June 22, 2009
BY NANDA KIRATI DEWAN
GUWAHATI: Tens of thousands of devotees from different parts of the country will converge in the Kamakhya temple for the three-day Ambubachi Mela, which starts here on Monday. Ambubachi Mela is a celebration of the yearly menstruation of Prithvi (Mother Earth), held in June/July (during the monsoon season). Ambubachi, in fact, is not a festival. It is a ritual of austerities. But a big fair is held at Kamakhya in connection with it. Mother Prithvi is supposed to be menstruating during these days of Ambubachi; so, she remains impure during this period.
In Sanskrit, Ambu is water and bachi may mean to express or to blossom. In Kamrup district, Ambubachi is popularly known as Amati and in the eastern districts as Saat (seven). Amati may be a corruption of Ambubachi and the word Saat, seven, may be popularly used because the period generally starts on the seventh day of the month of Asadha.
After about six days of Asadha, when the sun enters Gemini, the Earth attains the state of menstruation (bhavet prithvi rajasvala), a state which continues for about 48 hours. During this period, the cultivator will not till his land, for tearing of the earth in any way is not allowed. No puja is to be performed. Widows and menstruating women generally observe a fast and often do not come down from their bedsteads – they are not to come in contact with the earth. Many villagers will not open their boxes. Not that it is possible for all and sundry to keep away from regular chores, including work in the fields, but those who observe austerities, like brahmacharis and widows, will not eat cooked food; they will live on fruits and milk during these days. It is believed that taking of milk during Ambubachi protects the drinker from snake bites. Village people believe that during this period, even ants, earthworms and pigs do not furrow the ground. After this period is over, every house is cleaned and all clothes washed just as a woman cleanses herself after a menstruation cycle. The period generally starts on the seventh day of Asadha. It is noteworthy that at this time of the year, there is always heavy and continuous rainfall in the eastern region of India. Mother Earth usually experiences a submerged state because of the rains. Many crops and fruits begin to grow at this time. For a few days, there may be no need to attend to them; also there may be no way to do so either in the face of torrential rains. It might originally have been an agriculture ritual. For even now, in some places of Assam, seeds are put in an earthen pot filled with water; when the seeds germinate, the pot is taken after Ambubachi to a river and allowed to float away.
At Kamakhya, the temple remains closed during these days; no devotee is allowed to enter. But the mela attracts thousands of people. Brisk business in all sorts of petty things is done. Children go about blowing cheap pipes. Amplified music rends the air. Mangoes from Bengal and Bihar are a specialty. Bengalis constitute the largest number of visitors. There will be iced sharbat (beverage) to beat the heat. Heaps of garlands made of various flowers are on sale. They are needed when the doors of the temple are thrown open after three days. Young kumaris will approach devotees of the Devi with thalis for a few coins; one cannot refuse them, for Kumari puja is an important rite in Kamakhya. On the fourth day, pilgrims enter the temple and offer puja; they are given pieces of red cloth in return, to carry home as sacred symbols. The red is the most accepted colour – red flowers, red vermilion, red cloth, etc. The red colour is not without significance; it synchronizes with the nature of the ritual. It symbolises passion and erotic excitement, and the menstrual flow with which the ritual is associated. On the occasion of the Ambubachi, the bits of cloth, red, it is said, with the deity’s menstrual blood, are presented to the devotees as sacred symbols.
However, the major attraction during the mela are the sadhus and seers who exhibit their psychic powers by doing different unbelievable stunts. Some show their skills by standing on one leg for hours, whereas some others bury their head in a pit and stand upright. Mystics who gather at the temple claim they can perform wonders – make a childless couple conceive, find a distressed loner a spouse, or even cast an evil spell on others. The Kamakhya temple becomes a different world altogether – a paranormal world, where most of the sadhus are capable of doing miracles during this time. One Bhola baba is a much sought after sadhu as he is believed to bless childless couples to conceive.
Whatever may be the beliefs and rituals performed in the Kamakhya temple during the Ambubachi Mela, it is an opportunity for each one of us to feel and see mysticism and tantricism, which we, the general people, call magic.