The Lady Twilight – Part II

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

Tarapith lies in a great planisphere of flat, green Bengali country: fertile flood plains feed rice paddies with abundant soils and huge skies stretch out towards the marshy Sunderbans, the Ganges Delta and the Bay of Bengal—a great green Eden of water and vegetation.

The road from Shantiniketan is raised on a shaded embankment and passes through a vast patchwork of wetlands: muddy fields of half-harvested rice give way to others where the young green seedlings have just been transplanted into shimmering squares in the flooded fields. Through all this runs a network of streams and rivers and frog-croaking, fish-filled, lily-littered duck ponds. These are surrounded by fishermen with bamboo fishing cages and lines of village women with earthen pitchers. Kingfishers watch silently from the phone wires. Rising from the ripples of this flat waterland are raised mounds encircled with windbreaks of palm, clumps of bamboo, and tall flowering grasses. On these hillocks stand small wattle villages, with their bullock carts and haystacks, their thatched bus stops, and the occasional spreading banyan tree. Sometimes, to one side, rises the brick estate house of the local grandee.

From a distance, Tarapith looks like just any other Bengali village, with its palm weave huts, and still, cool fishpond. But here one building dominates all the others: the great temple of the goddess Tara. Its base is a thick-walled red-brick chamber, broken by an arcade of arches and rising to a great white pinnacle, like the snow capping a Himalayan peak. Inside, below the low-curving Bengali eves, stands the silver image of the goddess, half-submerged beneath marigold garlands and Benarasi saris, crowned and shaded by a silver umbrella. On her forehead is a patch of red kumkum powder. Onto this the priests place their fingers, then transfer the red stain onto the foreheads of the devotees. In gratitude the pilgrims then kiss her silver feet, and leave her offerings of coconuts, white Benares silk saris, incense sticks, bananas, and, more unexpectedly, bottles of whiskey.

Yet in Tarapith, those who live here are quite clear that Tara’s preferred residence is not the temple, but the cremation ground which lies above the ghats of the river on the edge of the village. Tara is, after all, one of the most wild and wayward of Hindu goddesses, and cannot be tamed and contained within a mere temple image. After all, she is not only the goddess of supreme knowledge, who grants her devotees the ability to know and realize the Absolute, she is also the Lady Twilight, the Cheater of Death, a figure of horror and terror, a stalker of funeral pyres, who slaughters demons and evil yakshis without hesitation, becoming as terrible as them in order to defeat them. In the 10th-century hymn of a hundred names from the Mundamala-Tantra, Tara is called She Who likes Blood, She Who Is Smeared with Blood, and She Who Enjoys Blood Sacrifice. And while Tara has a healthy appetite for animal blood, the Mundamala-Tantra explicitly states that she prefers that of humans, in particular that taken from the forehead, hands and breasts of her devotees.

Tara means “star” in Sanskrit, and some scholars trace the origins of her cult to the Mesopatamian goddesses of the stars, Istar and Ashtarte: indeed the modern English word “star” and “Tara” are almost certainly linked through a common Indo-European root, via the Persian “Sitara,” the Greek “Aster,” and the Latin “Stella,” all of which have the same meaning. It is even possible that the modern Catholic cult of Our Lady Stella Marris, Star of the Sea, may be a memory of the same tradition. Moving eastwards in the early centuries AD, the cult of Tara quickly became central to Mahayana Buddhist cosmology, where the Great Goddess was worshiped as the consort of the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara and came to represent primordial female energy. As such it was believed that she enabled her devotees to surmount all forms of peril and danger.

In her Hindu form, which re-entered Bengal from the Himalayas via Buddhist Tibet, and hence is sometimes known as “Chini Tara”—Chinese Tara—the goddess Tara has always been understood to be a more volatile figure than her Buddhist devotees understood her to be. According to the great medieval work on Tantra, the Mantra-mahodadhih of Mahidara, the goddess can be found “sitting on a white lotus situated at the center of the water enveloping the entire universe.”

With her left hands she holds a knife and a skull and, in her right hands, a sword and a blue lotus. Her complexion is blue, and she is bedecked with ornaments … She is decorated with three beautiful serpents and has three eyes. Her tongue is always moving, and her teeth and mouth appear terrible. She is wearing a tiger skin around her waist, and her forehead is decorated with ornaments of white bone. She is seated on the heart of a corpse and her breasts are hard.

In this frightening aspect, Tara in not alone, but instead part of a sisterhood who encompass the divine feminine at its most terrible: a brood of dark-skinned untameable Tantric divinities who are worshiped in Bengal, and who here take precedence in popular piety over the more familiar male gods: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. These goddesses, known as the Ten Mahavidyas, are attended by jackals, furies and ghosts. They cut off their own heads, and are offered blood sacrifices by their devotees. In the miniatures that illustrate the Tantric texts, they prefer to have sex with corpses than living men or gods, straddling them on a burning cremation pyre and bringing the dead to life through the power of their shakti. Such goddesses—embodying all that would normally be considered outrageous or even repulsive—lie at the shifting threshold between the divine and demonic, violating approved social values and customs. They are “going up the down-current,” as one Bengali Tantric once put it to me.

These are the remnants of some of the earliest forms of Tantric rites, which date back to the early medieval period when they were once widespread and mainstream around India, even crossing over from Hinduism first into Jainism, then into Mahayana Buddhism. The word “Tantra” is a reference to ancient texts that deal with yogic practices, magical rites, metaphysics, and philosophy, and that straddle the world of Hindu Vishnavites and Shavites, finding their way into not only Jainism and Buddhism, but even Chinese Daoism and some forms of Sufi Islam.

Though Tantrism only became well defined at the end of the first millennium AD, some of its constituent elements such as its goddess cults, shamanism, and sexual yoga may date back to pre-Aryan and pre-Vedic religious currents, and in many ways are fundamentally opposed to the ideas and structures of the Vedas, which emphasise the social and religious hierarchy. Tantrics, in contrast, oppose convention and hierarchy, and encourage individuals from every background to develop a mystical relationship with the deity. It is kama—desire in every sense of the word—that is to be used to achieve liberation in this life. While Tantric texts can represent an elevated philosophical tradition, popular Tantric practice is often oral and spontaneous. It aims at ritually gaining access to the energy of the godhead that created and controls the universe, then concentrating and internalizing that power in the body of the devotee. This turns the world and the body into channels of salvation, and a powerful means of merging with the Absolute, but also grants tangible magical powers to the devotee in the present.

Shaivite Tantrics regard the universe as the product of the divine play of shakti and Shiva, which are ultimately identical, different aspects of the same unity, like fire and heat. To access this energy, early Hindu Tantric rituals seem to have involved blood sacrifice in cremation grounds as a means of feeding and winning over a series of terrifying and blood-thirsty Tantric deities. By the 10th century, there was a change of emphasis towards a type of erotico-mystical practice involving congress with the Yoginis, powerful and predatory female shakti divinities who demanded that they be worshiped and fed with offerings of sexual emissions, as well as with human and animal sacrifice.

Once satisfied, the Yoginis would reveal themselves as ravishing young women by incarnating in female devotees with whom male practitioners sexually interacted. Especially important was the oral ingestion of sexual fluids believed to give the devotee access to the goddess’s supernatural powers. In this way, Tantric sex was used as a way of awakening latent energies from the base of the body and bringing them to the fore, using the physical body with its blood and semen, desires and energies, as a way of accessing the spiritual and the divine. The elaborate scenes of group and oral sex displayed on the walls of the temples erected by Khajuraho may well illustrate such rites. Yet while Tantra has come in the West to be associated almost exclusively with “Tantric sex,” the Tantric texts which survive from this period were always more concerned with death and transcendence than the sexualization of ritual, which was only one part of a much larger whole.

Moreover, the sexual part of medieval Indian Tantra is quite different both in aim and practice from the “Tantric sex” marketed by Western publishers in alluringly illustrated manuals. Early Tantric texts make no reference to pleasure, bliss, or ecstasy: the sexual intercourse involved in the rites was not an end to itself so much as means of generating the semen whose consumption lay at the heart of these Tantric fertility rituals—a sort of inverted Tantric version of the offerings made in Vedic fire sacrifices. This original Devi-propitiating Tantric sex stands at an unimaginable distance away from the sort of faddish Tantric cults embraced by Western rock stars, with their celebration of aromatherapy and coitus reservatus, a movement well described by the French writer Michel Houlebecq as “a combination of bumping and grinding, fuzzy spirituality and extreme egotism.”

These original esoteric medieval Tantric traditions nearly died out in India, sinking from view around the 13th century, probably in part because of the Islamic invasions that broke many of the guru-disciple relationships through which Tantric secrets were passed. Tantrics later became a particular target of European missionaries who made the eradication of “the obscene ceremonies of the Hindoos” central to their polemics. The 19th century triumph of the Hindu reform movements, many of which emanated from Bengal in reaction to British missionaries, nearly finished this process as the movements championed what some scholars have called the “Rama-fication” of Hindu worship. In the Ganges plains, the rise of the Vaishnavite bhakti cults of Lord Krishna and especially Lord Rama eclipsed many of the traditional and popular forms of local devotion involving Devi cults and blood sacrifices, all of which were judged primitive, superstitious, and anti-modern by the urban and often western-educated reformers. All this conspired to make Tantra a marginal phenomenon almost everywhere except in certain areas of Bengal, Kerala, and Assam, as well as in Bhutan and Nepal, where Tantra still flourishes as a mainstream form of religion.

At the root of Tantra lies a deeply subversive and heterodox concept: the idea of reaching God by opposing convention, ignoring social mores, and breaking taboos. Whereas caste Hindus believe that purity and good living are safeguarded by avoiding meat and alcoholic drink, by keeping away from unclean places like cremation grounds and avoiding polluting substances such as bodily fluids, Tantrics believe that one path to salvation lies in pushing every boundary and inverting these strictures, transforming what is polluting into an instrument of power.

Tarapith, in other words, is a place where the ordinary world is comprehensively turned upside down. Today, the rites that take place in the burning ground here involve forbidden substances and practices—alcohol, bhang, and ritualized sex, sometimes with menstruating women—for Tara’s devotees believe that the goddess transmutes all that is forbidden and taboo, and turns these banned acts and forbidden objects into pathways of power. Onto this base of transgressive sacrality has grown a whole body of esoteric practice involving secret knowledge, rituals, mantras, and mandalas.

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The dark and wooded cremation ground in Tarapith is the perfect backdrop to such practices and beliefs, and attracts scores of the hardest of hardcore Tantric sadhus—wanderers, sorcerers and skull-feeders. Many of these have been partially unhinged by their experiences or extreme acts of asceticism, and are now looked upon as holy madmen, living in a mystical anarchy in a great open-air lunatic asylum for the divinely mad. These red-robed sadhus live here with their skulls and their spells, with the half-burned corpses, and the dogs and the jackals, the vultures and the carrion crows, occasionally throwing bones at passing visitors to warn them off.

Tomorrow, in Part III, it’s time to feed an insatiable goddess hungry for blood.

Read Part I.

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.