In (Bankim Chandra Chatterji's novel) 'Anandamath', the secret revolutionary organization with the same name worshipped Bharat-Mata (Mother India) in three forms.
1. What Mother Was - Goddess Jagaddhatri
2. What Mother Has Become - Goddess Kali
3. What Mother Will Be - Goddess Durga
The above triad of awe-inspiring goddesses (one could probably add Tara - about whom I wrote a bit here sometime back - to the group) continues to preside over the fortunes of Calcutta. And nowhere is their collective presence as visible as at Belur Math. First up, there was the Durga Puja (which I did not see); shortly therafter came the puja to Kali, which most of the rest of this country calls Diwali (and of which I saw only the final immersion ceremony - the Kali idol, much-worshiped over several days, was tipped into the Ganga and seemed to disintegrate into the murky waters within seconds)(*). And finally, there was the worship of 'Jagaddhatri', literally, 'the Goddess who sustains the world'.
I got to see a fair bit of the Jagaddhatri festival. The main puja took place at Saradapith, a small shrine within the larger Belur Math complex. The Goddess image was 'life-size' and sari-clad and had four arms and had a fiercely beautiful face; she sat atop a very life-like lion which stood on the corpse of an elephant demon.
And then there was the 'Khichdi-fest'. For an entire night, a tight gang of workers were seen laboring in a makeshift pandal. When I took a look at 9 or so in the morning, they were still at work and the following were already in place: (1) a full dozen cylindrical tanks, each with capacity well over a thousand liters, each brimming with khichdi (2) a score of somewhat smaller vats with heaps of cooked potatoes steeped in oily gravy; and there were further hills of the same tuber beyond, waiting to be processed,
The communal eating of the 'Khichdi-prasad' began at 10 am and went on right thru the day; people were let in in batches and were served by a battery of volunteers, whose mechanical efficiency (and all those plates with little lakes of golden yellow khichdi) reminded one of Bruegel's 'Peasant Wedding'. At a conservative estimate, around 20-30 thousand liters of khichdi were finished off by 40-50 thousand eaters. The menu was minimal, khichdi (unlimited), the potato curry (again unlimited) and laddoos (1 or 2 per head). I did not try the laddoo but the other items actually tasted excellent!
And the premises saw lots of festive trading, especially in religious paraphernalia. Among the items on display were icons of a 'space-clad' Kali and a Lakshmi. The latter Goddess sported a Bengali style tiara and wore a rich sari; and instead of the 'usual' elephants squirting water on her, she was accompanied by her 'actual' vahana, the owl. And there were no gold coins showering from her palms; instead she held a jewel-encrusted pitcher in one hand and a ear of some cereal in the other. In the background was a cluster of straw-built huts, quite a contrast with the glitter of her Sari and ornaments (**).
And nowadays the Goddesses are in the news in an all-India context as well. Some sort of debate is brewing on 'Vande Mataram', our National Song. The issue: the unequivocal invocation mention the song makes of Hindu goddesses. Poet Javed Akhtar, one of the participants, characterizes a couple of stanzas (probably, those which refer to Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati - the latter two having mysteriously replaced Kali and Jagaddatri) as 'rabidly religious'; and he goes on to add "I sing (the rest of?) the song!"
And Wiki claims: "The song remains to this day very unpopular among muslims of India".
And here is Rabindranath Tagore's sagely take on the matter(the year was 1937. Again from Wiki)"The core of Vande Mataram is a hymn to Bharat Mata( Mother India): this is so plain that there can be no debate about it. Of course Bankimchandra does show Durga to be inseparably united with Bengal in the end, but no Mussulman [Muslim], christians and Arya Samajis can be expected patriotically to worship the ten-handed deity as 'Swadesh' [the nation]. This year many of the special [Durga] Puja numbers of our magazines have quoted verses from Vande Mataram - proof that the editors take the song to be a hymn to Durga. The novel Anandamath is a work of literature, and so the song is appropriate in it. But Parliament is a place of union for all religious groups, and there the song cannot be appropriate..."
(*) In the days just before Kali puja, a nearby shop had stocked dozens of Kali effigies; all of them followed the same design but were of various sizes (a couple of them were colossal). And they were all 'bare' idols, lacking the weapons and the usual macabre ornaments of severed head garlands and ear-rings (presumably, these would have got added just before the puja). Even the girdle, with chopped-off humans hands strung together, was missing - and strangely enough, its 'function' was performed by a hand that seemed to sprout from the goddess's belly and grow downwards!
The Malayalam novel 'Govardhante yaatrakal' has an episode which I had found rather unsettling when I read the book a decade ago: a Calcuttan potter, having moulded a Kali image, suddenly decides to decapitate it and to turn it into the even more frightening 'Chhinnamastaka' form of the Goddess. But now, having seen a bit of Cal, his act does not strike me as particularly shocking - Wiki shows the photo of a Chhinnamastaka image actually worshipped at a Kali puja pandal.
(**)The same hawker also had an icon of Kamakhya (who is from neighboring Assam). This Goddess has six heads (one of them facing upwards) and 12 hands and sits on a lotus which seems to be hovering in space. On two smaller lotuses nearby, both of which seem to have sprung forth from a turbulent ocean, sit Brahma and Vishnu, both in prayer. Siva, the remaining member of the Trinity is also in the picture; he lies, semi-conscious, on the back of a lion who stands on a platform which appears to be floating in the same ocean. And on closer inspection, the flower on which the Goddess sits has grown out of Siva's navel; and one of her feet rests on his chest! Anyways, here is a picture: http://www.ambaa.org/images/kamakhya_1.jpg