On the fifth day, a pre-hired taxi was at the hotel door to take us to the Siliguri airport. As it had rained the other night, the river Teesta seemed swelling with water. It seemed like a powerful force that would wipe anything in its way. As the river drifted down towards plains, so did we. It is hard to think about nausea overpowering everything when the sight around you is so beautiful. As we sat at the quaint airport waiting for our flight, I imagined how Guwahati, the capital of Assam, our next stop, would be like. After two testing hours, our plane was finally ready for take-off. Unlike the vast plains that were green with trees in Siliguri, Guwahati from above looked like large areas of the trees had been grazed down. The terrain was uneven- some parts of were hilly, some were plains- and the mighty Brahmaputra snaked its way in and around Guwahati. Although we stayed at the outskirts of the city, because it was closer to the airport, and we only had to spend a day, it was noticeable that the Muslim population was dominant here. In the main bazaar, one could spot a masjid every hundred meters. After walking in the city for more than an hour, searching for a good vegetarian restaurant, we finally found one. The food was delicious. But the happiness of finding a good restaurant was short-lived because we had lost our way. The once lively bazaar was now eerily quiet. The personnel stationed everywhere made it gloomier. But as our hopes seemed to be squashed and we bordered on desperation, we found a familiar path. We let out a breath of relief and skipped towards the hotel. The next morning, we woke up at five in the morning. It still filled me with wonder to see that the sun rose so early here.
We were to go to the famous Kamakhya Devi Temple. It is a temple that sits atop the Nilachal hill, an important pilgrimage destination for general Hindu and tantric worshippers. This temple is one of the shakti peeths. The story of the Shakti peeths goes like this; once Sati fought with her husband Shiva to attend her father’s great yagna. At the grand yagna, Sati’s father Daksha insulted her husband. Sati was angered and in her shame, she jumped into the fire and killed herself. When Shiva came to know that his beloved wife had committed suicide, he went insane with rage. He placed Sati’s dead body on his shoulders and did the tandav or dance of destruction. To calm him down, Vishnu cut the dead body with his chakra. The 108 places where Sati’s body parts fell are called Shakti peeths. Kamakhya temple is special because Sati’s womb and vagina fell here. The mythical womb and vagina of Shakti are installed in the ‘Garbhagriha’ or sanctum sanctorium of the temple. The garbhagriha is small, dark and reached by narrow steep stone steps. Inside the cave there is a sheet of stone that slopes downwards from both sides meeting in a yoni-like depression some 10 inches deep. This hallow is constantly filled with water from an underground perennial spring. It is the vulva-shaped depression that is worshiped as the goddess Kamakhya herself. In the month of Ashaad (June), the goddess bleeds or menstruates. At this time, the Brahmaputra River near Kamakhya turns red. The temple then remains closed for 3 days and holy water is distributed among the devotees of Kamakhya devi. There is no scientific proof that the blood actually turns the river red. Some people say that the priests pour vermilion into the waters. But symbolically, menstruation is the symbol of a woman’s creativity and power to give birth. So, the deity and temple of Kamakhya celebrates this ‘shakti’ or power within every woman.
The wait was long and tiring. Hundreds of devotees stood cramped in narrow passages as they waited for their turn to have a glimpse of the shakti peeth. While waiting in one of these queues, I noticed a buffalo tied near the temple calmly chewing cud. I took it to be someone’s property that would collect it later. And then my father informed me that the buffalo was meant for bali, a ritual of sacrificing an animal to present it to the goddess. As we waited for two long hours to get to the sanctum sanctorium of the temple, where the yoni or the vulva of Sati was situated, I noticed people taking kids (goats’ offspring) to sacrifice. In a matter of two hours about fifteen goats were dead. It was like a gothic temple.
Tantrics, long hair matted atop their heads, white paste slathered on their foreheads, red cloth draped across their bodies sitting everywhere; goats being sold to sacrifice; diseased pigeons walking about; the sound of the goat pleading to be left alone and then just eerie silence as its throat was cut. When we finally entered the garbhagriha, it was dark. An offering of flowers, money, vermillion, and goat head sat at a platform. The vulva of the Sati was downstairs. It was dingy and dark and stifling as tens of people gathered to be blessed by the pundits. I was sorely disappointed to see the priests bullying devotees into putting money there. The pundit refused to bless a devotee just because he refused to offer money although he had done that already at the earlier platform. i emerged from the sanctum sanctorum angered by the outrageous attitude of the pundits just in time to watch the sacrifice of the buffalo that had watched so many goats die before it.
The animal writhed and tried unsuccessfully to free itself from the clutches of the priests that held it. They then tied it to an apparatus which pulled the buffalo’s hind legs behind as another apparatus held its head in place. The neck stretched and stretched until the flailing animal started to lose its consciousness. The priest who administered its head signaled to the people who pulled the buffalo’s legs to stop. The other priest who stood beside the neck of the animal quickly washed it with hot water as another readied a curved sword. He mumbled a prayer, lifted the sword above his head, and with remarkable precision separated the head of the buffalo from the body. The priest that stood at the head quickly lifted the head from the horns, swung it on his shoulders and scurried into the temple to offer the sacrifice while it was still fresh. On the other hand devotees- people of all ages eagerly gathered towards the body of the buffalo that was oozing blood. The priest collected it and offered it to the devotees who gathered around and eagerly cupped their hands and put them forward to take the “prasad’’. One feels for an animal when it is still alive, pleading for its life. One is moved to tears. But as its legs are stretched back and it loses its consciousness, the “poor buffalo” becomes an animal. The monstrous cold-blooded priest becomes nobody with a sword-wielding duty. Everything turns into nothingness as your senses zoom into the horrible thing that is happening right before you. The temple left a sick feeling in me and I couldn’t wait to get out. I was glad as we went to watch the mighty Brahmaputra calmly slither beside the city. And thus our stay in Guwahati ended.