A goat for the goddess

4d44fd6c7b1311ddb1e2000077b07658 William Dalrymple in the FT:

From a distance, Tarapith looked like just any other Bengali village, with its palm weave huts, and still, cool fishpond. But here one building dominated all the others: the great temple, which rose above the surrounding village like a cathedral in medieval Europe. Its base was a thick-walled red brick chamber, broken by an arcade of arches and rising to a great white pinnacle, like the snow capping of a Himalayan peak.

Tarapith is regarded as one of the most powerful holy places in India, the abode of the Devi’s Third Eye. Yet despite the reputed power of its presiding deity, compared with the other great pilgrimage sites of the region, Tarapith is little visited. A thin line of pilgrims were queuing to do darshan (pay homage) to the image of the goddess, but although it was approaching the time for the evening arti, the place was still surprisingly empty for such a famous shrine.

The reason for this, I had been told in Calcutta, was that Tarapith had a sinister reputation, notorious for the unsavoury “left-handed” Tantric rituals which are daily performed in the temple. Stranger things still were rumoured to take place in the nearby cremation ground after sunset. Here the goddess was said to live, and at midnight – so 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.