Ambubachi Mela: Women, Power and Worship
It’s difficult to make your way through the bustling crowds at the normally serene Kamakhya temple in Assam during Ambubachi Mela. Maa’s energy is wild and potent, and She is alive in the palpable energy that pulses through the throngs of Her devotees gathered outside Her temple. Almost every square inch of the grounds is covered with crimson-clad devotees who sing, chant, meditate and shout their devotion to the Divine Mother, positioning themselves just outside Her most holy shrine during the time of Her annual menstruation.
Devotees of all varieties from across India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and a few from other countries as well, ascend the Nilachal Hills to be at Maa’s feet during this time. From regular families to black-clad aghoris, from foreign tourists to sadhus and sannyasis, this time of year calls to those who adore the Divine Mother and wish to be close to Her during Her most potent and sacred time. The festival especially draws those from the various Shakta and Shaiva Tantra kulas, generally recognized by the red or black clothes they wear, often with long dreadlocks and typically situated in group encampments outside the temple. Between 100,000 and 150,000 devotees typically reside at the Sri Sri Kamakhya Temple grounds during the four-day festival each year, and between 50,000 and 100,000 visit the temple every day during the festival. Some have claimed that as many as a quarter million people have crowded their way into the temple complex in years past.
She is desire itself, as well as its fulfillment.
During Ambubachi, for three days Mother Earth Herself menstruates, and all the temples in the region are closed to devotees. Inside the Kamakhya temple, Maa is bathed and dressed daily, and given a red silk cloth in consideration of Her menstrual flow, and also given fruit and light worship. Families who live near the temple cover their own shrines and offer fruit and simple worship to Devi, preferring to let Her rest. On the fourth day, the temple doors are opened, and devotees wait for hours to receive Her special darshan. Devotees plead to receive a small piece of rakta bastra, the red silk “blood cloth” upon which Devi sits during Her menses (also called anga bastra). As a talisman or amulet, this piece of cloth is said to be very auspicious and powerfully beneficial if tied onto the body, typically around the arm or wrist.
Kamakhya, or Kameshvari as She is also commonly known, is the Reknowned Goddess of Desire whose shrine is situated in a cave in the heart of the Nilachal Hills in Guwahati, Assam. As the yoni (which means source, vulva and womb) of Mahadevi, She is recognized as not only the form of desire (Kamarupa, Kamarupini), but She is the very source of our desires, and also the One who grants our desires. She is desire itself, as well as its fulfillment.
The Sanskrit term ambuvācī, from which the local Assamese word ambubachi or ambubasi is derived, literally means “the issuing forth of water,” referring to the swelling of the Earth’s waters from the onset of monsoon. Outsiders often mistakenly think that this festival is a celebration of Kamakhya’s menstruation, but in fact it is the menstruation of the entire Mother Earth, and as Kamakhya is the seat of Her yoni, it becomes the focal point for related festivities.
Being the yoni of Devi, and the Goddess here being intimately connected to the matriarchal tribes of these hills for thousands of years, it’s no wonder that this powerful and uniquely female cycle would be celebrated and venerated here. For devotees, especially amongst Tantrics at the temple, Ambubachi is a time of tremendous power and celebration. We believe that Mother Earth cannot be impure, and that this is a time of potency and reflection. It is a time to relinquish selfish desires, to focus totally on Maa and celebrate with joy all that She is, to celebrate the gifts that Mother Earth gives to us – food, shelter, the very foundation of life – by offering Her simple worship, serving Her totally, and not asking for anything for ourselves. Recognizing one’s own selfish nature without judgment is a powerful part of releasing the ego and striving toward oneness with Maa.
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