The Lady Twilight – Part IV

This is the fourth in a five-part series from Dalrymple’s latest book, Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India.

The following day I returned to the cremation ground to talk to Manisha Ma. What interested me was how different her vision of Tara was to that of Milan, who clearly saw the goddess mainly as a supernatural channel through which he could gain worldly power. Manisha, however, believed that Tara was a motherly figure who had saved her, who looked after her when she was most vulnerable, and who above all had brought her love. What did this actually mean? What kind of life could Manisha have lived before moving into the burning ground?

As Tapan Sadhu continued following the test match at the back of the hut (“India are 94 without loss”), and as a roving chai wallah poured clay cups of tea to the growing circle of listening sadhus and sadhvis, Manisha settled back on a duree amid her skulls, and began to tell me her story.

“I was born in the town of Ariadaha, in the Northern 24 Parganahs district of South West Bengal,” she said. “My father worked for the Public Works Department. His job was to announce how the water would be distributed. He had a drum and a megaphone, and used to tell people when the water supply would be cut off and when it would be turned back on again.

“I had seven sisters and one brother. When I was born, before my father got his PWD job, we were very poor, and often ate only once a day. Some days my mother could only afford manioc which she would cook with a little salt, and give to us to eat. I was close to my sisters and also to my father, who loved me very much. But my brother was the one my mother loved. He was very spoilt: if the slightest thing went wrong for him she would stop eating and go on a fast, and if there was only food for one, then he would get it. One of my sisters died when I was three; we both had a fever and as my father could afford only one piece of fish, he gave it to me. The next day I got well, but my sister’s fever increased and she died. My mother still says your sister died because of your father. If he had given her the fish, she would have lived.

“After my father got his job with the PWD, I went to school, but only until class five, when I was eleven. Even before then I was not a good student; the school made me feel confined, and I was always running away. My parents scolded me, but it never suited my temperament. I still am not good at reading or writing. After I had passed out of class five, my father decided that we needed more money as he couldn’t feed us properly on the small government salary he got. So when I was thirteen, we moved to Calcutta, and both my mother and he went to work in one of the jute mills in Baguhati. We used to wait impatiently for them to return. My mother would bring flour, and when she got home we all made chapattis. Sometimes I earned a little too, cleaning the dishes and washing the clothes of our neighbors for five or ten rupees. But I didn’t mind. I was very excited to be in Calcutta, which was full of cars and buses and cinemas and all manner of things we rarely saw in Ariadaha. We were staying in a third floor apartment, and my sisters and I would look out at the Howrah Bridge rising in the distance and all the great sights of the city.

“Two years later, when I was fifteen, I went to work at the mill too, and was put in the finishing department. When the jute came out of the machine, I was part of the team that cut it up and made it into the jute bails which were then sent to America. It was very hard work, and so dusty that everyone who worked there developed breathing problems. Some of the girls got caught in the machine and were badly injured. But I used to pray to the goddess and she always looked after me.

“From my childhood I was very spiritual. Both my parents were religious, and at home we had a small puja to the goddess every day. I was always attracted to the Devi, in her different forms—Ma Kali, Ma Durga, Ma Tara, and so on—and I always believed that it was she who saved me from danger. Even as a child I used to love to attend festivals and melas, and especially the Durga Puja, which was my favorite week of the year. One of my earliest memories is of the Durga Puja, which I first visited in my father’s arms. I loved to see the immersion of the goddess in the river at the end of the ten day festival. While we were there I would seek out the company of sadhus and ask them questions. It was a pleasure just to look at the fair and all the bangles and bracelets on sale. On that day my father would always save up and buy us all hot jalebis.

“When I was sixteen, I was married off. I never met my husband before the ceremony, and I didn’t really know what it was all about. My husband’s family owned a small shop selling paan and cigarettes and groceries. My father had begun to drink by then and he never had any money, so my maternal uncle gave three thousand rupees for the marriage. I cried a lot when I had to move to my in-laws. I was leaving my father and going to a strange place. It was over a year before I would sleep with my husband, and this made him angry. My mother-in-law also did not like me, and kept saying: ‘What are you crying for?’

“It was shortly after I moved into my husband’s room that I was possessed by the goddess, and had a fit for the first time. A few months later, when I first became pregnant, and went back to my mother’s to have the child, I went into a full trance. The friend of my mother who observed me said: ‘This is not an illness, this is possession.’ For the next few years this became more and more frequent: I would start shaking or faint, and fall unconscious. The doctors could do nothing. My children became quite used to it. They thought all mothers were like this. But my husband and my mother-in-law were embarrassed and angry. He would beat me and say, ‘What is this trance? Why is this happening? The customers do not like it and you will drive them away. We cannot afford this.’

“None of this stopped me. Instead, I became increasingly preoccupied with the goddess and spent more and more of my time in the temple, listening to kirtans. This led to more conflict still. My mother-in-law kept asking: ‘Why do you go to the temple the whole time? You have children.’ But I continued to sneak out whenever I could. I loved to hear the chanting of the names of the goddess, and it always calmed me down and made me happy when I could put garlands around her image.

“One day I was possessed when I was in the temple, and when I came to, I found the pundit of the temple had garlanded me. Not only that, he had washed my feet and put a sandalwood tilak on my forehead. I asked why he had done this, but he just replied: ‘Ma—don’t refuse.’ From that point on, people at the temple used to worship me as they thought I was possessed by the goddess, and they used to give me offerings and try to interpret what I was saying during my fits. At first this frightened me, but slowly I grew more self-confident. My three daughters were beginning to grow up and I felt able to imagine taking my own path. But there was increasing conflict at home, especially when devotees followed me and would knock at the door to ask for blessings. I don’t know why, but it seemed that the more angry and violent my husband became, the more I went into a state of trance. Maybe this also was the doing of the goddess.

“Before long, quite large numbers of devotees would come to see me in this state—five or ten people a day would come to the house or the shop if I was working there, and of course they disrupted everything. My husband got more and more furious, saying I had turned our store into a temple. Then one day, after he beat me very badly, I heard a call from Ma Tara. It was a sound which came in the breeze: Tara Ma saying, very clearly: ‘Come to me. All that you may lose, you will recover. I will take care of your daughters. Your place is now with me.’

“It was not my will. Mother called me, and I had to go. It was two in the afternoon. I walked out the house then and there, taking nothing with me other than the clothes I was wearing. I didn’t even have time to say goodbye to my children. It was already over with my husband: we no longer had a relationship. I spent the first night in the Kali Mandir. That was the lowest moment. I didn’t sleep at all and felt depressed, as if my whole life had broken apart and I had failed in everything. In fact the first few weeks were very hard. But I kept telling myself that when the mother calls, there is nothing you can do. I stayed in the temple for two years, living off offerings, and sleeping in the courtyard.

“Only after much wandering, did I finally find my way here to Tarapith. I have now been here twenty years. It was here that Ma Tara fulfilled her promises to me. I have gone for many pilgrimages since then, but from the day I arrived here, and after Tapan Sadhu became my protector, Tarapith became my home. I missed my children, of course—the youngest was only four, and none of them were old enough to understand. Often I would weep. But my devotees came to fill the hole in my heart left by the absence of my girls. Now the whole world is full of my children: when I miss my daughters I see my other children, and my heart turns to them. So many people now call me Ma.

“From the day I left my husband, my trances became less frequent, but I feel Her presence more than ever now. I will be sitting here in my hut with Tapan and suddenly I feel that she is here—I feel this with tremendous force—even though I cannot see her with my eyes. This is a very ancient site, and many great saints have attained perfection here though tapas [asceticism] and meditation. Those who invoke the energy of the mother here can access her power, and her imagination. She is present in all the rituals that are performed here.

“One of the reasons I collect skulls is partly to help visualize her—many saints have seen her using the skulls. The great Bama Khepa, one of the first saints to realize the power of this place, saw her in a circle of fire in the form of a very young girl. Skulls of course remind us of our mortality, and of the world of illusion that surrounds our daily life. But we also believe that if you awake the skulls through sadhana [Tantric practice], and tame their spirits, they will give you more power and help show you the path to reach the goddess and access her shakti. They help you invoke her, and call her to you.

“The spirits of the dead often stay with the skull. They are formless and shapeless. No one can enclose them or burn them or drown them. You have to worship them, appease them, and then feed them regularly. You must offer them perfume, flowers, and oil. Not all skulls work, of course—you have to give them time. You can tell by the way the skull behaves with food. You feed them rice, dal, raw meat from sacrifices, even whiskey. If the skull moves its face away or recedes, then it is not accepting the food, and the skull’s spirit will not help you.

“What you are looking for is a dissatisfied and troubled spirit. If a person has a peaceful death, and all the funeral rites are conducted properly, he will be reincarnated. But unsatisfied spirits, the ones that have died unfortunate deaths when they are young, they are the ones that linger on, and wander. They take a long time to reincarnate and they are the ones we can call through the midnight air. With luck, they are the ones we can work with.

“You can’t master spirits. They are willful and independent. They will come if they want to, and if you please them with special mantras. Tapan taught me that some were so powerful that they can split open the tombs and make the bodies manifest themselves. You must draw a circle around yourself for protection. Then when the spirits that you have invoked come, you have to know the mantras which can help you talk with them, and use their shakti. These are rare skills, and great secrets. Compared to Tapan, and some of the other masters here, I am just a novice.

“Now, however, I am beginning to think that Tantra only really works properly when it is coupled with intense devotion, with bhakti. When I was younger and I first came here, I was very obsessed with skulls and the secrets of Tantra. I would do anything to collect new skulls and tend to them—putting vermilion on them, feeding them as well as I could, and bathing them in ghee, yogurt, and honey. I had a whole room full of them. Once you feed them and they accept the offerings, they are pacified and help you, protecting you from evil spirits. I found the shakti powers they gave me exhilarating. I found I could sometimes predict the future. Tapan Sadhu even taught me the secret mantras through which you can get the spirits to bring rain in time of drought.

“But now my attention is more directed on Tara Ma herself, and increasingly I believe the most important thing is to get close to her through devotional love. Skulls are still useful and they can be very powerful, but these days I am concentrating simply on the love and worship of the mother—although in such a way as not to alienate the skulls. You could say that I am bringing them with me on my journey. Love is the most important thing.

“Tantra on its own can be very dangerous. The skulls may help us to awaken the goddess, but if you make one mistake in the ritual, you can go mad. Some tried to do battle with the goddess, to tame her with magic. Look what happened to them! There are many here who made mistakes in their sadhana and became insane. So what you need is to find a balance between bhakti and Tantra. With the two of them together, with both love and sacrifice, I believe you are on the right path, and when she thinks you are worthy she will reveal herself. Until then she sends me dreams, and I know I am daily receiving her compassion.

“Tapan Sadhu really taught me all I know about Tantra and love. I met him first in Calcutta, when I was still living in the Kali temple. I was passing by, and he was there with his disciples, and he said, ‘You want a paan?’ Over the following years I noticed him when he came to the temple. I was impressed because people said he was very strong and had great powers, but he was a kind and gentle man too. Somewhere at the back of my mind, I realized that if I wished to follow the Tantric path, I needed someone with whom I could perform sadhana with. I also realized I needed to find a man who would protect me, because if I went out on the roads on my own I would be vulnerable, and could be attacked.

“Then Tara Ma sent me a dream, in which I saw the face of Tapan Sadhu, and a voice said, ‘He is waiting for you now.’ I recognized him immediately, so I went to Tarapith, where he lived. For a long while I didn’t dare address a word to him, even though I had settled near his hut, under a tree. Even in Calcutta we had barely talked. But before long the people here began to gossip and said we were having an affair. So eventually I went to him and said that since people are saying these things, why don’t we solve the problem by living together? We are not greedy for property; we only need each other. So he invited me to his hut, and from that day we stayed together.

“In Tarapith, thanks to the mother, I moved onto a different plane. I collected many disciples, and found that the life here suited me. At the end of the first year, Tapan Sadhu said we should go on a yatra, and I agreed to go with him. We traveled by train across India to Benares, Hardwar, and Rishikesh. We had no money for tickets, but the ticket inspectors are a little afraid of the sadhus and they never ask for money.

“From Rishikesh we walked up into the snows to Badrinath and Kedarnath. By the time we got there it was very cold and the winter blizzards were beginning. But it was still wonderful—I felt I was in heaven. Whatever he ate, I ate. We used to practice yoga and asanas, and live a life of meditation in the silence of the high Himalayas. For me it was pure joy. Looking back at my old domestic life, it seemed meaningless, without any spiritual substance. I felt free for the first time. It was a total release.

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“We stayed up there a whole winter, and then the summer too. In the hot weather, the waters of Ma Ganga were cool and refreshing. But we were too attached to Ma Tara to stay there for longer than that. Ma Ganga is very powerful, but Ma Tara is stronger and more compassionate. The greatest pleasure we have is here, with her. It is here in this place of death, amid the skulls and bones and smoking funeral pyres, we have found love.”

Tomorrow, in the final part of our series, The Night of No Moon is a time for sacrifice.

Adapted and reprinted with permission of Knopf.

Read Part I, Part II, and Part III.

William Dalrymple was born in Scotland and brought up on the shores of the Firth of Forth. He is the award-winning author of numerous books, including City of Djinns, White Mughals, The Last Mughal, and Nine Lives (Knopf, 2010). He lives with his wife and three children on a farm outside of Delhi.