The temple of doom

Posted: Jul 08, 2004 12:00 AM

I haven't written an April Fool's Day column for WORLD yet, and I don't plan to start now -- readers expect the our pages to include non-fiction, not bad jokes -- but I do want to report one experience last year where the joke was on me.

 I can set this up dramatically: In India last year, Professor Ravi Tiwari, head of the Department of Religions at Gurukul Theological College, took off his glasses and stared into space. "Yes, there probably is some human sacrifice at Kali temples in recent years." The thunk, thunk of the old ceiling fan in his living room was the only audible noise as he said slowly: "Be careful. Hinduism is so broad that bestial and noble things can both be found within it."

 It was hard to resist exploring the line that had stuck in my head ever since Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom first hit the movie theaters. "Prepare to meet Kali," Indiana (Harrison Ford) says to the chief priest of the Hindu goddess Kali, as he cuts in two a rope bridge that lies between them and a several-hundred-foot plunge to hungry crocodiles below. Now, I could meet Kali, in temples dedicated to him.

 I first visited the Prasadam Karumam Aman temple in Chennai. Its devotees showed me the silver cobra they worship alongside Kali. A priestess there proudly said, "When people are possessed by (the goddess's) spirit, we chew on bones from dead bodies." I had heard of rat temples further north when people get down next to rats for a common feast, but chewing bones taken from graves could maybe top that.

 Still, this wasn't pulling out hearts from living victims, a talent Indiana Jones' adversary had possessed, so it was time to go to the big Kali temple in Chennai, known as Kali Bara. Just inside the temple, five men around a 3-foot-square fire pit threw in vegetable offerings as a priest chanted into a microphone between swigs from a bottle of orange soda. Flies were everywhere, and I thought the Lord of the Flies couldn't be far behind.

 At noon, I snagged the chance to see Kali in person, as a priest stood me in front of the temple's Holy of Holies for a look at its prize idol. The curtain opened and there was Kali, a four-foot tall idol with a vicious grin, draped with flowers and surrounded by offerings of coconut milk. A well-fed priest waved incense, sounded three blasts on a conch shell and prostrated himself in front of the statue.

 Meanwhile, 50 devotees (40 of them women), some with saffron-painted faces, murmured ecstatically. One explained that Kali is a furious fighter of those who oppose her, and sometimes gets so out of control that she kills everyone in her path -- and yet, the food she receives at the temple will calm her down, so that she will fulfill what you ask her if you have true faith in her.

 S. Bhattuchaji, secretary of the temple, gave me the daily feeding schedule of Kali (whom he called "Mother," and in so doing sounded like Anthony Perkins in Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho"):

"At 5:45 a.m., we wake Mother, wash her face and give her a little food. At 8, we give her fruit and at 11:45 a full meal, including rice and fried vegetables, milk, honey, coconut and curd mixed up together. You see what a good mood she is in now. She will rest, and at four we will wake Mother and give her a glass of coconut water along with fruit and sweets. At 6:45, we will bring more food to Mother, ring the bell and have a big ceremony, and at 8 p.m., Mother will go to sleep."

 I responded that this was a nice schedule, but -- thinking of human sacrifice -- isn't there something MORE you give her." Yes, Bhattuchaji replied proudly, and I thought the inmost secrets were coming: "Eight years ago attendance was down, so I asked Mother, do you want to lose your following? Let me show you what Mother demanded -- come this way."

 Nervously, I followed, waiting for piles of dead bones or used hearts to appear. We turned a corner: "Look," he said, "we've developed new social programs. We now offer free classes for women in making clothes. ... And here's our room with six computers, where we offer a computer class. This is our version of, what do you call it in your country, compassionate conservatism?"

 I half-expected Bhattuchaji to say, "April Fool's," But he did not, and the joke was on me: go to the other side of the world only to see an echo of home initiatives.