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If you've never been to Kolkata, it's impossible to prepare yourself for the bustling mix of intellectualism, joy, history, poverty and vibrancy of this crazy city known as the intellectual heart of India. A place brimming with life and adventure, perhaps no other location typifies the city better than the temple it was named for, the Kalighat Temple.
The site has been a Shakti pitham (especially holy place of the goddess) for at least 500 years, but the current temple structure was completed in the mid-19th century. Built in on a tributary of the Hooghly River (considered by locals to be the Ganges), the temple complex is packed on all sides like most temples with shops and eager vendors selling all manner of things from devotional items to flip-flops. Inside the temple complex are several shrines, such as a popular shrine to the goddess Manasa (pronounced mo-no-sha in Bengali) which consists of a tree, to which devotees (typically women) tie rocks with red thread in order to receive blessings, usually having to do with conception and childbearing. Also inside is a Shiva shrine with a Vedic fire pit in which yajna (Vedic fire ceremony) is performed daily, a Krishna shrine, an area where goats and buffalo are sacrificed to the goddess (their meat is cooked and distributed to devotees), and the main event, a stone statue of Kali that resembles an immense, stylized, three-eyed black skull with a long, golden tongue. Waiting in the sometimes very long line for darshan can take hours, but foreigners and wealthy locals frequently skip the darshan line with the aid of freelance priests.
Near the taxi stand are a string of these freelance priests dressed in white shirts and dhotis ready to take you to do your puja. Not affiliated with the temple but highly organized into a powerful union, some of them are scam artists who will aggressively ask for large payments (dakshina), while others are actually quite helpful and knowledgable guides, asking for whatever you can donate (100-200 rupees is fine for the service). All of them are fairly shrewd, and for a newcomer who has no idea how to offer worship, they can be quite helpful. These men earn their meagre livelihood this way, although they were outlawed several years ago by Kolkata's high court. Like most things in Kolkata, however, this ruling is rarely - if ever - enforced. Animal sacrifice was also outlawed several years ago at the temple, but it is also rarely, if ever, enforced.
Once inside the mandap area, the platform across from the murti (image) of Kali, the scene is quite often a madhouse, where hundreds of people push and lean to try and get the best view. It can be overwhelming, to say the least! If you are a devotee, the goal here is to get a glimpse of the goddess's eyes, and to receive an orange tilak (a dot on the forehead) - you'll have to get close to receive this, and if you are a Western devotee, it helps to shout "jai maa!" (victory to the mother) at the fellow applying the tilaks.
When leaving the mandap area, there may be young men trying to force red threads (called raksha-bandhan, a sacred thread that carries the blessing of the goddess) onto your wrists and then demanding payment, so keep your arms close and refuse, as these are considered scam artists by those in the know - such threads must be tied on by a priest. Instead, ask for a thread from your priest-guide, or if you're going sans guide, you can try to ask one of the priests inside the temple itself, though you're not likely to get much by way of result.
Kalighat is a mad, smelly, dirty, wonderful, vibrant, crazy place that is really like the beating heart of this city of poets and dreamers. If you love Kolkata, you'll love Kalighat. If you're not quite up to the challenge, you may instead enjoy a visit to the much cleaner and more sedate Dakshineshwar and Adyapeath temples, which are up the river from Kalighat in Dakshineshwar, on the very northern edge of the sprawling Kolkata.