Located high above the Kumari Hills, around 160 km south of Bhubaneshwar in the Ganjam district of Odisha, is the temple of Taratarini. The recently renovated temple hides within it stories of an ancient past, going back a thousand years. Goddess Taratarini was once the patron of seafarers and merchants of ancient Kalinga, and they prayed to the goddess before embarking on their voyages to distant lands.
The power of the goddess lives on. The Taratarini temple is one of the most important ‘Shakti Peethas’ or shrines dedicated to the powerful mother goddess or ‘Shakti’, in India. Thousands throng here for darshan and to worship the two stones that represent the goddesses – Tara and Tarini – together referred to as ‘Taratarini’.
But who is this goddess, who has held sway across the seas, for so long? According to legend, the two stones represent the breasts of Sati, Lord Shiva’s wife. However, what makes the shrine so fascinating is how it has evolved over time, incorporating changing beliefs.
Like many other great temples of Eastern India, like the Kamakhya temple in Assam, Jagganath temple in Odisha and the Simhachalam temple in Andhra Pradesh, the Taratarini temple too began as a shrine of the local tribes of Ganjam district. Buddhism arrived here with the Mauryan conquest of Kalinga around 262 BCE. Just 4 km from the Taratarini Hill is Jaugada, which was the Mauryan administrative centre for South Kalinga, and, in fact, even an Ashokan rock edict was found here.
It was the Sailodbhava dynasty that ruled over South Odisha in the 7th and 8th centuries, who were the greatest patrons of Kalinga’s maritime trade. From the great ports of Dantapuram, Pallur and Kalingapatnam (in Andhra Pradesh), merchant fleets left for Java, Sumatra and the Malay peninsula. Eminent historians like R C Mazumdar and K Nilkantha Sastri believed that the famous Shailendra dynasty, which ruled over Java and Sumatra in the 8th century, was a branch of the Kalinga Sailodbhavas. Other historians have contradicted this.
Interestingly, it was from the 7th century onwards that the Vajrayana or the Tantric form of Buddhism emerged from the great Buddhist centres of Lalitagiri-Udaygiri-Ratnagiri (in present day Bhubaneshawar) in the Cuttack district of Odisha. Over time, the Taratarini temple became an important Vajrayana Buddhist shrine patronized by merchants and seafarers. In Vajrayana Buddhism, Goddess Tara is said to protect ships from storms and other dangers.
Before embarking on a voyage, ships would sail up the Rushikulya river, which hugs the hill on which the temple stands, pay their respects to the goddess and only then depart on thier voyage. There are a number of folk tales of how Goddess Taratarini helped a ‘merchant from Sumatra’ or ‘seafarer from Malay’ and so on. These tales give a glimpse into the shrine’s interesting link to its maritime past.
Interestingly, the temple also has a connection across the Indian peninsula, with Goa! In ancient times, Tara was also worshipped by seafarers of Goa. In North Goa, For instance, there is the taluka of Sattari, which derives from ‘Sat Tara’ or the ’Seven Taras’, who protected ships. Even today, Goa has a tradition of a boat deity called ‘Tarini’. However, further research is required to understand this Goa-Odisha connection.
Over centuries, the Taratarini temple in Ganjam was abandoned and ‘swallowed up’ by the forests. The temple was only rediscovered in the 17th century and from then it came to be seen as a Shakti Peetha. It was only in 2005 that the ancient shrine was enlarged, renovated and transformed into a grand temple, built in the classical Odisha style of architecture.
Today, the temple is a popular tourist and pilgrimage site, drawing huge crowds, especially during the Taratarini Mela, which is held in March-April every year.