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The four armed Kali, as the centuries old tradition has it, has a terrible frightening appearance. She has large wide-open fearful eyes, a fearful blood smeared lolling tongue and lips, awkwardly shaped large breasts, long protruding teeth, disheveled hair with each lock looking like a serpent and an extra large forehead with Trinetra and crescent in its centre. Devi's round head, carried upon an extra tall neck, has a size larger than normal and is awful. She is naked, though her nudity is partially concealed under the girdle of severed hands, which she is putting on her waist. She is wearing a long bracelet of freshly cut human heads trailing to ground. Two Bhairavi figures, with normal two arms carrying in them a naked sword and a human skull filled with fresh blood, are attending her. Like Kali, they too have Shiva's crescent and Trinetra on their foreheads. On her right there stands Vishnu and on her left Brahma, both with their hands folded in worship.
In her usual iconography, Kali is seen wearing on her ears the earrings made of the corpses of children and on her arms the bracelets of serpents. Here the artist has simplified his representation. She has her ears and arms adorned with normal jewelry. Alike, different from her usual long sharp claw-like looking hands with long nails, her hands and fingers, though smeared in blood, have a more feminine look. She is carrying nothing in her two right hands, but in her left hands she is holding a naked sword and a freshly severed human head. A cremation ground, or a battlefield with abundant corpses surrounded by blood-thirsty jackals, vultures and goblins, is Kali's favourite resort. She rides Shiva's prone body from above and, even when in sexual intercourse with him, in which form she is often represented in her Tantrika innovations, she has a position on his upper side.
Kali is born more of people's tradition than of texts, however, texts subsequently made her their theme. Her textual references are available from the 6th century onward. The 6th century Sanskrat playwright Banabhatta mentions in his Kadambari a Kali like goddess by the name of Chandi. In subsequent literary texts she appears as Vindhyavasini, Chamunda and Chandamari. The 6th-7th century Manasara's Shilpa-shashtra comes out with specifications for building a Kali temple. Obviously, by such time she was a popularly worshipped deity.
In Puranas, Kali has been identified as Parvati or Durga. She appears as Parvati's fury personified. Turning black in wrathfulness is believed to have given Kali her black complexion. When each drop of the blood of Raktabija, after it fell on earth, reproduced one Raktabija out of it and Durga found it difficult to eliminate him, she produced Kali out of her frown. Kali consumed every drop of the blood of Raktabija, not allowing it to fall on the earth. Parvati as Sati, in her pre-birth also, produced Kali out of her fury. When insulted by her father Daksha Prajapati, who did not invite her and her husband Shiva to the 'yajna', which he performed, Sati got infuriated and in fury rubbed her nose. There appeared Kali and she destroyed the 'yajna' of Daksha. Kali also emerged out of Sita's wrath. When returning to Ayodhya, after defeating and killing Ravana, Rama encountered a ferocious demon who almost defeated Rama. This infuriated Sita who produced Kali out of her wrath and killed the demon.
The Linga Purana has the legend yet differently. According to Linga Purana, Kali came into being because of the demon Daruka. Daruka had won from Brahma the boon of invincibility against all males, whether human beings, gods, demons or animals. With such power he turned atrocious and extremely ambitious. He threw gods out of the Indraloka and inflicted atrocities upon all. Finally, Shiva asked Parvati to kill him. Obeying her lord, Parvati entered into Shiva's being and inhaled into her being all the poison that Shiva had stored in his throat, which turned her black. Parvati re-appeared as Kali. She was now attended by blood-thirsty and flesh eating jackals, vultures, goblins and 'pishachas'. Aided by them she killed Daruka. Kali's appearances are thus variedly depicted in Puranas and consequently in visual art forms. Her Tantrika innovations are almost innumerable. The presence of Brahma and Vishnu in this miniature suggests that this appearance of Kali relates to Daruka episode, for it was on the prayer of Vishnu and Brahma that Lord Shiva had asked Parvati to kill Daruka.
This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of ancient Indian literature. Dr Daljeet is the chief curator of the Visual Arts Gallery at the National Museum of India, New Delhi. They have both collaborated on numerous books on Indian art and culture.