Pilgrimage to Kalimath: A Tantric Himalayan Shrine
July 23, 2018
The wind whips down the narrow valley, spitting stinging snow as we cross the footbridge high above the white water of the Mandakini River. We have come to pay our respects to Kali, a fierce form of the Divine Mother, whose shrine is in the village of Kalimath, clinging to the valley wall on the other side of the bridge.
Far above us looms the wall of the main range of the Himalayas. Mount Kedar, one of the five seats of Lord Shiva, stands guard at the head of this valley, a stronghold of tantric practices.
Inside the courtyard of the shrine, we huddle under the round roof of an open-air pavilion centered around a pole rooted in a metal plate engraved with the Sri Chakra yantra. Surprisingly, in this shrine there is no murti—no human or animal figure, image, or icon—just a red sari draped around the pole, flapping in the wind. The local lore is that the Divine Mother disappeared here after winning the battle with the demon army of Shumbha and Nishumbha, described in the tantric text, the Durga Saptashati.
During that battle, the Divine Mother Durga fought with the demon Raktabija (literally, “seed or drop of blood”). Raktabija had a particularly tricky modus operandi. Like a weed that sprouts from every piece when cut, Raktabija replicated himself from every drop of blood that reached the ground. Any attempt to kill him resulted in endless propagation, and soon the battlefield was full of Raktabija clones. That’s when Durga rose to the occasion, manifesting from her brow a bloodthirsty form of Kali with instructions to drink every drop before it reached the ground.
With that story in mind, we join the fervent chanting at the temple in Kalimath, calling on the Divine Mother to destroy our inner personal version of Raktabija—the seemingly endless parade of desires which manifest in our lives and multiply as we indulge them, without satisfying the root of desire itself. We need divine grace as well as skillful self-effort to overcome our tendency to let useless desires dominate our intelligence and clarity of mind.
On another level, anyone who meditates, or who has observed the tendencies of the mind, will recognize how a single stray thought can sprout into a train of rambling thoughts that invite our participation—completely overrunning the mind. It is then that we can call on the power of the mantric form of the Divine Mother to disempower the seeds of thoughts by “drinking” them before they multiply. Then the power of mantra nourishes and energizes the mind, which fills with the presence of the divine herself, and we become her—transcending our limited personal form—if only for a moment or two.
The wind has come up strongly now, lashing our faces with rain and snow as we return across the river to our buses, taking with us a vision of Kalimath. The wind tugging on the red sari is a reminder of both the beauty of the form of the Divine Mother and also of her purpose of manifesting in the world. The divine takes form in the world to guide and uplift us, but is not of this world. We pray to remember that we too are in this world only briefly, and that the Divine Mother is always with us. She lives in the form of the stories of her exploits, the sages who know her and advise us in the battlefield of life, and in her promise to come to our aid when we remember her with love and devotion.
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