Every year in mid-June, thousands of devotees flock to the Nilachal hills to Northeastern India’s biggest city, Guwahati to witness the Ambubachi festival. ‘Ambubachi Mela‘ as it is popularly called, ‘Mela’ translating to a carnival, is an annual fair celebrated for four days in the famed tantric temple of Kamakhya. Thousands of people from neighboring states like West Bengal and Bihar gather in the vicinity of the temple. Hoping to be blessed by the goddess. Of late people from far-flung states like Maharashtra, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, and even from Nepal have started pouring in. Who can question someone possessed by religious faith? The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays, rightly said by Soren Kierkegaard.
The myth behind the Ambubachi Festival
It is accepted that the controlling deity of the temple ‘Maa Kamkhya Devi’ goes through her annual cycle of menstruation during this period. The temple doors are closed for these three days and on the fourth day, the gates are opened to people for a glimpse of the renewed goddess. The deity has been in place since pre-historic times and strangely, no man-made shape of the goddess exists but a stone shaped similar to a vagina is in place. It is stated that ‘Sati’, the wife of Lord Shiva known as the ‘destroyer’ in the holy trinity of Hindu mythology, took her life because she could not bear the insults hurled by her father ‘Daksha’ at her husband. Lord Shiva, hearing his wife’s demise, few into a rage and punished ‘Daksha’ by replacing his human head with a goat’s. Battered by sadness and anger, Lord Shiva gathered the corpse of his wife and danced destruction known as ‘Tandava’. He was unstoppable and it took several powerful Gods to assuage Lord Shiva’s anger. Amidst the tackle, Sati’s corpse was cut into 51 parts by another god of the holy trinity, Lord Vishnu. Her female genital fell in the spot where the Kamakhya temple stands today. And now it becomes a must-do pilgrimage for the tantric cult ‘sadhus’ or Hindu holy men, who have denounced the general way of life.
Kamakhya Temple: The Cradle of Tantra
The temple had been rebuilt several times. The first Koch King, Biswa Singha rebuilt the temple over the ruins of an earlier temple. A lot of old literature suggested that these rulers had great faith in ‘tantrism’ and hence this temple evolved as a center of learning tantras and ritual sacrifices. The Koch King Naranarayan and his brother Sukladhwaj declared the Kamakhya cult as the state religion. Over some time, Kamakhya also came to be associated with mysticism, witchcraft, and sorcery. Some of the Muslim chronicles wrote about the temple and described how the temple became popular as a center of sorcery and mysticism. They say, there have been several instances where non-believers disappeared once they enter the temple.
The Western Philosophy of Tantric sex
The West has taken the tantric philosophy in a more refined manner to their bedrooms. Whether this is a fad or faith, is a question best kept under the wraps It is said that the tantric quest needs five activities. They have been called the ‘Pancha Makara’s’ or five requirements. They translate as Wine(madhya),meat (mamsa), fish(matsya), parched grain(mudra) and sexual involvement(maithana). These are the five sacraments of tantrism as preached by Western philosophy. As per Western ideals of tantric sex, the idea of a sexual union is not to procreate. Through the sexual union, one consecrates a goddess. It is said that tantric males during their practice train themselves to control their parasympathetic nervous systems and thus control ejaculatory functions. Similarly female tantric gain control over the pelvic muscles of their sexual organs. Some even recite specific mantras to attain special personal fulfillment.
As per Kathryn Madden “Tantricism is a religion and philosophical movement appearing in India around 400 CE that existed within both Hinduism and Buddhism. In medieval India, Tantricism was a common element of all the major religions. Tantricism focused upon ritual aspects that involve the use of the physical in sacred and worshipful settings to access the supernatural. Tantricism can also be traced to Jainism and Bon, and elements of Tantricism are also evident in Burma, China, Japan, Mongolia, and Tibet. The word ‘Tantricism’ originates from the Sanskrit word ‘Tantra’ which is translated variously as ‘ weave, warp and loom’, offering a sense of bringing together or connecting into a whole. Tantricism is comprised of numerous tests referred to as ‘Tantras’ The primary philosophy and underlying goal of Tantricism is that it promotes spiritual growth and leads to personal freedom.”
The Ambubachi Festival Experience
Guwahati is well connected with the rest of India with a wide array of flight options, railways, and a road network. Regular flights enter and exit Lokapriya Gopinath Bordoloi International (LGBI) Airport in Guwahati. Kamakhya temple is 21 km from Guwahati Airport and public transport is readily available. Guwahati is well connected with the app-based taxi services like UBER or OLA. All you need is a smartphone and the required applications to be available on your devices. There is also a counter for a pre-paid taxi service inside the airport. If you can haggle and bargain, you might get a good deal outside the airport with the local taxis. Assam Tourism runs regular buses from the airport to the city. You just have to look out for those orange-colored buses that read Assam State Transport Corporation.
If you are arriving by the Indian Railways, the main Guwahati station is 10 km from the Kamakhya temple. There is also a station near the temple known as the Kamakhya station, but if you intend to check in to a hotel or a paid accommodation first, getting down at Guwahati Station would be your better option as it is more centrally located.
Accommodation in Guwahati
Guwahati has all sorts of accommodations. From five star hotels to worn down pay by hour hotels, the options are plenty. For those who prefer the luxurious hotels, there is Vivanta by Taj, Novotel, Radisson Blu, The Guwahati Address, Kiranshree Grand, and host of others. If you do some research in Air BnB, you will get very good options on homestays and guest houses as well.
Accessing Kamakhya Temple during the Ambubachi Festival
Kamakhya Temple during the four days of the festival is a restricted zone to commercial and private vehicles. Therefore, the best option is to reach the base of the Nilachal hill, where the temple is located by transportation and then walk up the hill. There are two ways that you can walk up to the temple. One is through the paved road that would take you a little more than an hour and a half and the other one is through the steeper rock-cut steps, which could be an effort for some.
Travel Tips for a visit to the Kamakhya Temple during the Ambubachi Festival
- The festival happens in mid-June and hence expect hot and humid weather in Guwahati. The sun would be at its best during the day, which means it will be very hot.
- It is advisable to wear comfortable clothes and cheap shoes. You are required to remove your shoes before you enter the temple. There is a chance that your shoes might be misplaced owing to the rush, although there are dedicated shoe booths, which issues a token for a small fee. In case you lose, a spare pair of flip-flops or whatever suits you would be nice in your bag.
- Like all other Hindu temples in India, you are expected to dress soberly. There is no set dress code but adequate cover is required.
- Kamakhya temple is known to practice ritualistic animal sacrifices. So if you are not too keen on witnessing one such sight, it would be advisable to avoid the zone near the west side of the pond inside the temple complex.
- Ambubachi Festival attracts all sorts of characters. While the whole idea is devotion and faith, but it is always best to be careful. You should be aware of sweet-talking con artists, ‘avoid food and edibles from strangers, stay away from dubious ‘Godmen’ and not sneak away to areas where the rush is not there.
- The city police and local administration have multiple booths at the site. In case you encounter any unfortunate incident, you should inform them immediately.
- It is best to carry a minimum on your Ambubachi Festival experience to the temple. Cards would be useless so carry cash, particularly in small denominations as per your judgment. However, cards and digital wallets are readily accepted within the city.
- If you are looking for organized trips, hassle-free trips you can get in touch with one of the tour operators in Guwahati. Eventours Travels LLP conducts some fabulous experiences around festivals in Northeast India. You can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- There is a huge rush during the festival at the temple. Visitors are made to go through scanners and this takes up a lot of time. So be prepared to spend some hours for the whole trip. Sometimes it could last up to 8 hours if not more.
- Ambubachi Festival is a photographer’s delight. Ensure that you have plenty of battery back-up in your devices. Internet and phone connectivity is adequate and almost all cell phone data networks are functional and have good connectivity up in the hill.
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