Guwahati, Assam: Feminine Energy in Forest Lands
From Wonder Woman arthouse style to the glorious Kamakhya.
Read Part One of this series here.
There she was! It was super easy to spot my bright yellow top wearing panda girl in tiny Guwahati Airport, which was one giant room with two conveyor belts. I remember the feeling of excitement, happiness and relief that washed over me as Kula waved excitedly.
It is REALLY NICE to be received at the airport.
After some high pitched hellos & hugging, Kula immediately went all tour guide and showed me everything from her school to the site of the latest rain related tragedy. I got a peek into the gravity of a North East monsoon as Kula reported how a child had gotten electrocuted on the way back from school because of the rains, just the other day.
The first thing we did that very evening was watch Wonder Woman in this tiny movie theatre, housed in a building. Quite amusing to watch the season’s blockbuster in an art house venue! I noticed that our company was mostly two kinds of couples — college youth on dates and the ‘silent two male buddies who smoke and stay reserved’ kind. You’ll know this type when you see them. Usually bespectacled and with hands in their pockets.
The small town big city complex has been a central theme in a lot of content coming out of India lately and it made me think…
There was surely someone else in that room of 20 odd people who probably hadn’t even admitted to themselves yet that they wanted to be making movies. You feel small. I grew up in Dubai and even there, in the year 2000, in a multiplex, watching Hollywood flicks with this foreign species that emanates coolness (am I saying white people? o.O), I walked out of the theatre feeling bittersweet like ‘damn that’s so cool and wow my life/I’m soooooo different’. Last year, I realized that’s how kids from under represented communities IN THE UNITED STATES feel. Ten years down the line, no kid is going to understand this inferiority complex of my time. If diversity in media actually happens. But back to the events of the day….
The film was fiiiiine, we discussed AFI a bit. Any semblance of LA was outed with blaring horns the minute we stepped out and here comes the most memorable part of that night: road crossing. The part of town that we were in, perhaps, didn’t have any pedestrian crossings or traffic signals. I learned that it’s usually a traffic policeman in the centre and that setup at 8pm translates to utter chaos. For a minute there, I thought Kula slammed the car approaching us (WITH HER BARE HANDS) to a stop due to a post Wonder Woman rush but turns out that’s the way here…
Assamese people are just too laid back, Kula would often tell me as we went back & forth in rickety rickshaws on the bumpy roads outside her street. Roads so bumpy that we now talk to each other about our facial breakouts like ‘dude it’s worse than Roopnagar Extension’. By the end of the trip though, I could see how it’s different when you have to live in an environment that never changes. For example, it starts with: roads are bad, it’s annoying, well it’s a part of life, better to be ignored, take another route, get by, life goes on. So the reaction of people undergoes constant change. It is recorded and reflected widely in literature and all forms of media. Action however is rare. Merely action therefore is a big effin deal that earns adulation, respect and hyperbolic headlines.
One of the first sightseeing spots we hit up was Kalakshetra — a museum of all the arts & crafts of the North East. Guwahati city is considered a gateway to the North Eastern region of India. It’s the closest big city for all seven, owing to it’s proximity to the rest of India physically and culturally.
We spent hours walking around — some nature, lots of artifacts. The whole time, I kept picking up on similarities to Kerala: a state that is also big on boats, agriculture, forest land and matrilineal communities.
The other notable place I visited was the Kamakhya Temple.
Let me start by saying — I did not take any pictures or videos. You don’t know crowd until you’ve been to a temple in India and two, I don’t usually visit temples with solely archaeological curiosity. Especially because this was my first visit to a Shakti temple, a tantric one, I was all in it for the experience.
In keeping with today’s general vibe of heightened feminism, I’m surprised (well, not really) that this temple hasn’t come up in clickbait. I mean this legend is just throbbing with female, creative energy.
Kamakhya Devi is famous as the bleeding goddess and in the month of Ashaad (June — o hey!), it is believed that she menstruates. At this time, the Brahmaputra river near the Kamakhya Temple actually turns crimson. Skeptics be like it’s vermillion and Iron Oxide but the point is symbolically this temple celebrates menstruation, “the symbol of a woman’s creativity and power to give birth” (... To ideas, I whispered to myself, hehe). Ambubachi is the the event that takes place in June — this year it was on the 22nd — where the temple is closed for 3 days and come day four, the place is swarming with devotees.
My host on this trip was Kula’s mom’s employee/friend, a frisky Ms. Champa Devi who visited this temple every 15 days with her husband. Their son is in the Armed Forces and that helped get us a sort of ‘priority pass’. Yup, temple trips are like music concerts and I do think we need a tripadvisor solely for religious visits where people can discuss types of passes, queue suggestions and tips on collecting prasad (consecrated food)!
We left as early as 5.30am and soon reached the Nilachal Hills, just outside of Guwahati City. Everyone and everything around us was unfazed by the morning drizzle (rain, imho) and there was a brisk pace all around. We speedily walked up close to a hundred steps, lined with stalls and groups of sadhus and in about 20min, got to the main temple area. As we waited in line, I notice a stray goat or two wandering about and figured animal sacrifices were conducted here. It’s not done in large numbers but every once in a while, explained Champa. There was an extremely subtle smell of blood in the air, a whiff of dampness, which to me made complete sense considering this temple housed the yoni of the Goddess.
The story goes back to Lord Siva and his wife, Sati. At her father Daksha’s yajna (roughly translates to grand sacrifical event), Siva was severely insulted to an extent that she couldn’t bear and hence she killed herself. This act made Lord Siva furious. After beheading Daksha, he held Sati’s body on his shoulders and began to perform the Tandavam (dance of destruction). At the request of all the Gods & Goddesses, Lord Vishnu spun his sudarshan chakra and it struck her corpse, which split into 54 parts and formed sites wherever they fell. There’s a list on Wikipedia that can tell you where each body part, in the form of a temple, lies today— it’s spread over mostly modern day India but also parts of Sri Lanka, Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan, Jammu & Kashmir, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The yoni or vulva of the Goddess is the that one landed in Assam a.k.a Kamakhya Mandir.
The temple has a physical deity but the actual yoni is at the bottom of a cave. At the bottom, there’s a water body with floating flower petals. At the centre is where the yoni is. I like how thoughtco describes it as ‘a natural cave with a spring. Down a flight of steps to the bowel of earth, is located a dark, mysterious chamber. Here, draped with a silk sari and covered with flowers, is kept the “matra yoni”.
Other stops were the Maa Bhubaneswari and Bogola Maa temples, which were a little further up. Barely any crowds, more sadhus, even more serene. By this time it was almost noon, and my body slowly reminded me that I hadn’t eaten anything all morning. My favourite thing to eat in Assam was the staple dal bhati nimbu — yellow lentils, rice and finely cut lime. You eat a few helpings of the dal rice and then a bite of the lime and for the first time, the vegan in me found a worthy substitute for curd rice!
The rest of the trip was spent chatting, shopping, snacking, interacting with the many members of the house from the dogs to her naughty little neighbours. We got drenched in the rain a few times and humidity and frizz weirdly made my hair gunky but held curls well! Kaziranga Park had to be forgone because they close during the monsoons. It breaks my heart to know of the animal deaths caused due to the recent floods. I would have liked to venture north, Jorhat specifically, since it is deemed the culture capital. Definitely, next time!
Even the urbanized Guwahati strikes me as a place that’s in constant tussle with forest land. All of the views, make me feel like it’s still a very tight battle between forest land and human habitation. I later got to know that leopards have been spotted in the streets during rainy season! Really though, you can feel it. You can feel the overpowering presence of wild nature, every street, every view out the window. The city and the wild are hopelessly intertwined. And I love it. Sure beats this:
We took a short trip to Shillong that I will cover in the next post! This is part of a series documenting my travels to 12 different places in India through June & July 2017.