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3.26.2008

Shakti Peetha, Ma Kamakhya Devi temple, Assam

It might be a misconception that Tantrik cults are over and done with, for the essence of it still continues to prevail rather openly in West Bengal and Assam. While Kalighat and Tarapeeth might have been big centers for such practices the seat of ancient tantricism is at Kamakhya Devi temple, Kamarupa Assam. This is the most important of all the Shakti Peethas in India.

Kamakhya devi shrine hosts the yoni of Sati that fell here following the destruction of Daksha's sacrifice. This Shakti Peetha symbolizes the union of Shiva with Shakti, as described in the Kali Purana. They are depicted in constant union where Kamakhya is the Goddess of desire, who grants salvation. She is the young bride of Lord Shiva and together they symbolize the sublime reality of the miracle of life, the everlasting bliss of male/female union. This temple is situated atop a hill that overlooks the Brahmaputra river. The inner sanctum is a deep dark underground rocky chamber into which one descends by a flight of steep steps. The "Matra Yoni" which is inscribed on a rock is covered with silk sarees and is constantly moist by underground spring water.

Tantrik cult is a different kind of cult where the orthodoxy of normal rituals and male dominance over the female took a massive beating. In tantricism, it’s the opposite where the female is given a lot more importance and is associated with Shakti. This is reflected in all their strange ritual practices. There is a deep divide between conventional worship and tantrik worship. In conventional worship, a woman is considered as "impure" during her 3 day monthly cycle, further to which she is almost treated as an untouchable in ancient brahmin traditions still prevailing today. In Tantrik worship, most of the rituals including initiation are centered on the 3 days, this period being the most important period where the woman is considered most pure and an incarnation of Shakti. This is clear from various references made in Tantric texts.

Most of the tantrik texts have been found around the regions of Kamarupa, suggesting very strong prevalence of this cult around the Kamakhya Devi temple. The Yoni Tantra hails from Cooch Bihar but most of the Kaul Tantras originated from Kamarupa. The earliest comprehensive references made to the most important element of Tantrik ritual, called Yoni Tattva in the Kaula Tantra are given in the Kaula Jnana Nirnaya by Matsyendranath.

A few references that really call for interest about this esoteric cult, and can be made mention of, are as follows.

1. The Shakti, represented here as Kamakhya Devi has close associations with the 64 Yoginis found elsewhere in Orissa. The yantra associated with Kamakhya devi empowers the 64 yoginis(Hirapur Chaunsat Yogini Temple, Khajuraho) as part of Shakti. The Tripura mantra "Aim Klim Sauh" represents the triple Kundalini. It is also believed that female sadhvikas who are well versed in Yoga dwell at Kamakhya peetha. If one joins them, they obtain yogini siddhi.

2. The Matrikas who dominated both Buddhist sculpture as well as Brahmanical, are the depiction of the importance of alphabet or sound in the worship of Shiva and Shakti. There are seven representations called the Sapta Matrikas, describing the importance of the alphabet in the Beeja mantra and associated hymns sung in the praise of Shiva and shakti.

3. This reference comes as an eye opener that Tantrik cults were not restricted to unknown tantriks who practiced in complete secrecy, but a few known faces also seem to be a part of this cult in thought.

With reference to Yoni tattva, Kaula tantras deal with the subject of menstrual blood as given in the following translation.

Matrikabheda Tantra (English translation Ideological Book House 1990) describes the different types:

"Shri Shankara said:
The first menses appearing in a woman who has lost her virginity is Svayambhu blood.
In a maiden born of a married woman and begotten by another man, that which arises is Kunda menses, the substance causing the granting of any desire.
Deveshi, a maiden begotten by a widow gives rise to Gola menses, which subdues gods.
The menses arising in the first period after a virgin becomes a married woman is the all bewildering Svapushpa."

Last but not the least is the dialog between the supreme creative power Brahma and Shakti. Brahma can create but only through the yoni which shall be the sole creative principle, and will bless the soul with life. After severe penance Brahma brought down a luminous body of light to earth and placed it within the yoni circle of Goddess Kamakhya at Kamarupa.


Courtesy: Translation (c) Lokanath Maharaj 1985. All rights reserved. Creativecommons.org

3.18.2008

Kalika Mata at Kalighat, a sacred Shakti Peetha


When power is felt up close,
When the female energy in all its fury hits the eye,
When the sound of the conch shell deafens the ear,
Where innocent lambs are slaughtered without a doubt,
Where the floor is a mixture of blood and sacred sindhoor,
The power of being woman comes alive
We are at Kalika Mata temple Kalighat

To read about tantricism is one thing, to actually witness it is quite another. Kali mandir might look normal to anyone, but the effect it left behind was one of mixed feeling within me. All I could see was a helpless lamb being bathed and waiting to be slaughtered, traumatized by the impending reality gaping at it right there on a bright Saturday morning.

As the silvery streaks of water celebrated the lamb with its body shining gold as a sacred offering, and red smeared its face proclaiming it a sacred meal, and the animal is ceremoniously brought to the stake. The head is led through two vertical poles and a third locks it from above, a few sacred words are spelt out to appease the Mother's ever hungry appetite for blood.

The flames rise, the fire lights up her deep red eyes, setting ablaze her fury, and her face looks on awakening the abstraction of her presence - the power of the mother is here. The bells ring and the blade cuts through without question, splattering blood to the floor. Divine food is collected in the cup and offered to the mother, a drop after another rolls down her golden tongue in the twilight.

A half bust black stone is all that one can visualize this power in, crowned by three enrapturing eyes that grab your attention. The Goddess tilts slightly to one side. Her two prominent arms have a deadly sickle in one and wears bangles in the other. This whole form, has the formidable appearance of a Goddess in anger, her fury so vividly captured that the heart pounds when we stare at her face to face.
Nakulish kalipithe dakshapadangulishu cha|
Sarbadhikari devi kalika tatra devta||

This was once a deserted small temple with fewer lights. What stands now as the mother with arms on the silver body of Lord Shiva was once just an abstraction that represented the fury of Sati that lives on well after her right toe fell here, cut through by Vishnu's discus, proclaiming it a Shakti Peetha. There was a time when the flames set ablaze this fury of the goddess that was appeased by the taste of human blood.

What surrounds this shakti peetha is a wondrous experience of intense faith coupled with brutality of sacrifice, where the skinning of innocent lambs is a common delight, an offering so sacred that I dare not oppose it in the name of sympathy for innocent life. The only thing I can do is cut three crosses at the balipeeth myself, wash away any dosh in my life and symbolically place my neck there, with my head in offering to calm the wrath of this divine form of the Goddess.

O Mother
Whose eyes can burn this universe
Whose presence can reduce this world to ash
Who is invoked by only those who dare
Who lives in the cremation ground
Who burns with the dead corpse
Who blesses them by pressing their heart
Who guides their ambition by stepping on their thighs
Who brings alive the fiery form of death
Who stares with her three eyes open through the flames
Who raises us from the dead
Who takes us into her lap of love
Who renders us fearless
O Mother, why an innocent lamb, why?

3.10.2008

Eklingji town, Shiva temples near Udaipur, Rajasthan

The name Eklingji is not that of a temple as much as it is the name of a place. Eklingji hosts approximately 108 temples scattered around the green hilly Rajasthani countryside near Udaipur. In this untouched terrain, one is faced with low hills, lakes with proliferating wild life, thick ancient walls and narrow alleys leading into small houses surrounding stone temples...its almost dream like.

Rural Rajasthan is a quiet landscape with architecture so quaint and so different that one could live there and just admire it. Its not about forts, palaces and havelis, or the homes of the once rich and famous but about single chambered temples with a simple mandap in front, scattered every where yet sacred in themselves.

While the sun rises and lights up these ancient wonders into current times, while the lamps light up these otherwise silent interiors, they bring with them an aura of spiritualism far more active and prolific than what we probably have today. These once populous temples just remain historical wonders, waking us up only occasionally to their presence.

In this vast sea of stone structures, crowded with sculptural representations of an open society in ancient times, we have the deep under currents of faith ruling these miniature wonders. One of the most interesting temples, with a difference is that of Eklingji temple Kailashpuri founded by Acharya Viswaroopa, a contemporary of Adi Sankaracharya.

This in one word is "anokha" or unique. This temple is dotted with smaller single chambered temples along its walls that surround the larger temple with two floors in the center of this courtyard that gradually climbs the hillside.

Going back into those ancient days, where electricity gave way to fire torches and lamps lit the interiors, and folk songs echoed among these walls, the ambiance appeared almost magical. As we step into this wondrous world of dancing flames in the wind, throwing shadows of sculptures on the walls and almost bringing them alive, the drums beat reverberating through the walls and the bells ring as the flame goes up in arti, we witness a spectacle of divinity that touches our souls. Deep within the garbha griha, are the sparkling eyes of a Shiva linga, comprised of four faces each in a cardinal direction.

Silent cool pillared halls lead into this deep chamber that hosts one of the most spectacular icons of divinity. Covered by a gold triple parasol, we have all of the Gods residing within. The flames flicker on, lighting up the face of Surya to the east, Vishnu to the North, Brahma to the west and Rudra to the south, all carved into a sacred black marble stone. Decorated with precious stones that shine through like the cosmos itself, the lingam is striking, with the eyes of divinity capturing us, our senses, our minds, leaving us helpless and swollen with an emotional high of bhakti in its purest form. As we circle around this icon of divinity on earth, all forms of the Lord locked into the linga peetha, we are met with the most powerful and profound symbol of all. A sacred yantra crowns their heads, powerful and divine that rules the faith of people who visit this enchanting temple. Surrounding this divine form, resting within their niches are Parvati, Ganesha and Karthikeya.

This chamber brings alive a phenomenon, in a symbolic form. The black marble represents the cosmos, the universe itself, created and preserved by the very forms who reside within the linga, each eye glowing and sparkling waking us to that which is beyond. At its crown lies the power of the yantra, that which defines the nature of this power that has created the universe and controls it. The unique element of this yantra is that it is not embedded deep within the idol but out in the open, present for us to see, a very unique feature uncommon in Indian temples.

This linga is a reminder, that Brahma, Vishnu and Surya are a part of a larger whole, the apex of which is the divine form of Lord Shiva, embedded within the yantra, that is sacred and has been preserved through generations for worship. Indeed, with the vastness of the cosmos proliferating with life, there is indeed just one force that controls it all - Eklingji Shiva who protects all and is not just the guardian deity of the Maharanas of Mewar.

Photo courtesy: Indiantemples.com (templenet.com)

3.03.2008

From Giza and Varanasi to the Milky Way galaxy

The ancient city of Varanasi is more than just a pilgrimage center, or a land where the dead are cremated. Varanasi has been described in the ancient scriptures to be designed in the form a mandala or a protective ring consisting of Ganesh, and 350 gods and goddesses with Shiva Vishwanath at the center. While the boundaries of Kashi are delimited by the sacred Panchakroshi road, the main city of Varanasi extends from Asi Ghat, circling around the confluence of the Ganges and Varana rivers. Yet within this is the sacred area, much smaller, called the Avimukta which starts at the Kedara ghat in the south and ends at the Trilochana Ghat. Within this is the Antargriha or the inner sanctum around the Vishwanath temple, shaped in the form of Lord Shiva’s trident, with Omkara to the north, Vishwanath in the center and Kedara to the south(refer to the map below).

Given the symbolic representation of the 3 main areas of Omkara, Vishwanath and Kedara marking Lord Shiva’s trident, it brings to mind something very uncanny. I would defer with the theory that the three sacred areas are edged on Lord Shivas’s trident.

Why? These 3 areas on the Gangetic plains with the river Ganges flowing surprisingly South to North within this ancient city of Kashi, as the river meanders through to the Bay of Bengal, resemble something equally spectacular far away in ancient Egypt.

Click on the map for enlarged view

In ancient Egypt, the sacred river Nile flows south to north right through the Egyptian countryside. Along the river, as we cruise down towards Giza, our eyes meet with one of the greatest ancient marvels, the pyramids of Giza. It is believed in Egyptology, that the 3 pyramids were built with absolute astronomical perfection in the period of the Old Kingdom to resemble a phenomenon in the Milkyway Galaxy.

In the early months of spring, in March when one stands along the banks of the Nile, we can witness a cluster of stars meandering through the skies above. Among these very stars is the famous constellation of Orion, who is identified by the 3 belt stars and the 4 stars that mark his body from shoulders to knees. Orion is one of the most ancient Egyptian Gods, revered and honored in the same way as Aton (Sun god) and Horus (Falcon god). The ancient Egyptians meticulously constructed these pyramids, not just to bury their dead but also to study what is beyond death and recorded them in their Book of the Dead. The 3 pyramids of Giza along the Nile are a mirror image of the 3 belt stars of Orion constellation along the Milkyway galaxy in the months of spring.

Varanasi has a few very striking similarities with Egypt, one which is the very placement of 3 sacred shrines along the river Ganges, mirroring the 3 belt stars of Orion along the cluster of stars of the Milkyway, through the Ganges which surprisingly flows south to north in this city too. It might be taken as coincidence, but a bit of deeper thinking increases the importance of Orion to much more than a mere constellation. Varanasi is the land of the dead, where it is considered a blessing to die in this land and be burnt here. Varanasi might throw light on the importance of obvious constellations, the mirroring of which on earth is still unknown, though meticulously done on the banks of the river Nile and the Ganges possibly.

It is also interesting to note other strange similarities found in the left hand path of the worship (Aghora) of Lord Shiva and Kali that involved sadhanas in burial grounds, which was performed in ancient days by Tantriks. This sadhana brought alive the Goddess, Shamshan Tara, before whom appeared a Jackal - a messenger of the Goddess during the ritual. Strangely the description given by various sadhakas regarding the blue hued jackal bears striking resemblance with the jackal god Anubis, who is the god of death and embalming in ancient Egypt.

Could it be that the ancient Hindus and Egyptians had found out some deeper truths that we are completely unaware of today? Could they have been involved in practices and rituals that woke the power of these deities and have them recorded in ancient paintings left behind all over their tomb walls and scriptures for us to see and understand? Is there more to the constellation Orion than 3 belt stars in the night sky?

Varanasi is as much a reflection of the Milkyway galaxy (alias the cosmic ocean) on earth as much as the ancient city of Giza is along the river Nile. The Ganges is as sacred as the Nile and “3 points” were considered the most sacred to both ancient worlds as the belt stars of Orion. While in the case of one civilization these stars represented death marked by pyramids, in the case of the other they celebrated the miracle of life marked by sacred shrines. Each interpreted the science in their own ways, but maybe the truth is the same. What is that truth or science?

We may need to wonder about the cosmic ocean by night more than just lay the ashes to rest into a watery bed of peace.

Click here for more on Shamshan Tara

Disclaimer: This link might hurt religious sentiments, it requires an open mind.

Also read about the life and works of Artist Silpi