Assam’s Ambubachi Mela glories in the Feminine Principle with a rare abandon, says Teresa Rehman
THE CULT of the Mother Goddess is as old as civilisation, perhaps older. The Jewish myth of Lilith, first wife of Adam, the Vedic Aditi, mother of the gods and the earthy Venus of Willendorf with her childbearing hips and prominent breasts are all manifestations of humankind’s fascination with that everyday mystery – the process of conception, gestation and birth, and by extension, the essence of Femininity itself.
Today, the cult of the Mother Goddess, variously known as Kali, Durga, Sati and Bhagawati, all forms of Shakti, wife of Hindu god Shiva, flourishes in parts of south and eastern India. While numerous kshetrams or shrines to the goddess dot these areas, it’s the ancient Kamakhya Devi temple atop the Nilachal hill in Guwahati, Assam, that radiates an almost palpable energy. According to myth, this is the site where the yoni or genitalia of Goddess Sati is supposed to have fallen when Shiva carried her burnt body around the universe in anguish. The story is deeply moving and makes worshippers and unbelievers alike ponder about the bond between Man and Woman and the mystical dimensions of the sexual act.
Kamakhya is the main temple in a complex of individual temples dedicated to different forms of the Mother Goddess as the Dasa Mahavidya, including Bhuvaneshvari, Bagalamukhi, Chinnamasta, Tripura Sundari and Tara. It is crammed with devotees during the annual Ambubachi Mela celebrated in late June. Incidentally, the festival draws its name from a conflation of the Sanskrit words ‘Ambu’ meaning water and ‘bachi’ meaning efflorescence, a pointer to the biological cycle of the Mother Goddess that’s celebrated at Kamakhya during the four days of the festival. When you visit the temple on June 25, the last day of the mela this year, you melt into one of the biggest congregations of Shakti workshippers in the country. There are sadhus attired in red, their foreheads smeared with vermillion, and the water runs red with the blood of animals sacrificed at the altar. Befitting a festival that celebrates the strength of the Female and the power of procreation, the entire Shakti shrine seems possessed by the colour red. Everywhere you hear chants of “Prithibi Rajashala Hoi” (Mother earth is menstruating).
Inside the temple’s sanctum sanctorum, Kamakhya Devi is worshipped in the form of the yoni shielded by a rivulet of water gushing upward from an underground spring.
Outside the temple doors that stay closed for the three days when the goddess is said to be menstruating — during this time she’s considered impure and no prayers are offered — the faithful wait for the first glimpse of the goddess.
These people from all walks of life — farmers, professionals, young women and businessmen — are rewarded when the doors are finally reopened after the goddess is bathed and the appropriate rituals are performed. That it invariably rains when the temple is closed for the three days of the mela and that the advent of the annual monsoon cycle coincides with the ritual is a cause for much wonder. But then this is the temple of the fertility goddess whose powers encompass all living things, including puny humankind and the parched, cracked earth itself, which is transformed into fecund terrain with the first drops of blessed rain.
Once the Mother Goddess or Mother Earth, call her what you will, has regained her purity, those who make it to the mela have a singular aspiration: to enter the temple and offer puja to the goddess who they hope will make their deepest wishes come true.
While the devotees, who mostly stay in tents pitched along the hilly road leading to the temple, wait for the auspicious moment, the scene outside is riotous. Vendors sell pendants, beads, bangles and framed pictures of the shrine. The sound of bhajans fill the air and as dusk falls, decibel levels rise.
NATURALLY FOR a Shakti temple that’s the nerve centre of tantricism, there are sadhus everywhere: Aghor sadhus engage in transcendental meditation at crematoriums in the dead of night and Naga sadhus, who lead a life of relentless atonement and practice voluntary nudity, perform incredible feats. Shankar, a monk from West Bengal, buried his head under the ground for many hours to appease the goddess. Amidst this pageant of ascetic fervour, some claim they can perform wonders like making childless couples conceive, dispelling marital problems and casting spells on enemies. You even come across a sadhu from Varanasi who has been performing a three-day yagna while his disciples distribute free food to devotees.
When the pilgrims disperse after being part of this melee, they take with them shreds of cloth red with the deity’s menstrual ‘blood’. The shreds are believed to be part of the angavastra used to cover the goddess’ yoni during the three days of her menstruation.
The increasing popularity of the Kamakhya Devi temple has brought its attendant problems. This year, the driver of a jeep was killed and three others injured by a group of pilgrims enraged by the former’s refusal to ferry them to the temple. Nava Kanta Sarma, secretary of the Debuttar Board, which estimates that seven lakh people visited the temple this year, compares the festival to the Kumbha Mela. “The number of pilgrims is growing every year and we need more money and manpower for the smooth conduct of the mela,” he says. The temple is also struggling to preserve its unique charms. The original stone staircase and floor have been replaced by marble and an ancient wooden door has been replaced with a silver one. Rajib Sarma, a member of the Debuttar Board who is working on a book that will document the original elements of the temple, believes the new additions could turn problematic. “Wood does not expand due to heat and keeps structures intact,” he says.
Leaving the mela, pilgrims take with them shreds of red cloth believed to be part of the angavastra used to cover the goddess’ yoni during menstruation
But these are mere practical problems in the running of a temple known for its esoteric attractions. It speaks to that core of our being that responds to deep truths and undeniable biological imperatives. The Kamakhya Devi temple, which is the centre, the womb of the living cult of the Mother Goddess that has its origins in the birth of the world, will doubtless continue to attract the as-yet-unborn generations of the future.