We arrive just after sunrise, but already the air is thick and hot, as it usually is in the jungles of West Bengal. Passing through the pointed stone archway feels like stepping into a separate realm from the one we left behind—the wide brown and the glistening white ship that is our home on the water. Then, the village of Kalna itself, just waking up in the pink and yellow morning, revealing a daily humanity that has been here forever.
The only difference from a millennium of mornings like this, is that we are here now, stepping into this sacred round temple complex. I have never seen anything like it before—not in all my travels around the globe—an architectural wonder of careful stonework that draws a perfect circle on the earth.
A quiet sense of awe hushes up our small group—not only is this strange and elaborate structure manmade, but the stone edifice forms an immediate and beautiful optical illusion of infinity. There is no beginning or end to this Hindu temple, no front or back, but rather two perfectly concentric circles that form an eternal ring. The outer circle is made up of 74 small and individual temples, fused together in a rounded row, while the inner circle is made up of 34 identical small and individual temples. In total, there are 108 temples—hence the name, the 108 Shiva Lingam Temples of Kalna.
Of the 33 million gods in Hinduism, Shiva is considered the greatest, the most holy, and the most powerful. He is the supreme, a god of all goodness, but also, quizzically, the destroyer—a force that destroys the old in order to make room for the new. He is so imminent and strong that even the holy Ganges River flows down from his long and matted hair.
And so it seems fitting that our Uniworld trip up the Sacred Ganges brings us to Kalna, one of the many sacred spots in India expressly dedicated to Shiva, and where I can’t help but physically count out the 108 tiny temples that fit together so perfectly, like beads on a circular necklace. The number 108 carries much Hindu symbolism—the sacred mala (like a rosary) contains 108 red wooden prayer beads, and already I have seen the holy men and women counting out their mantras while pushing the individual beads down the string. There are many more layers of symbolism that we learn as we tour the temples: There are 108 sacred point on the human body, 108 sacred sites dedicated to Shiva in India, and 108 original Upanishads (holy texts). Moreover, the ratio of the distance of the Sun and Moon to the Earth is 108 times their respective diameters.
Some of us wander freely through the complex, but after a moment, I linger in a doorway to one temple, facing the outer circle where devotees have begun to arrive. Inside each of the tiny temples is a stone lingam—the smooth and rounded phallic symbol and a universal sign of Shiva. Women from the Himalayas—pilgrims from the North—are entering each and every temple, bowing to the lingam, lighting incenses, leaving an offering in ritual puja.
The woman in the rose-colored sari repeats the devotion 108 times—stepping up to each doorway, bowing and then entering, hands clasped together in prayer, performing her ritual and then exiting—again and again and again. Just like a holy man will count out each bed of his mala, this woman was repeating her own mantra, in both mind and body, completing the circle from west to east.
Just one week with Uniworld in India, and I have learned more about Hinduism than any comparative religion class I had back in college. Yes, we have had several lectures on board the ship—about the different Hindu gods and goddesses, the important festivals and marriage customs, but all of our learning comes to life here, in the great temples of Kalna, decorated with lavish and intricate terra cotta detail. Staring up at the three-dimensional figures, I feel as if I am reading a book from centuries ago. This is what I love—that I am not a tourist, but a student. Uniworld is not showing us the sites. Uniworld is showing us the hidden India.
When our visit is over, we do not rush back to the ship. Instead, we take the scenic route, cutting through the morning marketplace, alive with vendors and craftsmen all working and shouting. I do not know their language, but their eyes say hello and my smile returns the greeting. They are neither surprised or upset by our presence—we are merely passing through, but after today, I feel like I know them a little better. Now I notice the red prayer beads so many of them wear, and I notice the linga worn round the neck of so many Shiva devotees. Only this is real life—not a lecture.
To understand any place, you have to step into it, and to understand any person, you must enter their world. That is what Uniworld does here, on the shores of the Sacred Ganges—carrying me to Kalna and showing me another world.