Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Catholic Kali

A 1940s poster of the goddess Kali
standing over Lord Shiva
I mean for you to scratch your head with that headline. Kali is a powerful, demon-killing goddess from the Hindu pantheon. Nothing to do with Catholicism, right? Turns out, there’s a pretty interesting connection.

When the Spanish colonizers began importing indentured Indian laborers from India to the Caribbean in the mid-1800s, the newcomers were only allowed to observe parts of their culture, regardless of religion. North Indian Hindus worshipped the usual deities—Ram, Sita, and Krishna, for instance—as well as the deity known as Kali. The minority Tamil speakers from South India, however, worshipped Kali almost exclusively, forming Madras temples, also known as Kali temples, mostly in Guyana.

But in other areas, because of the limitations put on them by their colonizers, some Hindus in the Caribbean began worshipping the Virgin Mary as a representation of Kali Mai, or Mother Kali. As well, in those days when Indians first began leaving their homeland, they called the foreign oceans they had to cross “black waters,” because mysterious and often dangerous things happened to them when they traveled afar. Many Caribbean Hindus came to believe that the black deity, Kali Mai, traveled with them across these waters and took on the form of the Virgin Mary when they arrived.

Kali in a 17th century mural
(credit Balajiviswanathan)
In some areas, such as the former French colony of Guadeloupe, Hindus began observing both faiths. They modified their observances to accommodate both – for example, they didn't perform pujas, Hindu prayer ceremonies, during Lent.

Among Hindu goddesses, Kali is one of the most hardcore. I grew up a little ambivalent of her (read: afraid) and not entirely convinced she was one of the good guys (gals). That’s because she’s usually depicted as a woman with a murderous temper. She wears a garland of *human heads* around her neck, always hangs her long tongue out of her mouth, carries a sword dripping in blood, has wild hair and four arms. One of her arms carries a severed head; another holds a bowl that catches the blood dripping from this head. Sometimes she’s shown standing atop the inert body of her husband, Lord Shiva. This goddess means business. I would say don’t make her mad, but she was born mad.

Kali’s name comes from the word kala, which means black, and she’s depicted as either dark skinned or even jet black. (The blue skin in the poster up top is meant to suggest dark skin, as in popular mythological renderings.) Hindu interpretations vary on the meaning of Kali's darkness. Some associate it with death or time, others as beyond color, even as a manifestation of pure energy.

Either way, some Africans in the Caribbean have also adopted a belief in Kali Mai in part because she is—get this—the goddess of healing. (Don’t ask. I’m not entirely sure myself how this part of her story reconciles with the scary stuff, but I’ll leave that topic for another day.) Caribbean Africans brought their own healing practices, such as Obeah, to the area, and so the idea of a healing deity was one both oppressed groups in the region could embrace. Not only did a belief in Kali entail the healing of the sick, but it also helped empower these disenfranchised groups to believe in healing from suffering and oppression.

The matriarch of La Divina Pastora in Trinidad
(credit to Jason X)
Beginning in 1871 and continuing on until now, Hindus at the Roman Catholic church of La Divina Pastora in Trinidad began worshipping Virgin Mary as the embodiment of Kali. The dark statue of La Divina Pastora or the Divine Shepherdess is also known as Soparee Mai, another name for Kali, at the church. Each year on Good Friday, Hindus fill the church to worship Soparee Mai. Catholics join them as well as local Muslims, Buddhists, and indigenous Waraoa Indians. Offerings of gold, flowers, and fruit are left at the feet of the deity, and healing miracles are said to have occurred.

It’s unconfirmed, but some believe this is the only church in the world where such a phenomenon takes place. Pretty cool meeting of cultures, no?


  1. Such an interesting post. I do not often think of religions blending, like cultures do. I will admit, I glanced at my cat, Caly a couple times.

  2. I know, it's an unusual phenomenon, right? But your poor cat -- did her hair stand up on end?

  3. That was one interesting post.The title was very curious :) Great read.

  4. Thanks, PB! So glad you enjoyed it.

  5. I appreciate the post..but seriously what is it with demarcating lines of worship in North India and South India?
    (more so - the 'Usual dieties' ???Holy Jesus!!!!)
    I believe North Indians celebrate Navratri with a fervour no where else to be seen. But can we rather not regionalise God worship?

    Or you have some minority Tamil speaking version of Hinduism?? Care to educate me if there's any...

    Yes i do understand, there are regional tales and sagas that are different from the broader whole epics, but do you think you know kuch about North India or other part of India to come to such a conclusion?

    Dont we neglect the basic tenets on which Vedic Hindu Philosophy is based? It saddens my heart that the very purpose for which great saints like Adi Shankara roamed the Indian subcontinent(Jambudveep) is being wronged by such claims.

  6. Nitin, I'm so sorry to respond so late to your comment, and I'm also sorry you were so offended by points made in my post. I do appreciate your input, but you can't be saying that there aren't (very) obvious distinctions between north and south India, are you? I don't think it's just my opinion to be stating that but based on fact.

    There is also no "minority Tamil-speaking version of Hinduism," at least that I know of, but I was pointing out that among Indians who moved to the Caribbean, the Tamilians were a minority among them, the majority being north Indians (from UP, Punjab, Bihar, etc).

    Lastly, I don't see how this post is negating the basic tenets of any religion, only stating how some immigrants adapted their practices and modes of worship as they themselves roamed to new lands. It's a good thing, not a stab at any religion, but the embracing of more than one viewpoint or belief system. To those of us who see organized religion as mostly divisive, such a phenomena occurring anywhere is heartening.