Curator Alka Pande of the Visual Arts Gallery of the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi, has written a book very close to her heart. On the acknowledgements page she writes, “This book is a divine gift. The belief in the divine has been ingrained in me ever since I can remember. It is the complete belief in the supreme energy that guides our lives—the Adi Shakti.” This very personal belief finds focus in the image of the goddess, Shakti. Pande sets out to map all the 51 peethas, or the sacred spaces, where the goddess abides over four countries: India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
At the heart of the book lies the Hindu legend most of us are familiar with, the legend of Sati, one of the 24 daughters of Daksha. Each of the daughters exemplified some aspect of Shakti, be it Shraddha (respect), Buddhika (intellect) or Priti (affection). Sati was the youngest, and she exemplified truth. Much against her father’s wishes, Sati married Shiva, whom Daksha hated. Soon after Sati’s marriage, Daksha organised the supreme sacrifice, the Brihaspati seva sacrifice. Sati was extremely excited but received no invitation from her father. Sati insisted on going despite Shiva’s misgivings. Throughout the ceremony, Sati heard her father insulting her husband and, unable to bear the grief and humiliation, she jumped into the sacrificial fire. After receiving news of the tragedy, an enraged Shiva took on the Veerabhadra form (born of the hair of Shiva,) tossed Sati’s lifeless body over his shoulder and danced the Tandava nritya, the dance of death, all across creation. The gods, fearing complete destruction, asked Narayana for help. The god cut Sati’s body into tiny pieces with the help of his Sudarshana Chakra. Some say there were 51 pieces, some one hundred and eight. Over time, the locations where these parts of Sati’s body fell, came to be known as peethas. Once all of Sati’s body had been scattered far and wide, Shiva’s rage finally abated, and he returned to Mount Kailash. The story, with its mix of wifely devotion and macabre body slicing, no doubt appealed to Hindu devotees’ imagination.