According to Geographer Yi Fu-Tuan’s intervention, the distinction between space and place is a subjective one that relies on human experience. Space is abstract—empty of human memory, symbolic meaning, or sensory experience. It can be neatly categorized, legislated, and owned. Place is messier. Place is where life happens.
What kind of a place is a Hindu temple? How do human beings imagine, move through, and inhabit an abode of the Gods (or God in the singular, depending on one’s view)? How does this correspond to or challenge official state rulings regarding what kind of space it is? Drawing on fieldwork conducted at Kalighat—a Hindu temple in Kolkata, India, dedicated to the goddess Kali—in 2009, 2011, and 2012, I highlight here how various groups of human beings experience the temple in ways that confound legislative categories. The tension between place and space remains unresolved, mirroring the tension between the sacred and secular, and between life and law in the modern world.
To hear devotees tell it, the Goddess Kali has lived in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) “since time immemorial.” She has been responsible for countless births and good fortunes and even for the founding of the city itself. (This purposefully negates imperialists’ notion that the city was founded by Britons before it became the capital of the British Empire in India). While there are Kali temples everywhere in the city and its surroundings, it is Kalighat that constitutes her primary abode there, as it is there that the Goddess’s toes fell to the earth in the mythic Satya Yuga (Age of Truth). Kali’s power emanates from that place, making the land underneath and surrounding it sacred.
Approaching the temple from the main road, one encounters all manner of humanity, from well-heeled entrepreneurs like Alok, who arrives in a chauffeured car to ask for Kali’s aid in a business deal, to devotees like Rekha, who is dressed in a humble sari and brings a small black goat to sacrifice to the Goddess in the hopes her grandfather will return to health. Bicchu is one of the hundreds of priests clad in a white dhoti who stands in front of the temple and offers his ritual services to these devotees while hundreds of hawkers nearby sell their ritual accouterments. Asha is one of the many women who was born on the pavement behind Kalighat. She has always lived there, as has her four-year-old son. It is home to her. The other women who share the pavement with her are her family. They speak of Kali’s grace in providing them a living through devotees’ alms.
The temple itself is quite small. Crowds wait barefoot in long lines on the cement floor slick with hibiscus flowers and blood—sometimes for hours—before they can get a glimpse of the Goddess’s reddened eyes. As Subhra, one devotee, put it to me, there is “bhir” (crowd) at Kalighat, but there is also “aram” (comfort) in Kali’s countenance. For Subhra, like so many others, Kali is “Ma” (mother).
For these men and women, Kalighat is a place drenched with meaning and memory. It is their mother’s home—full and even chaotic at times, yet permeated by the love and grace she has bestowed upon them for countless lifetimes.
For the Indian courts, however, Kalighat is space to be organized and controlled. Before the founding of the modern state, British colonial law read temples as “trusts” or “endowments.”They were then deemed either private or public according to their purpose and use. If a temple had been in a home and used primarily by family members, for example, then it was deemed private. If it had been used by many people—the public as it was defined—then it was deemed public. This designation had far-reaching consequences as the colonial state saw itself as a protector of the public (an item now encoded in India’s constitution).
This public/private distinction did not align with traditional understandings of the temple. Hindus view temples as the Gods’ domiciles where they reside and reign supreme. They are thus the Gods’ own private space. Temples are also sites where sometimes thousands of devotees propitiate those Gods daily. They are therefore simultaneously sites of public worship. Yet according to the official categories, courts ruled time after time and even in the face of evidence to the contrary, that temples were public. They subsequently replaced Brahmin managers with those of their own choosing, often overhauling temples’ administrative structures. They furthermore mandated renovations to the physical appearance of temples, and sometimes even modifications to their ritual activities. In the name of secularism, then, the courts continually intervened in temple life, taking it upon themselves to determine what was in the best interest of the public and ruling accordingly.
At Kalighat today, the courts pass rulings ordering the priests to clean up the temple and the police to remove hawkers and beggars. They demand that sacrifice take place in a high-walled enclosure so as not to offend “the public.” But which public are they listening to? In which public’s name are they adjudicating these suits? Subhra and Rekha are not appealing to the courts, and nor are Bicchu and Asha. Their interests do not come before judges. These publics desire to approach Kali at will, offer her sacrifices and access the resulting blood, and to live in Kali’s shadow and under her care.
Kolkata’s elite citizens imagine Kalighat somewhere in between on the place-space continuum. For them, Kalighat is a place that represents their Bengali Hindu culture and the city itself. They want this sacred site to take center stage in a world-class cityscape—to be a monument they are proud to show foreigners and their overseas relatives, and that will make their children proud of their heritage and maybe even convince them to remain in Kolkata as they grow and have families of their own.
Some such citizens have filed lawsuits in the Calcutta High Court in recent years utilizing the relatively novel legal technology “Public Interest Litigation.” (This is the same technology used by the Indian Young Lawyers Association in the recent Sabarimala case.) They can do so because they are members of the public and because legally, Kalighat is a public institution. They complain of crowds, beggars, and dirt. They want the temple to be clean, grand, and “nuisance-free.” The courts agree.
What of Kali’s interests? Where is she in this tension between place and space? Under Indian law, she is technically the owner of the endowment, but is rendered mute and infirm under the legal designation “juristic personhood.” The law does not recognize Gods’ real presence—only that some people think such presence is real. The distinction is crucial. The purpose of Kalighat is now not only (or not even) to serve Kali, but to serve the public—or at least the public whose voices reach the court.