June 22-June 26
ACCORDING TO VARIOUS BELIEFS in the Hindu tradition, after the famous fire sacrifice or yagna of King Daksha, where his son-in-law Lord Shiva was insulted, Daksha’s daughter Sati immolated herself. After this, a depressed Shiva roamed around the universe, with the charred body of Sati thrown over his shoulder, performing his ugra tandava. Unable to bear the heat of his agony, and to regain world peace, Lord Vishnu ordered his loyal discus, Sudarshana, to sever the body of Sati into many pieces. Each of these body parts fell on the earth and became holy spots of worship for devotees of the mother goddess. Her yoni or vulva fell in the Nilachala Hills in the ancient kingdom of Ahom, or what we call today as Assam in the northeastern corner of India. Today, we know this venerated spot as the holy shrine of goddess Kamakhya in Guwahati. Whatever be the different versions of the story, the fact is that the temple of Kamakhya is one of the most ancient pilgrimage sites of goddess worship in Asia.
Religious literature states that Kamadeva, the god of love, along with the divine architect Vishwakarma built the original temple. The ruins of the older temple structure were dated to early sixth century by archeologists. Sometime in the 15th century, the temple was attacked and plundered by an invading Mughal general, Kalapahar. It lay in ruins for a while before the Koch dynasty rulers, King Naranarayan and his brother Chilarai, resurrected it in 1565. The inner walls of the temple have inscriptions on how the kings found the ruins after the invasion and how they reconstructed it consulting experts of traditional temple architecture. After reconsecrating the temple, it began functioning, following the local Assamese Hindu calendar.
Every monsoon, lakhs of devotees gather to witness a phenomenon they consider sacred. The goddess bleeds! She undergoes ‘menses’ and rejuvenates her menstruation cycle. The proof of it is the water that springs forth from the idol of the deity inside Kamakhya temple. For four days, this happens. This period is considered to be holy and auspicious for all those immersed in Shakti worship. The four-day mela is called the Ambubasi Mela, also pronounced as Ambubachi Mela.
The core concept of worship in ancient Hindu societies originated from three major groups. The Shaivas, who worshipped Lord Shiva, the Vaishnavas, who worshipped Lord Vishnu and his various incarnations, and the Shaktas, who worshipped the mother goddess. Among these three, the Shaktas are considered to be the most ancient. And, in no other place can you find the kind of goddess worship that you do in Kamakhya temple. What looks like a highly primitive ritual is actually a larger celebration of a profound concept in nature. The goddess is prayed to for her power of rejuvenation, revitalisation and as a mother—the nearest possible metaphor for nature or Prakriti being worshipped as a mother.
During the four-day Ambubasi Mela, the surroundings of the Kamakhya temple are filled with devotees. The main temple is shut during the entire period of the mela. It is considered inauspicious to light kitchen fires in homes, do farming, read any holy books or conduct any rituals. The whole place comes to a grinding halt. Instead, everyone is out on the streets in prayers. The count of visitors at the last mela was more than 40 lakh!
Ash-smeared Naga Sadhus, practitioners of occult and esoteric forms of worship like Tantra, sadhus, fakirs, nomadic ascetics, men and women with dreadlocks and many more make the gathering extremely colourful and unique. To help the lakhs of visitors, the local establishment sets up free food and water camps for everyone. The streets are chock-a-block with roadside shops selling everything from beaded chains to country medicines. Groups of monks huddling around little campfires by night, singing songs, and several other groups dancing with abandon are sights worth seeing. The constant sound of temple bells, blowing conches amid the fragrance of fresh flowers, burning frankincense and camphor create a divine celebratory ambience like no other place.
India is rich with several festivals connected to celebrating the annual cycles of nature. The Ambubasi Mela is an acknowledgment to the power of nature as Prakriti. It celebrates fertility, rejuvenation, and new energy, and brings in auspiciousness. More than anything else, it is a prayer to a living and breathing goddess. If you want to take a break from the searing summers in the rest of the country during that time of the year, head to the Ambubasi Mela in Guwahati. You are sure to return feeling blessed!
Sai is an award-winning writer, editor and a culture critic. He is the author of Drama Queens: Women Who Created History On Stage.