We are just back from our annual pilgrimage to the sacred goddess sites of Tantrick India. While many friends and loved ones think us crazy for visiting during the hottest time of year, we can’t resist India in the summertime! The reason for our voyage during Summer Solstice is the great Ambubachi Mela, or festival of the Divine Mother’s Sacred Water. The festival is held at Kamakhya, a famous pilgrimage site for Hindus located just outside of Guwahati, the capital of Assam, in the northeast region of India. Primarily important to Shaktas, the site functions as the most important Shakta pitha, or sacred seat of the goddess for devotees (although you will find many other Hindu traditions represented at the festival).
Across India, fifty-one sacred pilgrimage sites are scattered across the land; however, the most sacred for Shaktas is Kamakhya. Can you guess why? The mandir, or sacred temple, to which pilgrims and devotees come to worship is situated on a beautiful hill overlooking the Brahmaputra river and the green lushness of Assam’s tea plantations and jungles. It is here, the puranas (sacred texts) tell us, that the yoni (vulva or womb) of Devi (Goddess) fell to Earth.
At Kamakhya Mandir during a dark moon phase occurring once during the equivalent of our solar calendar year, usually corresponding with Solstice, devi’s yoni is believed to release menstrual blood. The celebration and honoring during this time is known as Ambubachi. Annually drawing over 40,000 devotees primarily from eastern India, Ambubachi is at once a spiritual gathering and a celebration of connection to the fundamental life mysteries, bringing together women’s bodies and Earth body in sacred celebration. Now you know why we bother…and perhaps sometime, you’ll join us!
To imagine what this festival is like and how we honor Maa, you’ll have to close your eyes. Imagine yourself descending a very steep staircase into the center of the Earth. The walls are dark and moist, the heat of the worshipers’ candles and the earth’s springs creating a living sweat inside the small sanctum sanctorum, known in India as the garbhagriha, or place where the holy of holies resides. This holy of holies is none other than the yoni of the Goddess, literally a vulva-shaped stone (about the size of a beach ball) in the ground that has been honored as such in all likelihood since pre-Vedic times. The stone is worn down with the centuries of devotees’ adoration, and a spring provides a pool of water in which it rests. She is at the center, a bindu or cosmic center contained within the borders of a carved yantra. As you approach, get down on your knees and touch the stone with your right hand. Now, touch the water surrounding Her and bless yourself. Take away some of the flowers you have offered as a sacred souvenir.
Know that no one may look upon Her directly–all who visit look upon and touch Her through a dressing of red cloth and flowers. Out of respect, the priests who are Her guardians even perform the requisite bath and other initial rites blindfolded. But you and the other devotees on this day have experienced much beyond the seen world. Take it all in, and know you can come back any time you wish. Open your eyes and bring the worlds together. Let us know what She has gifted you with today!