Worship of Kali has roots in ancient East Indian belief systems from the first millennium B.C.E. Her name first appears in the holy Hindu text Rg Veda, 1700–1100 B.C.E. (exact dates uncertain). She is also described in the Devi-Mahatmya portion of the Indian historical texts Markandeya Purana, circa 300–600. Today Kali is primarily worshipped in Bengal, eastern India, and throughout Southeast Asia in various forms.
Kali, whose other names include Sati, Rudrani, Parvati, Chinnemastica, Kamakshi, Umak Menakshi, Himavati, and Kumari, is the fierce manifestation of the Hindu mother goddess, or Great Goddess Devi (also known as Durga). She is a complicated symbol, simultaneously feared and adored. As she is associated with the opposing forces of destruction and death, as well as creation and salvation, she has been characterized as both vicious and nurturing. She serves as a reminder of death’s inevitability, which encourages acceptance and dispels fear. She is also a goddess of fertility and time, and is the protector often called upon during disasters and epidemics. As a symbol of productivity, she represents the cycles of nature, and can also be interpreted as a constant creator, taking life to give new life. As destroyer, Kali kills that which stands in the way of human purity and peace in both life and death, such as evil, ignorance, and egoism. Kali’s name comes from the Sanskrit word for “time,” signifying her presence throughout the course of human life.
One early myth of Kali’s creation involves Durga/Devi, who created Parvati, a beautiful and composed goddess, to help battle and subdue evil spirits. Parvati confidently marched into combat, but when she was confronted by the demons, she furrowed her brow and her wrathful form, Kali, emerged. The warrior Kali not only decapitated the demons, presenting the heads to Durga, she also swallowed some in her enormous mouth. Kali is therefore often depicted with blood-smeared lips, holding or adorned with a garland of skulls, and shown carrying weapons. In other representations, Kali is depicted with four, eight, or ten arms; her devouring powers are suggested by her monstrous, wild appearance—violent energy in her crazed facial expression and unruly hair. In many representations, her upper left hand carries a sword and her lower left, the severed head of a demon; her upper right hand makes the gesture of fearlessness and her lower right grants boons.
Kali is also often portrayed standing over her husband and consort, Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction, with one foot on his leg and another on his chest. This position suggests the narrative of his throwing himself under her feet to stop her spree of destruction. Kali is believed to be the formless energy of Shiva’s demolishing forces; the couple is also often depicted dancing or in sexual union, which suggests Kali is the female counterpart to Shiva; together they represent dynamism and the dualistic nature of the world.
Kali at The Dinner Party
Kali’s plate is painted with central core imagery, which is filled with seed forms symbolizing fecundity and referencing Kali’s association with the cycles of nature. The plate is painted in deep reds, purples, and browns that repeat in the finger-like protrusions stitched into the runner and in the illuminated letter “K.” These colors remind the viewer that the goddess drinks the blood of demons and that her thirst can never be satiated. The rib-like vertical bands on the plate are evocative of her anthropomorphic form, which is typically depicted as emaciated with prominent ribs.
The undulating flanges on the runner were made using layers of sheer iridescent fabrics, called luminaires, which were then covered in shimmering white fabrics to create a pearlescent effect. This layering is suggestive of the flayed skin of a human corpse, a direct evocation of Kali’s power and her role in death. The forms also reference Kali’s multi-armed manifestation.
On the back of the runner, the jutting shapes culminate in an illusory, mouth-like opening, or “gaping maw” as Chicago describes it (Chicago, Embroidering Our Heritage, 47). Through the abstract representation of an organic form, Kali’s powers as the Great Destroyer are represented as restorative rather than horrific.
The Devi-Mahatmyam (or the Chandi or the Durgasaptasati) from the Markandeya Purana, circa 300–600.
Translations, Editions, and Secondary Sources
Bandyopadhyay, Pranab. Mother Goddess Kali. Calcutta: United Writers, 1993.
Beane, Wendell Charles. Myth, Cult and Symbols in Sakta Hinduism: A Study of the Indian Mother Goddess. Leiden: Brill, 1977.
Dehejia, Vidya. Devi: The Great Goddess. Washington, D.C.: Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 1999.
Harding, Elizabeth U. Kali: The Black Goddess of Dakshineswar. York Beach, Maine: Nicolas-Hays, 1993.
Jagadiswarananda, Swami, trans. Devi Mahatmyam. Chennai, India: Sri Ramakrishna Math, 1953.
Kinsley, David R. The Sword and the Flute: Kali and Krsna, Dark Visions of the Terrible and the Sublime in Hindu Mythology. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.
Kramrisch, Stella. Manifestations of Shiva. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1981.
Kripal, Jeffrey K. Kali’s Child: The Mystical and the Erotic in the Life and Teachings of Ramakrishna. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
McDermott, Rachel Fell, and Jeffrey J. Kripal, eds. Encountering Kali: In the Margins, At the Center, In the West. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.
Mookerjee, Ajit. Kali: The Feminine Force. 1988; reprint ed., London and New York: Thames and Hudson, 1995.