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The call of Kali

Devotees at the Sri Padhpathira Kaliamman Alayam temple (File pic by Danny Lim)

“…will you walk through your fears, to dance with me?”

                                                                                           – from a hymn of Kali

AS often as the story has been told, it can’t be told enough.

The narrative remains an essentially “modern account”. It encapsulates the great transformations of the last century affecting human movement and encounter. For all that it tells of developments in communication, history and politics, it remains principally a narrative bound with the expression of individual faith and haunting hope.

In the port of Madras, towards the end of the 1890s, young Tamil men and women awaited to board steamers that would bring them to the Malay peninsula. Here, they would serve as labourers, part of the kangany system in the newly cleared rubber plantations sprouting throughout British Malaya.

This indentured workforce only had the promise of three square meals, a small plot of land at the end of the term’s labour, or a pass for the steamer back home. Disembarkation at the ports of Penang and Klang was followed by resettlement throughout the Malay peninsula and the hapless task of clearing the land.

It was the early experience of entering into darkness.

(Pic by Ahmad Zakii Anwar)
Constructing shrines

A Tamil proverb cautions: “Settle not on land where there is no temple.” The act of creating the estates and commencing cultivation of them was always then accompanied by the more personal effort of constructing a shrine and enacting religious observance.

Whether driven by superstition or plain bhakti (devotion), the shrines served as the centre of activity and communion for these isolated communities. The deities who presided there, it was held, guarded their devotees’ plight.

By the early part of the 20th century, Indian immigration intensified in the urban centers of the peninsula where a principally Tamil workforce was assembled to help in railway construction and administration.

Again, a similar process occurred. Urged by a dream or portentous incident, a shrine would be erected, a suitable mythology forged, a congregation gathered.

The practice of faith in these shrines remained diverse, polyglot, demotic; expressed in the forms and rituals of a folk tradition far removed from the puritanical observances of an institutionalised faith.

The choice of presiding deities reflected this. There was Muneeswaran, the cheerot-smoking Tamil folk god, sword in one hand, warding off evil; and Subramaniam, also known as Murugan, the archetype of Tamil consciousness whose trident brought light unto the world. And always Kali, mother goddess, goddess of death and destruction who ruled over this age, the age of Kali (Kali Yuga), characterised by its incessant stress, strife and endless turmoil.

Children observing the rituals from afar (File pic by Danny Lim)
In this age, it was indeed Kali, Ma, who literally devoured evil, ignorance and delusion. Within the classical Hindu tradition, the origins of the goddess Kali is traced to her representation on a battlefield; or, more metaphorically, on the peripheries of mainstream religion.

Kali the slayer

The noted historian of Kali, David Kinsley, has written an evocative portrait of the mother goddess:

“The goddess Kali is almost always described as having a terrible, frightening appearance. She is always black or dark, is usually naked, and has long, dishevelled hair. She is adorned with severed arms as a girdle, freshly cut heads as a necklace, children’s corpses as earrings, and serpents as bracelets. She has long, sharp fangs, is often depicted as having clawlike hands with long nails, and is often said to have blood smeared on her lips. Her favourite haunts heighten her fearsome nature. She is usually shown on the battlefield, where she is a furious combatant who gets drunk on the hot blood of her victims, or in a cremation ground, where she sits on a corpse surrounded by jackals and goblins.”

Among the many myths associated with her is one that locates her in an age where evil forces reigned relentlessly. Responding to supplications from his followers, the god Shiva sent the goddess of war, Durga, to enter the battlefield and slay the demon king Rakavija.

Unknown to the goddess was a boon that had already been bequeathed to the demon king by the god Brahma. Every time a drop of the demon’s blood was spilt, he would be reborn a thousand times more powerful.

Unable to quell the multitude and increasingly powerful incarnations of Rakajiva, Durga summoned pure shakti (energy) from her brow — Kali, the incarnation of destruction and eternal justice.

Slaying the demon king with her sword, Kali placed her lips on the wound to drain his body of all blood. But drinking his blood sent her into an uncontrollable rage and she ventured to slaughter all who crossed her path until Shiva himself was forced to place himself at her feet, bringing a temporary calm.

Part of the rituals during Ammah‘s month (File pic by Danny Lim)

Transcending fear

Philosophically, Kali devotion locates itself at the very centre of the Hindu belief system — the transcendence of spirit over body and matter. Confronting, worshipping and embracing the goddess in her dark Self serves as the act of transcendence over fear and illusion.

Commonly associated with the rise over adversity, Kali worship naturally beckoned an ascendance among the working communities of the Malay peninsula. In estates, in the squatter areas of the menial workforce, where light was scarce and conditions intense, the appeal of the dark goddess was natural.

Apparitions of her were frequent, and shrines, devoted to her presence, immediately constructed. So it was some 80 years ago when a dream inspired a railway worker to plant a trident at his home, break the ground, and invite the goddess Kali to enter.

Bequeathed to his daughter Muniamma Superaian, and now attended to by her daughter Gowri Arumugam, this shrine, the Kuil Sri Padhpathira Kaliamman Alayam, located in Brickfields, attests to this lineage of faith.

Kali taken for a “walk” (Pic by Ahmad Zakii Anwar)
Home to an ever-growing, multiracial congregation, regular prayers and rituals — all the details of a living faith — are still held at this shrine, culminating each year, at mid-year, when the image of the goddess Kali is “taken for a walk” within the surrounding vicinity.

That month is Amma (mother)’s month. The ritual ablutions and bath that precedes the walk serve as a symbol for the act of renewal and creation through destruction — according to the Kali way — of the individual ego, of self-delusion and the material.

In a climate where the viability of modest, old shrines are being challenged, occasions such as the walk and the daily rituals remain testament to the particular histories of communal practice that have shaped our diversity.

And in this age of formalising and institutionalising almost every aspect of human life, even the expression of faith is contained. Where belief was once expressed in the form of events and vibrant rituals conducted at modest local community shrines, these are now occasioned in grand structures replete with the solemn murmurings of an organised faith.

Eddin Khoo is a poet, writer, translator and journalist. For a decade he has worshipped at the Kuil Sri Padhpathira Kaliamman Alayam.

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