08 December 2011

Kamakhya Temple, Assam


“Adi Shakti, Adi Shakti, Adi Shakti, Namo Namo!
Sarab Shakti, Sarab Shakti, Sarab Shakti, Namo Namo!
Prithum Bhagvati, Prithum Bhagvati, Prithum Bhagvati, Namo Namo!
Kundalini Mata Shakti, Mata Shakti, Namo Namo!”

“Primal Goddess, I bow to Thee!
All-Encompassing Goddess, I bow to Thee!
That through which Divine Creates, I bow to Thee!
Creative Power of the Enlightening Energy, Mother of all Mother Power, To Thee I Bow!”

Venerated as one of the most powerful Tantric shrines in the subcontinent and regarded amongst the foremost of “Shakti Peethas”, Kamakhya temple of Guwahati, nestled amidst pristine hills shrouded by a beautiful layer of green foliage, is perhaps the finest example of this country’s religious heritage where history, mythology and legends merge in a fantastical fusion to generate fables that invoke metaphysical entities and invincible deities to exist alongside ephemeral emperors and fleeting histories. The ancient temple has its mythological roots in convoluted Hindu legends which recall the ritualistic sacrificial worship (“yagna”) commissioned by the mythological emperor Daksha in which his own angelic daughter Sati (Shakti) and her husband Shiva, the Hindu God of death and destruction, were unwelcome. Sati, though requested not to go by Lord Shiva but persuaded by an unremitting love for her father and maternal family, nonetheless reached her father’s abode only to be faced with an unrelenting onslaught of merciless abuses and insults heaped upon her all-powerful husband, as an anguished consequence of which she committed suicide by jumping into the ceremonial fire; dangerously enraged and unnervingly grief-struck, Lord Shiva picked up Goddess Sati’s lifeless body in one arm and his frightening trident in the other and began the frenzied “tandava nritya” (“dance of destruction”). The entire world was on the brink of irrevocable destruction when all the Gods and deities collectively invoked Lord Vishnu, the Hindu God of life and preservation, who used his “Sudarshana Chakra” (spinning disc weapon) to cleave Sati’s body into 51 parts since an infuriated Shiva had vowed not to stop his terrible dance till Sati’s body existed. Each of the sacred spots where these 51 hallowed parts fell came to be sanctified as an auspicious “Shakti Peetha” (“Seat of Power”) where an intent worshipper would be endowed with immeasurable intellectual and spiritual prowess. Sati’s vagina (“yoni”) is said to have fallen at Nilachal Hill at the exact spot where she used to meet Lord Shiva for amorous trysts and where the majestic Kamakhya temple, henceforth known as "Yoni-peetha" ("Seat of Vagina"), exists today – the depression formed by the falling organ is worshipped as a small perennial stream that emerges from a vulva-shaped orifice. But the place had disappeared from the collective memory of several generations soon after it had achieved its holiness and had only re-emerged from this unbelievably widespread amnesia when Kama Deva, the Hindu God of lust and love-making, discovered it and from here fired his potent love-arrows at Lord Shiva to retrieve him from the profound meditative phase he had entered following the destruction of Goddess Sati’s body. Exceedingly enraged at being disturbed, Lord Shiva burned Kama Deva to ashes with his contemplative third eye and thereafter the latter’s wife Goddess Rati did penance here to appease the Goddess Kamakhya/Kameshwari, a young form of Goddess Sati and the bestower of salvation and Tantric boons, and is said to have built the temple here to beseech the Goddess to bring her deceased husband back to life. The entire area (Assam) was thereafter christened as “Kamarupa” (“Country of Kama”).


Hub of Tantra - Kamakhya Temple


But the lore does not end here – another legend explicitly associates the temple with Goddess Kamakhya. The story goes that once, motivated by his carnal desire, the mighty demon lord Narakasura, son of the Varaha (semi-human, semi-boar) incarnation of Lord Vishnu, wanted to marry the Goddess. But since a Goddess cannot marry a demon, she suggested a test for Naraka – if he could, within the span of a single night, build a staircase from the bottom of the hill to her temple, she would definitely marry him. Unperturbed, Naraka accepted the challenge and unquestioningly involved himself in completing the marathon task. Noticing that he would undoubtedly accomplish the job, the panic-struck Goddess tricked him by strangling a sorry cock till it eventually crowed – duped into believing that dawn has arrived, Naraka became disappointed and left the construction effort midway through. The incomplete staircase still exists and is referred to as Mekhelauja path. Naraka, upon later realizing that he had been cheated, chased and killed the cock at another spot known as Kukurakata (Darrang district). The most interesting aspect of the tale however is that somewhere down the line mythology merges with history and the demon lord Naraka, who finds mention in ancient religious texts like Ramayana and Mahabharata, becomes an ancient king reigning over Assam to whom several medieval dynasties traced their ancestry, before eventually becoming integral to post-10th century religious texts originating from the state. Other lines of scholarly research involving history-anthropology instead of mythology-lore conclude that the origin of Hindu Goddess Kamakhya can be traced to the fertility Goddess “Kameke” who too was worshipped by the tribal people in the symbolic form of female genitalia.


Exquisite - The temple and its associated structures rest on a base of numerous dexterously sculpted panels


The larger temple complex, nestled in the pristine, inconceivably serene environment atop the hill, can be accessed via jeeps/buses/shared taxis from the base where an intricately ornamented gateway welcomes visitors; the entire route is lined by shops on either side offering traditional prayer items (flowers, sugar balls, vermilion), souvenirs (clay images of the Goddess, bead garlands/wristbands, printed photoshopped photographs in cheap plastic frames, necklaces and fake jewelry) and food (syrupy sweets, puri (deep-fried wheat bread) served with potatoes). Apart from the central shrine which is exclusively dedicated to Goddess Kamakhya’s worship, there are numerous smaller shrines, each surmounted by stepped, oval domes, that dot the area around the vast hill top. These smaller, individualized temples are dedicated to the ten other Tantric Goddesses that each appeared around Lord Shiva when he refused to accompany Goddess Sati to her father’s abode and represents a ferocious and often undesired facet of the universal feminine energy – Bagalamukhi (the Goddess of hypnosis depicted beating a demon with a club while pulling his tongue off with the other hand), Bhairavi (the horrible Goddess who drinks the blood of her enemies and demons when furious), Bhuvaneshvari (Queen Goddess of the universe who is capable of doing anything she wishes to), Chinnamasta (the fearsome but enlightened Goddess, an embodiment of sexual energy and self control, who decapitated her own head and yet continues to drink the blood seeping from her severed body), Dhumavati (old and ugly widowed Goddess of poverty, despair and frustration who is also the granter of all desires, supernatural powers, knowledge and salvation), Kali (the black-faced, terribly vicious Goddess of death, destruction and sexuality), Kamala (the beautiful, gold-complexioned Goddess of financial prosperity, agricultural fertility and spiritual auspiciousness), Matangi (the impure Goddess of pollution, inauspiciousness, supernatural powers and speech), Tara (the blue-skinned, voluptuous, merciful mother Goddess who is dreadful in that she wanders naked and smears herself with the blood of demons) and Tripura Sundari (the extremely beautiful, 16-year old Goddess who is a liberator from worldly associations and is often depicted in coitus with Lord Shiva). Vermillion-smeared idols of Ganesha (the elephant-headed, pot-bellied God of auspiciousness and knowledge) and other deities are also scattered around.


Such terrible form! Which Goddess is she? (Photo courtesy - Kalibhakti.com)


The main temple is surmounted by seven domes – six stepped ovals and one pyramidal – each topped by spires resembling three pitchers mounted vertically. The origins and exact date of the construction of the temple, traditionally associated with Tantric practices, sacrificial rituals and Shakti (primordial feminine cosmic energy) worship, is not known. The earliest references to the massive complex exist in the form of 8th-9th century rock and copper inscriptions scattered throughout Assam and commissioned by several rulers including those of the aboriginal Mlechchha Dynasty that too claimed descent from Narakasura and ruled Assam from AD 650-900. The temple became a renowned seat of Tantric mysticism during the reign of Pala Dynasty (ruled Assam and east Bangladesh, AD 900-1100) who adopted Tantricism as the state religion and lavishly patronized religious shrines and mysticism scholars. It was rebuilt by King Nara Narayana of Koch/Cooch Behar kingdom (Bengal-Assam border), several years after the original shrine was destroyed by invading Muslim armies commandeered by Allahadad “Kala Pahar”, an accomplished iconoclast General in the army of Sulaiman Karrani (an Afghan warlord reigning over the territories of Bengal-Bihar-Orissa from AD 1566-72 as a vassal of Mughal Emperor Akbar (ruled AD 1556-1605)). Allahadad, originally a Hindu known as Rajiv Lochan Ray, converted to Islam after falling in love with Sulaiman Karrani’s daughter and strived throughout his life to prove himself a devout Muslim by destroying Hindu shrines and abusing the idols. The name “Kala Pahar” by which he came to be christened translates to “Black mountain” and is conjectured to refer to his stone-heartedness. He was also responsible for destroying the massive Shiva idol at Kankalitala Shaktipeetha in Bengal that I recounted here – Pixelated Memories - Kankalitala Shaktipeetha, Birbhum. Some scholars argue that the original temple was not destroyed by Kala Pahar but much earlier by the armies of Sultan Hussain Shah Saiyyid (ruled Bengal from AD 1494-1519) when he invaded Assam (AD 1502). Interestingly, one legend states that the Goddess herself prohibited Koch Dynasty members from entering or even looking at her shrine, therefore paving the way for the temple’s further decline in the face of absence of royal patronage and revenue. Relief came in AD 1658, when the Ahoms (ruled Assam AD 1228-1826), who captured the area from Koch Dynasty and relegated its remaining members to the status of a minor territorial sovereigns, expanded the temple and accorded it its present structure. Greatly influenced by his spiritual master Mahant Krishnaram Bhattacharyya, Ahom King Siva Singha Sutanphaa (ruled Assam from AD 1714-1744) proceeded upon a campaign to desecrate shrines and religious traditions of other Hindu sects and delegated the management and upkeep of the temple to the Mahant and his successors whose descendants have since been known as “Parbatiya Gosains” (“mountain priests”) since they perennially resided atop the Nilachal hill. Many Kamakhya priests and modern Shakti worshippers (“Shaktas”) of Assam are either disciples or descendants of the Parbatiya Gosains who have continued the tradition since then.


No, they don't all ring together.


Though the temple’s main shrine, the natural spring that flows through the vagina-shaped cleft in the bedrock, is underground, there are several huge chambers on the ground floor to which the long snaking queue of pilgrims enters before proceeding to the semi-dark sanctum. The exterior walls of the temple are sculpted with numerous statues of Hindu deities of which the Goddess figurines are specifically carved to depict her spread-legged and revealing her vagina which is smeared with red vermilion powder (“sindoor”) to symbolize menstruation; but inside the rectangular middle chamber there are neither sculptures nor images carved into the deep black walls, but a single ornate silver throne surmounted by a silver canopy graces the center upon which a thoroughly garlanded, jewelry-decked sculpture of the Goddess has been placed. Confined by railings fitted to streamline the entry/exit of visitors, one moves with the steady flow as the queue of devotees slithers through the narrow confined space behind the throne to access a short flight of stairs located slightly behind that leads to the dark, claustrophobic sanctum and the small subterranean pool constantly filled by the spring. The moist rock cleft can be instantly recognized located in a corner of the cave since it is always covered with sheets of red cloth, flowers and vermilion. Devotees squat by the water’s edge and proffer prayers and reverential offerings; one is supposed to dip one’s hand in the water and rub the wet palm on the forehead as an appeasing obeisance to the Goddess requesting her to grant intelligence and understanding, but in no case is one supposed to drink the water or touch it to one’s lips since this is construed as polluting the divine pool with saliva and inviting the Goddess’ wrath in the form of an extremely potent, malevolent curse – so the priests inside the shrine relentlessly informed each new visitor while informing them that they are supposed to dip their hand in the "Yoni" (Goddess’ vagina). Personally, though I was not aware of the legends associated with the temple, the pool under the crevice instantly struck me as an analogy to female genitals and the entire procedure of dipping the fingers in the pool where they brush against slippery smooth, moist thready elements (fungus? Cloth offerings?) felt strange and, to an extent, disgusting. The dark, deep cave is not recommended for claustrophobics – hordes of unruly, confused devotees and the continuous pushing and shoving combined with the general crowdedness and slippery nature of the moist, narrow steps accords the place a degree of heart-throbbing panic, if not just sheer danger of slipping in or being caught in a stampede! The biggest put-off about the temple was the number of priests sitting within the cavernous ground floor chambers who would grab a visitor’s arm while on the way out, inquire about their health/profession/studies and then demand money on the pretext of blessing them – they come off as downright greedy, spoil the name of their religion and temple and would not let go even when someone refuses to give them money or tries to get away!


More divinity


The massive rock base around the central shrine has been exquisitely sculpted to generate numerous multilayered panels depicting ornamental motifs and very realistic statues of divine deities sporting numerous garlands, thick waist bands, pointed crowns and holding maces, “chakras” (spinning disc weapons) and swords; it is another matter that most of these sculptures are subjected to disgusting treatment by the hordes of goats and pigeons who wander around the complex and consider every crevice and cranny, if not a personal toilet, then definitely a resting/roosting spot. Some of the areas have been barricaded by metal grilles or otherwise barred by thick iron gates. On one side exists an especially unique religious zone – thick rectangular pillars carved from extremely resistant-looking rock support horizontal bars from which have been hung via chains hundreds of bronze bells of different sizes and girth. Inhabited by scores of geese, a deep water tank, accessible by steps from all four sides and surrounded by several life-like sculptures and smaller prayer zones where devotees light oil lamps and leave offerings under supervision of priests also exists near a corner of the hill complex. The temple is conjectured to be the site of ritualistic animal sacrifices since ancient times and the same are still followed even today – every morning, faithful devotees line up with goats and roosters who are sacrificed here and the temple, particularly several smaller shrines that are generally open only to some of the more learned practitioners of tantra, is especially notorious for tantric traditions and sorcery associated with sacrificial and sexual rituals. Horrifyingly, before Hinduism incorporated and modified the pagan pre-Aryan beliefs of the area into itself, this was the site of tribal human sacrifices! This knowledge lends an altogether spooky nature to the complex, a feeling of utter troubling hauntedness which refuses to be dispelled even by its present soothing existence as a religious site. And yet it is surprisingly claimed that just a single visit to the temple absolves visitors of all their previous sins!


Quack quack!


The temple gains unbelievable prominence every year during the summer months of June/July when, coinciding with the monsoonal showers and flooding of river Brahmaputra’s banks, the vagina-shaped orifice begins to discharge red fluids and the entire pool turns reddish – this is the renowned Ambuvachi festival, a unique celebration of female reproductive system, when the Goddess herself menstruates! Though the temple remains closed for 3 days when the Goddess is said to be menstruating since she is considered impure during this period (yes, in India social taboos and conventional restrictions associated with female members even extend to the deities!), her blood is believed to render the entire area for miles around the complex highly fertile and farmers, who cease all agrarian activities during these 3 days, sow fresh crops soon afterwards; despite the accusations that it is the fraudulent priests themselves who add vermilion to the pool to enhance the temple’s mystical standing, tantric practitioners, devotees, minstrels (“Bauls”), tourists and spiritual-seekers from far and wide throughout the country and abroad gather in numbers exceeding several million to witness this incredible spectacle and offer prayers to the Goddess when the shrine opens on the fourth day (managing such huge crowds does become difficult for the state police and temple administration); the general belief is that while the Goddess’ vagina itself transformed into a stone structure, it continues to retain its feminine and matriarchal characteristics.

The temple, perhaps the most well-known landmark in Assam, lends its visual characteristics to Guwahati railway station which is designed like its smaller, simpler version – our first introduction to the mysteries and enigma of Goddess Kamakhya and her sacred abode, gazing at the railway station’s miniature spire, we (Aakash, Kshitish and I) were filled with thrilling anticipation and a sense of unsurpassable joy at the very thought of being the first to bond and travel such a long journey simply on the spur of a moment so soon after leaving home and beginning college life. Am sure several years later when we are living in different parts of the country, we’ll still reminiscence this journey with sweet memories and longing to see each other once again! Amen.


Abode of the menstruating Goddess


Location: Nilachal Hill, a few kilometers outside Guwahati
Open: Everyday, sunrise–1.30 pm and 5.30 pm–sunset
How to reach: One can avail buses/taxis from Guwahati to the base of the hill and onwards via shared taxis/jeeps.
Entrance fees: Nil
Photography/Video charges: Nil, but restricted within the temples.
Time required for sightseeing: 1.5 hrs minimum; more depending on the number of devotees queuing for entry on that particular day.
Other Shakti peethas documented on this blog - 

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