Temples and mountains
The temple within my heart is open to all.
I ask only that you enter with reverence.
Do not leave offerings, but rather,
Show me who you are so that I can remember myself.
~ Calista Ocean
The temperature was already more than eighty degrees Fahrenheit in Kolkata at 8:30 in the morning. I exchanged twenty rupees for a small basket of flowers and sweets; and a garland of bright, red hibiscus blooms. We slid off our shoes and left our mobile phones with the young man at the gift shop stall. I carried the offering between my hands, enjoying the cool feel of the tile under my bare feet.
More than a decade ago, I'd read a book about the Dakshineswar Kali Temple. The descriptions and images had touched me deeply. I knew that I would visit someday; that somehow, I would find my way here.
Trembling with nervous excitement, I walked alongside Basudha, a lovely, thirtyish women that I'd hired as a local guide. Her presence made it easier for me to navigate the chaos and commotion all around us. Although we would talk a lot as our driver shuttled us to various spiritual and cultural sites in the city for the next two days, now we walked quietly side by side. We rode down the escalators at the end of the skywalk and stepped out onto hot stone sidewalks. To keep from burning our feet, we walked on painted white paths to the entrance gate and within the temple complex.
What followed was a blur. I felt both devotion and detachment. There was a sense of both movement and stillness.
I stood in line with dozens of people. We shuffled slowly up temple stairs, holding offerings, waiting for our turn to see the black basalt status of Bhavatarini - an aspect Kali Ma who is said to bestow liberation on her devotees. Within five to ten minutes, I was standing before the image of the Mother. Her dark figure stood on the prostrate white marble body of Shiva. She was dressed in brilliant blue and adorned in flowers and jewels. I was mesmerized.
A priest took the flowers from my hands, laid the garland among the others at Her feet, and then returned the basket of flowers and sweets to me as prasad (a gift offered to a deity and then distributed or consumed later since it has been consecrated.) Others pushed into the space to do see Her. One step at a time, I backed down the stairs with my eyes on Her image, not wanting this moment to be over so soon.
When I reached the base of the stairs, Basudha was waiting for me. We walked across the courtyard to see the twelve temples dedicated to Shiva, each of them containing a Shiva linga made of black stone. Devotees rang bells and poured river water or milk onto the lingam. I watched and prayed and moved from one temple to the next, no longer feeling the heat on my skin or under my feet. I was still in a state of rapture. It felt as though my heart had been replaced by the mantra that pulsed silently in the center of my being.
What Came Before
Prior to arriving in Kolkata, I'd spent three weeks in Nepal and Tibet, where I'd traveled with a dear friend and other pilgrims to Mount Kailash, the abode of Lord Shiva and the Goddess Parvati.
The trip to this holy mountain began and ended in Kathmandu, also known as the "city of temples." I visited several of them during my stay there and was privileged to get a glimpse of the Royal Kumari, or "living goddess" from her courtyard in Durbar Square. Not all temples allowed me to enter since I wasn't Hindu, so I wandered the cremation grounds and viewed them from nearby hillsides. I was disappointed, but I also understood that these sacred places were not intended to be a tourist attraction. I knew that the color of my skin made me look more like a sightseer than a devotee, so I met God across the river and asked for blessings from there.
It took us five days to travel across Tibet by buses and six hours to walk fourteen kilometers at high altitude (around 5,000 meters above sea level) to arrive at the north face of the Mount Kailash. Although the outer journey was a shared one, it seemed that the inner journey was unique to each of us.
I'd walked below the snow-covered peak with a pocket full of malas, silently chanting 'Om Namah Shivaya'. My mind had busied itself by grappling with the concept of surrender. What did it mean to surrender? What was I being asked to surrender? But my heart hadn't been lost in these questions; it had simply bowed down at the foot of the mountain in devotion and awe.
It wasn't the most direct route to India, but I was grateful that my pilgrimage had started here in the Himalayas. I had deepened in friendship with Shivangi and been inspired by the joy and devotion of those who shared our journey. Although weather conditions prevented us from completing our walk around the mountain, we had all carried our prayers to Shiva and watched the setting sun turn the summit to gold.
I was filled with silence and reverence. I was reminded that Shiva and Shakti are one. An eternal dance between form and formlessness. I placed an image of the mountain in the temple within my heart. I was ready to go to Dakshineswar.
A Second Offering
Before leaving India, I wanted to return to the Kali Temple one more time. On my own - without a tour itinerary to fill up the rest of the day.
So, after a couple of days of wandering along the banks of the Ganges River in Rishikesh, I returned to Kolkata. On my last morning there, a ride service dropped me off in front of the entrance to the temple complex, but I turned and headed up the skywalk escalator. I found the same young man who had sold me flowers a week before. I paid him twenty rupees for another basket and a garland of hibiscus flowers. I left my shoes and my phone with him. I was aware that people stared at me. I stood out, but the woman who had built this temple wished for people of all castes and religions to offer prayers here. So here I was, walking barefoot with flowers in my hands and an offering of devotion in my heart.
In the past, when I'd pictured standing here before Kali Ma, I always imagined that I might actually dissolve into thin air. I couldn't imagine how I could withstand the immense love and gratitude that I would feel in Her presence. Pinpoints of anticipation danced under the surface of my skin and flowed up and down my spine. My heart melted like butter and dripped through my arms into the basket between my palms.
Would I dissolve this time?
I stood before Her and heard the priest call my name out as he laid the garland at Her feet. Then he handed me the basket of prasad, and I backed onto the stone landing. Other devotees pushed forward or dropped to their knees and pressed their foreheads to the steps. I gazed at Her beauty. The radiant blackness of Her skin. The deep red color of Her long tongue which She uses to devour the comic suffering of all beings. A river of love washed through me. It overflowed as cool tears that trickled down my cheeks.
I walked down the stairs and over to the shaded pavilion directly across from the temple. I couldn't see the image of Kali anymore, but I could see the line of devotees filing up the stairs to see Her and watch them as they turned to leave, still facing Her as I had. I sat down and watched people wander through on their way to the courtyard. Women in colorful saris sat around me on the shaded stone floor. I heard people chattering and bells ringing from the Shiva temples across the way. The air was warm, but I could feel a light, cool breeze on my face and arms. I closed my eyes, trusting my soul to remember the details that my mind would let slip away.
I hadn't dissolved.
Or had I?
Before coming here, a dear friend of mine had suggested that Kali might dissolve me in one instant and restore me in the next. I don't know whether that happened, but I do know that I was forever changed by coming to this sacred place. I realized that the act of pilgrimage is itself a holy thing. It wasn't that I needed to come here to be with the Mother. I am with Her always, carried in Her heart the way my daughters are carried in mine.
It was that the act of coming here was an offering. It was a gift of time and energy and devotion that I offered to her in return for the prasad of grace. It wasn't just that I had beheld Her in this place; it was that She had beheld me and acknowledged the journey I had taken to be here.