“She who is the auspiciousness which takes one beyond inauspiciousness”
The painting shows the goddess Tara at Her cult centre, the Tarapith smashan ground and temple complex in the Birbhum district of West Bengal. To learn about Tara one must know a little about Tarapith. According to temple literature, Tarapith is mentioned in the Skandapurana, under the ancient name of Abantinagar, and a great lila of the Goddess Ugratara took place there. The asura (egoic rival of the gods) Bala attempted a fight with Tara. In the course of the battle, Tara severed the heads of Balasur and his warriors. She thereupon became intoxicated and began to play games with the bleeding heads, tossing them to and fro. The inhabitants of the various realms became terrified at Ugratara’s ghoulish antics and shrieking victory cries. Shiva’s help was desperately sought and, consequently, he appeared on the battlefield as a baby and cried for his mother. Tara was overcome with maternal affection and, picking up the baby Shiva, began to nurse him. As her milk flowed, Tara forgot her wrath and embodied the sweetest rasa (heightened feeling essence) of motherly love.
The other version of the story is a variant on the Mahabharata myth of the churning of the cosmic ocean where the gods and goddesses competed with malevolent asuras for the possession of the nectar of immortality. The nectar was concealed in the ocean, so, the serpent Vasuki wrapped his enormous body around Mount Mandera in order to use his body as a rope and the mountain as a rod for churning the ocean. Due to the stretching of his body, Vasuki emitted a dreadful poison from his mouth. Lord Shiva took the poison and to avoid swallowing it, held it in his throat. The poison turned his throat blue, thus giving Siva the epithet, Nilkantha (blue-throated). Becoming distressed due to the burning of the poison, Shiva cried out to the goddess and Devi Ugratara appeared before him. She changed Shiva’s form into that of an infant, took him onto her lap and breastfed him, soothing the infant Shiva’s pain.
There are two forms of the goddess worshipped at Tarapith temple. One is an ancient, worn, granite image said to show Tara nursing Mahadeva and the other is a large silver mask of Tara’s face that covers the granite statue. The mask, with its distinctive wide-eyed focus, is shown in the top corners of the painting. However, the form of Tara in the main painting is as she is visualized and worshipped in the cremation ground or maha-smashan adjacent to the shrine.
In addition to the above two myths, Tarapith is also said to be the place where the third eye of Sati fell after her corpse was cut to pieces by Vishnu’s discus, thus making it one of the most important Sakti shrines in all of India. (A grief-stricken Shiva was wandering the earth, carrying the body of his wife Sati over his shoulder. Sati’s consciousness had exited her body in shame-filled protest at her father Daksha’s refusal to invite Shiva, alone of all the gods, to a massive Vedic ritual. Daksha had considered Shiva to be a scandalous outsider of brahmanical rites due to his nudity, fondness for intoxicants and wild, asocial manners. Shiva was so absolutely disconsolate that he neglected all his cosmic duties. The gods appealed to Vishnu to intervene and Vishnu cut up the corpse.) The origins of the shrine are also linked to the sage Vashistha who through strenuous ascetic and meditative yogic practices, attained siddhi (profound magical powers) of Tara at this place. Vashishta brought the tantric practice of Tara worship from China into India and was said to have done so at the direction of Shakyamuni Buddha.
The present temple shown to Tara’s left in the painting dates from 1818. It was built on the site of older shrines. It is a stuccoed, red-brick building and typical of the Bengali style of architecture.
In the Shakta Hindu tradition, Kali is known to have various emanations – different forms are emblematic of a particular function or cosmic purpose of Kali. A grouping of ten, including Kali is known as the Mahavidyas, maha (great), vidya (knowledge/power). The Mahavidyas are principally worshipped in North India and Bengal. Tara is especially popular. As can be seen in the painting, she closely resembles Kali and in listings of the Mahavidyas, Kali is first and Tara is second. Whereas Kali is most often (not always) conceived of as black in color, Tara is blue. She is shorter in stature than Kali and has a distinctive pot belly and firmly rounded breasts. Other than a tigerskin draped around her waist, she is naked. Her hair is tawny-red and dreadlocked, with three predominating locks symbolizing the central, solar and lunar nerve channels manipulated in tantric Yogic practice. Her jewelery consists of ten snakes coiled around various parts of her body. Each is said to represent a siddhi attainable through her rigorous worship. Her mala (holy necklace) is made of skulls as is her crown. Close by, further skulls nestle by the roots of a banyan tree.
Skulls are used extensively in Bengali tantric sadhana. They are said to awaken the Goddess. Under most Shakta shrines, such as the temples of Kalighat and Tarapith, up to 1008 skulls may be buried. In the recent past and today such skulls must be from the young who die suddenly. This corresponds to the more ancient forms of sacrifice to the Goddess – namely human sacrifice. In various Puranas (holy texts), offering one’s head to the Devi is said to bestow extraordinary positive results both to one’s community and to the practitioner. Even today at Kalighat, after offering prayers one can place one’s head between the two prongs of the sacrificial stake where scores of human and millions of animal sacrifices have occurred. The priest or sevayat (temple servant) assists in this ritual and I can attest to the deepest feeling of peace felt at that place of ultimate physical surrender. Whatever our feeling about this, animal sacrifice is still an important element of worship to the fierce tantric Goddesses. At Tarapith goats are routinely offered and on important holy days several hundred goats may be sacrificed. The sacrificial pit itself is considered extremely holy and worshippers mark their foreheads with blood from the slaughter. The animals are ritually purified by bathing beforehand and death comes in one clean stroke from a sacrificial sword. The decapitated heads of white and black goats are considered the most auspicious of offerings, though all colors confer some benefit. Such a sacrificial sword is held in Tara’s upper right hand. Her lower right hand holds a shorter sword or Katri and in some traditions this sword becomes a pair of scissors. Her upper left hand holds a blue lotus flower and the lower left a skull cup filled with blood or wine. Tara is said to have the whole world within her skull cup and consumes its impurities.
Tara reveals herself in the blazing cremation fire, standing on a male corpse, within an open white lotus flower. The lotus rests on a mountain of ashes of the dead. At Tarapith the corpses are burnt on this huge ash pile which requires some stealth to climb. Not all corpses are cremated here. Many are buried in shallow graves. Tarapeeth has historically been a preeminent spot for the left-handed tantric corpse rituals and many adepts at this sadhana have made Tarapeeth their home. The most famous and widely revered of these would be Baba Bam Khepa who was also employed as a priest at Tara’s shrine. The brief biographies of Bam Khepa are a startling or liberating read, his behaviors as a priest were particularly unorthodox. He was born in 1838 on the twelfth day of the month of Phalgoon and so was a contemporary of Sri Ramakrishna Paramahansa. As profound as Ramakrishna’s devotion to Kali was, so was Bam Khepa’s to Tara. However, Bam Khepa was truly a wild and formidable character. He popularly ate with dogs in the cremation ground and famously offered the murthi (sanctified image of a deity) of Tara his own urine. Once he set fire to the fields around his village so as to have the vision of Tara in the leaping flames. Bam Khepa expressed both fervent devotion to Tara and also wild abusive rage. Many miraculous healings are attributed to his violent interventions through beatings or verbal sallies. Bam Khepa followed no set pattern of ritual though he was known to be an expert in both Vedic and tantric practice. His seemingly sacrilegious actions were believed to have such power as to halt epidemics and disasters. Once he attempted to lift the black stone statue of Kali at Kalighat onto his lap. When outraged priests intervened, he shouted, “I do not want your jet-black Kali. She looks like a demoness coming to devour someone. My Tara Ma is beautiful, with small feet. I do not want your black Kali – my Akasa Tara is good enough for me.” Bam Khepa died in 1911. His great grandsons maintain the family home and temple to Bam Khepa at the nearby village of Atla, where various of his few personal items are enshrined.
At the base of the painting is an array of tantric puja offerings that relate to the practice of pancha tattva – the five sacred items used to invoke the Devi within. From the deity’s right we see an elongated yoni-shaped vessel or argha. As the lingham is for Saivites, so is the Yoni for Shaktas. It is the pre-eminent symbol of power in nature – the bindu point of all manifested creation and the fire altar of sacrifice into which all creation returns and is consumed. The vessel contains a nectar of blood, wine and sexual fluids. Beside it are offerings of parched grain, incense, ghee lamps and flowers. In the center, beneath the sacrificial post, are two freshly severed goats’ heads. Next, a young green coconut sits in a kumbha (pot), representing the fertile womb of the Goddess mirroring Tara’s beautiful pot belly. Finally, an offering of fish, representing the ability to swim with ease within the unfolding Universe, completes the array of substances. The fifth tattva-maithuna (sexual union) is implied by the fluid offering.
The Mahanirvana Tantra states, “O Adya! The five essential elements in the worship of Sakti have been prescribed to be wine, meat, fish, parched grain and the union of man and woman.” The usage of these substances and rites is of course strictly supervised by the Guru and when engaged in with common lust are said to lead to the aspirant’s downfall. The Kularnava Tantra states that one reaches Heaven by the very things which may lead one to Hell.
As we have already seen iconographically, Kali and Tara are very similar. The Kubjika Tantra states that Kali and Tara must not be differentiated. In the Sri Kali Sahasranama Stotram or thousand names of Kali, three of her names are: Tara – the illuminator; Tarangini - she who makes waves; and Ghoraghoratara – she who is the auspiciousness which takes one beyond inauspiciousness. Tara, meaning star, is also said to be identified with Nilasarasvati. As such, she is considered to bestow boons of poetic speech and knowledge. In the legends of Tarapith, many spiritual aspirants are said to have received extraordinary gifts of a brilliant scholastic nature through her grace. As the star, she is the blue light manifest in the dark night of Kali. She is the one who helps cross over to the other shore and as such is sometimes depicted in a boat. Specifically, at the time of physical demise the light of Tara guides one to Brahman (supreme cosmic energy or Truth). The Tara-rahasyi states, “She who creates, nourishes and destroys the world, who supports the universe and destroys the fear inherent in existence, she alone can prevent rebirth, is the Supreme Energy, the boat with the help of which the ocean of the world may be crossed.”