In the year 1690 on the banks of the river Bhāgirathi-Hooghly locally known as the Kali-Ganga or Ganges in the ancient village of Sutanuti or India’s present-day Kolkata city stood a mesmerising idol of the Hindu Goddess Kali under the shade of a bowing colossal Neem tree. The appearance of the idol was simply bone-chilling. Her nude skin was darker than the unknown realms of the deepest abyss and her red tongue darted out of her mouth like a sword ready to slice through anything.
While a garland of skulls adorned her bosom, a girdle of severed human limbs skirted around her hips. Her long and curly hair flowed down to her knees like the mains of a wild mare. In her four hands, she carried a Khada, or a crescent-shaped giant sickle, a Trishul, or a trident, a freshly severed mortal head, and a bowl of human skull collecting the dripping blood from the sliced human face.
A sight of much reverence for a Hindu, however, a spectacle of death and terror for someone unacquainted with the five-thousand-year-old, world’s oldest, and third largest religion of nine-hundred-million followers today.
Now in the year 1990, on one pitch dark and moonless chilly night, after three-hundred years of the deity’s mysterious and unknown appearance on the muddy banks of Hooghly riverside, a thin and tall bony old man of a jet-black skin akin to that of the Goddess lay immersed in a transcendental prayer at the idol’s feet.
Back at the end of the seventeenth century, it is here where the Hindu’s of the region came to leave their old and dying before they took their last breath, for it was believed that dying on the banks of the sacred Ganges would wash away any traces of sin and ensure an entry to heaven. A dying person was brought to the banks in a great procession accompanied by singers and instruments, this came to be known as the Ganga Yatra at life’s end.
Deep wrinkles on the exposed surface of Kalinath Dom’s ancient face also visible from under his long and sparse thin white beard revealed a soul who had been on this Earth for many decades. His jet-black charred skin was reminiscent of a life spent tending to, raging death pyres and their blistering flames.
In the olden days, the dying was usually laid on the bank under the open air during the night and in the morning a relative would make a part of the dying person’s body touch the river during high tide. This rite known as the Antarjali Jatra ensured the journey of the soul from the mortal to the heavenly realm. Unfortunately, many times during the high tide the body of numerous diseased and old people would be swept away in the river still very much alive.
Those who were brought dead at the Ghat (riverside) or were supposedly fortunate to die on the banks and escape being washed away by the tides – their bodies would be cremated on open wooden pyres and the earthen bowl containing their last remaining mortal ashes would be cast away in the sacred river, ensuring their soul’s rebirth or entry to heave marking the end of the person’s earthly life.
All were, however, not that lucky to be properly cremated, as in those days many of the poor could not even afford the two rupees required for the process. Further, due to prevailing beliefs, the bodies of monks, criminals, anti-social, anti-religious, those who died due to a critical illness, or snake bite or suicide, were not given their last rites and floated down the river on bamboo rafts, to be eaten by the vultures and fishes.
This contaminating discarding of human remains went on in full swing as pointed out by Mr John Stache of Sanitary commission in March 1864 – that the river received more than five thousand dead bodies on an average every year from its pious residents. Two hundred of the cadavers alone were dumped by the Government Hospitals into the river system.
Kalinath Dom, the old devotee worshipping at the feet of the Goddess was born on this very same banks of the Ganges. Many generations ago his outcast ancestors at the bottom of the Hindu caste system came to find a profession at the burning ghats to assist people in the gruesome act of cremating their relatives or discarding unwanted bodies by floating them.
Then in 1837, the Calcutta Municipal Corporation realised the potentials of Kalinath’s ancestors in ridding the city of its unwanted dead. The Corporation officially appointed them. These untouchable undertakers of the discarded dead came to be known as ‘Doms’, who apart from tending to funeral pyres and floating human cadavers in the river would bring in dead animals from the city, peel off their skins for the tanneries and throw away the other body parts in front of the crematorium for vultures, dogs, and foxes.
A century had passed from the initial days of the appearance of the Goddess and the popularity of the place had grown widely as the last pilgrimage at life’s end. The sacred idol came to be referred to as Shasan Kali or the Goddess of the crematorium and the riverside came to be known as Nimtala Burning Ghat, a name derived from the colossal Neem tree, that bowed in respect of the bone-chilling yet mesmerising goddess.
Going a little back in history, some time at the end of 1700, the rich Zamindar or landlord Noni Mohan Banerjee built a temple for the Goddess, which still stands tall today and is known as the Anandamoyi Kali Temple. Now in the year 1990, on this pitch dark and moonless chilly night, Kalinath Dom, the thin and tall bony discarder of the unwanted dead was praying to his revered Goddess in this same sacred place.
At the start of 1800, the Ganga used to flow where the Strand Road stands today. Within the next fifteen years, the Hooghly River started to shift its banks towards the western end. Then in 1817, The British formed the Lottery committee to construct Government houses, roads, and residential buildings for their officers, which were completed by 1831.
This led to the crematorium being shifted to where the present-day circular railway tracks are, and in May 1828, a fifteen feet three-sided high walled, one-hundred-and-sixty feet by ninety feet, open towards the riverside new burning facility was made.
Then for the third time in 1875, the crematorium was reconstructed by the Macintosh Burn & Company at a cost of Rupees Thirty Thousand to make way for the circular railway. This crematorium stands still today and by 2018 the Kolkata Municipal Corporation would have constructed twelve electric burners, which operated by turns to cremate the dead of the city every day, along with the traditional wood pyres for the richer, who could still afford and prefer the same.
Kalinath’s ancestors had been a witness to this evolution of death and religion on this two-thousand-year-old and habited sacred riverbanks of a city, which had grown beyond imagination in the last three hundred years and etched its name in the annals of civilisation and progress. The old Dom, however, had one regret at his life’s end.
“O Shasan Kali Ma, O Mother Goddess, I have spent a lifetime at your feet, on this very bank dealing with the grief of those who lost their loved ones; dealing with the stench of blood, rotten flesh, and decaying bones of the unwanted dead; continuously burning bodies and pealing animal carcases, surviving, and making a living of death. In the December days at my life’s end, I beg of you to show me a bit of life blossom for a change before I take my last breath.” Uttering this prayer with clasped hands, Kalinath laid down a Rakta Karabi or red oleander flower, a nip of Bangla country liquor and two burning incense as holy offerings at the feet of his sacred Goddess.
It was nearly dawn and the first rays of the morning sun mellowed far in the horizon as the old Dom stepped out of the temple to take a dip in the sacred Ganges. It was a ritual that Kalinath had done his entire life and believed it washed away any sin that he might have committed.
As the old man approached the water he saw a ghastly sight, the very likes of which he had just prayed not to see again. Someone had laid down a dying woman in the last stage of her pregnancy, on a bamboo raft, left to be swept away by the tide of the Ganges.
Looking at the young girl, hardly in her early twenties, Kalinath wondered about the cruelty of men. He thought of the many reasons why the lady was abandoned. Perhaps her husband had found another woman, or maybe the family did not want to spend any more on her treatment, or possibly she was carrying a girl child, which still in the 21st century was considered by many to be unwanted.
Tears rolled down the old man’s eyes as he held the hand of the lady to give her a last moment of comfort, of not leaving the world all alone and abandoned on a riverside. Unable to say anything the girl smiled at Kalinath and looked at him for one last time. Her eyes became still as she took her last breath, marking the end of her unknown life.
At that moment Kalinath saw the belly of the lifeless woman bump from inside. In the sad and depressing moment of death, it was a sign of life. Within the dead mother’s womb, the baby was still alive.
Not knowing what to do with perhaps just a few moments to save the unborn child, Kalinath split open the still woman’s animate belly with a splinter of sharp bamboo ripped from her raft-bed of death on that cold morning on the burning ghat riverside.
A shrieking baby girl emerged out of the dead mother’s sliced bowels, whose jet-black skin, exceptionally long curly hair, and a little red tongue resembled the Goddess of the crematorium herself.
“O Shasan Kali Ma, O Mother Goddess, it is you who has come to me in blood and flesh. You have shown me life from death. You have answered my prayers. I vow to look after you and raise you as my own child till my life’s end,” saying these words with much thankfulness Kalinath lifted the newborn girl child in his arms and went on to make arrangements to give her mother her last rites and properly cremate her mortal remains.
Copyright © 2021 TRISHIKH DASGUPTA
This work of fiction, written by Trishikh Dasgupta is the author’s sole intellectual property. All rights are reserved. No part of this story may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including printing, photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, send an email to the author at firstname.lastname@example.org or get in touch with Trishikh on the CONTACT page of this website.
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