Ambubashi Mela: Dreadlocks, Lost Shoes and the Shakti Cult

When I was young, a grandmother of mine would intrigue me with stories from the Puranas to lull me to sleep in the afternoons, a time I kept aside for conducting some mischief or the other around the house. One particularly interesting story was that of the yagna conducted by Daksha Prajaapati, the father of Sati, Shiva’s consort. Daksha, no doubt like any other concerned father, could not watch silently the marriage of his daughter to someone as unpromising as Shiva, who, despite being a powerful god, perhaps lacked a bit of charm. So, he organized a huge yagna, where all gods and goddesses were invited, apart from his ill-tempered son-in-law. Sati, of course, understood that this was just a ploy by her father to insult her husband, and despite Shiva’s warnings, she went to the yagna to sort things out. Enraged as he already was, Daksha insulted his daughter in front of the whole congregation, and Sati immolated herself out of humiliation. Our reluctant hero Shiva appeared soon enough, promptly lost his temper, and carrying his wife’s charred body across his shoulders, started dancing his dance of destruction in the middle of the yagna! To stop the world from getting completely ruined, Vishnu released his Sudarshan Chakra, which cut Sati’s body into 51 tiny pieces, strewing them all across the Indian subcontinent. Wherever they fell, Sati’s body parts gave rise to Shakti Peethas, shrines of the Mother Goddess cult.

It was later, in my adolescence, that I got to know that this was not merely a story, but the Peethas actually existed, and in fact, Sati’s yoni had fallen in Kamakhya, in Guwahati, Assam, a place that eventually became a center for the fertility cults associated with the Goddess. And the leading fertility festival was the annual Ambubashi Mela organized at the Kamakhya Temple, a three-day affair during which the earth, representing Sati’s yoni, was supposed to be experiencing her menstrual cycle. These facts served to further tantalize my curiosity, and ever since, I had wanted to come to Guwahati during the Ambubashi Mela.

This time, I finally saw my dream coming true. I had come to Assam to volunteer in a small school for underprivileged children in the outskirts of Guwahati during my summer break, and I had been careful to co-ordinate my stay with the Mela. The Ambubashi generally falls in the month of June, and this year it was to start on the 22nd of June. The heat that was sucking the life out of Guwahati till mid-June seemed to have subsided considerably as we walked into the overcrowded temple complex on the Nilachal Hills on Monday afternoon. The shrine seemed to have changed its appearance overnight, from modestly sized half-renovated quaintness to a hectic, strange and powerfully energetic hustle-bustle that could barely be contained. There were innumerable sadhus and sants around the premises, with their unbelievable hairdos—dreadlocks that did not seem to have been combed even once in the last few decades—loafing about, entertaining devotees by their strange antics, or merely sitting around, smoking a joint or two. A group of enterprising young men doing brisk business by guarding piles of shoes right next to the temple entrance. Buying and selling of myriad wares, starting from faux rudraksh to what was being passed off as pure gangajal in adorable little bottles, was going on in all quarters, while beggars cried themselves hoarse showing off terrible wounds, rousing sympathies and collecting alms.

As per tradition, the Kamakhya temple closed down on Thursday, June 18th, to mark the beginning of the earth’s menstrual cycle. For the next week, the people of the land would not dig the earth, till the land or pluck fruits from the trees as a mark of respect. Menstruating women and widows would not come down from their bedsteads and would decline cooked food of any kind. And a swarm of Tantriks from all over the country would flock to India’s leading Tantrik shrine to picket in the temple complex for four days. On the 26th of June, the temple will be re-opened for a grand puja, and devotees would be given the token red cloth, reddened by the holy blood of the Mother Goddess. Till then Guwahati will willingly play host to the intriguing exponents of the Tantras.
Promona Sengupta

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