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xEurasia Odyssey


INDIA | Monday, 30 September 2013 | Views [1186]



The flight from Dibrugarh stopped in Dimapur, Nagaland before continuing on to Kolkata.  From the plane window I could see lush green forested hills broken only by a few villages/towns with brown roads and waterways. Rivers snake through the landscape with no seeming order, but create beautiful flowing patterns on the landscape. 

 From the plane Kolkata seems to go on forever, the buildings only interrupted by the swamplands of the Sunderban National Park, a haven for tigers, snakes, crocodiles and other not so friendly creatures.

 At the airport I met the new driver who was going to take me to Tarapith, another Shaktipithi site.  Both Vaishno Devi in Jammu and Kamakhya in Guwahati were part of the 51 places where parts of the goddess Sati’s body fell after Vishnu split her apart so that Shiva would stop his dance of universal destruction in his anguish over her passing. Vaishno Devi was where her face fell, hence the three stone faces at that pilgrimage site; her yoni (genitals) at Kamakhya with its small pool of water behind the main icon; her eyes fell at Tarapith, which is why Tara is associated with stars, starlight and luminousness.  In Kolkata, the City of Kali, her toes fell.  As people show their respect by kissing their elders’ and teachers’ feet, her toes demonstrate that she is showing herself to be worshipped by the people.

I planned to go to Kalighat when we returned to the city the following day. 

 The 287km drive to Tarapith was supposed to take about 4 hours, but instead took over 6 ½, which meant that we drove for a fairly long time after dark. As we are so far east the sun disappears around 5:30 and within just a few minutes it’s pitch black outside. The main road was good for the first 100km or so and then it became quite miserable very quickly.  Not only are their almost Costa Rican sized potholes everywhere, but there are trucks with blazing high beams that play chicken with the cars, who have to swerve to avoid all the cows, buffalo, goats, dogs, people, motorcycles, carts, tuktuks, tractors, and holes, etc. on the road.  There are no traffic rules other than find a space and drive.  I could sense myself getting increasingly worried and didn’t want it to be infectious, so trusting that the driver knew what he was doing, (although he told me early on in the trip that he had a fibrous brain tumor which he couldn’t afford to have operated on, but that luckily it hadn’t grown in the past few years…), I put the seat back, closed my eyes and started repeating mantras in my head.  They do help. After a number of road blocks, detours, truck accidents (not with us) on bridges that backed up traffic for kilometers, we finally arrived at the town where the temple is and found the hotel.  My heart sunk when I got to the room and realized there was no hot water, no shower, clearly no wifi, and a great deal of just plain dirt.  Luckily it was only for one night and as this is a tantric site, one is supposed to use the things that are abhorrent and turn them into learning experiences, I tried – rather unsuccessfully – to see it as a way to “get back to nature.”  Dirt is after all Mother Earth’s element.

In the morning, I was able to get to the temple. The Tarapith.com website states:

 Tara Maa of Tarapith, another form of Kali, has two hands, is garlanded with snakes, is adorned in sacred threads, and has Shiva lying in her left lap sucking her breast. But the temple is dedicated to the destructive aspect of Shiva, which takes the form of Kali. She requires sacrifice daily to satisfy her blood lust so every morning goats are sacrifices on the alter of the temple.

 The temple is busy through out the year and is surrounded by poor who come to have free meal. This is one of the most sacred places where every year several millions of devotees come to offer Puja. Tarapith is regarded as Mahapeeth and extremely holy place for all Hindus. It is said that wherever you are in this beautiful world, whatever be you and your religion, the kindness and blessings of Maa Tara will reach you to fulfill your desires, if you are an honest and upright person. She will provide you relief from pain if any your heart and mind. This is the reason for which every year millions of devotees gathers at this place to offer Puja and prayer.

Worshipping Tara’s form of Kali at this site is said to lead to enlightenment and wisdom, along with the granting of one’s material and spiritual desires.  It is one of the special “siddhi” sites, i.e., one that grants special powers, which comes from her ability to see into one’s mind, heart, and soul and know what the best process is for ultimate fulfillment of desires.

 As Kali/Tara is a mother to her people, this is the site where according to legend, when a supplicant requested that she show herself as a mother with Shiva sucking at her breast, which is the image of her that the Buddha had seen in a vision, she turned herself into a stone figure of mother and child. This stone is, unfortunately, now completely covered with garlands and attire from her devotees, so I wasn’t able see actually see the image.  Even if I could have, photographs were not allowed in the temple.

 The path to the temple is lined with the typical prasad (offerings) and garland vendors and also some that have pictures for sale of the image of the icon both here and at Kalighat. Beggars, young and old, male and female (although many more women than men) are everywhere and grab at your arms to get you to give something to them. The priests aren’t much better as they demand money for everything, and if you don’t give them what many consider exorbitant amounts they make you feel guilty for not appropriately worshipping Maa Tara.  Actually, they have nothing to do with her; the icon doesn’t need the people’s money. Nonetheless, not wanting to spend hours in line, I did spring for the special cut-the-line entry ‘donation.’ This allowed me all of about 30 seconds in front of the Goddess, before I was summarily pushed aside by the throngs of worshippers. I was a bit surprised to see the icon’s silver mouth painted blood-dripping red, but this does fit with the destructive part of Kali that this particular Tara represents.  This is not the Buddhist Tara, but the Hindu Tantric one. They are related, but not at all the same.

 After weaseling through the crowd to leave the temple, I stopped by the river to see the cremation grounds.  They were no different than at other places of this sort, except that I didn’t see any bodies burning on this occasion, which I have at the other sites I’ve visited in India and Nepal. It may seem odd or even perverse to stop at a cremation ground, but this is part of the culture. The body needs to be burned so that the person can reincarnate in the appropriate manner.  (What it does to the river, however, is an entirely different matter.)  On the way back to the car, I saw a number of vehicles of various sizes with “Jai Maa Tara” on the windshields. As elsewhere, windshields often proclaim the greatness of the driver's favorite deity, be it Ganesha, Shiva, Durga, Kali, Vishnu, Laksmi, Rama, Krishna or Tara.

The drive back to Kolkata was luckily uneventful and only took about 5 hours. We made it in time to get into the State Archeological Museum, but unfortunately after only 20 minutes, in what would have been a very good collection, the power went out and the museum closed.  As it was getting dark, I postponed Kalighat until this morning.

It rained all night, pounding the windows in my room with torrential force.  By morning it was just regular rain.  The path to Kalighat from the main road is like all the other pilgrimage sites, lined with vendors and priests who really are touts.  I purposely didn’t bring much money with me as I know whatever I have with me will be gone. This may sound cheap, but one does need to make choices and I’d rather give decent tips to the people who have been helpful to me than to the folks at the temple grounds who do seem to cheat people.  I’m now convinced that Marx wasn’t all that wrong with religion being an opiate and wonder whether it wouldn’t be better for the people to have all the temples regulated (& this from a person who doesn’t like regulation!) rather than conniving the livelihood out of people who really can’t afford it.  They give money to the priests in the hopes that their prayers will be heard and then don’t have money for medicine or clean water.  It just doesn’t seem right or moral.

 I did get to see Kali, again for only a few seconds, and the icon is beautiful. She has three huge almond-shaped silver lined eyes shining from a blue-black face. Her sacrifice area has a place for the daily slaughter of 20 goats, and the festival buffalo.  The meat is cooked and given to the poor along with buckets of rice. In a sense, as abhorrent as the blood sacrifice may be, it does serve a soup-kitchen type function; even for those who are normally vegetarians.

One of the other aspects of Kali is Durga. The entire city, and country, is in the throws of preparing for the major Durga puja festival in the middle of October. Temporary shrines and temples are being constructed everywhere. In Kolkata there are competitions among the various clubs that sponsor a particular puja for the best temple, the most elaborate deity icon, etc. The money all comes from private sources.  People go door to door to collect donations and companies sponsor a particular club’s temple much the way they would sponsor a marathon race or golf match in the U.S. 

So, I guess, it depends on one’s priorities; does one spend money on health care, sports or on religion? How does one create harmony and balance between physical and spiritual well-being?



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