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Pithas, Pitths

Although the Sanskrit term pitth or pitha is used for several objects such as "seat", "encasing", "altar" or "shrine", it occurs most in the sense of Shakta Pitha; referring to number of places sacred to Tantrics and other Indian pilgrims. These Shakta pithas (or pitashtanas) are thus called because they are connected with the goddess Shakti; under whatever name she may be worshipped locally.

There are several traditions connected with the pithas, and the number of holy places with this status are given in various texts as 4, 5, 18, 42, 50, 51, 64, 108 or even 134. These different series of sacred places are based on local and/or sectarian variations of an archaic myth of the goddess’ dismemberment (the myth of Sati) into several bits and pieces (or 'limbs'), which then fell to Earth at certain places; thus establishing a series of aniconic altars that became sacred sites, each associated with a particular part of her body. Her breasts, for example, fell at Jalandhara and Ramagiri (both in Eastern Punjab), her fontanelle at Hinglaj (now Pakistan), her yoni at Gauhati (in Kamarupa, now Assam), her tongue at Javalamukhi (Indian Punjab), her severed head at Kalighat (Bengal) and her thighs in Uddiyana. One can thus wander through present India, Pakistan and Bangladesh in order to pay homage to her, recombining and unifying with such pilgrimage her image and her energies inside oneself.

A major problem of any such pilgrimage, however, is the variety of places with claims to the status of pitha. Although some authors will not hesitate - nor do travel agents - to claim certainty on this matter, a careful study of the available literature clearly reveals not only that the number of alleged pithas is very uncertain, but often the specific locality as well.

Even the hitherto most extensive and scholarly work on these matters - The Sakta Pithas by Dines Chandra Sircar - does not actually succeed in presenting a list that is fully complete or convincing. By its very nature, the Indian subcontinent (with its many religions, sects and schools) seems to defy a purely scientific and objective approach. Studying Sircar's work and comparing his detailed research and insights (he worked for the Archeological Survey of India), it becomes clear that mainly the oldest tradition of 4 pithas is beyond any doubt. In addition, some 10 or perhaps 20 pithas qualify for actually going off in search of them; a fact that leaves most others - of any list - as doubtful inventions, wishful thinking, or outright manipulation at the hand of medieval authors who often located pithas in their home province or according to the deity (and/or sect) they served or wanted to promote. In some cases, simply in order to arrive at a certain number (an example is 51, corresponding to the glyphs used in Sanskrit), one included items of clothing or jewelry as supposed reliquies when all fingers and toes and orifices of the body were already accounted for.

Unless otherwise stated, the following list of the major pithas was prepared on the base of Sircar's work (mainly done before 1948) that has not yet been seriously challenged nor surpassed.