Kolkata, Sep 12 (PTI) It’s nearly noon, the hour when the four huge gates of the famed Kalika temple of Kalighat, one of the 51 'peethas' (sacred spots) of the Shakta school of Hinduism, are shut to lay devotees.

The last crush of worshippers, few of whom bother about the social distancing norms codified in large letters on a board outside, are anxious to have a glimpse of the reigning deity of Calcutta. 'Pandas' (religious guides) hustle in villagers and townspeople from Bengal, North Bihar and Eastern Uttar Pradesh each clutching flowers, garlands, boxes of sweets and banknotes as offerings, as policemen shut down the huge gates with much fanfare.

The Mother Goddess is believed in folklore to be the dispenser of good fortune. From the Governor of West Bengal Jagdeep Dhankhar to the state's Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who lives a stone’s throw away from the temple complex, to her electoral rival in the forthcoming Bhabanipore by-election, Priyanka Tibrewal, everyone comes here on some day or the other.

“Everybody comes here. Ministers, industrialists, police commissioners, scientists, farmers, saints, sinners. Some hire priests, some say their prayers silently…. I personally believe the Mother listens to everyone, you don’t need mantra or tantra (Sanskrit prayers) to talk to her,” said Deepankar Chatterjee, 58, Secretary of the Executive Committee of the `Sebayit’ (hereditary servitors) Council.

“Elections are busy times, leaders and their aides are regular visitors in the run up to voting,” he said.

The Communists were among the few politicians in Bengal who chose to stay away from the attractions of the temple to prove their atheist credentials.

“The then chief minister Jyoti Basu never visited Kalighat, but his wife did,” said Rajat Roy, political analyst and member of the think tank Calcutta Research Group.

However, there are unconfirmed rumours of Communist leaders who paid mid-night visits away from the prying eyes of newspersons.

With time, Chatterjee said, “Instead of the queues of devotees reducing over the years, we find them increasing. The new tech generation for all its scientific knowledge base has taken enthusiastically to worshipping the Mother.” The religious outpouring towards Kali, who historians say was a local tribal deity co-opted into the Hindu pantheon, linked to Durga and made one of the presiding deities of the Shakta school, may of course have to do with an overall increase in religiosity since the 1990s when India’s economy started to boom.

However, Chatterjee avers that the financial hardship and depressed economy that the country has been witnessing over the last few years too has spawned fresh devotees, whom even the pandemic has not been able to keep at home. “Those with problems come here in large numbers and it seems problems have increased,” he said.

Besides commoners, Calcutta’s and India’s rich and the famous have never hidden their piety for the Goddess. A slab on one of the smaller temples in the complex says two brothers from the city’s Ruia business family helped restore the 'Manasa' (snake goddess) temple.

Sebayits, who did not wish to be named, said they understood that a Mumbai based industrial group wants to help renovate the sanctum sanctorum at a huge cost. The original temple built on the banks of the Ganges has been rebuilt many times – the last possibly 200 years ago – while the river has long moved eastwards to merge with the Hooghly, leaving behind a slender, muddy stream, called `Adi Ganga’ (Original Ganges) flowing by it.

The Goddess herself, called `Dakshina Kali’ (Southern dark one) is of touchstone with three eyes, a huge golden tongue and four golden hands. In one hand she holds a scimitar signifying knowledge and in the other an ‘Asura’ (Demon) head signifying ego, which must be slain. Two other hands are in the `Abhaya’ (dispeller of fear) and `Varada’ (compassion) mudras (gestures).

The Kali image at Kalighat which first finds mention in a 15th century religious-literary work `Mansar Bhasan’ and then in `Chandi Mangal’ written by the poet Mukunda Das, is believed to have been given final shape by two monks - Atmaram Brahmachari and Brahmananda Giri.

The final whistle signaling to devotees that the time has come for the Mother to have lunch and retire for the day is blown.

The last gaggle of devotees still left sight-seeing in the complex, are shooed out by the temple managers past sanitizing tunnels which lie broken, to a crowded sun-lit lane selling trinkets and souvenirs including tiny miniatures of the four handed Kali, with her tongue out, ashamed that she has stepped on the body of Lord Shiva.