Nepali Times
The Kali of the South

A bewitching drive away from Kathmandu, through the gorge cut by the Mongolian saint, Manjushri; past the small lake called Taudah where Indra\'s treasure is believed to be hidden and guarded by the snake king Karkot Nag; along a winding road that offers visions of endless beauty at every bend is the most sacred shrine of Dakshin Kali. At one point along the road, with the whole Kathmandu Valley spread below one, it is possible to see the dark pyramid of Everest among a whole horizon of bright snow summits. Turn a corner and the valley is lost behind a shoulder of mountain, the snows obliterated. Before one, the wide cradle of the holy Bagmati drops gradually to the Indian plains. It is believed that one of the reasons for the distant site of Dakshin Kali is to guard the southern routes to Kathmandu, not with the insignificantly small stone image of the goddess itself but with the tremendous tantric power the deity commands. As one enters a small, deeply forested valley where the temple is, that power becomes tangible in a brooding presence compounded of all the dark legends one has heard and the knowledge that this small shrine is bathed in more blood than any other.

Standing at the confluence of two clear mountain streams, the water below the temple is often crimson with blood. On Tuesdays and Saturdays and particularly during the festival of Dasain the small courtyard of the open air temple is ankle-deep in the blood of sacrifice and Kali is continuously bathed with it. If, as I\'ve heard it explained by a tantric sage, spirits flock to the smell of blood: scenes of massacre and murder, battlefields, and sacrificial temples, then they must throng the precincts of Dakshin Kali.

As I sketched the temple, screened from the blood-letting by a wall behind the image, there was a sudden stir among those who idly watched me. A man who had just sacrificed a black goat and taken it to the confluence to wash and prepare for a family feast, had suddenly fallen to the ground, begun vomiting blood and died. The spirits had claimed him, said a young, grave-faced boy who was the son of a temple priest. It often happened, he said. The spirits lived in the trees and under rocks, and sometimes entering the temple claimed a victim. Was he not afraid? I asked. He evaded the question, as if an answer might provoke the very fear he was trying; to hide.

Like so many of Kathmandu\'s temples, Dakshin Kali evolved from the dream of a Malla king who ruled in the fourteenth century. The Goddess Kali appeared to him in all her terrifying glory and commanded that he build a temple for her at a then-unknown, unvisited spot. Immediately it was done, and one of many legends has those who sought the sacred place found it already marked by a stone image of the goddess. They left her open to the elements as she commanded, but. erected a gilded canopy supported by four golden serpents above her head. For company, she has images of Ganesh, seven ashtamatrikas and a free-shaped stone Bhairab. Above the temple, approached by a forest path is a still more simple temple dedicated to Kali\'s mother.

The great importance of Dakshin Kali lies in the ability of the goddess to make wishes come true and bless vows made with each sacrifice. Lovers, students, politicians, businessmen, gamblers, the childless and job-seekers are among the hundreds that visit the temple even\' week. Like the man who suddenly died after making his sacrifice, there may be those who come to wish release from sickness and pain. The small, black, stone goddess hears them all. A titled English lady I conducted to the shrine, braved the gore to make a small offering to the goddess. She confessed to me later, that she had made a wish "though naturally I don\'t for a moment believe in this sort of thing". When I met her a couple of years later, she had been divorced after long years of marriage, so I wondered what her wish had been, and whether it had been answered or not.

There are rest houses about the temple and on the slopes above are grassy forest clearings where more light-hearted pujas are held and worshippers panic off their sacrificed animals. An Indian friend of mine chose one of these charming spots in which to marry his French wife. Though the ancient Hindu ritual was correct and colourful and charged with emotion, the atmosphere was festive. Guests lounged on the grass, shaded from the brilliant sunshine by parasols or bunches of leaves. There were multi-coloured paper flags and flowers on a pyramid of bamboos over the sacred fire. A Frenchman who had spent years learning to play the sitar and sing bhajans, played and sang in three languages-Hindi, French and English. Perhaps, below us, the confluence ran blood-we could not see it-but upon this sundrenched hillside only the bride wore red, and if dark ghosts happened by, they were quickly converted by the joyous spirit of the occasion.

(Excerpted with permission from In the Kingdom of the Gods, HarperCollins, 1999)

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)