Tarapith: Fire, Blood, Magic, and Sati’s Third Eye
Is Tarapith a Shakti Pith??
|"The Tarapith Temple Complex"|
Without doubt, the association of Tarapith and the Great Goddess’ spiritual eye runs very deep. Over the years, I have heard this story repeatedly told by Bengali Hindus. At various shrines and temples throughout West Bengal, I have found calendar art prints on display which clearly link Ma Tara’s image and Sati’s third eye together within the context of the shakti pith mythos. A very important point that I have yet to see mentioned in any books concerning Tara relates to the etymology of the goddess’ name. “Tara” is often simply explained away as being the Sanskrit word for “star” and left at that. While this is indeed accurate and a very important attribution, what gets overlooked is that in Bengali the word tara not only means “star,” but is also is the same word as that used for “pupil.” Thus the idea of a “star” and an “eye” are not only bound together through her iconography and mythology, but also in the shared meaning of the goddess’ name.
When speaking with locals about Tarapith, it becomes very clear that this place is commonly regarded not only as the most important siddha pith (a place where spiritual practices yield faster and more powerful results) of West Bengal, but as one of the most important shakti piths of all, perhaps second in importance to the Kamakhya Mandir in Kamrup, Assam. Despite not always being included among certain lists of the shakti piths, Tarapith is without doubt West Bengal’s premier shakti pith, meeting all of the standard criteria, and one of the most important pilgrimage centers for followers of the goddess-revering tradition commonly referred to as shaktas.
|"The Tarapith Mandir"|
|"Elegant metalwork ornamenting the main temple gate"|
Ma Tara’s sacred murti (divinely-empowered image) is spectacular to behold. Her mask is made of silver and its finely-crafted face is graced with three eyes. These eyes look northward except during an annual festival when the entire murti is placed in a nearby “resting temple” located mear the main mandir. On this special occasion only, Ma Tara faces west, overlooking the cremation ground. The murti’s mouth is smeared with red sindoor (vermilion) paste in a manner resembling blood, and she has a long protruding tongue. Her tongue is also covered in red pigment, but at its tip, silver is exposed as the sindoor gets worn away from the many offerings of whiskey fed to Tara on a daily basis. Priests pour the liquor into a small vessel which is then offered to the goddess by holding it up to immerse her tongue. A mixture of liquor, water, and sindoor that has been offered to the goddess is considered especially sacred. I was offered a taste of this prasad during my last visit by a friendly priest who referred to it as the goddess Tara’s bathwater.
|"Ma Tara receiving offerings of whiskey"|
Although this representation of the goddess is certainly the most renowned, concealed within it is the far more ancient adi rup—the original stone form of the goddess Tara that has been worshiped at Tarapith for countless centuries. According to some myths surrounding Tarapith, this particular rock formation is the goddess Sati’s third eye which fell to the earth ages ago and landed in the cremation ground where it turned to stone. The adi rup’s shape is said to reveal the goddess in her maternal aspect, cradling and suckling Lord Shiva like a baby. From my personal observations, it appears to be no more than a big, indistinctive rock. However, with some imagination I found it was possible to visualize the image of Tara suckling Shiva superimposed over its bulges and recesses, but admittedly this was quite abstract.
Tara’s original stone form is available for darshan when the temple first opens at 4:00 a.m. The purohits I spoke with referred to the early morning ritual as the snan puja. Snan is the Bengali word for “bathe” and this no doubt refers to the ritual procedures I observed where the stone form of Tara is washed with water (mixed with alcohol and other sacred substances) which is then collected as prasad. Although I was able to snap a few pictures of the masked Tara murti, I was yelled at when I tried to photograph the adi rup. It seems that even though the well-known, masked form of Tara receives the most attention and ritual worship, the ancient stone image at its heart is accorded even greater reverence. Revealed for a short period of time, Tara Ma’s adi rup is again concealed underneath clothing and transformed into the body of her more widely known masked form before the morning aarti begins at 6:30 a.m.
|"The impressive ritual khadga used at Tarapith"|
The khadga (ritual decapitation sword) used at Tarapith is the most beautifully crafted sword of its type that I have ever seen. Traditionally a khadga blade is made of iron and at Tarapith this is augmented with brass embellishments along with a beautiful hilt that has an elephant head motif. The sword’s design is that of the top-heavy, curved blade commonly seen in icons of fierce goddesses like Kali, Tara, Chinnamasta, and others.
|“She who enjoys blood sacrifice”|
|"The burning ground at twilight|
Tarapith’s Great Cremation GroundEntering through the main gate and descending a staircase, Tarapith’s Mahasmashana (Great Cremation Ground) welcomes you with beggars grabbing at your legs and hawkers competing for your attention while trying to peddle their wares. Incense and candles are sold here along with the red sindoor and alta (pigment powder and liquid dye) which is offered to the stone form of Ma Tara’s feet (commonly referred to as Tara’s footprints) located at an important shrine in the burning ground. Looking about, one will immediately notice small hut-like structures made of concrete. These are tombs, called samadhi, and they mark the graves of various spiritual adepts, tantriks, and mystics. The most prominent of all is a large red samadhi–very close to the main entrance–marking the burial place of Bamakhepa’s (the famous tantrik “madman” of Tarapith) mortal remains. This samadhi, the most revered in all of Tarapith, receives ritual offerings throughout the day and night. It is here that the majority of pilgrims making a trip to Tarapith’s cremation ground come to pay homage to the spirit of the “mad saint” Bamakhepa.
|"Ganesh Baba offers his blessing to |
visitors who arrive during the day"
Venturing past the many tombs, one comes upon a scattered hutment. Despite the Tarapith Mahasmashana’s somewhat sinister reputation—considered a place of death haunted by ghosts and demons—a number of tantriks have chosen to reside here, making the cremation ground their home.
The simple structures they inhabit are constructed using local materials. They are usually built using sandbags for the steps and foundation, bamboo poles as the frame and door, packed mud for the floor and walls, along with a thatched roof. Most are only basic enclosures large enough for a sleeping area, personal altar, and sacred fire pit, although this is not always the case. When I first visited in 2003, I was invited inside the cremation ground’s largest “hut” by a tantrik named Mani Baba, who had built it with his guru more than five decades before. Here I was shown a full temple room that houses a large Shiva lingam and had 108 human skulls lining its four walls.
|"A Tantrik Sadhu"|
|"Fire rituals are performed throughout the night"|
When observing the activities occurring at this burning place, it becomes apparent that quite often bodies brought here are not burned. This is because a lot of the corpses arriving at Tarapith come from impoverished villagers who cannot afford the wood used to build the requisite pyres. This sometimes results in other materials being used for fuel such as garbage and bicycle tires. However, many of these poorer people are simply not cremated, but rather interred within the hallowed ground of the Mahasmashana–buried in graves dug by the Dom with the aid of small shovels. Thus when one walks about the great cremation ground, one is in fact walking over the remains of countless bodies that have been buried here over the centuries; the entire Mahasmashana is effectively a large graveyard. So many bodies have been buried at Tarapith that it is not uncommon to find human bones, which have been dug up by dogs, scattered throughout the Mahasmashana.
Cremations at Tarapith are not gentle affairs. The piles of wood used are often very small compared to other burning grounds I have visited—like Manikarnika Ghat. Since the pyres aren’t very large, the process of burning a corpse is adjusted accordingly. During my last week-long stay at Tarapith, every body-burning involved the corpse being laid face down on top of the pyre with the flames concentrated at its torso. The stretcher which carries the body to the burning ground is disassembled by the Dom who make use of its bamboo poles. These are not only used to tend the fire, but also to beat and break the body down, folding it in upon itself as it burns in a long and aggressive process. When the head has sufficiently burned, a bamboo pole is raised aloft and an emphatic “Jay Ma Tara!” (“Victory to Ma Tara!”) is shouted before the pole comes crashing down with enough force to break open the skull. According to belief, the dead person’s soul is released upon this cracking of the skull.
|"In Tarapith’s Mahasmashana, the worlds of spirit and matter combine"|
The status of Tarapith as a powerful siddha pith—a place where one can achieve enlightenment or gain various supernatural powers—is inextricably bound with this conception of the cremation ground as a liminal zone: the Mahasmashana is perceived as a nexus point where the physical and spiritual worlds intersect. Within this ultimate place of transformation, rituals and sadhana are believed to yield faster and more powerful results. It is said that by performing his sadhana in this very cremation ground that the”mad saint” of Tarapith, Bamakhepa, achieved an enlightened state of consciousness when he was granted a vision of Ma Tara dancing upon a burning corpse.
BAMAKHEPA: THE MAD SAINT OF TARAPITH
|"Portrait of Bamakhepa"|
Many extraordinary legends surround the strange behavior of Tarapith’s most beloved saint. He dwelt in a haunted cremation ground where he meditated by gazing upon burning corpses while smoking ganja and drinking alcohol out of human skulls. However instead of merely getting intoxicated from these substances, Bamakhepa was said to have gained supernatural powers through his unique form of spiritual practice which involved these “polluting” substances. People speak of how he could handle venomous serpents with ease and would hand-feed Bengal tigers offerings collected from the Tara Temple.
One story that I heard about the saint involves a man, suffering from elephantiasis of the scrotum, being brought to Bamakhepa as a last resort. Frustrated at his meditation being interrupted, Bamakhepa pounced upon the man, choking him and spitting in his face while shouting about how this man brought the condition on himself through negative karma. As shocked onlookers struggled to pull the saint away, Bamakhepa kicked the man in the groin. Miraculously, the very next day the man was completely cured of his condition. The once-afflicted man then became a dedicated disciple of the mad saint!
|"Highly-venerated samadhi of the |
mad saint, Bamakhepa"
Although during his life Bamakhepa travelled to places such as Varanasi, Hardwar, and Kolkata, he always returned to the Tarapith cremation ground which was his true spiritual home. His presence is still very much felt here as it will undoubtedly be for a long time. When he left his body in 1911, Bamakhepa’s corpse was buried in a seated, cross-legged position near the entrance of the burning ground. Above this spot there now stands a large, red samadhi that receives daily ritual worship with burning candles, incense, and prayers offered by the many pilgrims and sadhus who visit the sacred burning ground as a fundamental component of their spiritual journey to the temple.
|"Approaching the village of Atlagram"|
Entering through the main road which leads into the village, one immediately sees a bright pink mandir dedicated to Bamakhepa, called the Shri Shri Bamdeb Smriti Mandir. Across the road opposite this is a sacrificial harikath. Entering this mandir one sees a white Bamakhepa statue sitting cross-legged. To the left of this is an enshrined painting of Bamakhepa and to the right is a white Shiva lingam above which hangs an old painting depicting Tarapith and various scenes from the saint’s life.
|"White stone murti of Bamakhepa which is|
housed at the Shri Shri Bamdeb Smriti Mandir"
Adjacent to this mandir is the place where Bamakhepa was born—a small room in a home that has since been converted into a temple. Today it is presided over by the grandson of Bamakhepa’s younger brother, Mr. Umanath Roy, and his extended family. This temple room contains two white statues of the saint, along with a framed image of the Ma Tara temple murti, and is decorated with dozens of pictures of various Hindu sadhus, tantriks, and mystics famous across India.
|"Bamakhepa (as a young boy) attempting |
to feed the murti of Ma Tara"
|"Wild dogs are often depicted as |
the companions of Lord Shiva"
Events took an even stranger turn when this dog proceeded to follow us on an extraordinarily hot day, running through the countryside, racing alongside our rickshaw for over twenty minutes without rest. He waited patiently as we explored the sacred place of Bamakhepa’s youth and then again ran with us as we journeyed back without so much as stopping to take a drink, or eat the biscuits Gouri Ma would periodically throw to him. When I asked Gouri Ma what she thought of all this strangeness, she looked at me smiling and emphatically replied “Rup!” implying that this dog was a “form” of Bamakhepa; in fact that it was a manifestation of the “mad saint,” at least in that moment. For her it was a sign that this event was meant to take place and given the tone of such a day, Julie and I could not help but agree with this attribution. I then snapped a photograph of the dog as it was following us, at Gouri Ma’s request.