Quietly snuggled atop the Nilachal Hill, on the western flank of the Guwahati city, is the temple of Goddess Kamakhya, haloed with an air of mysticism that resonates from the past. The history of the Temple is intimately connected to the land. Historians believe the present name of Kamrup has been derived from the very Temple of Kamakhya. The Kamakhya Temple is a familiar landmark of Assam, so much so, that the name of the Temple has become synonymous with the State itself. The Temple overlooks the ever-burgeoning city, and the mighty Brahmaputra meanders along its northern side.
The uniqueness of the Temple, amidst all the other Hindu places of worship in India, is that it enshrines no image or idol of the Goddess Kamakhya. But, in the corner of a cave inside the shrine, we find the symbol of a yoni (female genital organ). It is moistened by a natural spring that flows from the cleft in the bedrock of the cave, which resembles a yoni. It may be mentioned that worshipping the yoni is a religious belief across nations. For instance, the symbol of the yoni is also regarded as a source of 'potent magical influence' in Japan. In a small cave near Yeddo in Japan, there is a huge sculpture of the yoni which is still worshipped.
The origin of Kamakhya Temple dates back to antiquity. It is the oldest living shrine of Kamarupa (ancient Assam) and is closely connected to different stages of the history of the land. According to a legend found in the Kalika Parana (a Hindu religious text), at the beginning of time, the great Gods of the Hindu Trinity, Brahma and Visnu, were engaged in the creation of the Universe, but Mahesh (Siva) on the other hand, was engaged in deep meditation. And without his (Mahesh's) active co-operation, the Universe could not be created. So Brahma requested his human son Daksha, the chief of the Prajapatis to propitiate Mahamaya, the Universal Mother, to be born as Daksha's daughter and ensure the continuation of life by becoming Siva's consort eventually'. After long years of austere meditation, Daksha's devotion bore fruit and Mahamaya appeared before him. She promised to take birth as his daughter and marry Siva but warned him that if she was not given due respect she would give up her life.
In due course, Mahamaya was born as Sati in the womb of Daksha's wife Birini. Sati won Siva's love through her deep devotion and became his wife with her father's consent. However, Daksha felt slighted when Siva failed to treat him with due respect. So he held a great yajna (sacrifice) to which he invited all the important beings of the Tribhuvan (Three Worlds, namely Heaven, Earth and Hell), except his son-in-law Siva and his daughter Sati. When the sage Narada told Sati about the yajna, she expressed her desire to attend the sacrifice. But when Siva forbade her to go, she flew into a great rage and transformed herself into Shyama or Kali. When Mahadev (Siva) sought to escape her wrath, she assumed ten different forms, the Dasamahavidya, and surrounded him. A helpless Siva finally allowed her to go to Daksha's yajna.
Once she arrived at the sacrificial ground, she questioned her father Daksha's behaviour. An enraged Daksha insulted Siva. A humiliated Sati conjured up a fire by her jogic powers and consigned herself to its flames. Upon receiving the news of Sati's demise, an enraged Siva changed himself into the fierce Rudra. He came to the yajna with Virabhadra and other Ganas, destroyed the sacrificial ground, and beheaded Daksha. But following the fervent plea of Daksha's wife, he restored him to life by joining the head of the sacrificial goat upon his body. Driven insane with grief, he placed the dead body of Sati upon his shoulders and roamed the Three Worlds. An alarmed Brahma and other Devas (divine beings) approached Visnu, the preserver, to restore the balance of the world. So Visnu sent his Sudarsan Chakra (discus) which cut Sati's body to pieces. Wherever the pieces of her mutilated body fell, it came to be regarded as a Sakti peetha with immense sacred relevance. Her, yoni (genitals) fell on the Nilachal Hill. This hill was said to represent the body of Lord Siva himself, and when Sati's genitals fell on it, the mountain turned blue and came to be known as the Nilachal or the Blue hill (nila meaning blue; achal meaning mountain). The same text also states that the Goddess is called Kamakhya as she secretly comes to the hill to satisfy her kama (lust). On the other hand, the 108 peethas (sacred spots) associated with Sati's body as found in the Devi Bhagavata, does not include Kamakhya in the list. But Kamakhya finds mention in a supplementary list that records the names of places held to be dear to the Devi (Goddess). Kamakhya is described there as a yoni circle presided over by Mahamaya where the Goddess menstruates every month.
In the Yogini Tantra (a text on tantric worship), we find a different version of the origin of the Yoni-Goddess of Nilachal, stressing upon its creative energy. In the course of a conversation, Parvati (Sati reborn as the daughter of the Himalaya Mountains) asks her spouse Siva, 'Who is Kamakhya?', and Siva replies Kamakhya is the same as Kali, the eternal in the form of Brahma who fulfils all desires. Siva then narrates the origin of Kamakhya. In primeval times, Brahma after having created the universe became arrogant, seeking to become the supreme creative force. To deal with his arrogance, the Mother Goddess Kali created a demon called Kesi from her own body. Kesi attacked Brahma who fled for refuge to Visnu the preserver. Kesi then built the city of Kesipura and harassed the denizens of the Three Worlds. All around the universe, the chants of 'Kill Brahma' reverberated. Brahma then shed his vanity and along with Visnu propitiated Kali who, after being satisfied that Brahma's arrogance had ended, reduced the demon Kesi to ashes by uttering the single syllable 'hum'. She then directed Brahma to fashion a hill from the mountain of ashes and cover it with grass for cattle to graze on. Brahma's sin of arrogance would lessen when the cattle fed upon the grass. She then said that the seat from where Brahma and Visnu had propitiated, a Yoni circle out of her own creative- energy existed, which should be regarded as the source and origin of all life. Brahma should create only after having meditated upon the Yoni. This Yoni circle was located in Kamarupa.
Pauranic (of the Puranas) literature on the other hand refers to the Goddess on the Nilachal as a primordial Goddess, associated with the fertility cult. The region of the Nilachal was originally inhabited by the Austric people who were animists, worshipping nature and natural objects like mountains and stone as the divine. With the gradual inroads of Vedic Brahmanical religion, local Goddesses like Kamakhya, were assimilated into the Brahmannical fold and a Pauranic origin was assigned to them. According to the oral tradition, as well as the Visnu Purana and Kalika Purana, it was Naraka who initiated the worship of the Goddess Kamakhya who dwelt on the Nilachal hill in Assam and built the original Kamakhya Temple.
Naraka is a prominent figure in the pre-historic period of Assam. In the Ramayana, he is the lord of Pragjyotispura, (as Assam was then known) and a friend of the demon king Ravana. In the Mahabharata, he is called a Danava, the son of Danu. His son Bhagadatta's daughter Bhanumati marries the Kaurava prince Duryodhana and fights on the Kaurava side in the Kurukshetra War. Bhagadatta is a Sailalaya trya (mountain dweller), Parvatapatih (lord of the mountains), and his hordes consist of the Kirata (Mongoloid people) Cina (Tibetans) and Sagaranupavasin (dwellers of the sea coast). His soldiers are described as 'golden skinned'. But by the time of the composition of the Purana literature, they had been assimilated into the Vedic-Brahmannical fold and assigned a divine origin. The Puranas depict Naraka as the son of Varaha Visnu (the Boar incarnation of the Vedic God Visnu) and Bhumidevi (Mother Earth). The Kalika Purana and Upa-Purana, believed to be composed in Assam itself, further develops this story.
Naraka was conceived by Mother Earth during the Boar Incarnation of the Great God Visnu, but was born aeons later during Visnu's incarnation as Krisna. He grows up in the court of King Janaka of Mithila (modern Indian state of Bihar) and when he is sixteen years old, his mother in the form of the Goddess Katyayani, brings him to the notice of his father Krisna, the lord of Dwarka. Krisna brings Naraka to Pragjyotispura (Assam) where the latter kills Ghataka, the Kirata Chieftain, and drives his followers beyond the Dikkaravasini. Thereupon, Krisna places Naraka upon the throne of Pragjyotispura and enjoins him to worship the Goddess Kamakhya who dwells on the Nilachal.
Blessed by the Goddess Kamakhya, Naraka becomes very powerful. Gradually, he comes under the influence of his friend King Bana of Sonitpur (present Tezpur), a staunch Saivite, and develops Asura (demonic) qualities. Meanwhile, the sage Vasistha comes to Kamarupa to worship at the shrine of Kamakhya. But an arrogant Naraka denies the sage access to the Goddess. This arrogant behaviour of Naraka angers sage Vasistha who curses him, and says that the Goddess Kamakhya would henceforth be worshipped according to the Vamachara (left-handed) mode of worship. She would disappear from his kingdom and without her protection he would soon meet his end. He even vows to remain in Kamarupa itself till Naraka meets his end and establishes an Ashram at Sandhyachala. Naraka then attacks Indra, King of the Devas (divine beings), robs the ear-rings of Aditi, the mother of the Devas, robs the umbrella of the God Varuna, and kidnaps 16,100 heavenly women whom he imprisons in his capital city at Guwahati. Driven with arrogance derived from power, Naraka asks the Goddess Kamakhya to marry him. Kamakhya promises to be his wife but sets a condition. She wants Naraka to construct, within a single night, a temple for her on the Nilachal and build a stairway leading up to it.
Naraka almost completes the task within the stipulated time when the Goddess causes a cock to crow, heralding daybreak. An angry Naraka kills the cock (kukura) and the place is today known as Kukurakota. To punish Naraka for his evil deeds, Krisna comes to Assam and kills him. Sage Vasistha's curse also comes into effect and the gateway of the Kamakhya Temple fall down. The earth opens up and the temple disappears underground. The river Brahmaputra changes its course and floods all the sacred, Tirthas (holy places) such as Urvasi. This event, graphically recorded in the Yogini Tantra, a sixteenth century text; appears to be the description of an actual earthquake, the intensity of which shifted the bed of the Brahmaputra and caused the temple to tumble down.
The present day Kamakhya Temple was built by the Koch ruler Naranarayana (Malladev) and his brother Chilarai (Sukladhvaj), according to an inscription in the Temple. However, the Darrang Raj Vamsavali, a chronicle of the Koch royal family, records the reconstruction of only the Sikhara (dome) of the Kamakhya Temple in 1565 C.E. by the architect Meghamukdam. It states that he tried to rebuild the dome twice with the original stone blocks that had fallen down, but failed. As a result, he built it in the shape of a beehive with bricks. The King also issued copper plates endowing land and the service of different paiks (servitors) to the Kamakhya Temple. These paiks consisted of Brahmans, Daivajna (astrologers), flower suppliers, garland makers, washer-men, cleaners, carpenters, oil pressers, sweetmeat makers, leather workers, cobblers, dancers, ballad singers, weavers, goldsmiths, potters, fishermen and others. Thousands of animals were also sacrificed during the worship of the goddess.
Within the temple premises, we can also find two full size representational statues of Malladeva and Sukladhvaj. According to a folk legend, the Goddess Kamakhya, assuming the form of a beautiful woman, used to dance within the closed doors of the Temple at the time of the evening prayers. The Koch king Malladeva and his brother Sukladhvaj desired to see the dancing Goddess and as suggested by the chief priest Kendu Kalai, they peeped through a hole in the wall. She, however, got offended by the intrusion and tore off the head of the priest and turned the King and his brother to stone. According to another version, the King and his future descendants were henceforth, forbidden 'to cast a look even at her very hill' the Nilachal or they would die. Even today, descendants of the Koch royal family pass by the hill under the cover of umbrellas.
The Garbhagriha (sanctum sanctorum) of the Kamakhya Temple dates back to the seventh century, while the Sikhara (dome of the sanctum) is dateable to the sixteenth century. The semicircular Natyamandir (dancing hall) was constructed by the Ahom monarch Rajeswar Simha in the eighteenth century. During the reign of the Ahom king Rudra Simha Krisnaram Nyayavagis, a Sakta Brahman from Nabadwip in Bengal was installed on the Nilachal as the chief priest of the Kamakhya Temple. He came to be called the Parbatiya Gosain. One of his descendants, known as the Nati-Gosain, was instrumental in the construction of the temple of the Na-Math Kali Mandir, adjacent to the Kamakhya Temple. This temple was embellished by terracotta tiles and decorative blocks and strongly resembles the temples of Bengal. An inscription of Gaurinath Simha, fixed to the inner wall of the temple premises, bears testimony to the sacrifice of one lakh animals by the Bhitarual Phukan. The Kamakhya Temple is a living shrine and even today hordes of pilgrims pay homage to the Goddess on the Nilachal.
During the annual Ambubachi Mela, the Temple precincts are closed to the worshippers as it is believed that the Goddess, along with the Earth, goes through her menstrual cycle. During this festival held in the month of June (the seventh day of Ahar according to the Hindu lunar calendar), during the height of the rainy season, the red haematite present in the soil mixes with the water of the natural spring that moistens the yoni, leading credence to the commonly held belief of a menstruating Goddess.
The Nilachal is also the abode of the Dasamahavidya or ten forms of the Goddess Uma. According to the Brihaddharma Purana, when Uma (Sati) wanted to attend her father Daksha's yajna (sacrifice) and Siva forbade her, the ten different forms, the Dasamahavidya, came out of the third eye of Sati to frighten Siva into granting consent. These different forms of the Mother Goddess, namely Kali, Tara, Mahavidya, Sodasi, Bhubanesvari, Bhairavi, Chinnamasta, Sundari, Bagalamukhi and Dhumavati are enshrined in different temples dedicated to her on the Nilachal. They contain no image and are known as Sakti peethas. The object of worship consist of a stone each moistened by a natural spring. According to the Pithanirnaya, the names of the Bhairavas associated with the Goddess Kamakhya are Umananda, Sivananda, Ramananda and Ravananda. The Nilachal Hill also has a number of temples dedicated to the different forms of Kamakhya's consort Siva. They are the Ghantakarna, Kedar Kshetra, Amratakesava, Kamesvara, Siddhesvara, and Kamalesvara. In the middle of the Brahmaputra river that flows beside the Nilachal, on the island of Bhasmachala (Ash Hill), are the shrine of Umananda, Haragauri and Chandrasekhara. All of them enshrine the aniconic form of the God, i.e. the linga or male genital organ. The adjacent islands of Urvasi and Karmanasa also bear the remains of Saivaite shrines, the latter being the abode of jalpesvara Siva.
The practice of Tantrik rites is also prevalent on the Nilachal Hill. Before the advent of Neo-Vaisnavism in Assam, Tantricism flourished in the area during the reign of the Pala dynasty. Secret esoteric rites were practiced in the shadow of the night, upon the hill by a sect known locally as the rati khowa sampraday. To attain heavenly bliss, they indulged in orgies, relating to the practice of the five 'Ma', namely; the eating of matsya and mamsa (fish and meat), drinking of madira (alcohol), indulging in maithuna or sexual intercourse, and mudra or hand gestures.
Thus, the abode of Kamakhya, at the Nilachal, became the centre of worship of the Mother Goddess in ancient Assam, a tradition that continues even today. The Temple received continuous royal patronage from pre-historic times up to the advent of the British. Along with the Goddess, her consort Siva was also worshipped. In spite of the influence of Neo-Vaisnavism in the society of Assam, the worship of different forms of the Mother Goddess and her consort Siva has remained popular till today. The Temple sees a regular inflow of tourists every year from India and abroad. The Kamakhya Temple has gained a worldwide repute due to its rich historical relevance and uniqueness and has evolved into one of the most revered pilgrimage sites of the nation in the present times.
Kamarupa and Kamakhya: The Land and a Deity by Dr. Paromita Das