Now, while the unexpectedness of a White Kali is remarkable in and of itself (indeed, in a certain sense, it might even be thought of as ‘oxymoronic’ – Kaal, after all, means ‘Blackness’, inter many alia); what makes this fine 17th century painting a worthy Friday Night Devotional (A)Art(I) posting goes rather beyond that.
Take a look at the image, and what is depicted *around* Devi.
She is standing upon a Cremation Ground – as can be seen from the delicate tendrils of flame arcening upwards from the ground heavy with darkened ash. In this way, the brilliant white of Devi is akin to the hottest kind of flame – which is not the darker portions that we can immediately see, but beyond even white-hot, the incandescent brightness or even plasma that is beyond our immediate ability to discern. White, here, makes for an acceptable representation of this – both as the brightest element in the image, and the Kali that we are *not* used to seeing, as well.
But while Kali in a Cremation Ground is, again, pretty conventional, it is what is going on *around* the Cremation Ground that is rather remarkable. See the row of stones demarcating its closest boundary to us. What do they look like to you. To me, they seem to be Teeth. And this, too, is deeply symbolically resonant – it recalls the role of the Fire of the Cremation as Kravyada … ‘carnivorous’, ‘consuming and devouring the dead flesh’. Hence, what better manner to depict this, than by having the Cremation Ground Itself as being one giant Mouth.
The Two Wolves [recall also these in the iconography of Rudra / Odin] and the blackened figure under Her Feet, we shall perhaps leave for another time … although the naming conventions of the Wolves in *both* languages – Old Norse and Sanskrit – are eminently appropriate, perhaps, for the proceedings.
For there is another set of elements which are lesser-heralded in the minds of many and which I feel need to be brought to light herein:
There are also Three Birds in the image. Two of a species that I suspect to be one of the varieties of Indian Crane [ Koonj ] , and one that appears to be a Corvid – a Raven or Crow, up in the branches toward the rear.
Now the Corvid association is only to be expected. They are, after all, themselves well-known ‘eaters of the dead’; and the iconographic linkage with the darker Aspects of not only Devi [most prominently, Dhumavati – the Smoke of the Cremation Pyre], but several further Death-associated Hindu Divinities [Lords Yama and Shaani, inter alia] is well known. In a broader Indo-European sense, there is good reason, too that Odin is linked to two such fine creatures.
Although what is interesting about the Corvid here, is that it is not depicted *in* the Cremation Ground as the other two figures are. Rather, it is up *above*, and ‘midst the branches of the still-living trees which are to be found out there in the honey-hued Sunlight. The Realm of the Living, in other words.
Now why might *that* be? Well, for us, Corvids are often regarded as Pitrs – Ancestors, come *back* from the Realms of the Dead int our own world, keep an eye upon Their Descendants, inspire some Poetry, report back to the Death Lord [hence Yamaduta as one term for Them .. also what Munin & Hugin do], that sort of thing.
The Corvid here, then, helps to symbolize that Death [‘Kaal’] is not the End [well, the immediate one … the Final Fire is rather more so; although even there, there are accountings of Pitrs surviving the Pralaya Between Cycles of Creation] , an association strengthened when we notice that the Corvid in question is almost directly above the Lotus that the charred figure underfoot is holding aloft [the axial in question also taking in a decapitated head – sundering of burdensome impediments to progression, also .. and the Sword, which, in some tellings, is linked to ShaaniDev and/or YamaDeva – an ensign of Justice, and also metempsychotic Transition through its keenly-edged blade as barrier between Worlds of Living, Death, and evidently, Living, Again!).
The two other birds, as I speculated above, are potentially of an Indian species of Crane [there are other potential explanations – although the combination of length of beak and the two trails of plumage made it seem rather more likely that they were Koonj cranes rather than Hamsa swans, for instance]; which in this context, have their own quite substantial swathe of symbolism that is not so readily replicated elsewhere in the West of the Indo-European-isphere (probably due to their geographical range not encompassing much of Europe to the west of the Black Sea).
These include their beauty and elegance, as well as their flight-formations; the former going towards a certain association with the inspiration of poetry and dramatic verse [often accomplished, as was the Ramayana, in relation to grievous loss] , the latter, military maneuvers and battle-formations on the march.
But most prominent for these purposes here, I think, are two further and perhaps more ‘subtle’ linkages.
The first of these concerns the etymology of ‘Crane’ itself, which is directly cognate to the Sanskrit underpinnings of ‘Koonj’. What does this mean? What does this refer to? The root is Proto-Indo-European ‘Gerh’, and there it referred not only to the Crane .. but also to the sort of penetrating and loud cry with which it called.
So this then turned into, in Sanskrit, terms like Garjana ( गर्जन ) – which means a Roaring, like Thunder (and can also refer to, say, the Roar of Battle, something expressed with a passionate intensity) … and which has more figurative meanings , such as seen in one of my favourite Shakta theological phrases – Vacam Garjit Lakshanam – Thunder (Indirect/Indistinct Speech) bearing the Characteristics of Divine Speech.
I invoke the above here, partially because this ‘Roaring’, ‘Cry’ resembles the harsh crackling of the Funerary Pyre’s Flames; but also because this other concept, that of such ‘Indistinct Speech’ (and ‘Indistinct’ largely if not entirely due to the fact that an ordinary human cannot understand it … not because it lacks any eloquence nor communication, expression, emanation of meaning, import or significance) nevertheless is quite a counterpoint to that which is represented by the Hamsa – the Swan – which can represent a much more ‘conventional’, ‘controlled’, and ‘direct’ eloquency of communication.
Both are associated with different figures ; both have their proper and appropriate place; yet in this instance, in this depiction, what is coming forth from the ‘Mouth’ of the Smashana, is the dark Roaring as represented where in other times, in other circumstances, in other places, the white Swan-like Clarity would go. Which makes it no less eloquent nor elegant via comparison.
Just reminds us that waht is going on here, what is represented, is not for ordinary human senses to quite comprehend.
The second reason for the Cranes’ presence is Metempsychotic. These magnificent birds undertake one of those immense migratory journeys on a regular basis – leaving their winter domiciling upon the SubContinent to head up, up through and over the Himalayas, to their Summers in Central Asia beyond the Mountains.
The Mountains of the Himalayas are rightfully known also as DevaLoka – the Realm of the Gods; and in addition to the Demesne of Lady Parvati [‘Mountain’; Also known as ‘Girija’, Daughter of the Mountain, in reference to Her Father, Himavat, the King of the Range] and Lord Shiva, we find intriguing ancient references to the area we would now think of as the ‘Underworld’ – Yama’s Realm with the pipe-music, and the location of the PitrLoka per – in fact being located in the Upplands, ‘midst the Sky upon the higher reaches of the Celestial Mountain(s) about the Axis Mundi.
So, these two Birds in the Mouth of Mer [one of the PIE terms for ‘Death’ and a disappearing from view [which ultimately underpins “Mort”] – whence also, in closely related format, terms for Sea, like “Mer”, “Mere”, etc. – and I shall get on to writing about the Caelestial Sea of Death at some point in the rather propinquate future!], are also there, coloured Smoke-Grey, because *they* are symbolic too of the transmigration of the soul occurring once the physical [and, for that matter, various of the *metaphysical*] characteristics are burned away upon the Pyre. An ‘expression’ [as in, an emanation, a projection, a casting forth .. like with ‘speech’, in its own way] which is, as I have earlier referred to, something of a ‘mystery’ to the still-living observer who yet remains ‘on this side’ of the Divide that is PIE: “Kel”. [‘Veil of Death/Time/Night’ in this sense – for a more detailed explication of, please see many previous of my various KaalRatri and Kali pieces]
Perhaps I am reading too much into it to suggest that the grey rising at the rear of the cremation ground reminds one of that aforementioned Mountain Range; and that the golden grasslands-to-the-horizon-and-beyond-blending-into-the-mounting-multi-tiered-sky are resemblant of the Steppes of Central Asia from whence the Indo-Europeans in India once came [ ‘The Future Is The Past’, and everything is Cyclical – in Time – indeed. ] .
But that is just the beauty of images such as these.
When a Work is Divinely Guided, Divinely Inspired, or simply the result of a proper and devoted contemplation of the Subject thereof … there are all manner of resonances and structures of meaning inherent to it or darting through it like embers upon the wind, that show hidden air-currents and enduring threads that even the artist themselves may not have been entirely cognizant of nor aware.
‘Indistinct Speech’ which is nevertheless *Resoundingly* capable of bearing and thence transmitting Meaning, you might perhaps Say 😉
Jai Mata Di !
ॐ महा काल्यै
छ विद्महे स्मसन वासिन्यै
छ धीमहि तन्नो काली प्रचोदयात
ॐ क्रीं काली