Cholera, the Black One
... at an early period, the date of which cannot be ascertained, a female while wandering about in the woods met with a large stone, the symbol of the goddess of cholera ... The fame of the goddess spread, and people flocked from all parts of the country to pray at her shrine in Calcutta.
N. Charles Macnamara, A History of Asiatic Cholera, 1876.
The temple of Kalighat in Calcutta is devoted to the noisy, furious worship of Kali, the Black One, the Hindu goddess of death, disease and destruction. Black goats are sacrificed in a small enclosure every morning. In the centre of the temple is a shrine with a small black image of the goddess, and worshippers push and shove each other for a glimpse. I could not help but wonder, as I was jostled by the throng, whether there is any connection between the worship of this ancient goddess and the disease of cholera. Victims of cholera often turn black as the blood congeals and the skin collapses. It is a story that cries out for detective work, for if Kali is the goddess of cholera then this disease must have wreaked destruction among the deltas of the Ganges for far longer than the historians of the West have supposed.
Cholera is terrifying, but it is also naïve. We know that it has only recently crossed species boundaries to inflict damage in human populations - though exactly how recently cannot be determined. Since its first recorded outbreak in 1817, which began in the river deltas of Bengal near Calcutta, it has swept across the world in seven successive pandemics. The first six were probably all due to the 'classical' cholera bacillus, type 01. The seventh, beginning in the I960s, was due to a