In the centre image of Kali striding over Shiva, necklace of heads, writing around edge of image

Kali rises in the East

By Alex Wolfers

Publication date: 9 December 2020

A mother, warrior, and symbol of revolution – the Tantric goddess Kali has many forms. Guest author Alex Wolfers explores them and examines Kali's insurgent history in colonial Bengal.

Kali rises in the East

Kali rises in the East

Goddess Kali walking over Shiva's chest
Painted and gilded clay figure of Kali striding over Shiva, Bengal, Eastern India, late 19th century.


This common pairing of the goddess Kali standing on her husband, the god Shiva, illustrates the importance Tantra places on feminine creative power (shakti). Shiva is a shava (corpse) without the feminine presence of Shakti.

In East India, from 1757, Bengal was the epicentre of colonial British rule as well as an early site of Tantric practice. The Tantric goddess Kali, who rose to prominence in Bengal at this time, provided her devotees with maternal love while embodying the cosmic interconnectedness of creation and destruction. From the early 19th century, British missionaries and imperialists in India fantasised about Tantra, and Kali worship in particular, as a depraved cult of violence and ecstasy that justified their civilising presence. This moralistic interpretation was also common among Westernised middle-class Bengalis in the colonial capital of Calcutta (now Kolkata).

However, alongside their growing disillusionment with British rule, many found a way to reconnect with their own cultural heritage with the help of Ramakrishna – a Tantric mystic living on the outskirts of the city. Ramakrishna enticed middle-class audiences with his earthy folk wisdom and displays of ecstatic mysticism, often expressing his love for the goddess Kali through songs and dance, expressing playful, childlike devotion. Operating outside of Hindu orthodoxy, he offered a free space of mystical experimentation far removed from both the strictures of caste society and the daily humiliations of colonial submission.

Whereas other Hindu traditions understood the world as an illusion (maya), a dream from which to wake, Ramakrishna's Tantric theology celebrated it as shakti or creative feminine power. This offered middle-class householders a way to pursue meaningful religion without renouncing society and their material interests. Instead, they could celebrate material existence as a 'house of fun' and participate freely in divine creation like playful children of Kali, the divine mother, aspiring to transform and not transcend the world. Kali, the dynamic and active principle, stands over and above the passive and transcendent god Shiva. For a class looking to resist Western commercialism, even while they participated in it, Ramakrishna's Tantric worldview provided an appropriate model. His disciples later promoted his message of inclusive salvation around the world, projecting him as a modern living messiah.

Mother goddess to motherland

Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, as the Bengali middle-classes were confronted by the oppressive realities of empire, they increasingly looked to indigenous resources to formulate a sense of nationhood. Associates of Ramakrishna styled themselves as 'the Army of the Mother' and spoke of establishing her reign throughout the land. They began to associate the territory of the Indian motherland with the volatile presence of the Mother goddess herself. Poets, playwrights and artists retold popular myths about the divine Mother, impregnating them with modern political meanings and new emotional significance.

For example, according to one Tantric myth, Shiva, the god of destruction, was humiliated by his father-in-law, King Daksha, when neither he nor his wife Sati were invited to a royal fire sacrifice (yajna). Sati insisted on attending and when Shiva tried to stop her, she exploded in fury, overwhelming her husband with her 10 powerful manifestations (Mahavidya or Great Wisdom goddesses). Sati then went to Daksha's sacrifice alone whereupon he again insulted her until she leapt into the flames. On hearing of Sati's suicide Shiva was so grief-stricken that he broke into the sacrificial arena, took his wife's corpse on his shoulders and began to annihilate the entire universe with his terrifying dance of destruction. Finally, Vishnu, the god of preservation, hurled his discus at Sati's lifeless body and sliced it into 51 pieces, which rained down across the subcontinent.

At each of these sites, known as Shakti Pithas (Seats of Power), Tantric practitioners worshiped different dismembered parts of the goddess' body, tapping into her sacred energy. For early Bengali patriots like Bhudev Mukhopadhyay (1827–94) these 'places of pilgrimage' articulated the idea of India as a distinctive and unified body, or motherland.

In Tantra the Mahavidyas play a central role as symbols of divine power to be used as aids for spiritual awakening.

The print subdivided into ten equal parts, each representing one of the ten aspects of Devi, the divine mother.
The Mahavidyas, published by the Calcutta Art Studio. Chromolithograph, Kolkata, Bengal, India, about 1895. Funded by the Brooke Sewell Permanent Fund.

The many faces of motherhood

The Mahavidyas provided the Bengali middle-classes with a visual means to reimagine the various conditions of the motherland that the uneducated classes could instantly understand – the widow goddess Dhumavati, for instance, was deployed as a sorrowful representation of India as a 'begging mother' (Bharat Bhiksha), toothless and haggard, ravaged by the regular famines that British economic policies had inflicted on the nation.

Lithograph comprising two colourful scenes, on left Dhumavati to the left is shown as an aged widow with loose hair, on the right Matangi on the right in the form of a beautiful blue woman with four arms
Dhumavati and Matangi, published by the Calcutta Art Studio. Lithograph, Kolkata, Bengal, India, about 1885–90.


In one influential play Dhumavati (left) attempts to awaken her sleeping sons with sorrowful tales of her plight.

In stark contrast to this poignant figure of loss, the novelist Bankim Chandra Chatterjee (1838–94) imagined the motherland as she one day would be, restored to an ideal state of abundance. His nationalist hymn, Bande Mataram, personified Bengal as a source of maternal strength (shakti) for her disciplined sons, and domesticated her within stable territorial boundaries. Indeed, many plays and poems of the period used the Sati myth to reimagine Shiva as the heroic redeemer of the lifeless motherland. In these versions the dynamic, masculine patriot held together the fragmented corpse of the nation and, in some interpretations, secured India's missionary role in the world as the nation best equipped to unite the multiple shards of cultural truth from throughout the empire.

Print of Shiva carrying Sati across his shoulders
Calcutta Art Studio, Shiva and Sati, hand-coloured lithograph, 1880s. © Collection of Mark Baron and Elise Boisante.


Inverting the more familiar Kali-Shiva pairing, this melancholy icon of Shiva bearing Sati became a template for the ideal revolutionary sannyasi (ascetic) of the period.

The great mother of death

Tantra's macabre associations made it a useful framework with which to render India as a smouldering cremation ground (bharat-shmashan), a space of dereliction inhabited by the half-dead and the abject. But just as Tantra often reflected on death to bring the urgency of life more vividly into focus, its uncanny symbolism enabled the colonised to cultivate militant dreams of revolutionary transformation.

One poem presents the Tantric shava sadhana (corpse ritual) which requires the heroic practitioner (vira) to sit upon a fresh corpse in a cremation ground on a moonless night, calling upon Kali to take away his fear: 'India is an endless cremation ground… Meditate on great power (Mahashakti) in the vira pose.' The nation is haunted by Kali's fearsome presence, 'thirsting for hot, fresh blood' and inviting the immanent destruction of the unjust colonial order. Tantric poetry like this sanctioned a perilous level of militancy under the protective guise of traditional religious practice but, though it played on British paranoia, it was difficult to suppress since it did not identify an explicit enemy.

In 1907 British unease was further provoked by this advert for Swadeshi 'Kali Cigarettes', published by the Calcutta Arts Studio at a time of political instability. Herbert Hope Risley was especially anxious that Kali seemed to be garlanded with European heads and was spurred by such images to draft the 1910 Press Act.

In the centre image of Kali striding over Shiva, necklace of heads, writing around edge of image
Popular print of the goddess Kali, published by the Calcutta Art Studio. Lithograph, Kolkata, Bengal, India, about 1885–95.


But it was Viceroy Lord Curzon's attempt to partition Bengal in 1905 that truly set the stage for the most threatening eruptions of Tantric terrorism. Inspired by the Irish uprisings and the South African Boers, young Bengalis turned to guerrilla tactics to combat the seemingly invulnerable British empire with its superior military resources. Guided by the political theology of the Bengali thinker Aurobindo Ghose (1872–1950), many organised underground secret societies, styling themselves as revolutionary sannyasis (ascetics) and undergoing esoteric initiation rites before idols of Kali in cremation grounds, as they vowed to sacrifice their lives for the liberation of the motherland.

Lithograph comprising two colourful scenes, on left Shodashi aloft with reclining figure in front, on right Chinnamasta  holding head with blood streaming from neck into her mouth and attendants' mouths
Shodashi and Chinnamasta, published by the Calcutta Art Studio. Lithograph, Kolkata, Bengal, India, about 1885–90.


The headless Mahavidya Chinnamasta was another favourite form of the divine mother among Bengali radicals for whom she represented the rejuvenating force of revolutionary violence and heroic self-sacrifice.

Recruits studied the Russian anarchist Nicholas Safranski's explosives manual alongside the Chandi, a devotional poem in praise of a demon-slaying aspect of the Divine Mother. Revolutionary pamphlets legitimised violence among the wider public by invoking Ma (Mother) Kali's bloodthirsty appetites and her desire for the sacrifice of 'white goats', a coded reference to Englishmen. While guns were difficult to obtain, explosives could be created from scratch, making 'Ma Kali's bomb' (Kali Mai's boma) a more democratic way of bursting free from oppressive British rule.

Kali striding over Shiva, holding bloody knife and severed head with severed head necklace
Kali, originally published by K. P. Hazra. Chromolithograph, India, 1917. © British Library.


This image of Kali standing over Shiva was used as the frontispiece to James Campbell Ker's Political Trouble in India, 1907–1917, a confidential report on the emergence of the revolutionary movement.

The daredevil methods of these young revolutionaries played a critical role in establishing the idea of freedom in the popular consciousness and, in 1911, even compelled the British to transfer their capital to Delhi. But their movement was ultimately undermined by its overreliance on the vanguardist actions of an ethical elite rather than encouraging mass participation. Tantric rhetoric proved more adaptable in the hands of later activists, as in the case of the Muslim socialist poet Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899–1976), who powerfully reframed revolutionary struggle around the agency of women, workers and peasants. In one popular poem he calls upon women to emulate Kali: 'Rise up women, ignite your flame… dance your mad, naked dance… and awaken your power to burn the world.'

Even after independence, when the Naxalite (Maoist) militants of Bengal revolted in the 1970s against entrenched upper-class feudalism and capitalist exploitation, their pursuit of an ideal 'revolutionary personality' was nourished by Tantra. For the movement's chief thinker, Charu Mazumdar (1919–72): 'One who does not dip his hand in the blood of the class enemy is not a revolutionary.'

In times of instability, revolutionary dreams and desires have often constellated around the anarchic figure of Kali, the promise of transformation never too far behind.

Find out more about Tantra: enlightenment to revolution.

Supported by the Bagri Foundation

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