Kamakhya Temple, situated atop Nilachal Hill in Assam’s capital of Guwahati in northeast India, is one of the fifty-one Shakti Peeths found throughout the Indian subcontinent which are places of worship consecrated to the Mother Goddess, the female principal of Hinduism and the main deity of the Shakta sect.
Mention of Kamakhya temple is found in a wide range of ancient scriptures. In Kalika Purana, Kamakhya is referred as the goddess who fulfills all desires, the bride of Lord Shiva and the benefactor of salvation. There is no idol of the goddess in the temple; the item of worship is a yoni wrapped with a piece of red cloth from which flows a perennial spring keeping it moist.
A variety of mythological tales is associated with the shrine. Kamakhya derives its name from the Hindu God of love, Kamadeva, who had sought out Shakti’s womb and genitals after having lost virility to a curse. As a tribute to Shakti and her ability to lend back Kamadeva his potency, the deity of Kamakhya Devi was installed which continues to be worshipped until today.
The origin of the temple centres around the Hindu gods Shiva and Sati. Sati married Lord Shiva against the wishes of her father, King Daksha. He did not invite them when a yagna was performed. Sati was upset, but decided to go to her father’s palace. When she reached there, her father insulted her and Shiva. Unable to to bear the insult for her husband Shiva, she jumped into the yagna and killed herself.
Enraged over the incident, Shiva held the dead body of Sati in his arms and began the dance of destruction of the universe. Lord Vishnu stepped in to save the universe and cut the body of Sati into pieces with his Sudarshan Chakra. The body parts of Sati fell at different places which came to be known as shakti peeths. The yoni of the goddess fell at the Nilachal Hills in Guwahati.
Another story of Kamakhya is associated with a demon called Naraka, who fell in love with the goddess and wanted to marry her. The goddess put a condition that if he would be able to build a staircase from the bottom of the Nilachal Hill to the temple within one night, then she would surely marry him. The incomplete staircase is known as Mekhelauja Path. Naraka took it as a challenge and was almost about to accomplish the task when the Devi decided to play a trick on him. She forced a cock to crow to give the impression of dawn to Naraka. Deceived by the trick, Naraka thought it was futile to continue with building the staircase and left it halfway through. Later, Naraka chased the cock and killed it at a place called Kukurakata, situated at Darrang, about 70 kms north-east of Guwahati.
According to some archaeologists, the origin of Kamakhya temple dates back to the eighth and ninth centuries. A study conducted with the thermo luminescence (TL) technique on brick samples of the shrine show that part of the temple was reconstructed around 800 A.D. while the older layer was built around 500 A.D. Some religious texts are of the view that the temple was demolished in the 15th century by Mughal general Kalapahar. The ruins were discovered by Koch king Viswasingha and he revived the worship of the goddess. His son Naranarayan reconstructed it with the help of his brother and general Chilarai.
Kamakhya is considered one of the most important centres of tantrik worship in the world where goats and buffaloes are also sacrificed to propitiate the Goddess. The temples of the Dasamahavidya personifyingthe ten different forms of Shakti, Anga Devata and other temples dedicated to various deities are located within the Nilachal hills. The tantric sadhak (practitioner) offers puja at each of these temples at specific levels of his attainment.
Apart from the daily puja offered at the shrine, a number of special pujas are also held round the year which includes Durga Puja, Pohan Biya, Durgadeul, Vasanti Puja, Madandeul, Ambubachi and Manasa Puja. The event that draws the maximum crowd is the Ambubachi puja when the Goddess is believed to go through the menstrual period. The temple remains closed for three days and then opens with great festivity on the fourth day.
All the rituals are performed by different category of priests and their retainers as per the norms laid down in the scriptures at different times. Brahmas well versed in the Vedas, Puranas and Samhitas for the supervision of the rites and rituals; Pujaris perform the rites and ritualistic practices; Bidhipathaks read the “Bidhi” (Scriptures) to guide the pujaris in the observance of the rules of such pujas and the recitation of the mantras; Hotas perform the rites associated with the fire altar and. Chandipathaks recite the “Chandi” or book of chants related to the invocation of the Goddess. Supakar are entrusted with the task of preparing the daily offering of “Bhog” or food items. In addition to the Brahmins, different categories of non-brahmin families fulfill other roles such associated with the smooth functioning of the entire process of worship and are intrinsically related to the ritualistic practices.
The elaborate paraphernalia of the shrine notwithstanding, there are murmurs among some sections that the tantric tradition could be fizzling out from the complex. Decades ago, names of tantrics were heard who would offer remedies to people suffering from various ailments and difficulties. During the festivals like Ambubachi Mela or Deodhani Nritya, it is still not uncommon to see people huddling with sadhaks and attentively listening to them.
Rajib Sarmah, researcher and a candipathak priest in the temple, however feels that tantric practices are not becoming extinct from Kamakhya shrine. “The tradition is highly secretive, strictly based on lineage and not discussed with anybody else. Only those who are initiated into the tradition are allowed access to the knowledge and rituals. The external appearance of the complex has undoubtedly changed and it has somewhat become similar like other temples in the country. But at the same time, the tantric tradition has continued as in the previous times,” he said.
Another tantric practitioner who did not wish to be named explained that sadhaks from all over the country come to Kamakhya for initiation into the tantric tradition. He added that different categories of practitioners are found associated with the temple depending upon their levels of attainment on the tantric path.
Visitors to Kamakhya shrine have been increasing since the past several years. Among them are also people who worship at the shrines as an astrological remedy since the deities are also associated with planets. Hugh B Urban, who teaches at the department of comparative studies in Ohio State University, is of the view that both the temple and its festivals have undergone “profound transformations” since the nineteenth century.
What he has recently pointed out about the changes have been echoed by other writers from the region. The shrine and the Ambubachi festival have become as essential ingredient of the “aggressive push” by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to promote tourism and economic development of the backward northeastern region and to strengthen a sense of national unity. The process, however, has also led to a transformation of the shrine’s complex with the installation of railings and tiles resembling a temple in the northern states of the country.
The writer is a journalist based in Assam, India.