night descends. the lamps are ready with oil and wick. my heart is in my mouth.
it’s bhoot chaturdashi. the ghost fourteenth day, if i translate literally. and tonight, unless we put fourteen diyas or oil lamps, or even candles, in fourteen corners of the house and eat fourteen kinds of leafy greens, watch out, anything might happen. the spooks are out and about.
i am laughing as i write this. i used to quake with fear every bhoot chaturdashi and run around making sure all corners had their lights. my brothers and i also practically fell upon the fourteen greens, a messy mushy saag, and ate it all up. i wasn’t going to take any chances with those ghosts.
bhoot chaturdashi, a sort of halloween night though not quite, is observed on the fourteenth day of the waning phase of the moon or krishna paksha, in the month of kartik. it’s the night before new moon. amavasya.
this amavasya is the night of diwali in many parts of india. but in bengal, for us bengalis, it’s kali puja. strictly speaking, we don’t celebrate diwali.
i know that these days there’s this impression in many parts of the world that all hindus celebrate diwali, but really that’s not the case. diwali is widely and jubilantly observed by the people of the north and west and central india. it’s also the day of lakshmi puja.
however, in the south, the tamils, telegus, and kannadigas celebrate deepavali, which is not exactly diwali. the tamils and kannadigas observe naraka chaturdashi on the day of our bhoot chaturdashi, that is the main festival for them during this time. the day after amavasya is the festival of bali padayami. the telegus celebrate both naraka chaturdashi and deepavali on amavasya, if i am not wrong. and i just found out that malayalis don’t celebrate deepavali or diwali at all.
but then hindu practice is always many hued and most interesting because of that to me.
so back to the hour of the ghosts. it is believed that spirits rise on that night before new moon and waft around in our realm. homes are cleaned thoroughly; lamps are lit to ward of evil, or show the spirits the way, depending on your way of looking at it. and for exactly what reason i have no idea, all those greens are consumed.
the next day, it’s kali puja. or kali pujo as we call it.
one of the most mysterious and magnificent goddesses ever imagined, is our ma kali. she is the essential shakti, power. to the shakta, worshipper of the principle of shakti, the mother is the ultimate reality… brahman is she. she is ancient and deep and truly unfathomable. yet to most of her devotees, she is simply maa, the mother. great mystics and seers like ramkrishna paramahansa and swami vivekananda have felt her call, her power.
she is dark as the night, kali means the black one. but kali also denotes kaal, which means time. she is a symbol of time, of change, of power, of the whole aspect of creation.
as a child, she looked fearsome to me and very very angry. there she stood, dark and devastating. her hair flowed wild all around her. she had four arms. she held a munda, a head, of a demon in one hand and a sword – dripping with blood – in another, while her other two arms were raised in abhaya, dispelling fear, and vara, blessing. she wore on her neck a garland of hacked off gory heads, yeah… really. seems there are fifty of them, they stand for the fifty alphabets of sanskrit and symbolise infinite knowledge. she wore no clothes, pure nature she. a skirt made of severed hands was wrapped around her middle. she was not your usual pretty, good looking goddess.
she had one foot resting on the chest of shiva, her husband, who lay on the floor. and her tongue was red and vivid and she stuck it right out.
i have to grin. what a lovely tale there. she is apparently the extreme angry one, born from durga’s brow or by some other miraculous means, she is the manifestation of utter power who bursts upon the earth to slay demons. as she whirls around the universe killing the baddies and furious as hell, she loses control. every one is worried sick, the gods wonder how she’ll ever be stopped. then shiva has an idea.
he goes and lies down on the road, knowing she will come by that way. kali comes rushing, not looking left or right, intent on getting her next victim… and she steps on him.
when she sees what she’s done, that she has put her foot on her husband’s chest, she is aghast.
her tongue comes out. a gesture of having made a big mistake.
the idol maker captures her in that moment. there’s so much movement in that still inanimate form.
shakti, the essential female principle of divine energy and nature, has been worshipped for ages in bengal and other parts of india as well as south east asia. however, this particular custom of doing kali puja on the amavasya of kartik, which is around october/november, is not that old. it possibly started in the mid 1800s, with rajas and zamindars of bengal observing the puja with much pomp and festivity.
i remember we’d go in the evening to the pandal, the covered pavilion, where the kali murti was placed and the prayers conducted. if we were visiting our grandparents in delhi, we’d go to kali bari, the main kali temple. while i absolutely cannot agree with animal sacrifice, kali puja always calls for the bali or sacrifice of a goat. it’s one of the rare pujas where eating non-vegetarian food is not forbidden.
since my mother was not much into rituals, we simply folded our hands before the goddess, prayed silently, came back home…
and went straight to celebrate… diwali.
i said, strictly speaking bengalis don’t observe diwali. but we are not into strictly. diwali is too beautiful and too much fun not to be observed. beside, since my grandparents lived in delhi, and the city has a most splendid diwali season, we all just adopted the custom and that was that. actually, even in calcutta, most bengalis get into the bursting crackers part of diwali. some even do up their homes with lamps and candles. but there is no lakshmi puja; not yet, at least. we celebrate a major lakshmi puja a little before this, a few days after vijaya dashami.
diwali means row of lights.
i love decorating the house with diyas. that was the high point of diwali for me as a kid. we’d have lights all along the terraces, the verandahs, on the gates, on trees, on lattices erected by the gardeners just for this occasion. we’d also have a good time with sparklers, phooljharies as they are called. and anaars, charkis, mashals, rockets, all sorts of fireworks. there was something horrid called snake… not at all pretty.
i was never into bombs. i recall kali pataka, dhani pataka, and also chocolate bombs, which you set fire to and threw into tins to amplify the noise.
once, my uncles made anaars at home and a whole lot of us, cousins and friends, joined in. not the safest of things to do really, but it was sort of cool.
usually, after we’d had our fill of cracker bursting and eating all sorts of nice things, mainly sweets, we’d drive around town admiring diwali decorations. oh the shimmer of lights everywhere. rashtrapati bhavan looked gorgeous always. my grandmother loved to play cards, so teen patti or flush, would be played; with match sticks not money. or stakes of ten paise going up to a maximum of one rupee. if we were in duliajan in assam, where we lived, there would be a trip to digboi and nearby cities to see the pandals and celebrations.
delhi or duliajan, the night was always long and happy.
kali. perhaps while reminiscing about her it’s fitting i ponder time and its flight. the changes it brings. somewhere along the way, i outgrew the celebrations and rituals. but the essence of a time of light in the darkest of nights remains.
and the sense of the dark one. deep, primeval, beyond light. calling me to destroy my own evil. calling me to shun all sham. making me smile with that tongue of hers stuck out. eeei.
the famous phatakeshto kali in calcutta / picture credit uploader
In Mythology and More, Writersbrew gives you a glimpse of Diwali as our writers celebrate it. The festival has different significance in different parts of India, among the various Hindu communities. Take a look at some of these customs, enjoy the stories. Here’s to light, everywhere.
First Published on 5/27/2016