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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.