Where beauty & power meet

Shakti peetha

Taratarini temple, Odisha.

Our trip from Behrampur starts off well enough, with the sun shining bright and stray, fat clouds dotting the startlingly blue skies. “The last time we visited the Taratarini Temple, it suddenly started to rain,” remarked my brother-in-law. “And there had been no signs of impending rain.”

About 10 minutes after this utterance, it suddenly started to rain. There had been no rain clouds, no darkening of the skies, no warning at all. Startled, we looked at each other and began to laugh weakly.

It was pounding rain when we began the ascent to the top of the Kumari Hill, which also goes by the names of Tarini Parvat/Ratnagiri/Purnagiri, on which this temple of unknown antiquity sits. Climbing the 999 steps to the shrine or taking the ropeway was out of the question today. The road was more than serviceable but closer to the temple precincts, it was all slush and red mud slurry. I could make out the modestly soaring spires of three structures from inside the car. Even as we were contemplating turning back and doing the trip another day, the skies cleared as suddenly as it had opened up, and we were able to exit the vehicle.

 

Stone lion guarding the temple.
Stone lion guarding the temple.

Mighty hills

To the southeast of the temple runs a broad swathe of silver, the Rushikulya river. Hedged in the far distance by a hill range with trees bending their branches lovingly over the waters, it makes for a gorgeous sight. There are steps leading down that are at this moment being colonised by a veritable army of monkeys. This is an ancient river, also known as the Rushikalyani Saraswati, and described as the elder sister of the Ganges in the Vedas.

The height of the hill is approximately 708 ft and the total area of the temple spans over 180 acres. This shrine is a Shakthi Peetha, one of the oldest temples of the Mother Goddess, and one of four major Tantra Peethas/ Shakti Peethas in India.

Inside sit the goddesses Tara and Tarini, two ancient stone statues about 10 feet high each, both lavishly bedecked with gold and silver ornaments. Between them, intriguingly enough, are two brass heads known as the Chalanti Pratima or living images of the goddesses.

Situated atop a steep hill here in the jungle which is verdant now and would have been extremely dense way back in time, the shrine could very well have been part of tribal culture, which later on got transformed into a Shakti sanctum.

Also, the name Taratarini suggests some sort of Buddhist link. Some scholars believe that Taratarini was worshipped as the principal deity of the Kalinga empire. Then the Mauryan emperor Ashoka took Kalinga, along with its capital Sampa which is just a stone’s throw from here, around 2,300 years ago, and Buddhism came to these parts. The Ganjam region near the banks of the Rushikulya soon became a flourishing Buddhist site as revealed by the Rock Edicts of Ashoka found at Jaugada which is a mere 4 kms from the Taratarini Temple.

Nautical activity

Back home, I read of an image of Buddha in meditation present inside the sanctum sanctorum of the temple, though I do not recall seeing it. Folklore and legend combine here to suggest that the Buddhists used to do a Tara puja worshipping Taratarini at the shrine, which was a major seat of tantrik belief back then. Taratarini then became Tara, and still later on, the feminine counterpart of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara.

Another strand of legend has it that merchants and seamen worshipped at this site before Buddhism made its advent in these parts. This was when the Rushikulya was the site of much maritime activity; the big sea ports of the area were quite close, like Dantapura (Gopalpur), Pallur near Chilika Lake and Kalingapatna. There are ruins found on the south bank of the river that point to a lot of nautical activity on the waters.

For all its striking visual appeal, the Taratarini Temple complex does not have that specific ambience which very old Indian temples invariably have. I got the answer to that too, back home and online. It appears that the original structure was demolished as recently as 2005. The new structure, fortunately, adheres closely to the Rekha Deula style of architecture seen all over Odisha, and so is not an eyesore by any means. To one side of the temple entrance stands the wishing tree, thickly foliaged and covered with stacks of red bangles tied to its branches by people seeking divine favours.

And yes, the sun was shining brightly again when we made our way home.

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