The train journey from Calcutta to Rampurhat, in northern West Bengal, took around three and a half hours and passed off very smoothly. There was a constant stream of chai wallahs and other vendors selling food, books, trinkets, and a whole array of other useful and not so useful items.
As we drew closer to our destination, one wandering minstrel came through our carriage singing traditional Bengali folk songs. Guruji mentioned they can often be heard singing their songs at the cremation grounds at Tarapith too. This chap looked very poor, with dirty clothes and broken teeth. His musical instrument was a kind of rudimentary one-stringed guitar, which he made melodies from by stretching the string to different tensions before plucking it. The initial sight of him didn’t match up to the sound he made when he began singing: his voice was as sweet and as pureas any you could hear. That one minstrel brought tears to my eyes with his song, and I didn’t even know what he was singing about.
As he walked through the carriage to collect his modest receipts from those willing to give, he could be heard saying to one passenger ‘ten rupee, one zero, ten’. I laughed, knowing that if Guruji saw how much I had in my hand ready to give him, he’d tell me it was far too much and to give much less (he’s very careful about spending money and rightly so).
As the minstrel came closer, I could see he was dressed mainly in orange, with one mala around his neck. As I handed him my contribution for his beautiful song, he saw Guruji sitting by the window and gave Pranam. Guruji gave his blessing in return then the minstrel moved on through the rest of the carriage. But then, after collecting from the whole carriage, he came back to where we were sitting and sung one more song for us. Again my eyes welled up with tears. I would have loved to know what that song was that he sung, and hear it sung again one day.
I recently found a website, Shabda Brahman – An Audio-Visual Exploration of India’s Sacred Geography, which mentions the Baul sect, a group of itinerant minstrel-mystics native to West Bengal, that sing spiritual songs busking for alms. Was the singer on the Rampurhat Express that Monday afternoon a member of this sect?The train sped onwards, and I will probably never know the answer to my question, although I suspect the answer is ‘yes’.
Closer to Tara Maa, Paying Respects to Bama Khepa
So, ultimately, we were moving closer to Tara Maa. I had already been blessed with Maa’s Darshan at Kamakhya and Kalighat, and now I was on my way to Tarapith too. I felt so incredibly lucky to be able to visit these sacred pithas in this one trip. Kamakhya and Tarapith were the two most important places of Shri Kapalik Mahakaalji’s sadhana, and likewise for his Guru’s sadhana too. They are also reckoned by many to be the two most important Shakti pithas one can visit as a tantrik and a devotee of Maa.
Tarapith is also important for visiting the shrine of Bamdevji – Bama Khepa of Tarapith. Since Bamdevji was Guruji’s Grandfather Guru, it was doubly important to us that we were able to make this visit. Guruji said later he felt he had done a very good thing by being able to take me to be at his Grandfather Guru’s shrine at Tarapith. I was deeply moved and unbelievably grateful that we had the chance to visit that place.
That we didn’t get a chance to enter the Temple itself for Darshan with Maa Tara, some may think was an oversight and an error. But Guruji was quite unwell by this stage. At one point in Calcutta, both he and I thought it was unlikely we would make it to Tarapith on this trip at all. So that we even made it here was a blessing. I would have been grateful for whatever small gift I received once there.
And I felt sure that Maa will wait patiently until such times as we can go back there again, and go to the inner sanctum of the temple to receive her Darshan and blessings.
On the night of our arrival, after arranging accommodation as close to the temple as we could find, Guruji felt it was important we went to the temple to visit and pay our respects to Bamdevji. So we walked the short way up the street to the temple’s main entrance. Guruji immediately led me to the place where Bama Khepa’s shrine is within the temple complex. We sat up on the wall opposite, staying there for a very long time, just abiding in the peace we felt there, while all the hustle and bustle of the evening at the Temple whirled on around us. There was a constant stream of devotees who came up to Bamdevji’s shrine and made offerings and prayers to that most renowned of Tantrik masters. When there was a lull in the stream of people, I took my opportunity to pay my own respects and to leave my own offerings.
After some considerable time there, we decided to head out of the temple. As we were leaving, we were offered Maa Tara’s Prasad of rice cooked in milk and sugar. Back along the main road to our guest house was the turning off to the left which takes you into the Maha Samshan, the great cremation grounds of Tarapith. We took the short walk to the top of the steps. It was night time now, and Guruji wanted to just be able to visit there and take me there. But he was feeling tired and weak, the illness he was suffering from wasn’t letting up but getting worse, so we returned to our guest house without staying long.
On our way back along the main thoroughfare from the temple entrance, past all the trinket sellers and so on, one follower of Guruji recognised him from his live telecasts on TV, and came up to give Pranam and to receive his blessings. That gentleman, who was from near Calcutta, kindly helped us to find a pharmacy that was open so Guruji could get some medication to help his worsening ailments. He then helped me take Guruji back to our room, and also assisted us by arranging for food to be brought to the room for dinner.
At the Feet of Maa, At the Feet of Grandfather Guru
The next morning (Tuesday), Guruji’s follower returned early. Our plan was to go first to the samshan, and so he was happy to have the chance to join us. When we entered the Mahasamshan that morning, we took time to sit beside the Mahasamadhi Shrine of Bamdevji, which is located right next to the Shrine of Maa Tara’s feet. Bamdevji’s Samadhi shrine is built on the spot where he spent most of his time in meditation and yoga, and here are buried his mortal remains.
Again, we were able to feel the peace and power associated with that place – particularly by visiting there in Guruji’s company. I would happily have stayed there all day. The shrine attendants, the various ladies there, all showed their love and respect to Guruji when he came and while he stayed there. And likewise the men who work there as cleaners, chai-wallas, traders and so on.
When you see the way they give him love and affection it’s clear Guruji is well-known and respected in this place. Even despite him not often being able to travel so far from Delhi these last few years (Guruji generally visits Tarapith only once per year now, since it is a long way to travel). But he still does what he can for these ladies and others who work in the temple and especially in the cremation grounds. His generosity is without limit, even though he suffers from a paucity of funds himself. He will always ensure he gives something as donation to each of the ladies who tend the shrines there. And he says that these ladies are the true spirit of Tarapith.
Guruji arranged that I should be allowed to touch Maa’s Feet, at the shrine to Tara at the Mahasamshan. This meant I didn’t need to join the extremely long queue of devotees lined up to make their offerings to Maa. They all had flowers and incense and candles, and other religious accoutrements to make their offerings.
I just knelt before Her and offered myself, and offered to do whatever is in my power to become a good disciple and a good sadhak in dedication to Guruji and his Lineage. How much more powerful this offering was, being given here at Tarapith, next to the Mahasamadhi shrine of my Guru’s Grandfather Guru, the great tantric master Bama Khepa. I felt both honoured and humbled in that moment.
Mud Huts, Babas and one Maharaja
in the Maha Smashana at Tarapith
After we had spent some time sitting at Bamdevji’s shrine, we began to follow the path which snakes its way through the cremation ground. Because it was daytime, there were lots of pilgrims and devotees all making the same trip, to visit that auspicious place, and gain its blessings, and to pay their respects there.
As Guruji was walking through the shamshan, all the babas and sadhaks who live there came rushing up to greet him, giving him pranam, showing their great love and affection and respect for him, and calling him Maharaj (king). It was quite a sight to see.
At the side of the path are various small huts made of posts and planks, tarpaulin, and such like. Guruji had mentioned he had his small mud hut there too. Was this the kind of thing I should be expecting?
As we rounded the corner, what appeared before us on the right hand side in the centre of the cremation ground, was what can safely be described as a small cottage, not a mere hut! So this is the ‘small mud hut’ belonging to Shri Kapalik Mahakaalji at Tarapith. And it has stood here for 35 years now. Unfortunately, although it is being used by one of Guruji’s Grandson disciples (the disciple of one of Guruji’s disciples, who passed away about four years ago), that place is not being maintained as well as it might be. It’s a real shame since the hut is now falling into a little disrepair on the outside.
That grandson disciple was in the town and holds the key to the hut. So one of the babas who stays in the cremation ground laid out a blanket on the ground in front of the hut so Guruji could sit down. We joined him. Crowds gathered to look and take photos, to touch the feet of Kapalik Mahakaal and to receive his blessings, giving their respect to the great Maharaj who had descended upon the samshan. We took some refreshments and waited in the sunshine.
After some time, the grandson disciple arrived with the key. He went with a few others, to busily tidy the place, like some teenager frantically tidying the house up before his parents return from holiday. We all followed Guruji inside. The hut is basic but very cosy, and much larger on the inside than you would imagine if you hadn’t seen it yourself.
It’s build up on a brick foundation, which has really helped it survive all the monsoon rains and flooding which have taken place over the years. Guruji says sometimes the cremation ground is just awash with mud during the monsoon season.
The cottage itself consists of a large outer room, and a puja room within this. The puja room has one small window on each of the four walls, which each let in a tiny amount of light from outside but not enough to allow you to see in there. So candles were set up to allow us to see. Guruji sat at the head of the havan kund next to the altar and we all sat ourselves around the kund.
I didn’t take any photos of the outside of Guruji’s mud cottage, but he was kind enough to allow me to take photos of the inner puja room and the havan kund. (I took one of the roof too, which shows the intricate and solid construction of the building; ‘hut’ really isn’t a word that does it justice at all.) In fact, Guruji specifically asked me to take these photos and put them up on the website. He feels it’s important to keep a record, written and photographic, of those things we can share about his cult and his lineage. And I’m very happy and honoured to be able to help with that task.
We sat with Guruji in the puja room for some time. It was so peaceful, but you could feel the power of that place, just as we could at Bamdevji’s shrine. But even more so since we knew the kinds of tantric puja and sadhana which had been conducted in this place over many years. It is really a great shame that this building is currently not being used for puja as often as it should, given its long history and location in such an auspicious and sacred place as the Mahasamshan at Tarapith.
One day, I hope we can gather together the disciples and commitment and necessary wherewithal, so that we can do the memory and history of Shri Kapalik Mahakaalji and his Lineage increasingly proud in this place. To keep his name alive here for many more generations to come. Guruji tells us about how things used to be here, how many serious and committed sadhaks and tantric practitioners were here once upon a time. If even a place such as Tarapith can become sanitised, if the true sadhaks can dwindle in numbers, to be replaced by many beggars and drinkers masquerading in red robes, then what hope for the future of this Shakta Tantrik cult here in India?
Visiting this place with Guruji must only inspire a disciple to become a better disciple, can only motivate a sadhak to become a better sadhak, not for their own benefit, but in loving devotion and service to a great Tantrik and to an even greater Lineage. May we always strive to emulate Shri Kapalik Mahakaalji and his Guru, and his Guru’s Guru, even though we know we can surely never attain the heights they have attained.
Tuesday night was spent resting, and discussing our best options for onward travel. One of Guruji’s disciples who lives in Calcutta had very kindly arranged our airline flights from Calcutta back to Delhi for Friday afternoon. Our plan was originally to go on from Tarapith to visit one more temple before heading homeward. But Guruji’s worsening illness meant it was wiser for us to begin our trip back to Delhi earlier.
We decided to take the train back to Calcutta first thing tomorrow (Wednesday) morning. We stayed in the same hotel in Calcutta on our way back, and I managed to arrange for our Friday booking to be cancelled and replaced with a flight Thursday midday instead.
So we flew back to Delhi on Thursday 6th December, back to the comfort of the Maa Kamakhya Ashram in Rohini, where Guruji was able to bring his health back up to a normal level again.
Gratitude and Huge Thank You’s
By Maa’s grace, we were able to make that trip, to receive her Darshan in the three most important tantrik shrines in India. By Her grace we were able to visit Kamakhya, the most auspicious place on Earth, and our needs were provided over and again while there. Likewise in Calcutta, and in Tarapith, our travel passed smoothly and easily, and we had no troubles in finding the things we needed wherever we were. Only by Maa’s grace was it so.
But I must also express my profound thanks to all those supporters, disciples, friends and acquaintances of Guruji who tirelessly and unswervingly served him during this trip. In the fetching of food, the arranging of travel and of tickets, in the finding of doctors and pharmacies for much-needed medication, and much more besides. Travelling alone with Guruji, while not knowing any of the language or the ways of this country, would not have been possible without the help and assistance that all these kind, generous people gave us throughout.
Of course, I must also thank my employers for allowing me to take the time off to go to India in the first place. And for the salary that allowed me to afford to go!
But above all, my sincere, humble and heartfelt gratitude to Maa for making this trip possible, and equally to my Guru, Shri Kapalik Mahakaal Bhairvanand Saraswati, for giving me the incredible opportunity to take this trip with him, to visit these three most important Shakti Pithas while by his side and in his care.
Jai Maa Kamakhya!
The Most Auspicious Place on Earth: Kamakhya Mandir, Assam
(Tue 28th Nov – Sat 1st Dec 2011)