By Nasreen Habib:
10 lakh people had made it to the Ambubachi Mela last year. This year, the numbers are expected to rise further as the weather is more favourable. The festival is observed every year at the Kamakhya temple, a natural cave with a spring, nestled atop the Nilachal Hills in Assam. As you descend down the steps into the inner temple, it is like going down into the earth’s subterranean core, a warm yet moist cocoon, far removed from the outside world. Kamakhya is one of the 51 shakti peeths in India, and Kamakhya Devi symbolises the essence of female energy.
What is it about this ancient festival that attracts people from other parts of India and the world? “This is my third time in the festival. I have been coming to Kamakhya for the past three years. There is a strange energy to this festival. This is the seat of Shakti after all,” shares a saffron-clad Baba with matted hair who has come from neighbouring West Bengal.
Ambubachi marks the annual menstrual flow of Goddess Kamakhya. For three days, the temple is closed in honour of the menstruating Goddess. It is believed that Goddess Kamakhya’s yoni (reproductive organ) fell on the Nilachal Hills, the exact same spot where the temple now stands. Thus, the main deity in the temple is a red stone in the shape of a yoni, a symbol of female strength. An underground spring covers the Yoni and keeps it perpetually wet.
Believers say red-coloured water flows from it for three days, after which the main temple is opened to devotees. In an ancient text, ‘Kalika Purana’, Maa Kamakhya is mentioned as the Goddess who fulfils all wishes. Even today, devotees crowd the narrow entrance of the inner sanctorum to seek her blessings. During this period, the inner temple is covered with swathes of white cloth. Later, the red-coloured cloth, believed to be stained by the Devi’s menstrual blood, is cut up and distributed among devotees. It is refreshing to see that despite the modern-day taboos associated with menstruation, an ancient festival celebrates it.
Legend has it that Sati once fought with her husband Lord Shiva to attend her father’s great yagna. Despite his disapproval, she goes on to attend the yagna. At the great yagna, Shiva is insulted by Sati’s father, Daksha. Out of deep shame, Sati jumps into the fire.
Lord Shiva is furious. Placing Sati’s dead body on his shoulders, he performs the tandava – the dance of destruction. Trying to convince Lord Shiva to let go of his wife’s dead body, Lord Vishnu cuts Sati’s body with his chakra, parts of which then fall at 51 different places – all of which later came to be known as Shakti Peeths. Sati’s womb is said to have fallen at Kamakhya temple.
Ambubachi Mela also sees a fair amount of diversity. Sadhus with beaded hair and flowing robes, foreign tourists with DSLRs around their necks, middle-class men and women who offer animal sacrifice to appease the Devi, all come to Maa Kamakhya and the bride of Shiva welcomes all with open arms.