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Fascinating tale of the Kalkaji Temple


TALKATORA GARDEN today gives the appearance of a placid park basking in the late winter sunlight, but 267 years ago it was the scene of much excitement as a detachment of Moghul troops sent by Mohammad Shah from the Red Fort waited here to stop the raiding Marathas from entering Delhi.

Peshwa Baji Rao I had raided the Capital in 1737 after outmanoeuvring the two Moghul armies sent out against him. Headed by Sadaat Khan and the Mir Bakshi, respectively, the armies could not make contact with the raiders near the holy cities of Mathura and Vrindavan. The Peshwa, in a lightning move, raced his cavalry from Mathura to Delhi and then camped at Kalkaji temple, on the outskirts of the city. Near the temple, elephants and camels belonging to Mohammad Shah Rangila, which happened to be passing that way, were captured by the Maratha horsemen, who also plundered the nearby areas, sending alarm signals to the royal court.

The emperor and the citizens felt that the capture of Delhi was imminent and made preparations to escape. Twenty boats were raided so that if the need arose, the emperor and his harem could escape. There was panic in Delhi and everybody was wondering what fate had in store.

Just then news was received by Baji Rao that the two Moghul armies he had left behind were in pursuit of him from Mathura. The Maratha leader ordered his troops to make a tactical retreat and they were soon out of reach. But before that they had killed 700 Moghul troops from the 20,000 infantrymen despatched by Mohammad Shah from the fort, in an engagement two miles from Talkatora Garden.

In 1805 also, there was massing of Maratha troops near Kalkaji temple before Jaswant Rao Holkar besieged Delhi. But he was forced to retreat by the British force defending the city under the command of David Octoloney. Holkar crossed over to the river Hindon and his force was finally routed by Lord Lake. During the Mutiny of 1857 too, there were some skirmishes near Kalkaji temple and then cases of bloodshed 90 years later during Partition. Thus the Mandir has seen quite a bit of recent history unfolding itself before it. Now people hardly remember this while visiting Kalkaji temple during the Navaratras every year.

The Kali Temple in Kalkaji boasts of an existence of 3,000 years, although the oldest surviving portion of it dates to 1764-1771 when the Marathas were in power and the Moghul ruler of Delhi, Shah Alam, was a puppet in their hands. However the couplet (Az Dilli ta Palam Badshah Shah Alam) denoting that the extent of his dominion extended from Delhi to Palam had not gained currency yet. That was to come later. Still, in effect he had very little power even then, and the Marathas were able to restore many old temples and shrines, which had been lying neglected during the Muslim suzerainty.

Looking at the present-day Kalkaji temple one may find it hard to believe that this shrine to Kali is an antique one, where perhaps even the Pandavs and Kauravs had worshipped during the reign of Yudhisthir, whose citadel of Indraprastha had the fabled fairy gates of which bards sang, much like Homer of old, right up to the time of Prithviraj Chauhan. Folklore is replete with tales of the Kalkaji temple, so much so that one does not know where legend ends and history begins.

One story says that a king, who had lost several battles to an invader, took shelter at the spot where he lost his army. Tired and exhausted after the day's battle, he fell asleep and dreamt of the Goddess Kali asking him to try his luck again. When the king got up in the morning, he found to his surprise that the troops he thought he had lost had returned. He led them to battle again and succeeded in routing the enemy. But despite his heady success, he did not forget the Goddess and built a temple in her honour. Situated about 14 kilometres from Delhi proper, the temple still has an idol of Kali, draped in red silk brocade, which is enclosed by a marble railing. People flock to it in large numbers every Tuesday, when a small fair springs up near the temple. But the big fairs are held on the 8th day of Chait or Asar, the first one after Holi and the second just before the beginning of the rainy month of Sawan.

Small red flags decorate the temple then, and women outnumber men among the devotees. Could it be that the king whose life and domain Kali had saved had been influenced by his queen to build the shrine? On considering the fact that monarchs are generally forgetful in such matters, one would not be surprised if it were so. But then there are other tales too about the origin of the temple, and one does not know how to sift fact from gossip. But Baji Rao's raid is a historical fact.

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