Travel: Long Haul: Flies, damn flies and statistics

Calcutta has the biggest rats, the most precise tourist guides and a divine ruler with a taste for blood.

THE CITY has a harmless left-wing government. But Calcutta's real ruler is red-tongued, naked, and gruesomely garlanded with the skulls of her victims. For this is the city of Kali, who demands human sacrifices. There have been many in its 300-year history. In 1757, 123 British prisoners died overnight in the infamous Black Hole; four years before independence, 100,000 refugees from the countryside died of hunger on Calcutta's streets.

Calcutta has no ancient history. At the end of the 17th century the East India Company's factories further up the Hooghly river were silted up and inaccessible. The company bought a site downstream at the village of Sutanuti. Within a few years it had absorbed the two adjoining villages, including Kalikata, from which its present name is derived.

No one knows when Kalikata acquired religious significance. There is a story that Daksha, married to Sati, Lord Siva's daughter, carelessly spoke ill of Siva. Sati heard him and died of shock. Siva seized her body and began to dance in such a fury that the earth threatened to disintegrate. To save it, Lord Vishnu dismembered Sati's body and scattered it over the earth. Kalikata is where her little toe fell.

Kali, according to many devotees, infuses Calcutta with her spirit. Without her blessing, it would not have prospered as it has; but that prosperity has its price. As we struggled through Calcutta's traffic jams, Mr Shanti told us about his wonderful, crowded city. "We have 40,000 foot- rickshaws, 196,000 people who recycle paper and plastic, 2000 temples, 141 cinemas..." Who knew whether the figures were accurate; but certainly they were impressive.

"Don't miss our enormous rats," he interrupted himself. We looked, and could hardly believe what we saw. The normally nocturnal disease- carriers were scuttling about the dusty earth. "So many people worship God in this form. It is because Ganesha travels on a rat. So we have the biggest rats, and the biggest rat colony in the world."

At the Kali temple a man was waiting for us. Mr Shanti, full as always of figures, explained: "In this temple, there are 200 priests and 600 beggars. This man is in charge of all the beggars. He makes sure that no one goes hungry. It is most important that you do not give anything to any of the beggars. If you do, they will all come, and we will be drowned. I am giving something to this man for all of them." The fellow was small and young, with handsome black curly hair. He was lame and blind but there was something in his movements that spoke of power. Here was a real beggars' king.

Pressing through the dense crowd, we turned suddenly into the temple compound itself - and into chaos. Kali's raised shrine was in the centre. Close to one wall stood the boli enclosure, the place for goat sacrifice. Two blocks of stone and an iron ring for putting an animal's head in to decapitate it were covered in old blood, and swarmed with a million flies.

We watched a Brahmin prayer meeting noisily competing with ecstatic prostrations before Mother Kali. So surrounded was she that we caught only brief glimpses of her. Coconuts and red hibiscus flowers littered the ground.

Human sacrifices were regularly made here, said Mr Shanti, until the British stopped the practice in 1821. Even today, it is said, in the wildest parts of Bengal, Kali will receive a human life or two each year.

We walked past astrologers and palmists to the ghat, the place of cremation at the water's edge.

The Hooghly long since ceased to flow past here; what remained was only a narrow, stagnant canal. The ablutions that take place anywhere along the Ganges were being performed here, too.

But not everything inspired gruesome thoughts. In a quieter corner, before a hibiscus-covered platform, a mother and grandmother gave thanks to Kali for the birth of a child.

Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

Arts and Entertainment
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform