Understanding India’s Shakti Peeth temples

If you spend any time in India, you’ll hear the term shakti peeth. In a country overflowing with sacred sites, these landmark Hindu temples have an extra level of significance. You’ll probably encounter your first shakti peeth by accident, but you’ll soon learn that these ancient shrines form a network stretching right across the subcontinent, part of a Tantric belief system dating back to the earliest days of Hinduism.

Stay a little longer and you may learn the origin story of these singularly sacred shrines. The tragic tale of the marriage of Lord Shiva and the goddess Sati, and the paternal snub at a ritual sacrifice that led Sati to immolate herself in the sacred flames, providing the inspiration for centuries of widows taking their lives on their husband’s funeral pyres.

As the story goes, the heartbroken Shiva marched across the heavens carrying his wife’s charred remains, and parts of her disintegrating body fell at different spots across the subcontinent. Each became the sacred site of a shatki peeth temple.

Most of the 51 shakti peetha (or 108, depending on which scriptures you believe) lie in what is now India, but a handful were separated off into Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal by the unthinking hand of colonial boundary makers.

So, having learned that shakti peeth temples are important, which of the 51 temples are the ones to visit? Here’s a top five:

Kolkata's Kalighat Kali Temple.
Kalighat temple is surrounded by crowded bazaars © shankar s./CC by-2.0

Kalighat Kali Temple, Kolkata, West Bengal

Being linked to the ancient cult of shakti worship, the veneration of divine feminine creative power, many of the shakti peeth temples are associated with ritual sacrifices. So it is at Kolkata‘s venerated Kalighat Kali temple, sacred to the most fearsome incarnation of the Hindu mother deity. It was here that the toe from Sati’s right foot fell as the great goddess crumbled.

In times past, human sacrifice was commonplace across Bengal, but today it is goats and pigeons who fall to the sacrificial swords at Kalighat. For those who would rather avoid the gruesome spectacle, it’s as interesting to wander the temple compound as crowds of devotees pay their respects in the Bengali hut-style temple, rebuilt on the site of a much older temple in 1809.

The Jagannath Temple, Puri
The imposing rooftops of the Jagannath Temple compound © International Vaishnavas Portal

Vimala Temple, Puri, Odisha

The ancient Vimala temple at Puri has been absorbed into the fabric of the legendary Jagannath temple, the setting for India’s most famous chariot parade during the Hindu festival of Rath Yatra in June or July. The shrine is said to mark the precise spot where Sati’s navel fell during Shiva’s cosmic march of grief.

Although the Vimala shrine represents just a small part of a much bigger temple, it has huge religious significance, and many devotees regard Vimala – another of the myriad incarnations of the mother goddess – as being more important than Jagannath, the patron deity of the complex.

In many ways, the temple at Puri is the physical embodiment of the power struggle between Shiva worship and Vaishnavism that has defined the evolution of Hinduism through the centuries. Befitting the reputation of the Shakti cult, devotees once threw themselves under the wheels of the chariots at Rath Yata to die in the sight of the divine.

Taratarini temple, an ancient shakti peeth temple near, Brahmapur
The ancient stone chapels of the Taratarini temple © santosh.nahak12/CC by-3.0

Taratarini Temple, Brahmapur, Odisha

Lying off the tourist circuit on the southern coast of Odisha, the Taratarini Temple at Brahmapur marks the resting place of one of the breasts of Sati, adding special significance for followers of the cult of the mother goddess. Set on a green hilltop overlooking the Rushikulya River, the ornately carved shrine is a fine example of the Kalinga architectural style.

Rising to an amalaka (notched disk) finial, the temple’s tiered levels were carved from local stone in the 17th century, but the tradition of worshipping the twin goddesses Tara and Tarini dates back much earlier. The name Tara is part of the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, dating the temple’s origins to at least the time of the emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BC.

Kamakhya, one of the most important shakti peeth temples.
The distinctive beehive rooftops of the Kamakhya temple © Arpandhar/CC by-SA 4.0

Kamakhya Temple, Guwahati, Assam

Perhaps the most powerful of the shakti peetha, the Kamakhya Temple in Guwahati, capital of Assam, marks the landing place of Sati’s yoni, or vagina, giving it very special significance in the Tantric tradition. Animal sacrifices are a long-standing custom here, and on feast days, the floor of the cramped, stone chamber at the centre of the temple runs red with sacrificial blood.

The first temple at Kamakhya was constructed in the 8th or 9th century, but this ancient structure was destroyed by the forces of the Bengali sultan Ala-ud-din Husain Shah in the 16th century, and Kamakhya was extensively rebuilt in the curious hybrid style seen today. It’s one of the most atmospheric temples in the Northeast, and a living link to traditions that predate the rise of Hinduism in the subcontinent.

Muktinath Temple, a shakti peeth in Nepal

Muktinath Temple, Jomsom, Nepal

From Northeast India to Nepal. Enshrining a natural gas flame that has reputedly been burning for centuries, the temple of Muktinath near Jomsom is perched at a breathless 3710m above sea-level. Revered by both Hindus and Buddhists, this ancient shrine is said to grant moksha, liberation from the cycle of birth and rebirth, to devotees who make the pilgrimage through the foothills of the Annapurna mountain range.

It is the scenery as much as the architecture that makes Mukinath so special. The tiny tiered temple, in the classic Nepali style, is surrounded by an amphitheatre of Himalayan peaks. Before the opening of Jomsom airport, Mukinath could only be reached after days of trekking from Pokhara, but today, it’s possible to get here in a day, albeit with a draining increase in altitude. Jeeps also rumble up to Jomsom via a rough dirt road from Pokhara.

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