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Sakta-pitha is usually called pithasthan or mahapitha in Bangla. The word pitha means altar or seat where the body parts of the goddess sati (another name for the goddess Durga) fell to earth after she had been cut to pieces by Vishnu. Tradition has it that there are fifty-one places of sakta-pitha. There is, however, no consensus on the exact locations of these pithas. The most popular text that mentions the names of these pithas is an old manuscript called the mahapithanirupana (1690-1720 AD). The text identifies 23 pithas situated in greater Bengal and surrounding areas. Among them, 14 are in West Bengal and 7 are in Bangladesh.

The mythology The origins of the sakta-pitha are to be found in a popular myth called daksha-jyagya, which is part of the epic mahabharata. It tells of the time when the god Daksha held the ritual ceremony of the sacred fire (jyagya) and summoned all the gods of heaven to attend, except one, Shiva, the husband of his daughter Sati. At the altar of the sacred fire, the furious goddess Sati, protesting against the insult, threw herself into the fire and burned herself to death. Hearing of the death of his wife, the aggrieved god shiva came and carried her body off on his shoulder. He went nearly mad with grief and wandered all over the world, stamping the ground with his feet. The world could not endure the consequent severe earth-tremours. Finally, the gods of heaven asked the god vishnu to stop the wandering Shiva. Vishnu threw his discus-like weapon (chakra) at Shiva and cut Sati's body, which was still on Shiva's shoulder, into pieces; they fell and scattered all over the world. Wherever one of the pieces of Sati's body landed on earth the faithful enshrined an altar to worship the goddess. In course of time, these places became centres of pilgrimage for the worship of the mother goddesses by the local people. Each pitha having mythological origins regarding the goddess Sati has its own separate name as a pitha-sthan. They also bear the names of the goddess (devi) and her spouse god (bhairava). The goddess Sati or Durga and Kali have unified themselves with various other folk deities of the mother goddess Durga, who, however, has various names in her incarnations. This is the reason why every pitha is called by the name of the deities and is also regarded as an incarnation of the goddess Sati through the legend of her dismemberment.

Distribution of Sakta-Pithas in Bengal Presented in a table is the list of the sakta-pithas that are commonly acknowledged in Bengal and appear in the religious manuscripts of the early 18th century and the printed Bengali almanacs of today. West Bengal has the larger number of pithas and there is a large concentration in the historical region of Rarh. Kalighat in Calcutta has been very popular since the medieval period and the temple of Kalighat has grown with the commercial development of the great city. It has become a great centre of pilgrimage for Hindu people from all over the subcontinent and its attractions are much more diverse and plentiful than those of the other places on the list. The Bakreshwar temple of Birbhum district is well known for its hot-spring therapy spa as well as a thriving Bengali pilgrimage centre. In contrast, the Kalipitha and the Jaydurga temple near Katwa town (Kaliganj block) of Nadia district or the Mangalcandi temple of Kogram village (Mangalkote block) of Burdwan district are visited mainly by neighbouring villagers. However, these places were prosperous during the medieval period under the patronage of the Hindu rulers of Natore Raj and Burdwan Raj. As is the nature of things, during the modern period the most popular places are the ones that have invested in the development of their commercial and transportation infrastructure, and have developed other facilities for attracting people from distant places.

There are a few pithas that share the same name and are thought by many to be the same sakta-pitha. For example, there are two Attahas temples regarded as sakta-pitha. One is near the town of Labhpur (Labhpur block) of Birbhum district, and the other is in the village of Dakshindhihi (Ketugram block) in Burdwan district. Both these temples attract many devout worshippers from neighbouring areas and in the past were under the patronage of local rulers and landlords. The temple of Kankalitala near Bolpur town of Birbhum district is identified as a pitha with the name kanchi. There is another sakta-pitha named Kanchipuram near Chennai (Madras) in Tamilnadu, India. Kanchipuram is a famous pilgrimage centre in southern India and is popularly called as 'southern Benares (Varanasi)'. The Sri Madan Gupter Dairektari Panjika identifies the name of 'Ujjayani' with the famous pilgrimage place of Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh, India, famous for the great triennial Kumbha Mela festival. This name, as it is mentioned in the mangalkavya, is associated in Bengal with Ujani of the village of Kogram, near Natunhat town (Mangalkote block) of Burdwan district. The place is especially famous as the venue of the marriage ceremony of Behula, the heroine of Manasamangal.

The Mahapithanirupana written about 1690-1720 named a number of pithas in rural Bengal, and they became popular with the spread of tantric philosophy in eastern India. Eight among them - Nalahati, Kalighata (Kalipitha), Bakreshwar, Yasora, Attahas, Nandipura, Lanka, and Virata are famous in West Bengal. The names of these pithas correspond to present-day place names. Nalhati, Vakreshwar, Attahas, and Nandipur are in Birbhum district, and Kalipitha, near the town of Katwa, is in Nadia district. Yasora is situated in satkhira district, near jessore, a town of Bangladesh near its border with India. Some places are known as pithas for a very long time. They have developed a reputation uncontested by any in Hindu society. Besides, these sacred places belong to the older traditions of Bengal, and, in fact, most of them are mentioned in various historical texts as important shrines. For example, Tamluk town of Medinipur district of West Bengal, where the temple of Garba Bhima is situated, was well known as tamralipta in ancient times. In the 7th century, Tamralipta was a Buddhist centre and it is considered an indispensable point of reference in the history of Mahayana Buddhism of the medieval period of South Asia. Both hiuen-tsang (602-664) and i-tsing (635-715) visited this place and mentioned it in their famous books. The hillock and valley of sitakunda in the chittagong district of Bangladesh was established as a pithasthan by the Hindu Raja of Tripura at the beginning of the sixteenth century. It is also a famous pilgrimage centre for Buddhists, since the footprint of Buddha remains at the top of the Chandrashekhar mountain.

Table  List of Sakta-Pitha in Bengal.

Sakta-Pitha Geographical Places Fallen Body Parts A B C D E F G H
Bangladesh 7 6 7 6 6 6 5 5
Cattal Sitakunda Right arm 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Sugandha Sikalpur Nose 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Jayanti Baurbhag-gram Left palm 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Karatoya Bhabanipur Bedding 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Shrihatt Jainpur/Kalagol Throat 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Jashor Ishwaripur Right palm + - 0 0 0 0 0 0
Kanyashram Kumari-Kundu Back 0 0 - ? ? X X
West Bengal 14 13 13 12 12 12 11 10
Bahula Ketugram Left arm 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Ujjaini Kogram Right-elbow 0 0 0 0 0 0 X X
Trisrota Salbari-gram Left leg 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Kalighat (Kalipitha) Kolkata Right foot four fingers 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Kanchidesh Kankalitala Skeleton 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 X
Bibhas Tamluk Left ankle 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Jagadya Kshiragram Right foot thumb 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Bakreshwar Bakreshwar Eye brow (Mind) + 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Kirit Kiriteshwari-gram Crown 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Nalhati Nalhati Tubular bone + - 0 0 0 0 0 0
Nandipur Sanithiya Necklace + - 0 0 0 0 0 0
Attahas Labhpur/Nirolgram Lower lip + - 0 0 0 0 0 0
Birat Left foot four fingers + X 0 ? ? X X
Kalipitha Juranpur Head + - 0
Other part of Eastern India
Tripura Udaypur Right foot 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Kamakhya Kamakhya Vagina 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0

Legend O: Maha-Pithasthan; X: Different place outside of Bengal; ? : Supposition; -: Upa-pitha; +: Supplemented names in the later version, A: The Mahapithanirupana. Cf. dineschandra Sircar, 1973; B: The Sivacarita. Cf. DC Sircar, 1973; C: Nabajug -Dairektari Panjika, Dhaka; D: Gupta Press Dairektari Panjika, Calcutta. Cf. pp. 152-3, Indrani Basu Roy, 1993; E: PM Bagcir Dairektari Panjika, Calcutta; F: Benimadhab Shiler Fhul Panjika, Calcutta, 1401; G: Benimadhab Bhattacaryyer Fhul Panjika, 1404, Calcutta (It is a new version of Benimadhab Shiler Fhul Panjika); H: Sri Madan Gupter Phul Panjika, 1400, Calcutta; Rajendra Library.

The name of Kshiragram village (Mangalkote block) of Burdwan district can be traced back to the verses of a sacred manuscript, the Kubjikatantra, preserved in the Asiatic Society at Calcutta. Reference to the village and the goddess can be found in other Sanskrit literary texts, such as, the Niltantra, the Rudrayamalatantra, the Shivacharita, the Saktananda-tarangini, and the Mahapithanirupana as well as in the Mangal Kavya. The present temple in the village was built around 1730 by Raja Kirtichand (1702-1740) of Burdwan Raj. Kiriteshwari-gram is famous as the land of the ascetic practice of tantrism popularised by Ramakrishna, the zamindar of Natore Raj. This place is also well known for the Bengal Nawab alivardi khan (1725-39) who poured coloured powder (abir) over himself together with the Hindus every year on the occasion of the spring festival of holi (dolyatra). Because of these various associations these historical places are recognised by most people as mahapitha and are considered indisputably in Bengal as pithasthan.

Sakta-pitha in Bangladesh The Mahapithanirupana identified seven pithas in Bangladesh. The Shivacharita mentioned the temple of Jossoreshwarikali of Ishwaripur village of Satkhira district as one of upa-pithas. It is said that the name of the town of Jossore (Jessore) evolved from the goddess of the same name. The temple of Kanyasharm in the suburb of Chittagong city is one of the pithas, but by and large only the local people support this opinion because the Benimadhab Shiler Phul Panjika refers to this name in connection with a different village in Rajasthan state, India. Since the British period, two temples have kept the ritual relationship with the family members of the local royalty and the landlords. The temple of Ma-Bhabani of Bhabanipur village of bogra district prospered under the patronage of the Natore Raj during the 18th century. The temple was given the name of the well-known benevolent queen of Natore, Rani Bhabani.

After the abolition of the zamindari system, the descendants of the Rajah's family migrated to India and the title to the private estate of the Raj was transferred to the office of the estate manager. At the time of the annual festival the family members living in Calcutta still sent offerings for the altar. However, the ritual of the Bhabani temple is now under the supervision of a caretaker (nayeb) who is appointed by the estate manager of Natore. The legendary king of Pratapaditya of sundarbans is supposed to be the founder of the temple of Jossoreshwarikali in Satkhira. Ishwaripur village is regarded as the capital of this legendary kingdom. There are some ruins of the old capital around the area. The landed Chattarjee family built the present temple - a splendid two-story building - at the site of the ruin. It has come down through oral tradition that the Chatterjee family migrated to this part of the country during the time of Raja Pratapaditya and served as this family's priests. The family members living in Dhaka still undertake the management of the annual festival. The other temples are managed by temple committees. The temple of Bamjyanga Baurubhag village of Kanaighat thana of Sylhet district was famous in the 18th century and was under the patronage of the Khasiya Raj.

After the creation of Pakistan in 1947, most members of the royal family migrated to the Megalaya state of India. Local Hindus organised the temple committee for management of the temple festivals and the debottar. The temple building and surrounding wall with its fine Terracotta in the village bears witness to their former splendour. The temple of Mahalakshmi near the town of Sylhet was also under the patronage of the local zamindar during the British period. After their migration to India, local Hindus organised a committee in 1960 to manage the affairs of the temple.

The sacred place of Sitakunda has a more ancient historical background. The place is indeed a huge religious complex with many temples, sacred ponds, and other facilities for the pilgrimage, and is surrounded by hilly country with a waterfall. It is sometimes mentioned as the oldest Hindu sacred places in Bengal. During the Buddhist period this place was also popular as a sacred place. The Buddhist monastery here was believed to have received Buddha's ashes from the Arakani Raj (c 1785). The Tripura Raja of Dharmamanikya was the founder of the present Hindu temple at Sitakunda. During 1423, Shyakka Raja Dharmamanikya constructed the temple buildings and donated debottar land of more than 400 acres, including neighbouring hilly lands. Since the medieval period, Sitakunda has been famous as a pilgrimage centre for Buddhists as well as for Hindus. Every spring festival at the end of the lunar month of Chaitra, thousands of ordinary pilgrims and ascetics (sadhu) come to visit the place from all over the subcontinent. However, the temple management faces continuous conflict over the numerous properties and the proceeds from the concessions provided by the visitors.

In its own way, each temple in Bengal seems to have prospered as a sakta-pitha under the strong patronage of local Rajahs and landlords. However, there are many pithas that are older than any members of the local power structure. Some pithas such as those of Sitakunda and Tamluk go as far back as the Buddhist era. In some cases, these famous pithas were recognised as religious centres by the surrounding community and attracted local rulers and landlords, who hoped to legitimise their power through donation of land and construction of temples. In Bangladesh, nowadays, it is not the private donations of the local elite but the voluntary efforts of ordinary people that make it possible to maintain the temple management of the sakta-pitha. [Masahiko Togawa]

Bibliography Purba Sengupta, Satir Dehacched Ekanna Pitha (Bengali), Calcutta, 1997; The Sakta Pithas, Delhi, 1973; DC Sirkar (ed), The Sakti Cult and Tara, Calcutta, 1967