Ravi is a traveler and foodie who loves to visit off-the-beaten-track places and understand the culture, history and customs behind them.
Kamakhya Devi Temple Is One of a Kind
Whenever it comes to talking aloud about menstruation or women’s issues in general, the common reaction I have seen is either awkwardness or downright disgust. In the West, such conversations are considered titillating, while in the East, it is considered taboo and impure. It's something that should never be discussed.
Yet despite the current attitude, the past was not like that. In fact, the people of the past celebrated fertility and sexuality, and they were quite open about it. And one such glorious example is the Maa Kamakhya Devi temple, situated in the city of Guwahati in the Assam state in India.
A Temple That Celebrates Female Power
The temple is the only one in the world that celebrates one of the most natural biological processes in any woman—menstruation. Here it is revered as a symbol of a woman’s ability to give birth and to continue the cycle of mankind. The deity and temple of Kamakhya is a celebration of this ‘Shakti’, or the power found within every woman.
And the uniqueness of the temple stems from the fact that the temple has no image or idol of the deity. Instead, there is a stone on which the symbol of ‘Yoni’, or the female genitalia, has been sculptured. The stone is kept moist from the oozing of a natural spring within the cave. Offerings of flowers and leaves are made to the Yoni that are then distributed among the devotees.
The Story of the Kamakhya Temple
Very little is known about the early history of the temple, although references of it can be found in the Allahabad pillar inscriptions of emperor Samudragupta of the Gupta empire who ruled ancient India from 330 to 380 CE, considered the golden era of Indian history.
The present temple was built in 1665 by King Naranarayan of Cooch Behar after the old one was destroyed by foreign invaders. However, the deity inside the temple is a very ancient one, a goddess of the local Khasi and Garo tribes, predating Vedic culture. The deity is in the shape of a stone yoni, or vagina, situated on the shallow bed of a mountain stream that keeps the stone moist.
The main temple has seven oval spires, each topped by three golden pitchers. Pilgrims have to queue up at the entrance porch from where they move slowly through a semi-dark sanctum until they reach a short flight of stairs that takes to a small subterranean pool where the yoni stone is kept covered with a red cloth. Pilgrims squat on the edge of the pool and offer their worship.
As per Hindu legend, when the God Shiva’s consort Sati killed herself, following a dispute with her father, Shiva was so inconsolable in his grief that he clung to her dead body refusing to let her go. That was when God Vishnu cut her body into many pieces, forcing Shiva to let go. The parts of her body fell all over the earth and her womb fell at Kamakhya where the temple was built.
Now comes the bizarre part that makes the temple famous during monsoons every year.
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Once a Year, the Goddess Bleeds
Every year during the Hindu month of Ashad, around June or July, the goddess bleeds or menstruates. The temple is closed during this period for three days. During these three days, the waters of the River Brahmaputra that are connected with the natural spring that keeps the deity moist turn red.
It is said that the red fluid that gushes out from the cleft below the stone is taken as an indication of the goddess menstruating during this period. For three days, as part of a celebration called Ambubachi Mela, the temple doors are shut to let the goddess rest and regain her fertility and strength.
On the fourth day, the temple is reopened, and the holy water called the Angodak is distributed among devotees as a token of the Goddess’s blessing. Sometimes a red cloth called Angabastra that is used to cover the stone yoni during the days of menstruation is also given to the devotees as blessings from the deity.
What Turns the Waters Red?
There are no scientific explanations so far explaining what turns the waters red.
According to some people, vermilion powder sprinkled by local priests turns the waters red, although the quantity of powder that would be required makes that theory highly unlikely. Others say it might be the red algae that cover the Brahmaputra River every monsoon. Some scientific analysis has been done, but no concrete conclusions have been derived so far. The believers say it is the blood of the goddess.
Whatever the explanation, the message given by the temple is loud and clear: In a country where menstruation is shamed and spoken about in whispers, it is high time we change our attitudes towards it and treat it as an important biological process that celebrates the power of every woman and is not something to be ashamed of.
Our ancients revered and celebrated this power, and we need to follow in their footsteps if we want to call ourselves truly advanced.
Here are some details to help you plan your visit to the temple. You can also check the website to see when special events or closures are planned.
- Hours: 5.30 am–6.30 pm
- Darshan Waiting Time: 1–3 hours
- Dress Code: Any decent outfit
- Best Time to Visit: November–June
How to Reach Kamakhya Temple
- By Air. The nearest airport is at Guwahati, which is 17 km away.
- By Train. The nearest railway station is at Guwahati, which is 8 km away. The direct trains available from major cities to Guwahati.
- By Road. This temple can be reached from Guwahati station by bus or auto rickshaw.
© 2021 Ravi Rajan