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Kamakhya: The Bleeding Goddess

Subheading: A Local Mystery

Menstruation and taboo go hand in hand in the conservative Indian society. The Sabarimala temple protests have sparked a long held debate on whether a menstruating woman should be allowed inside the temple or not. Interestingly, a unique temple in India celebrates the natural biological process of the female body. It is believed that the river near the temple turns red every year as their beloved goddess menstruates. How true is this, though?

The Kamakhya Temple, located in the Kamarupa region of Assam, India, is one of the oldest and most venerated centres of Tantric worship. Its structure dates back to the 8th or 9th century, but it has been rebuilt and reconstructed several times since then, and its hybrid style is known as Nilachal. The temple is devoted to Kamakhya, a mother goddess and Shakti deity who is regarded as the embodiment of desire (Kama) and is therefore revered as the goddess of fertility and desire. She is worshipped in her eponymous temple in the form of a Yoni (vagina) shaped stone, fed by a perennial stream.

A Yogic lore suggests a compelling story regarding the origin of this deity and temple. It is believed that Lord Shiva was married to Sati, the body with the energy of Shakti. When Daksha, Sati’s father, insulted Lord Shiva, she burned herself with her own energy. In rage, Lord Shiva performed Taandav, a dance of destruction, with the burnt corpse of Sati in his arms. Her body withered and parts of it fell in different geographical locations. Thus, every location has one quality of Shakti established there known as ‘Shakti Peetha’. Her Yoni (genitalia) and womb fell in the western part of Guwahati where Kamakhya Temple was constructed and worshipped. It has since then become a very important spot of pilgrimage for all the Tantric worshipers and the fulfilment of desire. According to the temple, the menstruating goddess gives her worshippers the ability of potency. The legend dictates that Shakti did away the curse of Kamadeva - the god of love and lust - and he regained the ability of potency. Thus, the name Kamakhya is assigned to this goddess. The cave does not contain any idol of the deity herself, but rather her Yoni, which has been worshipped and venerated for generations. The various sculptures in the temple indicate motherhood and the ability to conceive. For example, one sculpture portrays a mother breastfeeding a child. The sculptures are smeared in Kumkum (red pigment) which represents blood. Red blood is usually presented as a sign of violence in Hindu religion; however, in this context, it represents fertility and motherhood.

Once in a year, the goddess menstruates for 3 days during the month of Ashaad (June), and the doors of the temple are closed to the public. As a result, the Brahmaputra river near the temple turns red. A white cloth dipped in this ‘blood’ is said to protect the beholder and is viewed as a blessing from the Mother Goddess’s Yoni. However, the phenomenon of the red-hued river begs for a scientific explanation rather than just a religious or mythological one. It is speculated that the temple priests pour vermillion into the waters of the river, although the quantity of powder that would be required makes this theory highly unlikely. This leads us to consider the natural composition of the geographical location itself. According to the Government of Assam, the predominant soil type in the sub-basin of Assam is loamy. This loamy soil is rich in red coloured ferrum or iron which gives the river a natural blood-like red colour. Another reason may be that red algae grows in the month of June, which gives the surface of the river a red tint. The tint may also be the result of a chemical reaction between the minerals that naturally occur in the river which produce a red colour. This reason is also supported by the geographical location of the temple and the river itself. The Neelanchal mountain where the temple is located has rich deposits of Cinnabar. Cinnabar is a bright red mineral consisting of mercury sulphide (HgS), sometimes used as a pigment. These solid pieces of cinnabar rocks are usually sold in the name of Kamiya Sindoor to the worshippers, making it closely associated with the worship of Shakti. However, this leads to a further question which outweighs these potential scientific explanations: why does the river turn red only for 3 days during the month of June when the mountain is rich in Cinnabar throughout the year? Ultimately, the concrete explanation for this red mystery still remains unknown. Although a deeper probe into these reasons may lead to an interesting revelation, Hindu myths are very hard to dismiss as purely illegitimate due their beliefs aligning with natural occurrences.

In a country with immensely archaic attitudes towards menstruation, viewing it as unholy and impure, this temple defies taboos and restrictive traditions. Having a temple which still celebrates biological human processes without letting colonial or Brahmanical hegemonic perspectives disarray them is undoubtedly progressive in its own way.

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