In the name of the goddess

April 25th, 20113:48 pm @


 

A devotee of the goddess Kali has his face pierced with a spear.

In a north Indian town, a large crowd has gathered. Women in bright saris, their pallus drawn over their heads, line one side of a narrow street. Men line the opposite. On the rooftops above, others find whatever vantage points they can. For a time they stand there, watching the entrance to a small temple on the side of the road.

Suddenly, a middle aged man, bare-chested and with bare feet, comes running into the gloaming, ululating and striking his back using a length of rope looped with iron spikes. He’s soon joined by a companion, who charges into the gap between the crowd and runs laps while also whipping himself – somewhat more enthusiastically than the first. A gentleman next to us leans over to explain that the men are devotees of Kali, the Hindu goddess of time and change – or, if you like, death.

According to our newfound guide, the men have been fasting for nine days and are now possessed by the goddess. After being joined by more devotees whipping themselves, one wearing a pair of iron-spiked sandals (spikes underfoot, like an extreme form of massage sandal) the men take a break while a long metal spear is brought out from the temple. As the first devotee paces back and forth, the tip of the spear is held over a flame before being rubbed with a lemon by an assistant. Meanwhile, others have tied a red cloth around his head as he continues to rock back and forth.

Into the mêlée wanders a young cow, whose curiosity is rewarded by a slap from a bystander who rushes to move the animal away in what is probably the only time I’ve seen a cow chastised in India. The devotee, meanwhile, has approached the assistants holding the spear and who, within seconds, thrusts it through the man’s left cheek and out the right. Not content with self flagellation and being skewered on a 10-foot spear, he proceeds to walk in a large circle in front of the temple, while an assistant holds the other end of the spear. A few laps in front of the crowd and it’s time for his companion.

 

As the crowd looks on.

While the first devotee merely paced back and forth in preparation, this younger one screams to prepare himself for the piercing. Our guide tells us the first man is an old hand at this, while the second, a gardener at a five-star hotel, is a novice. We ask why anyone would do this to themselves and he replies that it will raise the young man’s standing in the community. According to believers, he’ll have the ability to solve their problems from now on. Having missed the first bit of spear action, I push my way through the crowd to get a better vantage point, eventually scrambling up on a plastic garden chair to get above the crowd.

As the spear enters the devotee’s cheek he grimaces, the pain clear across his face. While he performs his laps through the crowd I feel something brush past my legs. In the crush and confusion of the crowd I’m not sure what it is and nearly drop my camera before turning round to see the errant cow from earlier, which has now taken an interest in my sandals. Before it can make a meal of them, I jump down, give it a pat by way of apology on behalf of those with two legs as the two devotees are led off down the narrow and crooked alleys towards another temple, spears still intact and with the crowd quickly flowing behind them. Our guide says they’re going to the next temple, where there will be more celebrations and at midnight some “magic”. “Magic? What kind of magic?” asks my wife. Our friend thinks for a second, and with a smile says, “black magic”.

It’s all getting very Live and Let Die but we opt to follow the crowd down the alleys, but at a distance. Flowing with the crowd we end up behind a tall English guy, the only other foreigner we’ve spotted and something that makes me feel a little more comfortable until a young man, perhaps in his early 20s, and with friends in tow sidles up to him and asks in a tone that suggests a slight menace: “What are you doing here?” The English guy replies casually: “You know, just having a look. Is that okay?” It turns out that it is okay, but the sense of menace never really leaves me.

At this point we’ve lost sight of the men and the crowd has come to a standstill except for women carrying large baskets containing plants, who make their way to the front before everyone – women first – moves on in a mass of colour towards the temple. With the light failing the crowd spills out into an open area by a large pool. Up on a small rise sits the temple, presumably the destination of the speared devotees. There’s already a large crowd swarming outside, while in the courtyard a group of musicians, lit by candles and gas lamps, strikes up. Along the side of the pool, women pray at a group of small shrines.

 

Temple-bound.

Underneath a large tree a group of men crowded around an old man sitting by a fire. I stand at the back of the group on my toes trying to see what’s going on. The seated man is holding a board of some sort, but before I can get a better look the man in front of me turns around. My hopes that he may be a source of information are dashed when he says: “You shouldn’t really be here.”

Usually I’m only asked to leave a party after I’ve spilled red wine on the host’s new rug/dog/child but I figured it would be unwise to argue the toss and edged away from the group – straight into a young guy working himself up to have his face speared. I turned to say sorry but he barely noticed me as he rushed towards the guy holding the spear before stopping, hopping from foot to foot screaming, then running back to re-do his run-up.

By now it was dark and the musicians were in full swing, helping to work the crowd into a frenzy. The mood wasn’t exactly menacing, but after my encounter by the fire I was seeing things in a different light and suggested to my wife that we make a move back to the hotel, where I planned on a stiff drink or three. Back in the room, my reverie was broken when she remembered the midnight black magic. My spirits raised, however, when she said: “You know, I’ve had a shower, I’m clean now. I don’t know, what do you think?”

Me, I’d seen enough for one day.

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