Who is the goddess Kali? In the popular imagination, Kali (whose name derives from the Sanskrit kāla which means “black” but also “time”) is an Indian goddess with a blood-stained face, her gaze incites terror and she wears a necklace of human skulls, and the bodies of newborn babies as earrings. Her tongue is sticking out and her hair (as black as her skin) is dishevelled and wild. She has more than just two hands and they hold a dagger, a sceptre, a goblet and a decapitated human head.

Kali is a divinity that arouses both fear (‘bhaya’) and repulsion (‘vibhitsa’), but also a profound awe (her most zealous devotees claim that they are literally rapt the first time they see her), almost as if this figure manages to stir up the deepest feelings that lie within the soul of every human being.

Yoni Zilber, NY Adorned, New York City, USA
Yoni Zilber, NY Adorned, New York City, USA

Not all of her manifestations are so menacing, however. In the version to be found in many an Indian home, Kali seems to have calmed down and from dark-skinned she changes to a colour between blue and purple, her hands are only two again, and they are joined in blessing. Other images of the goddess show her naked, dirty and explicit in all her “ugliness” (flaccid, sagging breasts, swollen belly, aggressive manner) although in the temples dedicated to her worship Kali always appears proudly dressed in a red sari.

And yet, because of her unkempt hair she is still the epitome of uncontrollable sexuality, wildly uninhibited and a danger to conventional thinking. As regards the necklace of human skulls, scholars of the Hindu religions have come up with a number of theories: they might be imprisoned demons or men who have chosen to sacrifice themselves to her, letters of the Sanskrit alphabet or, a decidedly more philosophical interpretation, they simply represent our old ego which we abandon forever once we are in her dreadful presence.

Debora Cherrys, La Mujer Barbuda, Getafe, Spain
Debora Cherrys, La Mujer Barbuda, Getafe, Spain

Her tongue, red and protruding, is a feature she shares with other divinities of the past like Medusa or the Gorgons. The simplest explanation in this case might be that she is a bloodthirsty goddess, but symbolists have also linked it another reference to her particular sexual aspect. All the more reason why Kali is often depicted astride a tiger, surrounded by wild animals, or dancing wildly.

Her posture is equally symbolic. The goddess is always shown with one foot raised with the other on the ground or else on Shiva, in sign of sexual possession, while all around her the battle rages like her own fury. Her hands, as we have already said, are four in number, but some statues show her with many more. Here too, there are symbols which are reminders of sacrifice (blood dripping from a decapitated head and a plate beneath to collect it) or purely belligerent like the dagger or axe or other pointed weapons.

No matter which way you look at it, Kali is a warrior image that is hard to get out of your head. Take a look at our selection of beautiful tattoos and choose your favourite!