Over at Killing the Buddha, William Dalrymple is excerpting his new book, Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, in a five-part series of posts too rich in surprises to adequately summarize. Let a few of his own words suffice, then, but be sure to read the whole thing:
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.