Assam, the peerless land, is the gateway to North East India. Naturally painted with vibrant landscapes, flora & foura, blue rivers & red mountains. Assam has some of the most complex Hindu traditions of South Asia. Known in early literature as Pragjyotishpura & Kamrupa, people of Assam represent a complex mixture of both ethnic and linguistic groups.
With 23 recognised tribal groups like Bodo, Kachari, Rabha, Khasi, Garo etc, they have their own unique cultures & religious traditions and worship a variety of God & Goddess figures which has influenced the development of Sakta Hinduism in Assam.
Religion in Assam has a mixture of a thin layer of Hinduism and a deep subculture of tribal rituals. It can be said that in Assam, there is a complex and rich exchange among wide Pre-Hindu Indigenous traditions & Sanskrit Brahmanic traditions from central India. Hindu traditions here are adapted with Non-Hindu local traditions, thus making it the most fascinating form of Hinduism in South Asia.
One of the major traditions of Hinduism that follows in Assam is Sakta tradition. Sakta tradition flourished in Assam roughly from 8th century. Assam is referred as the “Birthplace of Saktism”. It is said that, God Kama- the God of Sexual Desires, built the first temple to the Goddess here, & she secretly comes to satisfy her amour (Kama) with Lord Shiva. Kamakhya has been revered as the most important Shakti Peeth, making Assam as the sacred landscape of South Asian Hinduism.
Kamakhya temple in Assam is one of the 52 Shakti Peeths of India. The temple is situated atop the Nilachal hill (800ft above sea) in western part of Guwahati City.
Apart from the main deity Kamakhya Devi, the temple also has 10 other avatars of Kali namely Dhumavati, Matangi, Bagola, Tara, Kamala, Bhairavi, Chinnamasta, Bhuvneshwari & Tripura Sundari. There is no image of Shakti in the temple.
However, there is a sculptured image of the yoni (female genitals) of Goddess, in the corner of a cave inside the temple.
Worship of the Goddess can be traced to Varman dynasty, where it is referred that Lord Kameswara and Goddess Mahagauri resided on hill Kamata Giri. Kalikapurana, the Hindu religious text, written in 10th-11th century AD, that celebrates the power of divine feminine, in her various manifestations of the Goddess Kamakhya or Kalika, refers Shiva as Kameswara, Kamakhya as Mahagauri & Nilachal Hill as Kamatagiri. This is the reference to the Kamakhya Temple as major Shaktipeeth of Sakta Hinduism in North East.
Goddess Kamakhya first appears in the seven Pithastanas of Goddess after the dismemberment of the Goddess’ body by Vishnu, Brahma & Sanaiswara. Here, she is mentioned as the form of Goddess to be worshipped in Kamrupa, where the female reproductive organ of Goddess lies.
In Kalikapurana, Vishnu, by plunging into Ganga, within a minute, arrived at Pragjyotishpura, which is situated in the midst of Kamrupa, where the present deity of Kamakhya resides. Vishnu instructed Naraka not to worship any other God or Goddess except Great Goddess Kamakhya, who is Mahamaya herself.
In another episode, Shiva suggests Vetala & Bhairava that like Vishnu is superior to all Gods, Lakshmi to all Goddess, same way, Mahamaya Kamakhya is recommended as the best of all. Kamrupa, presently ASSAM, thus is praised as the most sacred land of Goddess.
Kamakhya Temple’s existence dates back to the 9th century, which is put down in the Tezpur Plate of Vanamalavarmadeva of the Mlechchha dynasty. It is believed that the temple was destroyed by Kala Pahar, a general of Sulaiman Karrani in the 16th century. Later, the temple ruins were discovered by Vishwa Singha, the founder of Koch Dynasty. He started worshipping at the site & made efforts to revive it to its former glory.
However, only during the reign of his son, Naranarayana, the temple’s reconstruction was completed. It was reconstructed using materials from the ruins of the original temple that was lying scattered around. It is said that “Bir Chilarai” built the main temple by taking stones from the ruins. However, the current structural & architectural design of the temple dates back to the Ahom rule.
The current temple has a beehive-like shikara (or shikhara) with wonderfully sculptured panels & images of Ganesha and other Hindu Gods and Goddesses on the outside. The temple consists of three chambers. The western chamber is large & rectangular and is not used by general pilgrims for worship. The middle chamber is square shaped with a small idol of Goddess, which was added later.
The wall of this chamber contains sculpted images of Naranarayan, related inscriptions & other Gods. The middle chamber leads to the sanctum of the temple, which is in the form of a cave, consisting of no image but a naturally underground spring that flows through a yoni-shaped deft in bedrock.
Legend behind Kamakhya goes to the time when Sati married Lord Shiva against the wishes of her father King Daksha. Once King Daksha was having a yagna but didn’t invite Sati and Shiva. Upset Sati, without the consent of Shiva, still went to her father’s palace. But her father instead of welcoming, insulted her and Shiva. Unable to bear the insult, she jumped in the Yagna fire & killed herself.
Enraged Shiva, holding the dead body of Sati in his arms, started the dance of destruction of the universe. To save the universe, Lord Vishnu cut the body of Sati into pieces with Sudarshan Chakra. The body parts fell at different places and these places are known as Shakti Peeths. The yoni of Goddess fell at Kamakhya, where the present temple is situated.
A lesser known story of the temple is about the staircase. It is said that Naraka, the demon, fell in love with Goddess Kamakhya & 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 overnight, she would surely marry him. Naraka took it as a challenge and tried to accomplish this. He was almost about to finish the job.
But Devi panicked and played a trick on him. She strangled a cock and made it crow untimely. Duped by the trick, Naraka left the work halfway through. This incomplete staircase is known as Mekhelauja Path.
The rich blending of tribal traditions & Hindu influence can be seen even today. One of the most unusual festivals celebrated here is the Manasa Puja, dedicated to Snake Goddess Manasa, which is accompanied by ecstatic dancing of figures known as Deodhas.
Although many scholars related this dance to Bodo-Kachari origin, connected to non-hindu priests (deodhais) of tribal community, it is now a regular annual Hindu Puja at Kamakhya temple.
At Kamakhya temple, Manasa puja is celebrated for three days every year. Devadhawani is also celebrated along with Manasa puja. Traditions records that while in prison, Chilarai cured the mother of the Sultan of Gour from snake bite by chanting special mantas which he had known, and was freed from imprisonment (Bhuyan,2010, p.49).
The worship of the snake Goddess Manasa was patronised when the Koch King reconstructed the Kamakhya Temple. Manasa Puja is observed during the month of Shravana & Bhadra.
It is to be noted that, during this period, Hindus in other parts of India celebrated Nag Pachami. At Kamakhya mandir, Manasa puja is usually conducted at the Bhogmandapa of the temple. Manasa puja is accompanied by sacrificial offerings of goats and pigeons by devotees who came from different parts of Assam.
Prior to the puja, on the Adhibhas, Goddess Manasa is generally installed. On the first day after Nitya puja, Manasa Devi is worshipped in the temple. A ghat (an earthen pot of particular shape) full of water is placed in the name of Manasa.
The last day coinciding with the second day of Bhadra the ghat is thrown away into water, and the puja comes to an end. Ojhapali, a particular class of servitors exhibit their dance in all these days. The Padma Purana is also recited as a part of the ritual. Nati nach, which is similar to Devdasi Nitrya of south India, and Deodhani nach is performed in manasa puja. The Dancers are called Deodhas, Ghora or Joki by local people.
There is no record from when deodhani in Kamakhya was started or how it came to be performed during Manasa puja. However, According to Dr. Nabin Chandra Sarma, Retd. Prof. Dept of Folklore, Gauhati University; both Manasa puja and deodhani started in Kamakhya temple from the time of Koch king Biswa Singha. In ancient times the traditional dance devadasi was popular with the temples in this area.
There is a village named Natipara (nati means dancer and para, a locality) in Kamakhya area and according to him, it might have been a colony of devadasis from which deodhani dance originated in a local form. But there apparently has no distinct influence or impact of devadasi dance on the present form of deodhani. Now deodhani is performed only by non-Brahmin male dancers in Kamakhya temple while the devadasi was traditionally performed by females.
Manasa puja is regarded as one of the most important and significant festivals, specially among the Rabhas.The Rabha tribes of western Assam have worshiped Manasa as Barmani from the mediaeval times. Saktism is also more dominant in Rabha traditional society from the earlier times. The Rabhas particularly Pati Rabhas of Southeast Goalpara and South-west Kamrup institute Mare puja or Maroi puja to propitiate goddess Manasa or Bishahari.
Manasa seems to be originally a local deity worshipped by the non-Hinduised people of the province but in course of time she came to gain popularity among the upper classes of the Hindu society. As the name of goddess, Manasa does not seem to appear in the very early literature, it leads one to believe that Manasa is not a goddess with a Vedic and puranic past but assimilation from the outside.
Snake worship is more widely spread and developed in more interesting forms among the various tribes of Assam, including the Rabhas. The story of Padma and Chandradhara throws an interesting light on how Aryans were forced to admit into their pantheon non Aryan deities to whom they were once inimical (Choudhury:2013:36).
However, the most important festival at Kamakhya Temple is ambuvacimela. Every year during the month of Aahar ( June) the Brahmaputra river near Kamakhya turns red. It is believed that Goddess “menstruates” during this period. The temple is then closed for 3 consecutive days. On the 4th day, the devotees are allowed to enter the temple and worship Devi Kamakhya, thus concluding the famous “AMBUBACHI MELA”.
The mela is also known as “Ameti ” or “Tantric Fertility Festival” since the Peeth is closely associated with tantric shakti cult. Even some Tantrik Babas make their public appearances only during these days and rest of the year remain in seclusion. Apart from Ambubachi Puja, several other special pujas are also held round the year. Some of them are Pohan Biya, Durga Puja, Durga Deul, Madan Deul.
Interesting fact is that the powerful mother Goddess is worshipped by many North East tribal communities, such as Bodo, Chutiyas, Jaintias, Khasis, Lalungs and Rabhas. Many scholars suggested that Kamakhya herself is originally a tribal mother goddess. Some scholars like B.K Kakati have even stated that a tribal or non Sanskritic etymology of Kamakhya may come from Kamoi(demon) or Kamet (Corpse of Khasi). Kamakhya herself is a composite figure that combines mainstream Hindu Goddess Durga and Laksmi with many local, indigenously worshipped by tribal groups throughout Assam.
As the embodiment of divine power, the Goddess has also long been tied to kingship and political power of Assam. From King Naraka to the last King of Ahom, many rulers of Assam have patronised Goddess Kamakhya. Infact, Kalikapurana has dedicated two entire chapters about Statecraft, Politics and Military discussion. Ahom Kings, although originally a non-Hindu group from Tai(Shan) people, adopted many Brahmanic traditions and worshipped Kamakhya after they conquered the region.
As the home of supreme Goddess of desire (Kamakhya), Assam has been always regarded as the “Home of Tantricism” (Rahman,1966,100) or the headquarters of the tantric worship (Briggs, 1938,166) and “The tantric country per excellence (Elide, 1971, 305). As per several tantric texts, the sage Vaistha was told to go to the Kamakhya temple to learn the most cinacara practice of pancamkara. According to Kaulajnananirnaya (10-12th cents) the great sage Matyasendranath first learned the sacred tantric rites in Kamrupa. It was in Kamrupa that the Yogini Kaula tradition, one of the oldest and most influential South Asiann Tantra, was spread.
According to many texts available, there are almost sixty four yoginis that were established in Kamrupa, which are still invoked in the daily worship of Kamakhya (Dehejia, 1986,78). According to the Yonitantra- A text from Koch Bihar, a region adjacent to Assam, the linga is the eternal Lord Sadasiva and the yoni is the great goddess Mahamaya (yonT, 5.25).
The ultimate source of spiritual and material power is yonitattva or the fluid essence of the yoni (of goddess Sakti) which is the form of universe. The tantric rites are the centre of consumption of fluid power substances (White, 2003, 106). The tantric rite of sexual union in Kamakhya iinvolves explict of laws of purity. The prime aim of Tantras is the acquisition of power (sakti) in both spiritual and material sense.
While no longer a vibrant center of tantric practice today, Assam still remains one of few areas where tantra survives. Probably that’s the reason, Assam is still associated with magic, witchcraft etc. Even today, you will find thousands of paperbacks like Kamakhya Tantrasara, that deals with spells for performing black magic and fulfilling worldly desires.
While a large population of India still remains aloof when it comes to menstruation and womanhood, the Kamakhya temple is one that celebrates the most natural biological process. Contrary to the popular belief about this North Eastern State as an orthodox state, this celebration of the ability of women to conceive, proves the state being the most forward-minded state, when women still gets the shaming treatment due to Menstruation, elsewhere in India.
However, these contract beliefs on menstruation have come from Abrahamic religion and other cultures in West. Hindus actually celebrate menstruation in various forms. Nitin Sridhar, in his articles “Hindu views of Menstruation” have widely explained how, “inspite of a menstruating woman entering a temporary period of Ashaucha (ritual impurity), the process itself is very beneficial and purificatory in nature”.
Menstruation is a period of “rest” that is widely prevalent throughout of India. This notion is well recognised in Hindu scriptures. Angrisa Smriti (V.37) advises women to resume household work only after monthly periods ends, while Vashishta Dharma Satra (5.6) explains why women shouldn’t indulge in physical exertion. The ritual is also practiced in Kamakhya temple during “Ambubachi Festival”.
Moreover, as Hindu way of life is perceived as sacred and worthy of worship and celebration, this notion of worship and celebration in also observed in menstruation and menstruating women as well. When girls in assamese families reach puberty with the start of menstruation, they go under “seclusion” as a process of “rest” and after the menstrual cycle is completed, everyone comes together to celebrate the attainment of her womanhood.
This celebration is called “Toloni/Xoru Biya” (small marriage). This celebration is not less than the actual marriage; Puja is performed, feast is organized by the family for everyone. Similar local customs and celebrations are also observed all across India to celebrate onset of menstruation.
The Ambubachi festival itself serves as the practical illustration of how various aspects of menstruation- Ashaucha, Austerity, Rest & Celebration are integrated into one big festival. Kamakhya also emerged as a kind of syncretic Goddess who could assimilate and unite many indigenous goddesses of the region.
- Urban, Huge. Hinduism in Assam and Eastern States. BEH. Vol I academia.edu. Sept 2019
- Bhuyan, Rashmi Rekha. The Portrait of the Goddess in Kalika Purana . ISOR-JHSS. Vol 22. Sept 2017
- Sridhar,Nitin Hindu View of Menstruation- III: Menstruation as a period of Rest and Sacred Celebration, web.
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