I was in Chidambaram, South India during monsoon. The rain periodically fell in obscene sheets, drenching me several times a day as I moved from one area of the temple courtyard to another. When the rain stopped, the sun would immediately emerge from behind the clouds and the many silk layers of my sari would dry and heat up until I longed for the rain again. At a certain point, I ceased to care, knowing that either the deluge or the scorching July sun would soon would have its way with me and my wrinkled sari.
I was spending my time at the enormous Nataraja Temple with occasional side-trips to the Tillai Kali Temple. The Chidambaram Nataraja Temple is like a walled medieval village consisting of over 40 acres of land with multiple layers of enclosures and sub-temples dedicated to Nataraja, the dancing form of Shiva, and his extended family. All the Gods are there: either ornately presented and honored or intimately tucked in corners.
Tillai Kali Temple, on the other hand, is out at the periphery of town, where Kali was banished after losing the dance contest to Nataraja, Lord of the Dance. It is tiny compared to the Nataraja temple, but dense and potent with Kali’s ferocious energy.
The first time I visited Tillai Kali, I was stung by a fire ant. On another visit, I stood up too quickly and cracked my head against the low ceiling of the small Ganesha shrine in the courtyard. This didn’t happen to me in any other temple, but since Kali is the most ferocious and primal of goddesses, my experiences at her home seemed consistent with her reputation.
Kali is simultaneously fearful and loving. She is a goddess of extremes, primal and untamed, eyes rolling, smeared with blood, wearing a mala of human heads, dancing on the battleground in a blood-fueled frenzy. She is nature in all its beauty, cruelty, and indifference. Kali is the great darkness from which we emerge and to which we return. She rules over time and therefore death, giving life and taking it away.
In Kali’s greatest moment, she sucks the blood from the demon Raktabija and devours his demon army. How does she do this? She is everything that exists, so because there is nothing she is not, she merely absorbs them back into herself, her ferocity and passion saving the world from the demons. She is the Divine Mother of all.
While Kali can be loving, she also reminds us that life is tough, giving us regular reality checks and wake-up calls. Remembering that Kali’s ferocity can come in many forms, from a rabid dog to a mother’s love, I found both of my painful incidents humorous once I had recovered.
And perhaps because I was so accepting of my strange experiences in her temple, I was given the great gift during this one visit of being alone in her courtyard. I was back in Chidambaram with my friend Priya, who declined to emerge from the inner part of the temple into the pouring rain. As I moved through the small courtyard no one else was around.
The stones at Tillai Kali are dusted with layers of red kumkum, and Tillai Kali herself is buried in a mountain of kumkum, garlanded with limes to cool her heat, her white garments smeared and stained with the sacred red powder.
As I stood in the courtyard, the rain tapered off to a mist. It was quiet-even the birds were hiding from the weather. I peered across the courtyard where the rain had merged with the kumkum, then looked down at the ground and saw my feet standing in a pool of blood. There was a moment in which I was not sure what had happened to me this time. I lifted the hem of my sari a couple of inches and moved my toes. The hot stones that had blistered them a day before were now cool and comforting. Everything seemed ok.
I’m not sure how long it took me to realize that this was what happened to kumkum in the rain, and that this bloody mess was the essence of Kali’s sweetness, the flipside of the burning stings and throbbing bumps I had accumulated on my other trips. And I’m still not sure how long I spent in the courtyard that looked like a horrific yet peaceful battlefield, gingerly walking and hopping through Kali’s bloody puddles, recognizing the splash and slip under my feet as her blessing.