The author is a senior Guwahati-based journalist. He’s a Chevening scholar and has worked with the Times of India, Indian Express, The Telegraph and Times Now television. He is the author of two books on the northeast dealing with continuous insurgency
Kamakshya Temple, situated atop Nilachal Hill in Guwahati, 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. The Peeths are shrines which are found throughout the Indian subcontinent. Kamakshya derives its name from the Hindu God of love, Kamadeva. According to mythology, the god 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 Kamakshya Devi was installed and continues to be worshipped until today. Mention of Kamakshya temple is found in various ancient scriptures. In Kalika Purana, Kamakshya is referred to as the goddess who fulfils 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 over which flows a perennial spring keeping it moist.
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 yajna was performed. Sati was upset, but decided to go to her father’s palace much against Shiva’s advice. When she reached there, her father insulted her and Shiva. Unable to bear the insult to her husband Shiva, she jumped into the yajna fire 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, which is called Tandav Nritya.
Lord Vishnu stepped in to save the universe and cut the body of Sati into pieces with his Sudarshan Chakra.. he Sudarshana Chakra is a spinning, disk-like weapon, literally meaning “disk of auspicious vision,” having 108 serrated edges used by the Hindu god Vishnu. Various 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 Kamakshya 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.
But of the many legends behind the Shakti Peeths, the one most time-honoured is that of the slicing of Sati’s body by Lord Vishnu to control Shiva’s celestial rage.
According to archaeologists, the origin of Kamakshya temple dates back to the eighth and ninth centuries. Some religious texts are of the view that the temple was demolished in the 15th century by Kalapahad, an Afghan general of the Sultan of Bengal in the mid-16th century. The ruins of Kamakshya temple 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.
Kamakshya is considered one of the most important centres of tantric worship in the world where goats and buffaloes are also sacrificed to propitiate the Goddess. The temples of the Dasamahavidya personifying the ten different forms of Shakti, Anga Devata and other temples dedicated to various deities are located within the Nilachal hills. The tantric sadhak 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.
(Ambubachi is central to the fertility cult, as it is believed that Mother Earth goes into menstruation. Scholars say that these few days – June 23 to June 26 – are the time when the earth is attaining maximum fertility, and the rituals warrant abstention from all agricultural activity. After the festivity, agricultural activity restarts.
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. Brahmans well versed in the Vedas, Puranas and Samhitas supervise of the rites and rituals; Pujaris performed with the rites and ritualistic practices; Bidhipathaks (Scriptures) are read to guide the pujaris (priests) 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. Supakars are entrusted with the task of preparing the daily offering of “Bhog” or food offerings to the deity.
In addition to the Brahmans, different categories of non-brahman families fulfil other roles such that are 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 at the temple, however, feels that tantric practices are not becoming extinct from Kamakshya 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 to 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 Kamakshya 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 Kamakshya shrine have been increasing since the past several years. Among them are also people who offer pujas at the shrines as an astrological remedy, since the deities are also associated with each of the nine planets. Of late, a growing number of foreigners have been spotted at the festivals, which also include a small number of researchers of the tantric tradition at the complex.
The government has also sanctioned funds with the goal to develop it as a major tourist spot. Certain changes have been brought about in the complex like installation of railings, tiles and a facelift to the different shrines which have also invited criticism that the original flavour of the temple has been transformed to resemble a structure in the northern region of the country.