Temple of the Menstruating Goddess

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Visiting Guwahati’s Kamakhya temple

The world is full of wonderful traditions and rituals that can look bizarre to someone immersed in a sanitized culture. The concept of fertility is a core element that is integral to religious practises of the Eastern religions – Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism – and scores of variants within each faith, and is evident in various temples and monasteries built specifically around that concept.

During my visit to Bhutan few years ago, I stumbled upon a village that had houses covered in huge murals depicting penises and cosmic sperm. Honestly, I was shocked, and kind of embarrassed; how often do you come across such a mural on the streets of say Toronto, Mumbai, or Moscow? That village was home to the Monastery of the Divine Madman, a Buddhist saint who preached using songs, humor and outrageous behavior to dramatize Buddha’s teachings to the common man. Later on that trip, I happened to be in another village where the highest monk of Bhutanese Buddhism was blessing devotees. I got blessed and gently tapped on the forehead with a large wooden penis.

Yeah, sounds crazy, I know! Truly, one of the joys of travelling is discovering such places and seeing how people forge meaningful relationships with the divine.

↑ Temple complex dedicated to Kamakhya, the Hindu Tantric goddess of love/desire that evolved in the Himalayas.

Needless to say, on my recent visit to Guwahati, I had to check out this temple dedicated to the female aspect of fertility. And boy was I unprepared for how in-your-face the temple sights were going to be…

↑ Beautiful carved statues decorating the exterior walls.

I visited this temple on a hot summer day in May and spent an entire evening visiting every shrine we could in the temple complex. For the devout, there is always the option of browsing through the market to purchase supplies for various rituals that can be conducted, from simple blessing, to welcoming a young girl into womanhood (typically marking her first period), to complex prayers involving animal sacrifice. Just before the main temple square, there are facilities to conduct ritual ablutions and clean your feet before entering the holy space. Outside the main chamber of the Goddess is a large altar for lighting lamps and incense. Priests and their understudies can easily be spotted should you need help, otherwise you are on your own to explore.

↑ Octagonal exterior of the inner sanctum where the Goddess, symbolized by a vulva-shaped depression (to denote female fertility), is worshiped.

Worshiping the Yoni – symbolizing the womb and the origin of life

Yoni, literally translated to vagina or womb, is the symbol of the Goddess Shakti, the Hindu Divine Mother. The yoni is also considered to be an abstract representation of Shakti, the creative force that moves through the entire universe. The yoni is not only where life begins, but also the source of wisdom and values.

A symbolic yoni is the focus of worship at this temple (there are no images of the Goddess). Garbha griha, the inner sanctum, is below ground level and consists of a rock fissure in the shape of a yoni as described below:

The garbhagriha is small, dark and reached by narrow steep stone steps. Inside the cave there is a sheet of stone that slopes downwards from both sides meeting in a yoni-like depression some 10 inches deep. This hollow is constantly filled with water from an underground perennial spring. It is the vulva-shaped depression that is worshiped as the goddess Kamakhya herself and considered as most important pitha (abode) of the Devi (goddess).
-Shin, Jae-Eun (2010). “Yoni, Yoginis and Mahavidyas : Feminine Divinities from Early Medieval Kamarupa to Medieval Koch Behar”. Studies in History

↑ Numerous smaller shrines dedicated to the ten manifestations of the Goddess are spread around the main temple. It took us several hours to explore various shrines on the hill.

The current temple structure is the result of centuries of rebuilding and renovation after withdrawal of the invading Mongol (12 CE) and later the Mughal (18 CE) armies. The hybrid indigenous style of construction is similar to the Nilachal school: a temple with a hemispherical dome on a cruciform base. The temple consists of four chambers: garbhagriha (the womb) and three mandapas locally called calanta (square of 16 sculptures), pancharatna (five precious stones) and natamandira (temple of dance) aligned from east to west. The altar of sacrifice is located just outside the fourth chamber.

Speaking of that…

Animal sacrifice

↑ An Altar of Sacrifice is placed outside every shrine. In addition, the central ‘Chamber of Sacrifice’ has a number of altars of various shapes and sizes, this picture showing one of them.

An important seat of Tantric Hindu and Vajrayana Buddhism, origins and rituals followed at the Kamakhya temple are also said to be influenced by Animistic tribal beliefs. The place is believed to be a Khasi and Garo sacrificial site, two of the predominant tribes in the adjacent region of Meghalaya. Offerings to the goddess are usually flowers, and often include animal sacrifices.

The Goddess is worshiped in both, Vamachara (Left-Hand Path) as well as the Dakshinachara (Right-Hand Path), modes of practice that are common in the Eastern faiths of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, which makes it very unique:

  • Vamachara: Places strict limitations and warns against nonsanctionated use of the five elements of Madya (wine), Mamsa (meat), Matsya (fish), Mudra (cereal), and Maithuna (sexual intercourse).
  • Dakshinachara: Practices such as asceticism and meditation fall under this mode of worship generally believed to be less extreme in comparison with Vamachara.

↑ Sacrificial animals. Water buffaloes on special occasions, goats, pigs, pigeons for other times.

Rituals around animal sacrifice are mostly dead in Hindu temples, now substituted by offerings of rice, sesame, butter, jaggery, etc. Personally, I am opposed to killing and sacrifice in the name of religion, but from what I understand, the meat is redistributed for consumption. In a strict sense and casting religious purposes aside for a moment, this practice is no different than what happens at a butcher shop.

Carved statues of deities

↑ Lovely sculptures depicting various avatars, saints and holy figures. I think they need all a good scrub!

There are ten manifestations of Goddess Shakti in Hinduism – from the benevolent ‘lotus wisdom’ Kamala to the fierce ‘devourer of time’ Kali – and dedicated temples and shrines exist to each form of Shakti in this temple complex.

The Menstruating Goddess

↑ Gabhara or Garbha griha, the inner sanctum is covered in red (to symbolize blood) and lies beyond those doors.

Every year around mid-June, devotees celebrate the yearly menstruation course of the Goddess in a festival known as the Ambubachi Mela. It is believed that the presiding goddess of the temple goes through her annual cycle of menstruation during this time stretch. It is also believed that during the monsoon rains the creative and nurturing power of the ‘menses’ of Mother Earth becomes accessible to devotees at this site during the festival.

Offerings of sacrificial animals are common during festivals such as Durga puja, – goats, water buffaloes, pigeons, pigs – and it is said that the temple of the Mother bleeds heavily in a symbolic representation of her menstruation and the beginning of the cycle of life. Inundation of the mighty Brahmaputra river begins to cease by the end of the Monsoon season, yielding regenerated fertile plains along the river banks that will now be used for sowing new crop.

The temple bears particular significance to young girls who visit this Goddess of fertility and seek blessings.

↑ Temple bells and a holy water tank (Saubhagya Kund) located outside the main building

Visiting

↑ Access to the temple is through numerous narrow market lanes filled with stores selling religious paraphernalia.

The Kamakhya temple is located at Guwahati, the largest city of the far north-eastern Indian state of Assam. Located on the banks of the Brahmaputra river, the city has existed since ancient times and the influence of Hindu, Buddhist, and Animistic cultures have led to some of the most unique forms of worship under the Tantric Hindu practises. There are numerous other places of religious significance in this City of Temples, such as the Umananda temple on an island in the river Brahmaputra, the temple of Madan Kamdev the lord of love/lust, the Navagraha (nine planets) temple dedicated to the a an ancient centre of astronomy studies, among others.

↑ Holy mermaid, Batman!

Guwahati is the busiest transportation hub in the region and a gateway to the far north eastern states, and is well connected with major cities by air, bus and rail. The temple complex is located on the Nilachal hill in the western part of the city and is very easy to get to about 30-minute bus / shared taxi ride from city centre.

Certainly one of the most interesting religious sites I have seen!

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