Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Kali The Cremation Ground of Bakreshwar Temple

By William Clark

[For an earlier conversation see Alterati.]

A narrow, unpaved road beginning near the main temple complex guides you along a winding path flanked on opposite sides with a motley arrangement of grave markers. As you approach the cremation ground’s main entrance, a small roadside temple presents itself. The phrase “JAY MA SMASHANA KALI” (Victory to Mother Kali of the Cremation Ground) is written above its doorway in bright red Bengali script. Housed within this shrine, a murti (sacred image facilitating divine communion) of Kali depicts her standing upon her husband––Lord Siva––in characteristic pose, brandishing a sword and holding a severed head with her right hands while her left hands give the mudras (symbolic hand gestures) of abhaya (fear not) and varada (conferring boons). Although essentially depicting the dark mother goddess in her popular form, a few macabre embellishments have been added here to emphasize the particularly fierce nature of her smashana (cremation ground) aspect. Wavy red lines, flowing from the corners of her mouth around her cheeks and down her neck, have been painted to represent oozing blood. On Kali’s left and right sides, two semi-nude female shaktis (human embodiments of feminine force) gaze upward toward her as they dance, both of them smeared with gore and feasting on human flesh.

Bakreshwar’s sacred burning ground is separated from the surrounding area by a border of tombstones and a small river running along the side of it. Cremation here differs from others I have observed in that a network of connected trenches is employed to contain the improvised wooden pyres. The resultant fire, burning at ground level, is thus easily managed by the Dom who use bamboo poles to manipulate the wood and break the body down as it is slowly incinerated. Pieces of wood which have not burned away are removed, put aside, then later incorporated into fresh pyres.

To be cremated at Bakreshwar is considered particularly auspicious, so it follows that this burning ground is a highly active one. Dead bodies routinely arrive, not just from the local community, but also various locations throughout West Bengal and even as far away as the neighboring states of Bihar and Jharkhand. During my daily visits, I often witnessed up to five pyres burning at the same time. The soil here is permeated with ash, imparting it with an overall gray cast and where the river runs directly alongside the cremation ground, its water is almost black.

Much of my time at Bakreshwar was spent interacting with the local Dom who seemed just as eager to hear stories of my life in America as I was to learn about their unique occupation. The cordial hospitality of the Dom contrasted with the immediate gloomy environment. While seated amidst blazing funeral pyres crackling all about, I found myself regularly being offered tea and snacks. Together we would also frequently indulge in the more ill-advised pleasures of smoking bidis (tobacco-leaf wrapped cigarettes) and ganja (Sanskrit word for cannabis), as well as quaffing copious amounts of bangla--a local rice-based moonshine. I have many fond memories of the Bakreshwar smashana; despite it being a place of death, I mostly recall the friends I made, along with the laughter and good times we shared.

An event in particular still stands out in my mind as being one of the most distinctive experiences of my travels thus far. Early one morning, I visited the smashana where I encountered a small group of Dom gathered together near a single burning pyre. One of the men greeted me and was excited to find I could converse in Bengali. He brushed off a tombstone and offered me a seat beside him to talk. A chai wallah, standing nearby with a kettle in his hand, was immediately called over. My new friend then pointed at the funeral pyre (with a clearly recognizable human corpse burning on top of it), said a few words, and the tea pot was placed directly into the fire. As we chatted over that warm cup of chai, I thought of how bizarre this entire scenario would seem to most folks I know back home. Death is an inescapable aspect of life which people generally confront only when forced to do so. For most of us, it remains safely hidden away until it ultimately appears––seemingly out of nowhere––to rear its ugly head before once again returning to the shadows. For the Dom however, there is nothing at all unusual or shocking about the atmosphere of the cremation ground. Dealing directly with the grim reality of death is just another day on the job.

When reflecting back on the time I spent at Bakreshwar, I will always remember Korno, a twenty-one year old Dom boy who I became close friends with. Over the course of my stay in India we forged a bond that I suspect will last the rest of my days. It was because of Korno that I was able to experience as much of an inside view of Dom life as could be hoped for during a brief stay. A tantalizing angle for pursuing further research into the mysteries surrounding Kali crystallized during an afternoon ganja session we shared near the cremation ground...

On this day I visited the smashana and found it surprisingly empty, a rather infrequent occurrence allowing the Dom to enjoy some respite from their work. While wandering about, I chanced upon a group of Dom sitting with a Tantrik (practitioner of magical arts) and was asked to join them. As a freshly-packed chillam (cylindrical clay pipe) was passed around we were discussing more mundane matters when Korno asked me if everyone in the USA followed Christian dharma (ancient word referring to universal order, used here in the common sense as “religion”). I explained that while the majority of Americans are Christian, there is a mixture of spiritual beliefs reflecting the diverse population. He then asked if I was a Jishu bhakta (literally “Jesus devotee”) as well. When I responded to this question by stating that I am a bhakta of Kali, the group became visibly elated. Waving his hand in a circle, Korno enthusiastically proclaimed that everyone in the group was also a bhakta of Kali. He then added with a friendly smile, “Kali is one of us, she is a chandala!” This word “chandala” comes to us from Sanskrit, originally as a designation for lower caste people whose occupation is the disposal of corpses. In modern times, it is commonly used as a pejorative to slander people as low, filthy, or generally despised.

In all of my encounters with the Dom, I have invariably found them to be devotees of the archetypal dark mother goddess Kali, or the closely related Ma Tara. As a liminal deity associated with the social periphery and cremation ground, Kali would seem a fitting patron for the Dom––members of a stigmatized caste traditionally considered “untouchable” by mainstream society. However, it appears counterintuitive that within a patriarchal and caste-oriented social system the image of a low-caste female would be widely venerated as the ideal anthropomorphic representation of the cosmic matriarch. Kali the mother, as we know her today, is a multifaceted deity who undoubtedly developed through the synthesis of myriad indigenous goddesses whose roots reach back into prehistory.

It is not unreasonable to assume that the modern Dom descend from a tribal group who were subjugated at some point in the distant past. Relegated to the lowest rank of society, such a vanquished people would naturally take their patron goddess with them as they moved about, engaging in occupations determined by their caste. Although the origins of Kali may forever remain obscured by an impenetrable veil of mystery, I believe that a key to shedding a modicum of light upon her shadowy evolution lies within the seemingly parallel saga of the Dom. My own experiences have consistently affirmed that a profound connection exists between the black mother and this stigmatized caste which venerates her. It is an intriguing relationship that I feel obliged to investigate and make the focal point of future research. Through photography, field recording, and writing, I hope to share some of my discoveries and revelations as the outward, tangible reflection of an essentially internal, spiritual journey while I dedicate my life to exploring the Kali mythos––wherever she may guide me.

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