While Tarapith is often not considered a “true” shakti pith due to its rather curious omission from the list of 51 sacred sites found in the Mahapithanirupana, it most certainly is regarded as such in the realm of popular belief. For the masses of devotees who flock to this temple, Tarapith is where Sati’s third eye fell to the earth countless aeons ago. Traditionally associated with both mystical vision and spiritual fire, the third eye is one of the most powerful attributes of the Great Goddess. The fact that Tarapith is said to be the site where Sati’s third eye landed demonstrates the tremendous amount of respect and reverence accorded this “place of power” by goddess devotees.
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.
An image that shows Ma Tara with an eye over her heart is prominently displayed in a temple known as the Dakati Kali Bari (“Bandit Kali House”) located in South Kolkata
Hanging above a popular Kali shrine, this framed picture associates Tarapith with the third eye of Sati (Gariahat Road, Kolkata)
The main mandir is a four-sided, marble block structure capped by a curved roof called a dochala, from which projects a smaller four-sided tower with it’s own dochala. I was immediately struck by the obvious similarities between the architectural style of the Tarapith Mandir and another famous Bengali shakti pith with which I am very familiar–Kalighat. These two buildings are roughly the same size and shape. In fact, many temples and even tombs (called samadhi) that you find in West Bengal share this same structural design the source which becomes apparent when visiting the villages of rural West Bengal. Structurally, it is the same design found in the simple architecture of the traditional Bengali hut–with its four mud walls and thatched roof–replaced with more lasting materials.
The Tarapith Mandir
The facade of the Tarapith temple is made of terra cotta and is embellished with scenes from various Indian epics. Its central relief depicts the goddess Durga slaying the buffalo demon Mahishasura. Three archways lead one toward the sanctum sanctorum’s double door upon which ornate metalwork beautifully displays reliefs of Tara’s sacred flower (the hibiscus), chakra motifs, and portraits of Shiva and Tara on opposite sides. Above this entrance is another metal relief sculpture of Lord Shiva with eyes closed, flanked with sacred swastikas and framed by an elegant repeating hibiscus pattern.
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
Tara Ma’s murti also has a luxurious mane of matted locks made from what feels like human hair. Atop this rests a very large, ornate crown adorned with a five-petaled hibiscus flower as well as a pentagram. Judging by various calendar art prints and photos of the murti, this crown has undergone various alterations as it is periodically crafted anew by artisans. Despite these changes, the motif of a star persists. The star symbolism is most likely an allusion to the name “Tara,” which in Sanskrit means “star.”
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
A short distance directly across from the garbhagriha (literally “womb chamber”), is the temple’s sacrificial area containing a single harikhat. It is here where goats are offered to goddess Tara who is said to enjoy blood sacrifice . I spent some time at this place and watched as the karmokar (a Bengali word meaning “blacksmith”) beheaded goats on numerous occasions. Speaking with this man, Braja Gopal, I learned that these sacrifices are a daily occurrence at the Tarapith temple and before him, it was his father who performed the rite. This naturally intrigues me; questions like “How many generations of your family have done this work?” and “Why is a blacksmith entrusted with beheading goats?” immediately arose in my mind. These and many other questions that I have can only be answered with further research.
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”
While exploring the complex I noticed that if there were no objects or masses of people present (as is usually the case), the harikhat would be directly in Ma Tara’s view as she oversees the affairs of the temple. In her hymn of one hundred names taken from the Mundamala Tantra she is given such epithets as, “She who is smeared with blood,” “She who likes blood,” and “She who enjoys blood sacrifice.” There can be no doubt that the alignment of Ma Tara’s eyes with the harikhat is intentional, for her power is not confined to the sanctum sanctorum. The entire temple complex, cremation ground, and surrounding village belongs to the goddess Tara. For devotees, she is not a localized phenomenon, but omnipresent creative and destructive force. Ma Tara is shakti, or power itself; as an Aghori told me in the cremation ground, she is the “world-in-charge” mother of all existence.
The burning ground at twilight
Tarapith’s Great Cremation Ground
Entering 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
Magic is a powerful, living force at Tarapith and the cremation ground culture is a vital component of that magic. From the red-clad social outsiders to the sincere tantrik sadhakas, there is a wide range of spiritual and not-so-spiritual practices taking place within its boundaries. I have had some good fun drinking alcohol with a tantrik folk-music singer that I was recording and have also chanted mantras with Aghoris who were performing a fire ritual spanning several days. Like the goddess Tara Ma herself, the power of the burning ground is ambiguous and liminal, so it follows suit that the approaches to Tara Ma cover a broad devotional spectrum. Regardless of the different forms their spiritual expressions may take, all who dwell here consider themselves sincere bhaktas of the goddess Tara Ma and feel an intimate connection with her.
Fire rituals are performed throughout the night
Following a dirt path that weaves through the length of the cremation ground, one comes upon a veritable hill of human ash mixed with wood and bone fragments located at the top of a ghat on the east bank of the Dwarka river. This is the funeral pyre proper: the specific area where human corpses are placed upon piles of wood which are then set alight. It is a daily occurrence at the Tarapith Mahasmashana and I have personally seen up to three pyres burning at once. According to Hindu dharma (cosmic order), cremation is the final rite in the course of an individual’s existence which helps the soul along in its quest for liberation. It is a ritual that affirms non-attachment to the body, which having temporarily served its purpose as a vehicle for the spirit, is now no longer needed.
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.
Portrait of Bamakhepa
BAMAKHEPA: THE MAD SAINT OF TARAPITH
Bamakhepa (1837 – 1911), the famous “mad saint” of Tarapith, was born Bamacharan to a Brahmin family in the small village of Atla Gram, located a short journey west of the Tarapith temple. From a very young age, he worshiped Ma Tara with an unbridled enthusiasm that earned him the nickname of Bamakhepa. Khepa, a word which translates as mad or crazy, is also used as a honorific title among tantriks and Bauls. When used in this way, the word khepa refers not to the ordinary insanity associated with mental illness, but to “God Intoxication,” the divinely inspired madness toward which all ecstatics ultimately aspire. The word bama simply means “left.” So combined together, the words bama and khepa connote one who has attained a state of divine madness through the left-handed practices of tantrik sadhana. If the stories that continue to be told of his bizarre spiritual life are accurate, Bamkhepa can truly be said to have been a holy madman.
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!
Popular images of Bamakhepa depict him sitting cross-legged in Tarapith’s Mahasmashana, complete with blazing fires and human bones strewn about, meditating while surrounded by ghouls and jackals. Through his unorthodox practices, Bamakhepa is said to have achieved a non-dual state of consciousness where he came to perceive all things as a sacred continuum that was an expression of Ma Tara’s infinite power.
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
The nearby village of Atla Gram, birthplace of Bamakhepa, can be reached in about twenty minutes by van. In this case, “van” refers to a specific type of cycle-drawn cart which you find in the rural areas of West Bengal. First, one crosses a bridge over the river Dwarka and then it is a pleasant cruise through long winding roads cutting across the vibrantly green, expansive rice paddy fields of rural Birbhum District. One cannot help but be struck by how overwhelmingly quiet everything feels, especially after experiencing the hustle and bustle of an active temple and even more so if you are used to life in a big city like Kolkata.
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
This small village was the place where Bamakhepa grew up and his childhood home is open to visitation. It naturally contains another shrine along with a wall mural depicting the goddess Tara. We were then led around back to see the small temple where Bamakhepa used to conduct rituals for his family. Here you will find a statue of the goddess Ma Tara flanked by two large pictures of Bamakhepa. Next to her is a Shiva trident. Most interesting to me was the smaller statue of Tara that is being “fed” by another statue of Bamakhepa as a boy. This image is one that would be recognizable to anyone familiar with iconography of the “mad saint” and his legendary unusual behavior. He would often try to feed the murti of Tara Ma by hand and then throw fits when she would not eat, rolling around out the ground while crying out to the goddess. At various temple marketplaces where I have seen this type of image in the form of calendar-art prints and framed dioramas, Bamakhepa is always shown as an adult, but the sculpted murti here uniquely depicts him as a child.
Wild dogs are often depicted as the companions of Lord Shiva
I would not feel that an account of my trip to Bamakhepa’s birthplace would be complete without also mentioning the circumstances surrounding our journey there. My assistant Julie and I asked a friendly Aghori woman, Gouri Ma, to accompany us on our trip to this sacred place. While discussing our travel plans with her in Tarapith’s cremation ground, a stray dog seemingly took notice of our conversation and made his presence strongly felt by rubbing against all of us. This dog then proceeded to follow us as we walked to the main road and arranged our ride. Bamakhepa himself is said to have been an avatar (divine incarnation) of Lord Shiva and was called such by none other than Ramakrishna Paramahamsa. Dogs are traditionally associated with Lord Shiva and cremation grounds, so this all seemed rather auspicious.
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.
This recording was captured in the Tarapith Mahasmashana in the early morning hours. Two men were singing devotional songs and keeping rhythm with a khol drum, kartala (hand cymbal), and ghungur (ankle bells). The following song was performed upon my request.
Within the temple complex there was much activity taking place during Durga Puja. I had a chance to record this shehnai player accompanied by a small kettle drum played by a little boy.
Recordings from 2003
The next three tracks were recorded during my first trip to Tarapith.
In the first recording, you will hear the sounds of the evening arati at Tarapith from the location of the natmandir. I was seated cross legged on the platform directly in view of the goddess. You hear a martial rhythm played on a dhak while the temple bell loudly resounds.
These next two folk songs were performed in the Tarapith cremation ground by my Tantrik friend, Hashu Chattopadhay. He has since wandered on and I hope that he is still singing his songs somewhere in West Bengal today.
"Mother incomparably arrayed, hair flying about, stripped down. You battle-dance on Shiva's heart. A garland of heads bounce off of your heavy hips. Severed arms for a belt, corpses of infants for earrings. Those lips, and teeth like jasmine. Your face a lotus blossom, the laugh. Body dark like a storm cloud, and feet whose splendor is increased by blood. Prasad cries out: My mind is dancing! Can I take much more? Can I bear this impossible beauty?"