In the Guwahati region of Assam, there is a hillock known as Kamarupa. Atop the hill a spring trickles out of a rock fissure which has a natural pink tint. The fissure very much resembles a vagina (henceforth referred to as Yoni). During monsoon, the time of peak fertility, the spring assumes a reddish hue. Karmarupa is of utmost sacredness to Tantrics, Bauls and Shaktas (worshippers of the great Goddess or Devi). It is here that the Devi’s Yoni fell to earth and became worshipped as Kamakhya Devi. The veneration of the Yoni as a spiritual path through puja and maithuna (ritual sexual union) is elaborated upon in texts such as the Yonitantra, Yoginitantra, Kalika Purana, Brhadyonitantra and Samayacaratantra. In the latter work each Yuga is associated with a portion of the Devi and a particular pith or seat of worship. In the Krta-Yuga, the whole body is worshipped at Purnagiri. In Treta-yuga the head is worshipped at Odiyana. In Dvapara-yuga, it is the breasts that are worshipped at Jalandhara and in this, the Kali-yuga, it is the Yoni that is revered at Kamarupa Shakti Pith. The Devi Bhagavata states, “Kamakhya Yoni Mandala is the best place in the world. There the Supreme Mother resides. On every month the Mother Goddess menstruates.” The Goddess Kamesvari depicted in the painting is, according to Yoginitantra, “the light of Kamarupa and wife of Siva.” Kamarupa is the place where Siva is ever engaged in ecstatic sexual play with Kamesvari Devi. In his form as Kamesa, Siva is also adored here and in the painting is seen in mystical absorption at the feet of Kamesvari whose foot gently caresses the Lord’s heart.
Brahma and Vishnu also have cultic associations with Kamarupa and are shown respectively to the right and left of Kamesvari with their hands joined in anjali mudra paying homage to the Devi. In addition, the red lotus (the Indian red lotus is in fact fuschia pink) that she sits on represents Brahma, and the lion Siva reclines upon represents Vishnu. This is a highly unique iconography though there is a clear relationship to the Mahavidya (great goddess of knowledge and one of the ten manifestations of Kali) Tripura Sundari, who also manifests from a lotus growing out of Siva’s navel. Tripura Sundari rests upon a couch whose legs are formed from Brahma, Vishnu, Kartikeya and Rudra. The Kamarupa temple complex includes shrines to each of the ten Mahavidyas and indeed, in the Yoginitantra, Sadasiva states that there is no difference between Kali and Kamakhya. Furthermore, each Mahavidya is associated with a different part of the Yoni. Brhadyonitantra reveals that Kali dwells on the three sides of the Yoni, Tara above, Bhuvanesvari and Tripura Sundari inside and Bhairavi at the base. Chinnamasta is in the bindu (menstrual flow) and Dhumavati in the depth. At the root of the hair of the Yoni dwells Mahakali, while Matangi resides in the folds of skin below the navel. Kamala and Kamakhya are present throughout the whole area.
Kamarupa has a long history of Yoni Devi worship. The 10th century text, Kalika Purana, extols it as an ancient place sacred to Devi. Both right-handed and left-handed modes of worship are employed to this day. Her shrine is as popular with indigenous aboriginals as it is with orthodox Hindus. Yoginitantra does not stress Kamakhya’s role as a granter of liberation from the cycle of reincarnation (though it is implied), but rather, emphasizes the Goddess’s readiness to grant all kinds of boons to “kings, youngsters, lusty people, materialists, ladies and wise persons as well.” Nonetheless, it is said “One who touches this rock (the Yoni) is blessed with immortality and gains redemption.” Licking the finger and placing it on the Yoni of statues of Devi is a thoroughly common practice throughout India. So much so that over the centuries, deep touch holes have appeared. Ghee and kumkum are also applied. It is a way of revering the magical power of the Devi and is only considered vulgar in a post-colonial western–influenced context.
Kamesvari and Kamakhyas most important festival is the Ambuvaci Mela. It is held from the seventh to eleventh day of Asadha which falls within the first fortnight of June. This is the time that the Goddess and, in fact, the earth itself, menstruates and for three days the temple closes. On the reopening of the temple on the fourth day, the festival begins. Tantrics from all over India gather to receive the Mahaprasad of Kamakhyas menses. The menstrual flow is regarded as a puspa (flower) and a highly potent amrit (nectar) to be imbibed during ritual worship. Such an act, as well as the flow itself, is referred to as rajapana. Yonitantra declares that Yonipuja is most auspicious during menstruation. Yantras of the Goddess may be empowered by using a drawing instrument dipped in rajapana. The Silpa Prakasa states that Sivakamakalesvara, ever in coition with Kamakalesvari, delights in the consumption of her rajapana. Also, Samayacaratantra recommends that abhishekham (ritual bathing) of temple deities in Shakta shrines be performed with water mixed with the flower of the menses. The other nectar of the Tantric Shaktas is Yonitattva, which is the union of seminal and ovarian juices. Bodily saps are mixed with wine, honey or water and drunk to further one’s vibrational alignment with the Goddess’s Divinity.
Kamarupa is known as Kamesvari’s playground for amorous dalliances with her husband Siva Kamesvara. As such it is an especially fortuitous place for marriage. Hundreds of thousands of couples have observed wedding rituals here. The union of man and woman is in all ways regarded as the ultimate metaphor and literal embodiment of Prakruti (Siva) and Prakriti (Devi). In the tantras of Shaktism, all women are regarded as embodiments of the supreme Devi who creates, sustains and absorbs all creation. No disrespect is ever to be shown to a woman based on ideologies of status and notions of purity/impurity. In the Shakta way, women of so-called low caste are celebrated and regarded with veneration as most suitable for worship, particularly washerwomen and prostitutes. Their freedom from the weight of high education and orthodox cultural conditioning is equated with the great freedom of the Devi Herself. Yonitantra approvingly describes Devi as Candali, that is, one who belongs to the lowest echelons of Hindu society – a person whose primary role is to deal with all that is considered highly ritually polluting by the orthodox, such as the transportation and disposal of corpses.
Surrounding the image of Kamesvari in the red border are temple dancers, tantric heroes and heroines, and displays of auspicious eroticism. At the apex of the oval, a Yogini frankly exposes her opened Yoni to the viewer’s gaze. Brhadaranyaka Upanishad states, “A woman’s lap is the altar of sacrifice; her hairs the sacrificial grass; her skin the soma press. The two lips of the vulva are the fire in the middle.” The squatting female with spread legs and the head of a lotus or sun disc is an ancient symbol of the Devi’s abundant gifts. This potent image is found all over the ancient world. The Yoni is great power, the holder of secret energy and instrument of blessing the Yogin with moksha. In all ways it is an auspicious sight.
The power of the Yoni is revealed in the less “brahmanised” versions of the Devi Mahatmya in the story of Durga’s battle with the buffalo demon Mahisa. Mahisa, inflated with pride, had won a boon from the Gods that only a woman could defeat him on the battlefield and thus, in his delusion, regarded himself invincible. The Gods pray to Devi to save them from Mahisa’s subsequent path of grand destruction. Devi, as Durga, goes to battle with Mahisa. In the course of the fight, Durga spreads her legs wide over two mountains. Mahisa, insatiable with lust, raises his vision from beneath Devi’s legs. Entranced and immobilized by the vision of Devi’s yoni, the stunned asura drops his sword. Just at that moment, the Goddess plunges her trident into Mahisa’s heart. To be killed by the Goddess is to be liberated, so Mahisa’s fate is most desirable. This myth wonderfully encapsulates esoteric principles. The darshan of the cosmic Yoni offers liberation for the sadhak, but the price is the death of one’s lower nature represented by Mahisa, the dim but powerful embodiment of limited self-consciousness. The instrument for this death is the piercing of the heart by the trident of unified awareness. Images of the Devi after battle show her standing in triumph on Mahisa’s head, which often bears a smile of release. The decapitated male head has a rich symbology representing the abeyance of the intellect and the sacrifice of the notion of an existence independent of Devi. Many tantric Goddesses hold or wear necklaces of decapitated heads. Often three heads are placed at the base of her throne as a grand offering of the three gunas (rajas, sattvas and tamas). In the top two panels of the painting, we observe naked Yoginis holding the sword of discrimination and riding the lion of passion whose front paw rests upon a decapitated head. The gender of the sacrificed being, whether it be human (mainly historically) or animal (historically and currently) is always male. The Shakta tradition is not as a whole vegetarian and a great deal of animal sacrifice is offered to Devi. Karmarupa is no exception to this and many animals are slaughtered daily at Kamakhya Devi’s shrine by a special class of temple servant known as Balikatas. Such is the importance given to this role that during the marriage festival of Kamesvara and Kamesvari, the Balikata assumes the role of Kamesvari’s mother. The meat is cooked and consumed as sacred bhoga (pleasure/Prasad). Kamakhya Devi has deep roots with the hunting tribes of Assam , some of whom still manage to live a somewhat independent existence from contemporary Indian society. Indeed, they were the original custodians of this sacred place. The Kalikapurana contains an extensive list of animals suitable for sacrifice that could only possibly be captured by proficient tribal hunters.
At the bottom of the oval frame is a Yoni yantra held between the paws of two heraldic lions, Devi’s favorite vehicle. The downward pointing triangle is the preeminent symbol of Shakti. The Brhadyonitantra reveals that in each corner of the Yoni yantra are Brahma, Vishnu and Siva. On the right flows the Yamuna river, on the left the Sarasvati and on the top, the Ganges. The centre of the triangle is Kamakhya herself. The golden dot in the centre is the bindu which has manifold significance. It is the first vibrational point of all creation, the cosmos manifesting from the cosmic womb. It is Kamesvara and Kamesvari in blissful union, or again, it is the Kundalini Shakti. The bindu also represents the puspa flower of menstrual flux.
The various acts of eroticism shown have all been depicted on the sculptural programmes of various Hindu temples. The oval frame itself represents a Yogini-cakra circle described in the various tantras. The central Goddess is invoked through the five sacred substances (tattvas). The first offering is that of matsya (fish). Hence the presence of a fish held in one of the golden dancer’s hands and the numerous fish offerings at the base of Kamesvari’s throne. The second offering is mamsa (meat), here shown in the form of a goat’s head. The third is mudra (parched grain) shown as a mound which is also depicted within the other offerings of fruits and lotus flowers. The fourth offering is madya (alcohol) which is shown in the skull cup the Goddess holds in her lap, which also alludes to rajapana. The fifth is maithuna, sexual intercourse. That is, intercourse that follows the instruction and blessing of a qualified Tantric Master, without which the practitioner is merely engaging in guesswork. Sexual rites and rituals play such a prominent role in Hindu temple decoration because, even to the uninitiated, the mere sighting of such acts is known to be fortuitous. A temple without lush erotic imagery is thought to be barren. Images could simply be of beautiful female Sura-sundaris (nature spirits), temple dancers or more frankly explicit scenes. Such delightful forms are thought also to protect the temple by nature of their compelling potency.
In the decorative corners at the base, two images of the wish-fulfilling cow, Kamadhenu, are seen. Kamadhenu is said to have appeared at the time of the churning of the cosmic ocean by the Gods and asuras. She is greatly auspicious and has the feathers of a peacock, the face and breasts of a beautiful woman and the body of a cow. Although she possesses the elaborate tail of a peacock, it is stressed that the cow’s tail must also be shown as it is revered by the pious as a conveyor of blessings.
Kamesvari holds the following implements in her hands. Starting from the Devi’s lower right hand which is raised in abhaya (blessing) mudra are: shield, trident, arrow, lotus flower, chakra, conch shell, mace, bell, goad, sacrificial sword and lastly, the lower left holds the skull cap filled with wine/blood. Each of her foreheads bears a third eye and is decorated with golden sandalwood paste, a crescent moon and red bindu point. Her opulent jewelry is of gold, rubies, garnets and pearls. Red is the sacred colour of Shaktas and the Devi is seen to be dressed primarily in red. Very often in powerful Devi shrines, the male priests wear red saris so as to align themselves as sister or daughter servants of the Goddess and not incur her wrath. Red invokes association with blood, wine, lifeforce and the power of the sun. Red malas are often used for prayer by Shaktas and during the Ambuvaci mela you can see devotees painted entirely red with Kamakhya Devi’s Menses.