The Lady Twilight – Part I

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

“Before you drink from a skull,” said Manisha Ma Bhairavi, “you must first find the right corpse.”

We were sitting in a palm-thatched hut amid the dark woods and smoking funeral pyres of the cremation ground at Tarapith in Bengal. This is one of the most holy places in India, a shakta pith, said to be the abode of the Devi’s Third Eye and the home of the great goddess Tara.

Tarapith is an eerie place, with a sinister reputation. In Calcutta I had been told that it was notorious for unsavory Tantric rituals and animal sacrifices that were performed in the temple. Stranger things still were rumored to take place after sunset in the riverside burning ground on the edge of the town, outside the boundaries of both village life and the conventions of Bengali society.

Here the goddess was said to live, and at midnight—so the Bengalis believe—Tara can be glimpsed in the shadows drinking the blood of the goats slaughtered day after day in an effort to propitiate her anger, and win her favor. In this frequently vegetarian country, where blood sacrifice is growing rarer and rarer, the worship of the goddess at Tarapith is an increasing oddity, involving scenes almost unknown elsewhere: at least twenty goats a day are dispatched here to satisfy her hunger.

Tara is believed to be especially attracted to bones and skeletons, and for this reason the dread-locked and ash-smeared sadhus who live in the cremation ground here, above the river and under the great spreading banyan trees, decorate their huts with lines of human skulls, many clearly belonging to children. They are painted pillar-box red, and built into the packed mud of the threshold of each house. There are other images too: framed and garlanded calendar pictures of the Devi in her different forms, prints of the great saints of Tarapith, and tridents strung with garlands of marigolds; but it is skulls and bones that dominate, and not just human ones, but creatures as well—jackals and vultures and snakes.

“So how do you go about finding the right skull?” I asked Manisha.

“The Doms who administer the cremation ghats find them for us,” she replied, matter-of-factly. “They keep them for us and when we need them, they give them to us. The best ones are suicides,” she added. “When someone has drunk poison or hanged themselves, their skulls are especially powerful. So are the skulls of innocent and pure kumaris—virgin girls. ”

“And then?”

“Well, once you have a good skull, the next thing is to cure it. You must bury it in the earth for a while, and oil it. If you only want to use it for drinking, then it’s ready; but if you wish to use it as a decoration, then when its completely dry, you can paint it red. That way they don’t go moldy in the monsoon.”

For all the talk of what might elsewhere be considered black magic, the cremation ground that surrounded Ma’s little hut made an oddly domestic scene, in the daylight at least. The Tantric sadhus who live here were all sitting around, ash-smeared, naked or half-naked, sipping tea and playing cards, as if living in a skull-filled burning ghat was the most normal thing in the world. While we talked about curing skulls, Manisha’s dreadlocked partner, Tapan Sadhu, was sitting at the back of the hut, with a radio clamped to his ear, and would occasionally interupt with the latest score from South Africa: “England are 270 for four!” he shouted excitedly at one point.

Nor was Manisha in any sense a fearsome or sinister figure. Despite her matted, dread-locked, gray hair and ragged saffron robes, she was a large, warm woman in her sixties, quietly spoken, with gentle, vulnerable eyes. Her dark brown skin was disfigured with large, creeping patches of white, the result of a skin condition. She attended dutifully to the devotees who came to her for blessings, looked after the sadhus who passed by, offering them water and chai, and was gentle and affectionate to her partner Tapan.

“Whatever people think,” she said, “this is not an evil or frightening place. People imagine all sorts of things about us—but we look after one another much better than people who live in proper houses in the cities. In Calcutta, if you fall sick, none of your neighbors may notice you’ve gone. Here if one of us is ill, the others make sure he is alright. When the floods and the rains come, the river rises to submerge our homes, but we come to the aid of each other. If someone is ill, we all help pay for the hospital. If one of us dies, we all contribute to their cremation.”

Manisha shrugged: “People who don’t know what we do are afraid of Tantra,” she said. “They hear stories about us abducting girl-children and killing them. Sometimes gundas [hooligans] come to the graveyard and insult us, or knock about the sadhus when they see them in the bazaars. Many times I have been called a witch.”

I had read a little about this in the newspapers: according to one report I had seen, Tantra in Bengal was now under threat from the ruling Communist Party who occasionally sent out what they called “Anti-Superstition Committees” to persuade people to reject faith healers, embrace modernity, and return to more mainstream and less superstitious forms of Hinduism. This often involves attacking—rhetorically or otherwise—the Tantrics of the area whom they depict as perverts, drug addicts, alcoholics and even cannibals. In the press in West Bengal, there have also been reports of the persecution of poor, widowed, and socially marginalized women, who are accused of practicing witchcraft and “eating the livers” of villagers, particularly when some calamity befalls a community; indeed they are still occasionally put to death, like the witches of Reformation Europe and North America.

”Several of my Tantric friends to the west of here in Bhirbum have been badly beaten up,” said Manisha. “But I am not worried. Our local Communist MP may tell his followers that what we do is superstition, but that doesn’t stop him coming here with a goat to sacrifice when he wants to find out from us what the election results will be. He was here only a fortnight ago. He is just afraid that people will come to the goddess and get power from her, and not from him. In his heart he believes.”

“But why live in a cremation ground in the first place?” I asked. “Isn’t it asking for trouble? Surely there are better places to lead a holy life? In the Himalayas or at the source of the Ganges—”

“It is for Her that we people inhabit this place,” said Manisha, cutting me short. “Ma Tara pulled us here, and we remain here for her sake. It is within you that you find the loving shakti [spiritual power] of the Mother. This is a place for its realization, for illumination.”

As we spoke, a devotee came up and bowed his head before Manisha, who stopped her story to give him a blessing, and to ask how he was. As he left, the man slipped a few coins onto the cloth that was laid out for offerings in front of the largest skull.

“Every night we believe she reveals herself here, just before dawn,” continued Manisha. “At that time you feel her very strongly. If she did not bless us in this way we would not be here. She takes us in. She takes care of us. She gives us help. Anyone who comes here and calls on her will get over their difficulties. She is everywhere in Tarapith: in the leaves of the trees, the buds of the rice, in the sap of the palms, the clouds that bring rain. All we do is to light some fires in her honor, chant a few mantras, perform some rituals. She does the rest. ”

“But aren’t you scared living in a place like this?” I asked.

“Tara loves us,” replied Manisha. “So no, I am not scared.” She paused, then added: “And anyway the dead do not stay here in the burning ground. Only the bodies are here. The dead take birth again.”

Manisha smiled. “We have been fetched by the Mother,” she said. “She has taken us away from the humdrum of normal life. She arranges everything for us: the gifts that come to us, the alms that allow us to survive. I feel her presence here. This is her home. ”

“Have you actually seen the goddess?” I asked.

“The Mother has many forms,” she replied. “All the forms of Tara cannot be numbered. Recently, I saw a jackal—her vehicle. Sometimes in my dreams I glimpse her, but she has never yet appeared to me in a vision. I hope one day she will. If you call her from your heart, one day you will see her, floating in front of you.”

Manisha fingered the beads of her rudraksh rosary: “Maybe I am not worshiping her in the right way. Unless you call her from within in a truthful manner, she will never hear you. It is a long struggle, and it’s not easy. But if you stay here, getting up at 2 a.m. to pray, and if you persist and do not give up, then surely you will see her.”

I asked about the skulls that littered the graveyard: what did they actually do?

“We cannot speak of everything,” she replied. “But the skulls give us power and charge our prayers with their shakti. The spirits help bring them to us, and they remain with the skull. We take good care of them, and feed them with rice and lentils. Then they protect us, keeping us away from evil and death. They help us to awaken the goddess.”

From the way that Manisha spoke, it was clear that for her the goddess was not something terrible. She talked intimately of her as Ma Tara—Mother Tara—as if she were a benign matriarch, a quite different image from that on the popular prints that I had seen in the bazaar on the way. It is true that sometimes Tara is shown as a nursing mother or enthroned in the paradise of Kailasa or on the Isle of Gems. But usually she is depicted with four arms, nearly naked with matted hair and a blood-red lolling tongue, sitting upon a tiger’s skin and wearing a garland of freshly-severed heads. She wields a blood-smeared cleaver as she stands victorious, dripping with blood, over a dead corpse with an erect phallus. To my eyes she was unambiguously terrifying, weird, and ferocious. I said as much to Manisha.

“Ah,” she said. “This is true. This is her wild side. But all this just means she can fight the devils on your behalf.”

“But she looks herself almost as much a demon as a goddess.”

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“Tara is my mother,” replied Manisha simply. “How can your own mother evoke fear? When I first came here in a distressed condition, Ma protected me. I had been beaten by my husband, rejected by my mother-in-law, and had lost my home and my three daughters. It was she who brought Tapan Sadhu to protect me, and give me love. In this place of death, I have found new life. Now I don’t want to go anywhere. To me, Ma is all. My life depends on her. ”

Tomorrow, in Part II, Tantra transforms that which is polluting into an instrument of power.

Adapted and reprinted with permission of Knopf.

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.