coming of the Europeans (Wilson 1895: 131). This was wrapped up in Britons' vehement criticisms of the kind of worship that took place at Kalighat. This site was in fact the central point of critique for British administrators and Orientalists, epitomising for iconoclastic Protestants the superstition of idol worship and what they saw as evidence of the natives’ violent nature. They recorded instances of hook swinging, widow burning and human and animal sacrifices at Kalighat in their journals (Duff 1839: 266-268; Graham 1813: 134; Parkes 1850: 104).

As I have previously argued, Bengali historians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries began to compose histories of the city that told a different story than those of their European counterparts (Moodie 2018: 37-66).s By and large, they began their histories with Kalighat, but not as a site of the primitive. Some dated the human history of the temple back to the 15th century (Bysack 1891: 315), while others back to the first or second century BCE (Cattopadhyay 1986 [1891]: 26). In these narratives, it was the presence of the goddess and the Brahmins and pilgrims who attended her who made Calcutta great. When the British arrived, they were "mere squatters on the soil of Kalikshetra [the land of Kall]” (Ray 1982 [1902]: 55).

In some of these histories, authors draw upon the well-known and oft-repeated mythological story of Daksa's sacrifice found in various Puranas and Tantras.9

While there are many different versions of the story (see Sircar 1948), the basic outline is as follows: Daksa. father of the goddess Safi, held a sacrifice but did not invite Safi’s husband, Siva. Safi was so upset by this slight that she immolated herself on the sacrificial pyre. Siva, in turn, was so upset by his wife’s death that he traversed the earth holding her corpse on his shoulder with steps so violent that they threatened to destroy the universe. To stop Siva’s destruction, Visnu slowly cut off pieces of Safi’s corpse, creating pTthas, or "seats,” where various forms of the goddess manifested herself in the 51 places those pieces landed. Once Safi’s corpse was gone, Siva ceased his dance of destruction and manifested himself next to each of his wife’s body parts at each pTtha. Safi’s four toes (excluding the big toe) from her right foot fell at Kâlîghât. and Kali manifested herself there. Siva then manifested himself nearby as Nakulesvara.

For historians who refer to this story and for the countless Kali devotees who have been relaying it to me over and over again for a decade now, one thing is very clear - Kali has always been in this place. The land she sits on is made sacred by her presence. Calcutta, then, was never a blank slate upon which Britons arrived and built their city of palaces. It has always been sacred ground where a piece of the goddess’s body actually resides and where Kali and Siva chose to manifest. It is therefore not a commercial and secular city like Delhi or Chennai, but a sacred city like Varanasi or Madurai.

In the 19th century, and still today, Calcutta's etymology is popularly linked to Kâlîghât or Kâlïksetra. The exact lineage of this etymological claim is rarely proffered. It is simply known that somehow, somewhere down the line, some reference to the goddess Kâlï became corrupted and turned into the village name "Kalikâtâ,” which was corrupted again into the city name “Calcutta.” A number of historians including Gaur Das Bysack (1891) and P. T. Nair (1985) have deconstructed these arguments, but this has not dampened the popularity of the sentiment.

Yet the dominance of the British narrative is perhaps best exemplified in the city's celebration of its 300-year anniversary in 1990, thus reinforcing Job Charnock’s arrival as the city’s founding moment. In that year these historical debates were reanimated. A slew of city histories was published in celebration of the tercentenary. There, too, Kâlï and Charnock are pitted against one another for title of city's founder. Sukanta Chaudhuri's Calcutta: The Living City ( 1990) opens with an explanation of the etymology of Calcutta entitled “Calcutta: The Name” (1990: 1). He outlines various explanations, settling on some derivation from the goddess Kâlï of Kâlîghât. Pratapaditya Pal (1990) writes in his Changing Visions, Lasting Images: Calcutta Through 300 Years, "Job Charnock may have been responsible for the foundation of the city, but its most ancient inhabitant is the goddess Kâlï” (p. xii). He maintains that Calcutta, like Bombay and Madras, is a "creation of the British” (Pal 1990: vii) but pays homage to the pre-existence of Kâlï. This discussion came to the fore of public debate when the Sabarna Roy Choudhury family brought a Public Interest Litigation suit to the Calcutta High Court in 2003, contesting the notion that Calcutta had a founder or a founding date. They were particularly unhappy with the assertion that Job Charnock’s arrival marked the city’s foundation. Historians at nearby universities were consulted, and they concluded that in fact, "the famous shrine of Kalighat” and a "flourishing cloth market” proved that "Kalikata before the coming of the English was an important place” (Sabama Roychowdhury Paribar v. The State of West Bengal and Ors).10

It is perhaps no surprise that shortly thereafter, some city residents including Mridul Pathak initiated efforts to make Kalighat a heritage site to rival, in particular, that of the Victoria Memorial. To news media in 2004 he lamented that the site "leaves the tourists with a bad impression of the city.”11 He cited the temple’s "ugly skyline,” lack of "control over beggars” and absence of tourist amenities as just a few of the many issues that he felt needed to be addressed there. In conversation with me in 2012 he remarked further, "People today will take you to the Muslim Taj Mahal and Victoria Memorial, but will not take you proudly to Kallghat. The pride is not there.” But Kalighat, he said, is the “original Calcutta” that existed "300 years before the British.” Despite support from the Calcutta High Court, which enlisted state tourism boards to aid in cleansing and restoring the temple, these plans have not come to fruition due to resistance from temple administrators, labourers and devotees (see Moodie 2018: 135-160).

In all of this, Kallghat is wrapped up in a historicist narrative of modern, secular time (see Hancock 2008: 117). Even the Saktiplth story is read through the framework that modem historiography demands - a historiography that argues about who came first. And in this framework, it becomes clear that Calcutta's origins matter to people not just as a matter of fact, but as a matter of cultural pride. The notion that Calcutta began as Kall's city is not simply an alternative narrative to the idea that Charnock founded Calcutta. It is an alternative way of thinking about who matters, who is really in power and whose city this really is. Narratives about Kallghat imagine a pre-colonial past of the city that was in fact valuable - and a colonial past in which a Hindu goddess reigned supreme, even at the very centre of British earthly rule.12

Wrestling with Calcutta’s imperial past

While Job Chamock's tomb exists in Calcutta today, as do many other remnants of the East India Company and British Crown's presence, it is the Victoria Memorial through which the city’s imperial history is most remembered. This icon of empire created explicitly as a pedagogical project to educate citizens of the might and virtue of British rule still stands today, occupying prime real estate in the heart of the former colonial capital. That is despite the centrality of Calcutta to India's nationalist movements in the early 20th century and despite the removal of British architecture throughout the city to make way for various development projects. One might well ask at this point: Why are Calcutta residents interested in keeping this monument around? What does this site do for people today? What kind of past does it conjure? What kind of future does it imagine?

Today, this site serves not only as a memorial, but as a park and a museum. Located on the maidan, the Victoria Memorial’s verdant lawns feature stone-paved pathways leading visitors in between giant trees, ponds and statues.13 These

Kall and the queen 121 provide a space where one can be relatively removed from traffic, blaring horns and hawkers in the midst of the overcrowded concrete jungle that is Calcutta. Getting into the park costs a mere ten rupees for Indians (500 for foreigners). Families picnic and kids flip cartwheels under the shade of the trees while young couples sit closely on benches. Visitors take pictures with one another on their phones with the impressive monument behind them. Some take selfies with the queen. One wonders whether these visitors are aiming to revive or relive the city’s imperial past as they do all of this. I think it is more likely that they are taking advantage of one of few green spaces in the city to enjoy one another’s company in the fresh air and beautiful surroundings. They avail themselves of the vendors who cater to their needs - flavoured soda water, bhelpuri and squeaky toys for the kids. And yet, the selfies with the queen seem to indicate that they are not just enjoying a day at the park - that is, not just any park. They perhaps feel themselves to be in the midst of something very important. They will post those selfies on their Facebook pages, or - for the old fashioned among them - have them printed out and framed. The memories they take away from the Victoria Memorial are those in which they got to be witness to history - not in specific terms necessarily, but "history” as a kind of edifying imaginative entity. That is to say, I doubt that many visitors to the memorial think about the oppressive or exploitative regime it memorialises. They more likely feel edified in the way that one does upon watching a documentary rather than a movie.

There are certainly some who do want to memorialise the British regime, if not the queen specifically. In conversation with me in 2018, historian and head of the Society for Preservation, Calcutta, Abhik Ray argued that it is absolutely essential that sites like the Victoria Memorial be preserved because they are evidence of a critical moment in the nation’s past. Calcuttans, he says, are responsible for preserving artefacts like this, no matter how they feel about the past such artefacts represent. He looks at the British architecture in the city with reverence because, he says, “No other Indian city can claim such antiquity.” He argues that it is part of the pride of Calcutta that its history reaches back to the very beginnings of colonial rule and feamres some of its most famed monuments. It was in that period that Calcutta was in the limelight. It did not have the same fame or status prior to that period, and it has not had it again since the capital was moved to Delhi in 1911.

Indeed, in the field of art history, the architecture of this site as well as the memorial’s collections of paintings and artefacts are of global significance. The oil paintings on display in Durbar Hall include works by some of the most famous European painters of the late 18th and early 19th centuries: Thomas and William Daniell, Johann Zoffany, William Hodges, Thomas Hickey, James Wales and Baltazar Solvyns, among others. According to Philippa Vaughan, head of the Calcutta Tercentenary Trust that is charged with preserving this artwork, these are "the finest group of oil paintings in the world by European artists active in India between 1780 and 1830” (Vaughan 1997: 2).

But curators do not only preserve these European artefacts. They also use the spaces and built strucmres of the memorial to promote nationalist figures and artwork. In perhaps the most famous example, the statue of Curzon which once stood at the front of the memorial was replaced in the 1960s by one of Aurobindo, a Calcutta native who was active in the nationalist movement before creating his now famous asram in Pondicherry (Swallow 1997: 55, fig. 8 and Gupta 1997: 45, fig. 10). Temporary exhibits featuring Indian artists rotate through other spaces. In July 2018, for example, an exhibit of 19th-century woodblock prints from the Battala area of northern Calcutta (part of former "Black Town”) was set up in the central portion of the memorial surrounding the queen. The memorial’s website features virtual exhibits of many Indian artists. Renowned intellectuals deliver lectures in the memorial’s conference hall, many of which challenge the primacy of British art and iconography there and elsewhere.14

The most compelling way the memorial wrestles with the city’s colonial past is in a permanent city museum entitled "Calcutta Gallery” housed in the second gallery open to visitors. Here, Calcutta’s story is told in such a way that its strength lies in its openness to cross-cultural exchange. It turns the exploitation of British rule into an advantage of cultural assimilation. The city’s story begins with British traveller-historian Kathleen Blechynden’s 1905 account of servants of the East India Company boldly battling a torrential downpour to make it to Sutanuti, the small village on the eastern bank of the Hooghly River, in 1690. But just after Job Charnock's debut, a blurb explains Calcutta’s significance in global history:

By the end of the seventeenth century a fragmented world has been largely explored and pieced together and a global linkage set up. . . . Cities like Manila (1572), Madras (1640), Bombay (1661), and Calcutta (1690) are products of this coming together of nations which marks the beginning of world history. They may be young, but they are not insular. Therein lies their modernity. Mutual knowledge, however, does not always lead to mutual happiness. The global network that arises is Eurocentric. It is largely colonized and commercially exploited by the powers that rule the waves. The stage is nearly set for the operation of imperialism and colonialism. It is not really one world.15

Curators go on to explain that the British were attracted to this locale not only because it would be easily fortified (surrounded by a river, a jungle and salt marshes) but also because of its riches in muslin, silk and spices, all traded from a market set up by the Sett and Basak families who had moved to the village of Govindapur in 1550. The narrative also makes reference to Kalighat - again placing it into the historicist framework of the museum exhibit.16

After further sections on "A Fort and Zamindari for the British,” “City of Palaces,” “Imperial City” and “Living in White Town,” the narrative lingers on the Bengali Renaissance, providing lengthy portraits of major figures like Rammohon Roy, Debendranath Tagore, Dinabandhu Mitra, Isvarchandra Vidyasagar, Bankim-chandra Chatterjee and Michael Madhusudan Dutt. They are described as being “versatile, articulate, and refreshingly modern in their attitudes,” having "realised the true significance” of contact between Britons and themselves. Another panel reads that they "tried, on the one hand, to give their own traditions a more liberal appearance and reconcile them to the new ideas of the West, and, on the other, to relate Western perspectives and values to the social and cultural realities of Bengal and the rest of India.” This is the double bind of Calcutta’s history. Without colonial rule, history would have taken a very different path. Perhaps it would have been better, but it would not have been the path that created Calcutta's most celebrated intellectuals, making it the cultural capital of India.

The final panel of the Calcutta Gallery states:

No other Indian city benefitted in quite the same way from British rule, but no other city had to pay as high a price either. But the spirit of interchange and assimilation, which has been part of Calcutta’s ethos from the beginning, triumphs once more. As the twentieth century progresses, Calcutta continues to provide pioneering leadership in various fields. In Calcutta, and for the rest of India, the spirit lives on.

The British history of Calcutta cannot be erased or ignored - it can only be wrestled with. That is precisely what curators, academics and art historians are doing through the Victoria Memorial. Far from fulfilling Curzon's objectives to commemorate the “great figures” and accomplishments of British rule, these individuals interrogate just what was so “great” and what was not so great about both, and they encourage visitors to do the same. The Victoria Memorial today imagines a past, present and future in which Calcutta carries significant global importance because Calcuttans are at the forefront of global "interchange and assimilation” -taking good ideas wherever they come from and rejecting bad ideas even if they are their own.

Calcutta’s divine present

Back at Kalighat, interchange and assimilation are all but invisible. Those Bengalis most influenced by the sentiments of the intellectuals featured in the “Calcutta Gallery” noted earlier have been trying to modernise Kalighat’s rituals, management system and physical spaces for over a century now, but with little success. Curzon and the queen, like their missionary and historian compatriots, dismissed Kall as a remnant of the region’s superstitious past and likely thought Kalighat would be abandoned and forgotten by the 21st century. Moreover, the city has many reformers, secularists and Marxists today who would prefer to downplay the temple’s significance in the modern city. A tourist site, fine. A monument to the past. But that’s all. Yet Kall - through her relationships with human actors - has refused to succumb to criticisms that seek to purge Hinduism of iniirti worship and animal sacrifice, just as she has refused attempts to keep Kalighat contained to historicist narratives of the city. People do not go to the temple to picnic and cartwheel as they do the Victoria Memorial - in fact, there is no room in the cramped complex for either of those activities. Nor do they visit it to learn about history or great art by walking through exhibits set up for their education. Selfies - and indeed any photographs of Kali - are not allowed. Instead, visitors go to see Kall and be seen by her. laying bare their most intimate fears and dreams at the goddess’s feet. They do not go to Kâlîghât to be informed about the past but to be transformed by Kall's sacred presence. Kâlîghât refuses to be frozen in time - to become a dead monument.17 While the queen is very much deceased and it is only her memory that lives on, Kâlî remains very much alive.

Throughout my fieldwork in 2011 and 2012 I met countless devotees who brought Kâlî their daily frustrations and needs as well as their major life traumas -men and women with tension at work and financial troubles at home, parents anxious about their children’s exams and careers, adults whose parents' ailing bodies had not responded to medical treatment. I listened to people recount how upsetting it was for them to live away from Kâli (not just any Kâlî but this particular Kâlî at Kâlîghât) for a period in their lives, and how they longed to return so that they could see Mâ (their mother) every day. Some implored me to seek blessings from the goddess. They said I should pray to Kâlî and Sasthî at Kâlîghât for a baby (I had just been married when I first arrived for fieldwork in 2011) and success in my research. When I returned years later having borne a child, they insisted he was a gift from the goddess and demanded I make her an offering of thanks in remrn, just as they had done when they delivered their own babies.

For these devotees, Kâlîghât signifies a different and more intimate city centre than the maidân and its memorial. As devotees make their way from home to Kâlîghât to work each day, they enact a different kind of urban modernity (Srini-vas 2012: 79) and embody life-worlds that Britons as well as Hindu reformers would like to have eradicated (see Taneja 2018: 229). For so many of Calcutta’s citizens, Kâlî is the founder of the city, its most important resident and their last hope in times of need. She works against what Taneja calls the “amnesia” of the colonial state's historicism (Taneja 2018) - the one that did not find anything of value in pre-1690 Calcutta. She also works against the present state’s dismissal of non-secular, enchanted landscapes and ways of being. Devotees at Kâlîghât imagine a past, present and future of their city and their lives that is first and foremost imbued with Kâlï's divine presence. Visitors may take selfies with the likeness of queen, but they lay their lives at the feet of Kâlî.

One question remains. If Calcutta has always been Kâlï's ksetra, how was it that the divine sovereign allowed the mortal queen to reign in her territory? It can only have been what one priest at Kâlîghât explained to me as mâyer icchâ - the wish of the mother. It was not until Calcutta became the capital of the British Empire in India that Kâlîghât became the popular, well-attended pilgrimage site it is today. New modes of communication and transportation to and around the capital city attracted more residents, visitors and pilgrims who learnt of the sacred site of Kâlîghât and had easier means of travelling to it (Gupta 2003: 62). The queen may have held the goddess in disdain, but she contributed directly to her worship. Kâlï's presence and sovereignty is not to be outdone.


  • 1 The city officially changed its name in 2001.1 employ the former spelling throughout to avoid confusion, as most of this piece focuses on the city prior to 2001.
  • 2 Funding for this research was provided by a Fulbright-Nehru Research Grant in 2011-2012 and the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Oklahoma in 2018. This paper was first presented at the international workshop Spaces of Religion in Urban South Asia: An International Workshop at the University of Bergen on September 28-29, 2018. I am grateful to Istvan Keul for organising this event and to all participants for producing a stimulating workshop. My sincere thanks go to Kathinka Froystad, Mary Hancock, Amen Jaffer and Philippa Williams in particular for their insightful critiques of this paper.
  • 3 «accessed August 15, 2018>.
  • 4 On sacred cities, see for example, Eck (1983), Keul (2014) and Parry (1995) on Varanasi; Fuller (1984) and (2003) on Madurai; and Dube (2001) and Mubayi (2005) on Puri.
  • 5 See Waghorne (2004: 12-18) and Knott et al. (2016) for an overview of this literature.
  • 6 See Eck (1998).
  • 7 Prior to that moment, plenty of people had written about the history of India or even of Bengal, and they recorded observations of life in Calcutta in journals and letters. See Moodie (2018: 38-39, footnotes 5 and 6) for references. I am distinguishing those from texts that demarcate the city’s origins in particular.
  • 8 The binary I outline here was not followed by all British and Bengali historians, and I note exceptions to the rule in Moodie (2018: 63-65). However, a major divide does exist within historical writings at the turn of the 20th century regarding Calcutta’s origins.
  • 9 This version of the story is found in the Cudamani Tantra, Devibhagavata Parana and Kalika Parana. See Sircar (1948) for a synopsis of variants of this story.
  • 10 The 300-year anniversary is problematic for a host of other reasons, including the fact that the East India Company and then British Crown did not hold Calcutta either independently or even continuously from 1690 onward. When the East India Company first arrived in what would become Calcutta and set up a small factory there, they did so only with the permission of the Nawab of the region, who answered to the Mughal Emperor in Delhi. Their grasp of this site was tenuous at best. Various Nawabs objected to their demands for tax breaks, not to mention the fortification of their factory. In 1756, Siraj-ud-daulah defeated the company there and for a brief moment, Calcutta became Alinagar (see Chatterjee 2012).
  • 11 “From Pilgrimage to Heritage.” The Statesman, September 9, 2004.
  • 12 Of course, the city’s history is not strictly either British or Hindu, and there are many other histories of the city from Muslim to Armenian to Jewish to Jain that these ignore.
  • 13 Statues include those of former British rulers as well as Rajendra Nath Mookerjee, a Bengali industrialist involved in the construction of the memorial.
  • 14 Tapati Guha-Thakurta, professor of history at the CSSS, delivered a lecture recently: en «accessed August 6, 2018>. See also her essay in the volume edited by Philippa Vaughan (1997: 139-156).
  • 15 This and all subsequent material on the “Calcutta Gallery” exhibit at the Victoria Memorial was gleaned by the author during visits on 8 and 11 July 2018.
  • 16 They also reference Gobindaram Mitter’s “Black Pagoda” in northern Sutanuti that was by far the tallest building in Calcutta in 1731 when it was constructed. It was later destroyed in a cyclone.
  • 17 The Archaeological Survey of India in fact refused to declare Kafighat an official heritage site in response to the Calcutta High Court’s request in 2011 (Bose v. Union of India 2013). They reasoned that too many additions had been made to the temple since 1809, such that it was impossible to tell which parts of the building comprised the original.


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10 Timelines and lifelines

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