Sunday, 6 January 2013

Kamarupa devi, Guwahati (Assam)

Kamarupa devi, Guwahati (Assam)

Because the goddess Kamakhya is worshipped in the symbol of a Yoni, it has often been held that the cult of the Yoni sprang up first in Assam and then spread over the rest of India. But the subject has not been discussed more closely and it has not been shown that the sensual tantric forms of Yoni worship owe their origin to Kamakhya worship. This article purports to be a short examination of the myths that clustered around the origin of the Yoni-goddess in Assam, with notices of such parallel beliefs and practices outside of Assam as may enlarge the scope of the future discussion of the topic. The two principal Sanskrit works that bear upon the subject are the Kalika Purana and the Yogini Tantra, both composed in or near about ancient Assam. As frequent references have been made to them in the body of the text, the abbreviations K.P. and Y. T. have been adopted.

The shrine of the goddess Kamakhya is situated about three miles from the present town of Gauhati and about fifty miles from the range of hills inhabited by two aboriginal matriarchal tribes, the Khasis and the Garos, the former belonging to the Austro-Asiatic and the latter to the Mongolian stock.

The name of the hillock where the shrine stands is Nilachala (blue mountain). According to the K.P. the genital organ of Sati fell here when her dead body was carried hither and thither in frantic sorrow by her husband Siva. The mountain represented the body of Siva and when Sati’s genital organ fell on it, the mountain turned blue. The goddess herself is called Kamakhya, because she came there secretly to satisfy her amour (kama) with him. Thus the derivations of the K.P. make the mountain both a graveyard and a scene of the secret love-tryst of the goddess.

Variety of Names

Other variants of the name are Kama, Kamada, etc. The element-akhya often appears as a phonastic derivative after other less known names of the goddess, e.g. Sivakhya, Nadakhya, Brahmakhya, etc.–(Kurma Purana). Thus the goddess might be called either Kama or Kamakhya.

The temple is unique among the temples of the Devi in different parts of India, in that it enshrines no image of the goddess. Within the temple there is a cave, in a corner of which stands a block of stone on which the symbol of Yoni has been sculptured. The stone is kept moist from the oozings of a natural spring within the cave. The offerings of flowers and leaves are made to the Yoni. In other respects the daily rites and ceremonies are those of the goddess Kali with sacrifices of various animals. Ordinarily, the females of all animals are exempted from sacrifice.

If the K.P. gives an amorous interpretation of the origin of the Yoni-goddess, the Y. T. takes no notice of the myth and gives a different account, stressing the creative symbolism of the Yoni. In answer to a query by the Devi as to who Kamakhya was, Siva replies that Kamakhya is the same as Kali, the eternal in the form of Brahma. Then Siva tells the story about the origin of Kamakhya.

In primeval times, Brahma after having created the universe arrogated to himself the supreme creative force. The goddess noticed this arrogance of Brahma and created out of her own body a demon named Kesi. As soon as born, the demon rushed towards Brahma to swallow him up. Brahma fled in terror in the company of Vishnu. The demon then built a city called Kesipura and began to harass the three worlds. There was all around the echo of a sound, “Kill Brahma”. Brahma cast aside his vanity and in the company of Vishnu offered a hymn of propitiation to Kali for the relief of the worlds from the tyranny of Kesi. The goddess was satisfied and confessed that the demon was her creation for the punishment of Brahma for his arrogant ignorance. She then uttered the syllable of destruction (hum) and burnt up the demon to ashes. Then she gave directions to Brahma for his deliverance from the sin of arrogance and ignorance. Brahma was to create a mountain out of the ashes of the burnt demon. The mountain should not be too high nor too low. It should be covered over with edible grasses for cattle. Brahma’s sin would be diminished in proportion to the quantity of grasses consumed by the cattle. She went on further to say that on the Spot wherefrom they had offered her prayers for the destruction of the demon there was springing up, in their very presence, a Yoni circle out of her own creative energy and it should be regarded as the source and origin of all things. In future Brahma should create after having contemplated the Yoni. But just then Brahma was debarred from seeing the Yoni until, by his penance and purification, he had brought down a luminous light from the sky and placed it on the Yoni circle. For his good as well as for the good of the world, she had created the Yoni circle and placed it in Kamarupa. Brahma accordingly created a mountain by sprinkling holy water from his jug and called it Govardhana (cattle nourisher) and also planted a Tulasi grove and called it Vrinda-Vana according to goddess Kali’s direction (Y. T.).

The noticeable points in this myth are: (a) Kamakhya was a new goddess, unknown to the Devi herself. Siva established the identity of Kali and Kamakhya in the symbol of a Yoni; (b) the supreme creative force of Brahma is challenged. He could thenceforth create only with the blessings of the Yoni as the sole creative principle; (c) in both the accounts of the K.P. and the Y.T. there is mention of a burial or cremation ground.

Thus the two scriptures put divergent interpretations about the Yoni circle as a symbol of sex and as a symbol of creation. These may embody the views of two different sets of people in different periods of time.

The K. P. harmonises the amorous conception of the goddess with the dread goddess Kali by presenting the picture of a goddess in three-fold aspects which she assumed in different moods. In her amorous mood, the goddess holds a yellow garland in her hand and stands on a red lotus placed on a white corpse. When her amour is gone, she takes up the sword and stands on a bare white corpse. In her mood of benevolence (Kamada), she mounts upon a lion. So she assumes one form or another according to her whims (Kamarupini).

The TempleThe original Kamakhya temple was destroyed during the Moslem invasion early in the sixteenth century, and the present temple was rebuilt in 1565 A.D. by King Naranarayana of Cooch Behar and fitted with all the paraphernalia of a medieval Hindu temple. What the original forms and features of the temple worship were, it is difficult to say. There is a tradition amongst the local priesthood, who were imported from abroad by the Koch king, that the former worshippers of the goddess were Garos, and pigs were offered as sacrifice.

When Naraka, an adventurer from Mithila, founded a kingdom in ancient Assam (prior to the fifth century), he established himself as a custodian of this Yoni-goddess, and perhaps in conformity to her name he changed the name of the kingdom from Prag.Jyotishapura to Kamarupa. The people whom he conquered were Kiratas–strong, ferocious, ignorant and addicted to meat and drink. They had shaven heads and their skin was yellow as gold (K.P.). As they were the original inhabitants, the goddess might have been in their keeping or belonged to some sub-tribe amongst them.

According to the K.P. a cosmopolitan mode of worship prevailed in Kamakhya. Foreigners could worship the goddess according to the practices current in their own localities. In other countries, conformity to local customs was compulsory, but in Kamarupa foreigners were exempted from conformity to local rites and ceremonies in worshipping the goddess (K.P.). The Y.T. raises the Yoni-symbol to the height of something like a pantheistic conception in describing all temples and places of worship in Assam as so many Yonis. It characterises Kamarupa as a land of nine Yonis which include vithi (avenue); upa-vithi (sub-avenue); Pitha (holy site), etc., etc.

The Y. T. has also recorded certain local customs prevalent in different parts of ancient Assam. It characterises the local religion as being of Kirata origin. It prohibits asceticism, celibacy and protracted vows, and enjoins fish and flesh eating, free association with women and sexual contact after puberty. The teeth of the women are not white, and they are constantly addicted to betel-nut chewing. In a place called Saumara in the east of Assam, people eat everything and sell everything. Women are well cantented. In another place called Kolvapitha further east, people follow laws determined by their own tribesmen (Y.T.).

In the myth of the Y. T. there is nothing to show that the Yoni circle or Kamakhya had any connection with Durga or Parvati. The etymology of K.P. refers to a later fable based on imported ideas.

Goddesses Kamakhya and Durga

Competent authorities have held that the existence of an independent powerful goddess has been recognised first in the Mahabharata and the Hari vansa. In the Virata Parva (6) a powerful goddess, Durga, receives a pray of supplication from Yudhisthira and in the Bhishma Parva (23) from Arjuna. She was addressed as the killer of the buffalo-demon, a dweller in the forest and as a permanent resident in the Vindhya mountains. She was fond wine, flesh and beasts. She was the favourite of Narayana and sister of Vasudeva. She was born to Yasoda, was dashed against a stone by Kansa, and went to heaven. In the Harivansa she is referred to as having been worshipped by barbarians, Sabaras and Pulindas. All these scattered references seem to have been gathered up first in the Markandeya Purana which builds up a complete myth about the origin of the goddess and her fight with the buffalo-demon and other demons. The seven centuries about Durga (Durga Saptasati) form the basis of the worship of the goddess amongst her followers.

Once her existence was recognised and her worship formulated, all local and independent female deities began to be identified with her as her local manifestations. Thus Uma, Kali, Karala, Chamundi, originally independent goddesses, came to be regarded as manifestations of Durga in different circumstances. The process of assimilation went on until, in the Devi Bhagavtai, it came to be declared that all village goddesses should be regarded as partial manifestations of the Devi (9). Thus the concept of the Mother Goddess assumed a cosmic proportion and all unconnected and independent loc nomena were affiliated to her. The myth about the carrying of Sati’s dead body was an attempt in this direction. But the story differs in different documents in point of details. Places that came into prominence later in point of time have been left out of reference in the story of Sati’s dead body. Thus the Devi Bhagavata refers to Kamakhya as a place dear to the goddess. No part of her body is said to have fallen there. When Kamakhya rose to importance, the Kalika Purana rehandles the myth and makes the sex-organ of the goddess fall here. Since then Kamakhya came to be looked upon as a vital organ of the Devi’s body.

It has now been held as almost conclusive that the cult of the Mother goddess was introduced into India by Aryans, who seem to have adopted it from the Babylonians when they still inhabited the countries in the neighbourhood of Mesopotamia. In Babylon she was known as Ishtar. She is called the gracious mother of creation and the mother of the gods and mankind. She became also terrible in her wrath and struck down the people with wasting diseases. Her sacred mount was the lion and her most favourite sacrificial animal was the buffalo. In other respects also, the resemblance between Ishtar and Durga is so striking that it cannot be disregarded as superficial (Dr. Venkataramanayya: Rudra-Siva). The Kurma Purana gives Sinivali as one of the thousand names of the Devi. It has now been shown that the word is connected with Babylonian Sinn, the moon god.

As the innumerable names of the goddess are mostly names of local goddesses, both Aryan and non-Aryan, it may be suspected that the formation Kama in Kamakhya is of extra-Aryan origin. There is a strong suggestion of its correspondence to Austric formations like the following: Kamoi, demon; Kamoit, devil; Kamin, grave; Kamet, corpse (Khasi); Kamru, a god of the Santals. By analogy the name of the kingdom Kamarupa may be equated to Kamru pau, a hill.

The formations in the Kamoi category suggest varied associations with the grave and its spirits. The Kama goddess might have been originally a spirit of the graveyard and represent ancestor spirit in the form of an Ancestral Mother. Whether Kama has any relationship, both in sound and meaning, with Japanese Shinto gods called Kami cannot be determined for want of sufficient information. Shinto Kami is a wide term and includes nature-gods, godmen, ancestors.
Japanese Parallels

In connection with the Kami-gods, another noteworthy point is that simple Shinto temples contain no images but only symbols like a mirror, symbolic of the shining of the sun-goddess. The Kamakhya temple also contains no image, but a symbol, a Yoni, representing the procreative force of the Mother Goddess. The Yoni-symbol is regarded as a source of potent magic influence in Japan. “The richly attired Japanese make a point of Placing cowry-shells with their clothes, when they put them away, for luck. If a cowry-shell happens to be unobtainable, a pornographic picture representing the female genital organ serves as a substitute.” (Briffault: The Mothers). Again, “near Yeddo in Japan is a grotto in which there is a colossal but realistic sculpture of a Yoni to which pilgrims pay attention now as they have done for ages past. (Wall: Sex and Sex Worship). Further, “the Japanese believe that the spirits of mothers look from the other world after the welfare of the children.” (Briffault).

Another common custom is the blackening of teeth by women. The non-white teeth of Assamese women have been referred to above. It has to be added that Assamese women even now blacken their teeth in the countryside. In Japan the fashion of blackening the teeth is still common in some parts among peasant women and was practised by the Emperor himself until recently. This is a mark of the decidedly matriarchal legend of the origin of the Imperial family traced back to goddess Amaterasu (Ehrenfels: The Mother-Right in India). In the Malay Archipelago also women blacken their teeth. (Westermarck: The History of Human Marriage).

Feminine Predominance

In this connection reference may also be made to the legends and facts of female predominance. There is a belief amongst the Naga tribes of Assam that a village in the north-east is entirely peopled by women who are visited by traders from surrounding tribes and thus enabled to keep up their numbers. (The Imperial Gazetteer of India: Provincial Series: Eastern Bengal and Assam). With reference to Japan it has been said that it is a remarkable and unexampled fact that a very large and important part of the best literature produced by Japan was written by women...feminine chieftains are frequently mentioned in the old histories and several even of the Mikado were women. Indeed the Chinese seemed to have thought that the monstrous regime of women was the rule in Japan at this time. At least they styled it–“The Queen Country” (Aston: Japanese Literature).

In connection with the ethnic affiliations of the Japanese people, The Encyclopaedia Britannica (14th edition) has the following: “Recent discussions tend to emphasise the importance of a Malayo-Polynesian element in the Japanese language and customs. Malayan types also are found amongst the people.”

On the basis then of similarities in mere sound and sense in the formations, Skt. Kama, Austric Kamoi, Shinto Kami, and also on the basis of correspondence of certain rites and customs, it may be tentatively assumed that the Yoni-goddess sprang up amongst peoples with leanings towards ancestor worship and believing in the protective powers of an Ancestral Mother, and that she migrated into Assam and elsewhere with the migrations of the Austric peoples. There are two contradictory theories about the migrations of the Austric peoples, from the East to the West and from the West to the East. But from whichever direction they might have migrated, linguistic evidences show that Indo-China was one of their strongholds in North-East Asia, with their representatives in the Khasis within about fifty miles of the temple of Kamakhya.

To sum up: the features that are associated with the Worship of the goddess are the absence of an image, worship in a symbol, and freedom about the mode of worship to foreigners. The religion of the land has been frankly admitted to be of Kirata origin. Fish and flesh eating has been canonically enjoined, and celibacy and connected vows prohibited. The goddess was of purely local origin, but later on she was identified with goddess Durga and the rites and ceremonies of Durga worship were fastened on her. There was a further attempt to affiliate her to Tripura Bala, the eternal feminine, the symbol of beauty and sex. The Worship of Tripura Bala is highly sensual, involving the worship of the sex organ of a virgin girl. This cult did not originate in Kamarupa but was imported from outside. Because goddess Kamakhya was worshipped in the symbol of a Yoni, the Tripura cult found a congenial soil here.


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