The Lady Twilight – Part III

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

The burning grounds of Tarapith are the boundaries of life, residing on the cusp of reason, and those who pray and meditate here are daily confronting their fear of death. Caught suddenly by the influence of the goddess, they roll on the ground in ecstasy, screaming “Jaya Tara!” It is also here, within the bounds of the cremation ground, on nights with no moon—the most inauspicious time in the month according to orthodox Hindus—that they perform their Tantric rites.

Yet, just as Manisha Ma had said, in many ways what is most striking about this place when you visit is not any sinister quality so much as its oddly villagey and almost cozy feel. There is a palpable sense of community among the vulnerable outcasts, lunatics, and misfits who have come to live there, and those who might be locked up, chained, sedated, hidden, mocked, or shunned elsewhere are here venerated and respected as enlightened lunatics full of crazy wisdom. In turn, they look after each other and appear to tolerate each others’ eccentricities. It is a place where even the most damaged and marginal can find intimacy and community, where they can establish their own center of gravity.

Nor was it in any sense cut off from the modern world. When I first arrived in the area, I had tracked down a famous Tantric skull-feeder who had previously been the subject of a distinguished academic monograph by an American professor of comparative religion. Yes, said the old Tantric, all that had been written about him was true, and yes he did still cure skulls and use their power. But sadly, he said, he could not talk to me about the details. Why was that? I asked. Because, he said, his two sons were now ophthalmologists in New Jersey. They had firmly forbidden him from giving any more interviews about what he did in case rumors of the family dabbling in black magic damaged their profitable East Coast practice.

Later that evening, when Manisha Ma took me to the temple, I also got a small first-hand glimpse of how Tantra still plays its part in modern Indian politics. Inside the sacred enclosure, a line of pilgrims were queuing to have darshan with the image of the goddess. Although it was approaching the time for the evening arti, the place was surprisingly empty for such a famous shrine. Separate from the main crowd, in an enclosure to the east, however, stood a group of burly men wearing homespun khadi, and one of these was clutching a goat.

“I am a Bollywood fight director,” explained the man holding the goat, “and for many years I was a stunt fighter. Now I am standing for election. That is why I have brought this bakri all the way from Bihar, in my own car—to offer it to the goddess.”

Milan Ghoshal leaned a little closer, in a confidential manner: “My seven colleagues have come to Ma Tara too,” he said, waving his hand at his entourage of tough-looking mustachioed men in short sleeves loitering some distance away. “You see,” he explained, “in our state, politics is only for the strong. There are many tough and violent men competing for power in the Bihar Assembly.”

This, I knew, was certainly true. Bihar has long been renowned as the most lawless state in India: in recent elections, several of the candidates actually fought their campaign from behind bars in jail and a great many members of Bihar’s Legislative Assembly have criminal records. Dular Chand Yadav, who has one hundred cases of dacoity and fifty murder cases pending against him, could until recently also be addressed as the Hon. Member for Barh. Milan certainly looked the right man to fight an election in such a place: he had a thin beard and a shaven head, a firm jawline and a broken nose that together with the deep scar above the left eyebrow gave him a harsh and brutish expression. Yet for all the broad-shouldered village wrestler physique, he wore the simple long white homespun kurta of the politician, and around his neck he had strung a rudraksh rosary.

“In Bombay,” he said, “they call me Milan Thakkur—Milan the Boss. I trained in martial arts in Bhutan, and now I am a master. No one can beat me in a fight—not in Bombay and not in Bihar.”

“And all this is important in Bihar elections?”

“Of course,” he said, putting the goat down, “Bihar is a rough place. I need Ma Tara to fight alongside me. If she accepts my offering, then maybe with her protection I will win. Ma Tara can help get us power. If not, I have no hope. I am not a rich man, and I cannot spend the money that some of the other candidates will be throwing at the people.”

I introduced Manisha Ma, who had just come up from the temple where she had queued to have darshan. When Milan learned that Manisha lived in the cremation ground, he bent forward and made a gesture of touching her feet: “Tantra is much more powerful than conventional religion,” he explained. “Without the shakti of the Devi and her followers you cannot do anything.”

“And you think this is the place to access that power?”

“There are very few places where shakti is still worshiped,” he replied. “That is why I drove for eight hours—300km—to come here, getting up before dawn. In my part of Bihar, when men seek shakti they know they must come to Tarapith. We chose today because tomorrow is an amavashya, a night with no moon. On this night, and the next, we believe the goddess is at large, and more open to our prayers.”

Milan indicated a platform where a priest was chanting amid a yantra—a Tantric symbol—made from flowers, coconuts, bamboo, vermilion colored sand—as part of the yagna ritual of sacrifice. A fire was burning in its center, and flickering candles framed its corners. As the flames rose higher the Brahmin threw in handfuls of rice from a thali, all the time reciting Sanskrit mantras, while two of Milan’s colleagues sat silently cross-legged on the far side. Milan sat for a while with Manisha and I, watching the Brahmins chanting, and when the ritual was over, he got up: “Now it is time for the sacrifice,” he said, “my astha bhole.”

The goat which had been tethered a short distance away was brought forward, and Milan picked it up and put its head in a two-pronged metal stand shaped like a giant tuning fork. One of the Brahmins then painted a saffron stripe on its head and stepped back. Another man, barefoot in a dhoti, came forward with a long sharp cleaver, just like the one held by Tara in the prints. With a single swipe he cut off the head, and the Brahmin pulled the body away where it lay writhing on the ground. There was a strong smell of warm blood, moist earth, decayed flowers, and incense. Milan placed a bunch of smoking agarbatti incense sticks in the sacrificial pit and, dipping his fingers in the bloody sand, smeared his forehead

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“All auspicious work starts in the name of Ma,” said Milan. “Tomorrow, on the night of no moon, I will announce my candidacy. With Ma’s aid, I and my colleagues are ready to fight this battle. She is the most powerful protector you could want. I tell you: with her power, no one can stand against us.”

Tomorrow in Part IV, “It was not my will. Mother called me, and I had to go. It was two in the afternoon. I didn’t even have time to say goodbye to my children.”

Adapted and reprinted with permission of Knopf.

Read Part I and Part II.

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.