Above, Ancient samadhis at Bakreshwar.
Bakreshwar is renowned both as a place of power for goddess worship and for the Shiva temple devoted to the crippled sage Ashtavakra. Sati’s third eye fell here, or at least the place between her eyebrows. Adi Shakti is commemorated at this powerful Shakti Peeth in a temple dedicated to the form of Devi Durga as Mahishamardini Bhairavi. At the heart of Bakreshwar, the spiritual traditions of Shiva and Shakti merge, creating the perfect place for tantric practice.
Bakreshwar is also known for its scenic beauty and as a legendary place of healing. The Phaphra river is said to be the Remover of Sins and the sage Mahamuni Ashtavakra found enlightenment here after submerging himself in the water. People suffering from all kinds of ailments come here, seeking physical respite in the therapeutic hot springs and divine grace through the temples.
Above, Mahamuni Ashtavakra.
The name Bakreshwar is a compound of two words: vakra, meaning “curve” or “deformity”, and ishwar meaning “lord”. According to local legend, during the time of Satya Yuga, two munis, or sages, were invited to the marriage ceremony of Lakshmi and Narayana. When Rishi Lomas was received first, Rishi Subrita was ferocious with anger, so tormented that the emotion twisted his body into eight curves, hence the name of Ashtavakra. Disfigured and disillusioned, he decided to perform penance for his sin— sages weren’t supposed to succumb to destructive emotions like anger—and went to Varanasi to pray to Lord Shiva. He heard a voice telling him to travel to a place called Gupt Kashi. The crippled sage eventually landed in Bakreshwar where he did tapasya and meditated upon Lord Shiva for 10,000 years. Profoundly moved by his dedication and penance, Shiva blessed Ashtavakra Muni at Bakreshwar. He not only cured his beloved devotee of physical deformity, but declared that those who visit Bakreshwar and venerate Ashtavakra will be graced with a surplus of boons.
Bakreshwar was on my radar because my Guru was here with his Guru, the famous Yogiraj Dr. Ramnath Aghori. It’s a legendary place where siddhas and yogins extracted mercury from the geothermal waters for alchemical purposes. Pure medieval tantric yogi science.
Above, Ancient samadhis at Bakreshwar.
Crumbling lingam mandirs are scattered throughout an ancient graveyard. Banyan trees embrace the small hut-like structures made of concrete, their roots a witness to time. These tombs, or samadhis, mark the graves of saints buried sitting upright in padmasana (crossed-legged lotus posture)—spiritual adepts, Tantriks, and mystics. Small pathways lead to numerous ashrams where yogis still live and down to the cremation ground on the banks of the Phaphra River. Bakreshwar is an auspicious place to be cremated and so there is an ample supply of skulls and bones for Aghori yogis. It still has a medieval feel, as if frozen in time; the dreadlocked sadhus could be Nath Siddhas, ancestors of Gorakshanath or Matsyendranath, medieval yogi scientists concerned with immortality and transcendence of the human condition. It’s a perfect little yogi town in the middle of nowhere.
We walk up a narrow street lined with wooden stalls selling puja supplies and kitsch souvenirs. The Bakreshwar Temple comes into view with its distinctive shikhara (rising tower above the inner sanctum), an architectural style that is more Orissan than typical Bengali. I ring the assortment of brass bells in the tunnel-like corridor leading to the main temples, and hear them echoing into silence as I sit on the steps of the kund to dangle my feet in the mineral-rich water. Some people swim here. There are several hot springs—Agni Kund, Brahma Kund, Surya Kund, Saubhagya Kund, Amrita Kund, Kheer Kund, Jibat Kund and Vairav Kund. I smell the sulfurous water and wonder about the alchemical practices of Aghori yogis.
Mercury. What does a yogi do with this mysterious substance? The Rasa Siddhas, the alchemists of medieval India, had an expression: “…as in metal, so in the body”. But what does this mean? We know what happens to certain minerals when they come in contact with others and are heated; a transformation from solid to gaseous states can occur. Is this a metaphor for Tantra and the subtle energy body practices of Kashmiri Shaiva and Kaula schools of yoga? Is it an ancient aphrodisiac, or a tantric visualization to transform the elements in the chakras from earth to ether? Is it an elixir where human sexual fluids mix with divine mineral substances in the ultimate consummation of love?
Perhaps there is evidence in the landscape. In his book, The Alchemical Body, David Gordon White talks about alchemical places in India that are worshiped as Shiva and Shakti. Bakreshwar is one of these revered sites—a mineral manifestation of Shiva and Shakti. Her sulfurous waters contain mica and sulfur, emissions from the Goddess. Mica is her ‘seed’, or sexual emission, and sulfur her uterine or menstrual blood. Mercury is the shining liquid, the volatile semen of the phallic god Shiva. The mercurial springs and sulfurous waters of Bakreshwar merge to heal devotees.
Yogis swallowed mercury to become a second Shiva, an immortal Siddha. “Until such time when one eats Shiva’s seed, that is, mercury, where is his liberation, where is the maintenance of his body?” Mercury has to do with the path to ecstasy and the divine, and the transformation of mortal, aging man into a perfected, immortal being.
Above, Offerings on a banyan tree at Bakreshwar.
Purified. I enter the garbha griha of the Vakranath Temple that houses the lingams associated with Shiva and the sage Ashtavakra. The small room is tiled in white ceramic and has a marble floor. In the center is a yoni (vagina, symbol of creation) made of brass-like metal set more than a foot below the floor. Situated in the yoni is the sacred lingam of Ashtavakra—made from eight symbolic metals: gold, silver, copper, zinc, lead, tin, iron, and mercury. The priest performs puja and makes offerings of marigold flowers and bael leaves, libations of water and milk, as well as incense and candles which are lit and placed around the yoni. There is also a secret second lingam nestled inside the yoni, toward the base of the Ashtavakra lingam. I touch a smooth, round stone that feels slippery in the darkness.
Between the Shiva temple and the goddess temple is a sacrificial altar in the shape of a wooden fork, painted bright red, the colour of shakti– feminine power. The orange shikhara of the Mahishamardini Mandir towers above. I push open the wooden doors with hand-carved friezes of Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganesha and Kartik, and the three-fold symbol called ghatam, meaning “pot”. Devi Durga is inside, an ashtadhatu murti—made from an alloy of eight metals that have astrological significance. She has ten arms, is accompanied by her lion vahana (animal vehicle), and is thrusting a spear through the heart of the demon Mahisha. Other than the spear, Durga is without her usual assortment of weapons. Holes in the nine remaining fists allow devotees to add a personal touch to their puja by placing a miniature tin weapon— available in the nearby shops—in one of her hands as an offering.
I give the priest a traditional offering of incense, flowers, sindoor (red pigment powder), decorative bangles and fruit for the Goddess at this precious Shakti Peeth. He draws my attention to a circular hole on the marble pedestal beneath Durga. I place my hand inside the hole to touch the original form of the Goddess, her bhru moddo, or the space between her eyebrows, symbolic of her mind. It feels smooth and cool and sliding my fingers along the surface, I can make out the shape of a lunar crescent with rounded edges. I feel a shudder ripple through my spine as I touch her third eye, her Ajna Chakra, as I merge with the vastness of her goddess mind. I feel her transcendent beauty inside me and time stands still. I feel blessed and absorb the tangible power manifested over the centuries, through this humble embodiment of the divine.
Above, Devi Durga in the Mahishamardini Mandir at Bakreshwar.
The cremation ground is at the end of a narrow, unpaved road flanked with tombstones that rise up like jagged teeth. Shiva devotees prefer the custom of cremation but Vishnu worshipers like to be buried. Both traditions are evident at Bakreshwar. Near the entrance to the cremation ground is a small temple to Kali. “Jai Ma Smashana Kali” (“Victory to Mother Kali of the Cremation Ground”) is written above its door in bright red Bengali script.
Inside is a murti of Kali standing on her husband, Lord Siva, with her left foot pressed against his heart, bran- dishing a sword and holding a severed head with her left hands while her right hands give the mudras of Abhaya (fear not) and Varada (conferring boons). She is depicted as the archetypal dark moth- er goddess, with a few macabre embel- lishments to emphasize the particularly fierce nature of her smashana (cremation ground) aspect. Painted red lines flow from the corners of her mouth down her neck to suggest oozing blood. Two semi-nude female shaktis (human em- bodiments of transcendental feminine force) are depicted in a frenzied dance, smeared with entrails and feasting on human flesh.
Bakreshwar’s sacred burning ground might appear unceremonious compared to Tirupati, Pashupati or Varanasi, yet it’s auspicious to be cremated here and people come from as far away as Bihar. The Dom cast have their work cut out for them today as four cittas (funeral pyres) are burning on scorched earth, permeated with ash, beside the black water of the Phaphra river. They tend the fires and break down the bodies that are slowly turned to ash.
I don’t see any Aghoris propitiating Chamundi with blood, meat and alcohol offerings, or dakinis wearing bone ornaments, but the Dom are hospitable and offer us chai and crackers, as they smoke bidis (tobacco- leaf wrapped cigarettes) and ganja, and drink bangla, the local rice-based moonshine. It seems appropriate that this marginalized caste, thought to be filthy ‘untouchables’ by the nature of their work, would venerate a low-caste female as the ideal cosmic matriarch. Kali the Mother is a multifaceted deity who undoubtedly developed through the synthesis of indigenous goddesses whose roots reach back into prehistory.
It’s a grey, ash-sodden kind of day. We cross the murky Phaphra, known as the Remover of Sins. Ashtavakra Muni is said to have found enlightenment here after bathing in the waters. That was during the Satya Yuga, not the Kali Yuga, and today my pure vision fails me. I step on sandbags and try to avoid the water as we cross the sacred river to visit the goddess temple on the other side.
Above, Small Durga shrine in the jungle at Bakreshwar.
Spiritual transformation is the purpose of pilgrimage. My own journey has been one of embracing the Mother. I traveled as a yogini, a devotee and practitioner, to holy places situated at tirthas (crossings) or peeths (seats of the divine), not as a spiritual tourist, but as a ‘seer’. Each auspicious place I visited felt not only alive, but expansive like an energetic vortex that drew me to unknown depths allowing me deeper access to myself and other realms. It was easier to communicate with the divine and receive her blessing.
I left the earthly realm of Calcutta, crossing the waters of the Hoogly River to the spiritual abode of Kalighat, travelled through the contours of the West Bengal landscape that resemble the body of the goddess, and sat at peeths where parts of her body fell to earth. I now understand sacred symbols like wa- ter pots, garlands of red hibiscus, orange and red marigolds, anthropomorphic stones, triangular openings painted red, stone yonis and lingams. I tried to embody her with all my senses. I gazed into the eyes of the deity (darshan), touched her with my hands (sparsa), heard the sacred sound vibrations of mantras and the ringing of bells. I smelled the incense and flowers, ate the consecrat- ed food, sipped the sanctified liquid
offerings. I traveled through time and history to grasp her vast terrain, from the goddess as creatrix in sacred texts, to the pre-Vedic yakshis, tantric yoginis, to Durga with her lion mount, and emblems and mudras indicating her various powers and her many manifestations. My journey strangely led me to the very place where the Devi Mahatmya was first uttered by a Vedic sage, knowledge ‘seen’ in a vision by Yogi Babi himself. I’m no longer confused by the many different names and forms of the Devi— her nama rupa—and under- stand that her different aspects connect to ones within me. I made a connection from the macrocosm to the microcosm. Each of her forms describes the visible, changing world of samsara and the multiple worlds of the gods. To determine what is real and what is a dream.
For me, the most direct route to the heart of the Mother, and by extension to my own heart, is through darshan. Darshan with the murti, or sculpture, in which the deity has taken form, is an intimate and profound form of worship. The presence of the eyes of Hindu divine images are a reminder that it’s not only the worshiper who ‘sees’ the deity, but the deity ‘sees’ the devotee as well. When eye contact is exchanged, the true inner nature of the devotee is revealed. The Guru lies within. Darshan with Kali was a sublime experience and her anthropomorphic beauty touched my heart. I really feel ‘seen.’ Her divine gaze realized my own feminine nature and I saw myself.
Darshan can also mean a mystical or visionary experience and is used to describe the Darshanas, or systems of Indian philosophical thought. Darshan is a point of view. What I now ‘see,’ or know, is that Devi is in everything. Every rock, creature and physical structure is imbued with Sakti. Each is an integral part of an enchanted world where the profane and the sacred merge. I deepen my commitment to a non-dualist view of the world.
Embracing the Mother hasn’t come naturally to me. As an adopted person, the concept of mother and my own relationship with my mother(s) has often been fraught, but since traveling through the heartland of Bengal to the Shakti Peeths—her toe at Kalighat, pelvis at Kankali and eyebrows at Bakeshwar—and asking for her blessing, I find that my own relationships have become easier. Graciously accepting the sindoor from Kali’s body, I’m more able to receive. The Mother teaches us to appreciate our own afflicted emotions as substances to work with and transform back into the unconditioned, unfabricated state of mind. I felt myself melt into emptiness with the awareness that this suchness is pure consciousness. Going beyond the space/time continuum into more subtle realms between form and formlessness. Mother offers a glimpse into Moksha (liberation) and, ultimately, my own true nature. I’m able to accept love and truly see the Mother as a com- passionate being.
In my investigation into various forms of Durga, I feel drawn to her darker and more wrathful manifesta- tions of Kali, and Chamundi, associated with the charnel grounds. They have taught me to embrace my own shadow and wild nature. Thanks to her I can now embrace my own feminine and gracefully move forward towards my crone-like demise.
I’ve been looking for a special deity for Nyasa practice and, suddenly, Ardhanarisvara, the Half-Female Half-Male God manifests. This deity is half Siva and half Shakti, a gender fluid and androgynous deity split down the middle: one breasted, clothed half in female yogini garments and half in male tantric yogi attire. Sometimes Shiva and Parvati are joined, as are Vajrayogini and a manifestation of Padmasambhava. In the true non-static, ever changing state of the Devi, everything is in a state of motion and vibration. All the goddesses come to visit me. They teach me to be fearless and compassionate. Compassion for all sentient beings.
Heather Elton is a yogini, writer and photographer living in London.
The article was originally published in Namarupa magazine.