I don't remember how I first heard about Tarapith. Perhaps it was in a book I read, but as soon as it entered my awareness, I knew I would go there. A temple in rural West Bengal, the Tara worshipped there does what seems at first impossible: she is both destroyer and loving mother, hungry for blood and eager to help. How could this be? I needed to find out.
Years ago, when I first began practicing Tibetan Buddhism, I sang the 21 praises of Tara each morning and it served as a potent reminder of my own multiplicity. I loved it that Tara — who is considered mother of all the Buddhas — had 21 faces. After all, humans are kaleidoscopic, and I knew that some of the energies readily available to her lay dormant in me. I sensed that if I were to deeply meditate on all 21 of her forms until I knew them intimately, I would be thoroughly opened, and all those buried energies would be liberated. Given this, why would I ever need any practice besides Tara? I was excited. I had found my path.
It didn’t take long for that excitement to turn into frustration. Most of the teachings and practices I encountered emphasized her peaceful aspects, but the Tara that most intrigued me was the one culturally least acceptable in female form: the powerful, primordial Tara, who frightens the demons and can shake the seven underworlds with a stamp of her foot. The visceral sense of those intense energies were not mirrored for me in the practices that I learned.
Meanwhile, much of what people were saying about the divine feminine in general centered on the traditional ideals of mothering and compassion, as though she were limited to being nurturing and helpful with a little bit of sexy fire thrown in — no threat to the collective ego, and nothing like what I sensed this Tara embodied. I wondered if the primordial version of her was the one we had most lost touch with in the west, relegating all of the powerful energy to the masculine, and this was what was knocking the world out of balance.
Despite the difference in her appearance, the deity who presides at Tarapith has clear origins in Tibetan Buddhism. The story goes like this: The sage Vasistha attempted to meditate on a form of Tara found in Assam and was unsuccessful over many years. In his frustration, he was about to curse Tara for her indifference when the earth shook and she appeared. “Only Visnu in the form of the Buddha knows my form of worship,” she said. So Vasistha went to Tibet to learn what to do, and there, the Buddha revealed to him the tantric practice of Tara. As David Kinsley put it in Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine, “On this path, worship is mental, not physical. All times are auspicious, nothing is inauspicious. There is no difference between pure and impure.”
The Buddha had a vision of Tarapith as an ideal place for a Tara shrine, and he advised Vasistha to go to there. Once at Tarapith, Vasitha recited the Tara mantra 300,000 times and asked her to appear to him in the form that had come to the Buddha in a vision: a mother suckling Shiva at her breast (the Hindus say she suckled him to heal his throat after he drank the poison that churned the oceans). In answer to his request, Tara appeared to Vasitha in that form and then turned into a stone image. Since then, this primordial stone is the center of worship at Tarapith.
But interestingly, that motherly image is kept shrouded most of the time under the skirts of the deity, and those who come to the temple see instead the fierce form of Tara – the one who enjoys blood and is associated with the fire of the charnel grounds. In Hinduism, Tara is closely related to Kali, and in the image of Tara at Tarapith, as devotees contemplate her fierce form, they know all the while that her essence is a motherly compassion that is powerful enough to save the life of Shiva and with him, the whole world. I sense that the integration of these two aspects of the divine – primordial energy with motherly compassion – is particularly urgent in these times of discord and environmental destruction.
Tarapith is about a six-hour drive from Calcutta, through flat, dusty plains that seem to mimic a primordial ground where all times exist together: a village of mud huts; a cement factory with hefty smokestacks; houses made of straw that remind me of the three little pigs; and me in an old white ambassador taxi, circa 1950. I remember what the guesthouse owner in Calcutta told me: that more than 40% of Indians have never seen a car because they live in roadless tribal regions and never venture more than three kilometers from their home.
It is dusk by the time I arrive at a guest house to drop my things. Soon, I am seated on the back of a bicycle rickshaw on the way to the temple and pass a sign advertising a black magician. Clearly it is a big attraction here, and it explains the eerie energy that I am sensing. I’m a conspicuous foreign woman, alone in a hardscrabble town in the middle of a black magic convention. Yikes. I shake off my discomfort and sit up taller. The street is deserted. I don’t even see anyone in the shop stalls. I get out at the temple gate, perplexed. Now it is very dark and hard to tell where to go.
Then I hear a soft voice behind me speak in perfect English. “Excuse me, Madam, you can leave your chappals here.”
I turn and meet the kind eyes of an older man. His slender fingers gesture toward a stall on the corner, and I slip off my sandals. When he asks if I would like to do puja, I say, yes, but a very simple one, and he indicates a garland of red hibiscus flowers. I give him the rupees for it, and when he takes it off the hook, it is so enormously long that I have to wrap it three times around my arm to keep it from dragging.
He disappears in the back and emerges a moment later with a teenage boy wearing a black leather jacket, who I assume is his son. He says some words to him in Bengali and the boy motions me to follow him.
I follow the shadow of the boy into the temple complex and up a narrow set of stairs. We are walking purposefully now, through a narrow corridor with rows of empty cages that seem to me like prisons. I assume they are for the goats, which are sacrificed each morning at the temple, the meat served to the poor. The corridor seems to go on forever, as though in a dream. The boy signals for me to wait by the cages and opens a door, speaking in Bengali to a man seated on the other side. The man twists around and gives me a long look, then nods his head, and the boy waves his hand for me to follow.
I walk past the man and the boy opens another door, then gives me a little shove into what turns out to be the inner sanctum, where it seems some sort of ritual is under way. The room is packed with men in red shirts and black pants, which is how I am also dressed, though I didn’t know that would be the norm. Everything pulses with powerful energy, so palpable it is as though a force of nature were unleashed. The room is so packed, it almost seems I won’t fit into it, but the men seem to move as one organism and open a pathway that snakes me through them to the shrine of the deity. My consciousness is already altered, and the intensity of vital energy seems to throb through everything at once.
I understand now why the garland of hibiscus flowers is so long. The deity is at least 12-feet tall and wears long drapes of fabric. Her masses of dreadlocks spill onto the floor, and the black eyes in her silver face look off in opposite directions, as though in a trance. Her neck holds a dense pile of garlands like the one I carry. A priest standing on a wooden platform beside the deity bends down to help me with the garland and together, we fling it up over her head. Then he grabs a thick bunch of the dreadlocks.
“Touch her hair,” he shouts, and I grab hold of it. The dreadlocks are wet with dye the color of bright blood and it stains my hands. Prayers rise up from me and he shoves my head into the dreadlocks. I feel the wetness as it stains my forehead the same bright red. The moment is strange, dreamlike, and seems to go on forever.
Now I am standing before her, my head craning up to see her silver face. Behind me a sea of men roars like a churning ocean, a vital pulsing that feels like life itself. I understand now why these men, who live hard lives in the dusty plains, speak of this fierce deity with such tenderness, as though she were a pale madonna holding a bright baby on her knee. Such a madonna would not serve them. Their lives are difficult and they have good reason to be filled with longing and rage. What they draw from this figure is a love so unconditional, it is beyond what I could have ever conceived without being there in the room with them.
It is as though she were saying: “Bring me your rage, your desire to kill, to destroy. These feelings are holy. Bring them here, all of you together, with no shame. Feel it completely. No need to repress. No need to fear. Feel it here so you don’t need to act it out negatively and you can use the energy to nourish life. I love you. You are fine the way you are. Now take your urge to kill and sacrifice a goat. Give the blood to me as an offering, and with the meat, feed the poor.”
All of this energy — the life force that is released into this field of love — is what keeps these men strong, alive, vital, in the face of so much adversity. I am standing inside the unconditional love of the dark mother.
After what seems both an eternity and an instant, a pathway opens and I am snaked to another door, which seems to be the main entrance to the temple. On the other side is a long line of Indians that meanders through the temple complex, both women and men, eating suppers they had packed at home, waiting for the ritual to end so they can have their turn at the feet of Maa Tara.