Next week, the city of Guwahati, lying on the south bank of the Brahmaputra River near the foothills of India’s majestic Shillong Plateau, is expected to be the focus of hundreds of thousands of pilgrims celebrating the festival of one of India’s most important tantric goddesses, known as the Goddess of Desire – the goddess who menstruates.
Guwahati, the capital of the Assam region in northeast India, is rife with ancient Hindu temples. It is the focus of the Kamrup district, once a gigantic empire covering all of India’s eastern provinces, now sprawling over a still-considerable 4,300 sq km of marshes and knolls undulating northwards towards the kingdom of Bhutan. The district is synonymous with Devi Kamakhya, the Goddess of Desire, sometimes called Mother Earth herself. Hindu gods and goddesses feature a bewildering number of alternative names.
The temple attracts thousands of Hindus from all over the globe during the Ambubachi Mela festival between June 22 and June 25. As with previous occasions, this year’s festival is emerging as a major challenge for the administration and a strain on the area’s public services.
The temple’s main doors are closed for the first three days of the festival out of a belief that during the period Mother Earth experiences her annual cycle of menstruation. It is reflected in Devi Kamakhya’s genital organ, known as her yoni. Religious performances are forbidden during the period. Farmers across the Hindu world avoid cultivating their crops during the period so that Mother Earth’s ambience is undisturbed.
On the fourth day, the temple doors are reopened after Devi’s ritual bathing and devotees throng in for Darshan – the opportunity to see the image of a deity or a holy person, and of worshipping Maa Kamakhya. Devotees expect a small piece red silk cloth called an Anga Batra, which Devi uses during the period, as very precious. A sea of mankind swarms large numbers of Hindu saints in the temple during the festival.
The Kamakhya temple itself is recognized as one of 108 Shakti Peeth, or sacred shrines, of the Mother Goddess Durga. It is said to have been built by Kamdev, the God of Lust, with the help of the God Vishwakarma. According to Hindu mythology, the demon king Narakasura constructed a stone path connecting the temple to the foothills with the aim of marrying Devi Kamakhya.
The Muslim convert Kalapahar, the Maharajah of Cooch Behar in western Assam destroyed the temple in 1553 although it was repaired in the 17th century. Nar Narayan, who ascended to the throne of Cooch Behar after his father died, constructed the upper portion of the temple with the help of his brother Chilarai. The present form of the main temple and its surroundings were shaped during the time of Nar Narayan, one of the greatest kings of ancient Assam.
The story of the temple’s creation is a tale of blood and violence. According to legend, Parvati, an incarnation of the Goddess Sati, also known as Devi Kamakhya, was the wife of Shiva, one of the holy Hindu Trinity after Lord Brahma, the creator of the universe, and Lord Vishnu, the preserver of it. Shiva’s role is to destroy the universe in order to recreate it.
Angry at her father Dakshya, the son of Brahma, for his antipathy to her husband, Sati took her life at a sacrificial rite, or Yagna, that her father organized. Dakshya refused to invite Shiva for the sacrificial ceremony.
Hearing of the death of Sati, Shiva exploded and appeared at the ceremony. After pronouncing punishment for Dakshya, the furious Shiva began a dance of demolition with the corpse of his beloved wife on his shoulders. The dance, according to legend, continued for days during which the universe trembled on the brink of destruction.
The entire Hindu pantheon appealed to Lord Vishnu to bring an end to Shiva’s dance of destruction. The caretaker of the universe chopped the corpse of Sati away from Shiva with an enormously powerful weapon called the Sudarshan Chakra to bring Shiva to sanity. Sati’s lifeless body, obliterated into 51 pieces, fell to earth in different parts of India. Each later emerged as a holy place. Sati’s Yoni fell on the spot in the Nilachal hills where the Kamakhya temple would be erected.
The Kalika Purana, an ancient Sanskrit work, describes Devi Kamakhya as the deity to fulfill the desires of devotees and give salvation. There is no image or statue of her. There is only a sculptured image of the goddess’s Yoni in a cave inside the main temple. A natural spring is believed to keep the stone moist. The purest devotees touch the red silk cloth-draped stone and make offerings and flowers on it.
The temple has more than 150 recognized priests and more than 500 pilgrim priests stay at the campus to help the devotees in various rituals. A pond nearby, named the Soubhagya Kunda, or fortune pond, is the scene of religious rites performed on the western bank. Devotees believe that going around the pond is a holy exercise. There is another pond named Bhairab Kunda on the temple premises, which is famous for its population of giant turtles.
Sacrifices by devotees once took place every morning during the festival, including pigeons, goats, buffaloes and other animals although today the animals taken for sacrifice are set free, resulting in throngs of pigeons and even male goats in the temple campus.
Marriages with Hindu rituals are also arranged in the temple regularly with necessary precautions during the festival.