At the temple complex of Kamakhya, located five kilometres from Gauhati, the capital of Assam, a celebration of the yearly menstruation of the goddess is held during the monsoon, when the Brahmaputra river is in spate. The fair is called Ambubachi Mela. Kamakhya, also called Kamarupa - the form or shape of love or desire - is India's pre-eminent Shakti peeth where the goddess is worshiped in both her maternal and erotic roles. There is no idol of the deity in the Garbhagriha of the temple. She is worshiped in the form of a yoni-like stone over which a natural spring flows.
What is worshipped at Kamakhya during the mela (fair) is not an image of the goddess, but rather a process - and a female process at that - menstruation. It is 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 Ambubachi.
In keeping with traditional women's menstrual seclusion, the Kamakhya mandir is closed to worshippers during the mela. And devotees, male and female, observe similar restrictions - not cooking, not performing puja or reading holy books, and so on. When the temple is reopened, prasad (part of the food offered to the goddess) is distributed in two forms. Angadhak - literally the fluid part of the body - water from the spring. And angabastra - literally the cloth covering the body - a piece of the red cloth used to cover the stone yoni during the days of menstruation.
During Ambubachi Mela, the rituals enacted fuse two natural phenomena we usually perceive as distinctly different. The seasonal cycle of monsoon rains merges with female physiology, women's monthly menstrual flow. Both earth body and female body processes are represented as profoundly sacred.
Shakti practitioners worship the divine female principle, the immanent power of the absolute, in forms such as Durga, Kali, Lakshmi, Tripurasundari, Bhairavi, and local variations. According to one estimate, 51 Shakti Peeths are strewn across the geographical length and breadth of the Indian subcontinent. Mythology weaves together these sacred sites in the narrative of the grieving Shiva who flew through the skies in anguish at the death of his beloved Sati, dropping her body parts on to the earth.
Kamakhya is considered the Peeth where her yoni descended. However, some scholars view this narrative as a form of geo-mysticism executed by the Brahman authors of Puranic texts, which compiled regional sites and legends into an overarching Hindu mythology.
Interestingly, the impetus for the action in this narrative involves Sati's transgressions of both patriarchal and sacrificial convention. Sati or Parvati, had returned to her natal home on the occasion of a yagna (ritual prayer) performed by her father Dakshin, even though she and Shiva had not been invited. When her father - who did not accept Shiva, ever - publicly humiliated her beloved at the ritual, Sati immolated herself in the sacrificial fire, desecrating it. The Devi, in the form we know as Sati, defied her father in her choice of husband and spoiled the Vedic sacrifice, literally, by despoiling it (polluting it) with her body.
The 200,000 to 300,000 pilgrims who trekked the last week of June to Kamakhya to observe this festival were both sadhus and householders, converging to honor the goddess. Sanyasins, black clad Aghoras, the Khade-babas, the Baul or singing minstrels of West Bengal, intellectual and folk Tantriks, Sadhus and Sadvis with long matted hair are ensconced within the temple compound during the mela. Blouseless, impoverished widows and others, particularly women, journey from Bengal or Orissa or Bihar on special bogeys attached to many trains headed for Gauhati.
For several years now, feminist scholars and activists have expressed concern at the role of the dominant religions in reinforcing the oppression of women. Frequently, they point out, religious texts and tenets seem to spout patriarchal ideology rather than any spiritual guidelines for women. Although women are often the most devout of devotees, their capacity for assuming authoritative roles as priests (or imams, pundits, lamas) has not been utilized.
The exclusion from these roles is related to female bodily power, both sexual and procreative. And female blood is the mark of that power. In the dominant religious traditions, this blood - be it menstrual or postpartum - is depicted as highly polluting, defiling and at all costs to be kept
separate from things sacred: holy books, prayer, temples, mosques, churches.
Traditionally then, women are desacralized at the height of their bodily power. Not surprisingly, feminist scholars and activists have considered texts such as the Leviticus Book of the Old Testament and the Dharamshatras of Hinduism, which prescribe such menstrual and postpartum taboos, as more concerned with the control of women than their spiritual liberation. From a global perspective, it is deeply ironic that India and Hinduism are perceived as unique in the preponderance of worship of the Goddess - the feminine divine - and yet the status of women is generally considered low.
So, in this context, what are we to make of the Ambubachi Mela, where the Goddess herself is rendered as bleeding, and prasad is given in the form of a symbolic red cloth?
Pupul Jayakar, in her documentation of the folk traditions, The Earth Mother, points to the connections between the female body and its procreative power (the ability to bring new life into the world) and the 'magical' or sacred rites and beliefs of agricultural and tribal peoples. According to her, in some rural societies and Tantric rites, the diagram or yantra was identified with the female generative organ as the goddess Bhaga or Kamakhya, the eye of love and creation, the doorway to the womb. The drawing of mandalas or yantras in the high traditions, floor and wall paintings by women in folk traditions, all display a magical structure. First, a space is created and then the magical rite with its form and intention is enacted in that space. This allowed for the manifestation or
actualization of the desired intention.
The Ambubachi worship of the simultaneous phenomena of monsoon rain and menstrual bleeding may reveal an important contribution to global cultural representation of the female body. Kamakhya seems to question both the dominant religious legacies of the pollution inherent in female bodily
processes, and the gynaecological and obstetrical representation of menstruation and childbirth as occasions for malfunction and pathology.
Many women around the world view their bodies not as a part of nature or even their particular culture, but rather in biomedical terms represented as 'scientific' and real. And yet the mysteries inherent in sexual pleasure, the magic of new life growing inside a woman, giving birth and feeding from the breasts, remains. Perhaps Ambubachi Mela provides a sacred space for empowering images of the female body - a space where the maternal and erotic aspects of women's lives are encoded and celebrated as divine.