Snapshots from Guwahati's Ambubachi Mela, a yearly festival marking the goddess Kamakhya's menstrual cycle
At the onset of the monsoons in Assam, for about four days, the doors of the Kamakhya Temple are closed in observance of the Ambubachi Mela. The fair marks the annual menstruation of the goddess at Kamakhya
It is a hot and humid morning in Guwahati, and little gods and goddesses can be found scampering about on either side of the uphill road that leads to the Kamakhya Temple.
Apart from these miniature deities (children in costume — not some miraculous manifestation), the road is thronged by scores of people — tourists, pilgrims, sadhus and tantrics, volunteers distributing water, policemen keeping order. Shops by the roadside sell food — sustenance for the body even as the devotees seek salvation for their souls. This steep trek to the temple is about 5 km long — not that it deters those making their way up.
The Kamakhya Temple, located on the Nilachal Hill in western Guwahati, was built and rebuilt several times over, between the 8th and 17th centuries. There is no deity within the temple; instead, a stone symbolising fertility and female strength is revered.
"After his wife Sati's death, Lord Shiva flew through the skies with her body, parts of which fell to earth. Kamakhya is considered the spot where her yoni (reproductive organs) landed," a priest at the temple says.
The 'shakti peeths' — places where Sati's remains fell — are scattered throughout the Indian subcontinent, and the Kamakhya Temple is considered among the oldest of these sites.
At the onset of the monsoons in Assam, for about four days, the doors of the Kamakhya Temple are closed in observance of the Ambubachi Mela. The fair marks the annual menstruation of the goddess at Kamakhya, and the temple doors are shut so she can peacefully "go through her period". On the fifth day, the temple's doors are opened once more for visitors.
This year, the Ambubachi Mela was observed from 22 to 25 June.
Popular among sadhus, tantrics, aghoras, the Baul singers of West Bengal and folk singers of Goalpara, Assam, many travel from Bengal, Orissa and Bihar to seek the goddess' blessings here.
“I have come from Malda town in West Bengal. When the temple doors will open, I will seek blessings from the goddess. I took a train and reached here on the first day of the fair. I wait for this annual pilgrimage every year. It’s an occasion to visit Ma, seek her blessings. We enjoy it very much,” says a saffron-clad Shiv Kumar Singh, 68, breathing deeply of his chillum.
Sunil Sarkar, 70, is another visitor here. He's dressed like a sadhu, but isn't one: he's in the business of selling pilgrims remedies for whatever ails them. In his hands is a wooden object that looks like a snake. “This is called (a) Naag Panchami. You keep it dipped in water overnight and the water turns red the next day. If a woman were to drink this water, she will never complain of menstruation-related trouble ever. It’s medicine that works miraculously,” says Sarkar, who hails from Mayong, a village in the Morigaon district of Assam that's known as the ‘land of magic’.
While the Ambubachi Mela is often lauded for celebrating menstruation, over the years, feminist scholars have expressed some reservations. These scholars feel the popular religious narrative further strengthens the repression of women — as is evident in this poem titled 'Ambubasi' by poet and academic Nitoo Das.
We were told
that the Goddess
(unlike us regular lunar women)
had the luxury of bleeding
only once a year.
So when long-haired fanmen
hunting for a quick high in the hills
amid the bloodshitpiss of
sacrificed and to-be-sacrificed animals
and crowded around the trees, the caves,
shirking schoolchildren and lovers,
she sat wide-bottomed, spread-thighed
behind closed doors and bled
from a very dead vagina.
They chanted and sang and fed her and made much of her
and the priests waited
to see the waters in the sewers
— Cyborg Proverbs, Poetrywala 2017
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