Dancing, Kali Style

By Virginia Hendersonn 9 November 2013

YANGON —An extraordinary sensory experience, a dynamic collage of rainbow colors and evocative aromas, full of sound and fury—that’s the Shri Kali Temple in downtown Yangon. Yet miraculously, it’s also a soothing space, a place to be free and at ease with your maker.

Offerings of bananas, oranges, coconuts and lemons are bundled onto trays with garlands of roses, orchids, jasmine, marigolds, chrysanthemums, incense sticks and betel leaf to be solemnized before fire. Devotees with arms outstretched, palms upward, pressed, pay respect, bowing down to the power of the universe. The tilaka, a red dot of sandalwood paste or red kumkuma powder applied on the forehead to express devotion, is a reminder to see things not only with our eyes but also with the third eye, the mind’s eye, urging spiritual insight. Lighting oil lamps symbolizes the dispelling of ignorance and awakening of our divine light.

Temple assistants Parman Shiva, a 53-year old Tamil, and Tula Shi, 28, from Nepal, with sacred strings slung sideways over their bare torsos, give blessings and help to smash burning puja coconuts onto the tiles, representing the shattering of the ego to reveal the sweet fruit inside.

Kali is praised as the greatest of all deities, the fundamental power, raw energy, the ultimate reality. She is the mysterious, powerful goddess of transformation, time and change, representing the wholeness of life, a spectrum of opposites—light and dark, life and death, beauty and ugliness, motherliness and destructiveness. Supreme mistress of the universe, she is associated with the five elements. In union with Lord Shiva, Kali creates and destroys worlds. She is Shiva’s creative power. They must dance together.

A fierce aspect of goddess Durga (Parvati), Kali is pictured as multi-armed, naked or with a skirt of human arms and a garland of human heads. She is shown enraged with disheveled hair, bloodshot eyes, an open mouth with tongue poking out, holding a sword, a severed head (representing the ego), a cup to capture the blood, and standing on Lord Shiva’s body. This represents courage and acceptance of the way things are. Death cannot exist without life, so life cannot exist without death. Kali is also portrayed as the most loving of the Hindu goddesses, mother of the whole universe.

Built by Tamil migrants in 1871, this Hindu temple underwent a major restoration during 2011-12. Every day is celebrated, with special emphasis during the famous Diwali festival of lights on Nov. 3-7.

Shri Kali Temple, Anawrahta St, Yangon; open 6 am-11 am, 4 pm-9 pm

This story was originally published in the November 2013 issue of The Irrawaddy print magazine.