Every June, thousands of Hindu devotees from various parts of the country as well as abroad throng the ancient Kamakhya temple in Assam’s main city of Guwahati for the annual Ambubasi Mela. This year, the fair from June 22-25 witnessed the convergence of mystics, sadhus, yogis and devout Hindus who camped near the temple, perched atop the Nilachal hills, in tarpaulin tents and camps for the auspicious occasion. The Assam government projected the event as Kamakhya Devalaya in a bid to woo tourists. Its catch phrase was “Be with the goddess”.
The government organised a host of cultural events and other activities as part of the mela, which was inaugurated by Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal on June 21. It was a riot of colours and sound. During the festival, hundreds of tantric sadhus gathered at Kamakhya temple to perform rituals. The sadhus were often seen performing several tricks. Many smoked marijuana. While some sadhus were experts in occult rituals, others rendered soulful songs on life and its many meanings. Some sported long locks and nails while others played the bugle to appease the goddess. Legend has it that every year on the seventh day of the Assamese month of Aahar, goddess Sati who symbolises shakti (power) has her periods.
Consequently, during Ambubasi, when the sun is in the Mithuna Rasi (zodiac period of Gemini), the doors of the Kamakhya temple remain closed for three days. The devotees are not allowed to worship the goddess during these three days and religious rituals are not held either. It is only on the fourth day that the doors of the temple are opened for their devotees to pay their obeisance. During the period of Ambubasi or Amati, as it is popularly known in Assam, people neither till their cultivable land nor plant any seeds. There are other restrictions too. During this period, no worship is done. Widows do not take any cooked food. Household items are considered to be impure and they are cleaned up on the tenth day of the month of Aahar, when the period of Amati ends. People take a purifying bath, observe a fast during the day and eat cooked food in the evening.
During these three days, the devotees wait outside the temple premises to have a first glimpse of the ‘pure’ goddess. After the goddess is bathed on the fourth day, the temple doors are opened and the devotees enter inside to pay obeisance. The garments worn by the goddess during this period are distributed among the devotees who wear them as amulets as blessings of the mother. The fair is believed to have its origin in the Shakti cult of Hinduism. The Kamakhya temple is considered to be the greatest shrine of tantrik Shaktism, one of the main religions of Assam during the medieval period. Ambubasi, a Sanskrit word, means springing of water. The idea of earth’s periods during Ambubasi is synchronised with agricultural cycles. The advent of monsoons transforms earth into fertile territory.
Mother earth like a fertile woman is ready for the cultivation of various crops. She, therefore, is considered to menstruate for three days. During the three days, priests and devotees wear red clothes and offer garments of the same colour to Goddess Kamakhya. The sanctum sanctorum of the temple at the bottom of two chambers has no image but a natural underground stream emanating from a fissure in a rock that symbolises the ‘yoni’ (private parts) of Sati. At this time of the year, the water turns red due to iron oxidation resembling menstrual blood. According to religious belief and mythology, the temple represents creation as the ‘yoni’ of Sati fell at the site of the temple while Lord Shiva was performing the ‘tandava nritya’ after Sati immolated herself. The Kalika Purana describes Goddess Kamakhya as the ‘yielder of all desires, the bride of Shiva and bestower of salvation’. During the festival widows, Brahmins and brahmacharis abstain from eating cooked food till the temple doors remain shut, while married women observe fasts according to traditions. Pieces of the Devi’s angavastram or the red cloth she wears during this period are distributed among the pilgrims as this is considered highly auspicious.
According to ‘Pranatoshini Tantra’, one who receives a piece of Goddess Kamakhya’s angavastram and does puja on that day has all their desires fulfilled. One of the 51 Hindu Sakti ‘piths’ (pilgrim places) of the country, Kamakhya temple is regarded as the main centre of Tantricism with some scholars holding the opinion that the cult originated here. Built by Koch dynasty king Chilarai in 1565, the temple has a beehive-shaped sikhara (roof) though the current structure has been built during the Ahom times with remnants of the earlier Koch temple carefully preserved in the style of medieval temples. Sacrifice is an integral part of the ritual at Kamakhya temple. The sacrifice- where a lamp is placed on the animal’s decapitated head, which is presented with its blood to the goddess- is common at the temple and is part of a tantric Hindu ceremony.
Tantric Hinduism aims to acquire and use mystical power. Despite protests from several quarters including animal rights groups, the centuries-old tradition is common at Kamakhya. Late Jnanpith Awardwinning litterateur Indira Goswami was a staunch critic of the sacrifice ritual at Kamakhya. She wrote her famous “The Man from Chinnamasta” to protest against the practice of buffalo sacrifices at the Kamakhya temple. The issue of sacrifice created a controversy during the visit of Nepal King Gyanendra in June 2002. Unmoved by protests from animal rights activists, Gyanendra offered animals for sacrifice at Kamakhya.