Home TRUTH + The History Of Maa Kamakhya: A Lesson On Denouncing Menstruation-Based Stigma?

The History Of Maa Kamakhya: A Lesson On Denouncing Menstruation-Based Stigma?

The 75 years of Indian Independence have marked a milestone of joy and hope for Indians with an array of dreams and goals to achieve – however, is this growth and futuristic outlook free of exclusivity and stigmatization? Women in India are still on the lookout for equity and equality in opportunities with an added layer of removing stigmatization which is still part and parcel of daily life in the country. Amidst the various layers of stigmatization that yield its impact on the lives of women, one of the most common forms is based on ‘menstruation’. Menstruation, a characteristic of a woman’s anatomy that occurs in a monthly cycle, has been seen and associated with a sense of pollution to the extent that the ‘bleeding’ is called ‘impure’. Menstruation alone is a crucial factor resulting in 71% dropouts among adolescent girls in India reported a UNICEF study while a report by Dasra, an NGO, in 2019 said 23 million girls drop out annually due to the non-availability of menstrual hygiene facilities.

Bridging the conversation to ancient folklore that manifests itself in the form of a renowned temple in the state of Assam today, Maa Kamakhya, as the state of Assam fondly refers to it, stands as an antithesis to religious idealism of purity and pollution. Situated on the Nilachal hill, the historical timeline of the temple is debated upon the basis of numerous religious texts. One view advocates for the theory that the Koch King Biswa Singha, rebuilt the temple around 1553-54 after it was supposedly destroyed by natural calamities. Afterwards, Kalapahar, a Muslim invader, is believed to have destroyed the temple but numerous scholars refute this theory and relate the cause to some natural calamities. The Koch King Naranarayana, the successor of King Biswa Singha, visited this place with his brother Chilarai, and they supposedly found the temple in complete ruins. Narayana renovated the temple in 1565 A.D and gave royal patronage to the temple.

The great earthquake of 1897 A.D. supposedly caused some damage to the main temple as well as mutilated the domes of some other temples of Maa Kamakhya. Fortunately, the royal court of Kochbihar is said to have donated a hefty amount for the repair of the temple.

However, the tale of Maa Kamakhya is not only limited to that of mythological history and traces of a great kingdom of the revered Ahoms – the Kamakhya temple for many scholars is a modern ideal from an ancient past. The scholar Jawahar Sircar puts it across as a reality check, “While blind veneration of whatever is old is certainly neither logical nor desirable, let us acknowledge that in some respects our ancients were far more modern.” The Kamakhya temple is one without an idol and one that goes beyond taboo – the priests worship the genitalia of Sati which, as the tale goes, fell at the site of the temple making it one of the revered ‘Shaktipeeths’. The practice of idol worship – common to the Hindu religion – is absent in Kamakhya temple as devotees descend a set of stairs in a dark cave below ground level wherein lies a stone or the revered ‘vulva’.

Unlike the practice in India where menstruation is seen as a taboo and the woman is forced into isolation, the state of Assam celebrates the menstruation period in what is called ‘Ambubachi Mela’. “During Ambubachi (July-August), after the first burst of the monsoon, a great ceremony takes place, for the water runs red with iron oxide, and the ritual drink is symbolic of the rajas or ritu of the Devi, her menstrual blood,” writes Ajit Mookerjee in Kali: The Feminine Force. In addition, numerous devotees throng the temple premises in large numbers and await the doors of the temple to be opened on the fourth day of the festival – which raises the question, how modern is the practice of ‘Ambubachi’ or is it the reiteration of the ancient belief of a menstruating woman being impure? 

Maa Kamakhya is kept confined and distant from her devotees for a period of 3-days after which the premises are cleaned and the goddess is bathed – a sign of a return to being in the purist state of being. However, to not take away from the positive angle associated with Maa Kamakhya temple – the idea of accepting menstruation as a human anatomical process and accepting that no individual has any right or requirement to pass their value judgements on the same has the potential to yield a reality of non-stigmatisation.


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