From the outside, the temple looked as I thought it would. The ornately decorated outer walls allowed us only to see the blue, yellow, and green roof of the actual temple building. But I was not prepared for what I would witness after I removed my shoes and entered into the temple courtyard.
The small inner courtyard of the temple was crowded with people. Just to my left stood the temple building itself. From the outside I saw the Kali idol in the front of the sanctuary, black in color with her multiple arms stretched out. Smoke floated out the doorway, and I caught a glimpse of the worshippers praying on their knees. Here and there around the courtyard, local merchants were selling trinkets to be used for worship. Bright yellow and red flowers littered the streets. I found the pungent smell of incense overwhelming. Off in the distance I heard the desperate bleating of the sacrificial goats.
It all combined for an oppressive overload of the senses.
I made my way to a small fenced-in area at the back, where a sacrifice was about to take place. There, a man stood with his arm around his wife and two children. Friends and fellow worshippers continued to shake the man’s hand and congratulate the family. Though I couldn’t tell for sure, I gathered from their countenance that they were offering a sacrifice as thanks to Kali.
While watching this family, out of the corner of my eye I saw people making their way up to the altar, symbolically placing their heads between the two blood-stained iron blocks where the goat’s head would be placed.
The family seemed to be growing concerned because they couldn’t find a priest to perform the ceremony. Eventually, a man, who was not at all what I envisioned a priest would look like, made his way up to the altar. Dressed in sweat pants and wearing a ratty t-shirt, he glanced briefly at the family. The piercing look in his dark eyes was anything but kind or welcoming. Without speaking to the family, he motioned to his assistants to bring the goats his way. I turned around to see two black goats being dragged our way. They tried to dig their hooves into the ground to prevent being taken, but they found little help from the brick streets. As they neared the square, they began to bleat even louder and were beginning to lose control.
In the meantime, the priest in the middle had picked up a large curved blade attached to a long pole, and handed it to one of his assistants. He gave a broad smile as the goats were led into the square. Showing interest for the first time, the priest grabbed the first sacrifice. He led the crowd in a tantric chant as the goat began to tremble uncontrollably in his grasp. As the chanting got louder, he lifted the goat up in the air, grotesquely bending the legs back and slamming the goat on the altar, all in one motion. With one swift move the blade came down on the goat’s neck, and the body was tossed to the other side of the square. The second goat quickly met the same fate. The sound of frantic bleating had come to an end.
When it was over the family walked over to the altar, dipped their fingers in the blood, and then placed the blood on their foreheads.
* * *
It was February 2004, and I was in India for a couple of weeks with my family and a group of 30 others. Our schedule had us spending two days in Kolkata, the former capital of India and the city that has produced some of the nation’s greatest minds. Sadly, the many positive qualities of the city have largely been lost amidst the immense hardship. Though the government is making a concerted effort to change the tragic situation in this seminal city, the numbers are still staggering.
When we first left the airport shortly after our arrival, our noses were assaulted with the burning combination of dirt and fuel from the gasoline cooking fires. The city’s magnificent buildings were hidden by a smoky haze that night, leaving us only able to see streets packed with people curled up against the curb. As we drove through the city, we passed “neighborhoods” of those fortunate enough to have been able to construct some tin into a shack to cover their heads. Between 1 to 2 million people live on the streets of Kolkata, and an equal number of homeless live in slums.
I turned away from the car window, unable, or perhaps unwilling to come to terms with the hurt and lost-ness of this city. I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t think this place had anything to teach me in the two days I had before me.
But God had other plans.
* * *
I hadn’t been excited about the trip in the days leading up to my departure. But what I experienced in those two weeks in India would change my life forever. Not only did I gain a love of and loyalty towards my Indian heritage, but I gained a powerful and poignant understanding of the Christian faith. And it happened in one of the most unlikely places — the Kali temple. Kali is the Hindu goddess of destruction and her temple located in Kolkata is one of the remaining sites to still perform animal sacrifices. It was in her temple where I had found myself that day.
Our group left through the temple gates in complete silence. No one knew what to say. It was an indescribable feeling of both oppression from what we had witnessed, and deep heartache and compassion for the people inside. As we filed on to the bus, we all sat in our silence trying to comprehend what we had just experienced. Never before had I been in a setting where the evil was felt in such a tangible way.
But the next stop we made would have an even greater impact on our now-heavy hearts. We had originally planned on going straight from the Kali Temple to lunch, but a last minute change that morning had us going directly to Carey Baptist Church.
William Carey was a Baptist missionary who spent over 40 years ministering in India. Named after him, this little church was tucked away behind several buildings in the heart of Kolkata. We pulled off the road and went through a small gate in the fence surrounding the church property. The white walls of the building stood in stark contrast to the dusty buildings around them. Atop four pillars on the front stood a tall cross, and the words Jesus Saves in English and Hindi.
We passed through the glass pane doors and into the building.
Soft sunlight was bordered by the green slatted shutters as it shone through the windows. Except for the quiet creaking of the dark wooden pews as we all took our seats, the sanctuary was silent. There, in the midst of a foreign city filled with so much promise, yet darkened by so much evil, I suddenly felt at home inside those tranquil church walls.
My heart and mind felt renewed as I sat there. Not by the building, but by what its walls stood for. As I replayed the events that I had just witnessed, sitting quietly inside the church, I came to see a clear picture of what Jesus has done for the millions in and on the streets of Kolkata, and what He has done for the family inside the Kali temple, and what He has done for me. To save us from the evils of this world, He sacrificed His life. And now He stands as a bright white building in the midst of a dreary world, welcoming any who desire to come through its gates.
It puzzles me when people say that all religions are the same. “Why is Christianity any different?” they ask. They might find their answer if they were to make the same journey I did. Passing from the ominous walls of a Hindu temple to the aging walls of a tiny church, they, like I, might find themselves startled by the hope given us through a sacrifice far greater than those that take place in the Kali Temple.
Copyright 2006 Nathan Zacharias. All rights reserved.