Recognised as one of sacred 108 Shakti Peeths of Goddess Durga,the Kamakhya temple is believed to have been built by Kamdev (God of lust) with the help of God Vishwakarma. According to the Hindu mythology the demon king Narakasura constructed a stiff-stone path (known as mekhela ujowa poth) connecting the temple from the foothills with an aim to marry goddess Kamakhya.

The Muslim- convert Kalapahar, the king of Cooch Behar, destroyed the temple in 1553 AD. Maharaja Biswa Singh repaired it in 17th century. King Nara Narayan, who ascended the throne of Cooch Behar after his father Biswa Singh’s demise, constructed the upper portion of the temple with the help of his brother Beer Chilarai. The present form of the main temple and its surrounding was shaped during the time of Nara Narayan, one of the greatest kings of ancient Assam.

As the legend goes, Sati (Kamakhya or Parvati) was one of the incarnations of Goddess Shakti and she sacrificed her life protesting the behaviour of her father Dakshya Nripati. The wife of Maheswar (one of holy Hindu trinities after Lord Brahma and Lord Bishnu), Sati took her life at a Yagna, a sacrificial rite organised by her father Dakshya. The son of Brahma, Dakshya was not happy with his son-in-law, the Shiva (Mahadev or Maheswar, the destroyer of universe).

Shiva was even not invited for the ceremony. Sati arrived at Yagna Bhumi, but she was also not welcomed by Dakshya. He also made some unpleasant remarks on Shiva. Annoyed by this, Sati sacrificed her life at the location of Yagna. Hearing the death of Sati, Shiva got angry and appeared at Yagna Bhumi.

After pronouncing punishment to Dakshya, furious Shiva started Tandav Nritya (the dance of demolition) with the body of his beloved wife Sati on his shoulder. The Tandav Nritya continued for several days and the universe was on the brink of being destroyed.

Apprehending it, all the gods and goddesses appealed Lord Bishnu to pave the way to end of Maheswar’s dance of destruction. The caretaker of the universe chopped-off the body Sati with his Sudarshan Chakra to bring back Shiva to sanity. Her lifeless body was cut into 51 pieces, which fell in different parts of Bharatbarsha and each location later emerged as holy places as Shakti Peeths. One part of Sati fell on the spot at Nilachal hill, where the Kamakhya temple was erected. According to another legend, Devi Kamakhya (Bhagawati) once appeared in person before Narakasur, the demon king of Pragjyotispur.

Narakasura got attracted to the beauty of the Devi and instantly fell in love with the deity. The proud king even proposed to marry Kamakhya. She put a condition to the king that he should construct a stone path from the foothills to the temple in one night.

Confident Narakasura agreed to this and started the work from dusk. The demon king almost completed the stone path. This rapid work worried Kamakhyand she ordered an illusive-cock to start crowing symbolising the dawn. Smelling conspiracy, Narakasura chased the cock and killed it. Later, the Devi killed Narakasura with the help of Lord Bishnu. Kalika Purana, an ancient work in Sanskrit, describes Devi Kamakhya as the deity to fulfil the desires of devotees and gives salvation.

The temple does not have any image or statue of Devi Kamakhya. There is only a sculptured image of one part of the goddess in a cave inside the main temple. A natural spring believes to keep the stone always moist.

The devotees touch the stone, draped with a silk sari, offer flowers and Bilwa Patra on it. The few other religious festivals held in the Kamakhya temple premises annually include Ambubasi Mela, Basanti Puja, Shivaratri Mahotsav, Manasa Puja, etc. The Ambubasi festival is associated with the legend of menstrual cycle of Devi Kamakhya. It is believed that the Devi menstruates during the period and hence the main temple remains closed for three days.

Thousands of devotees with sadhus from different parts of the country as well as from abroad gather in the temple premises to celebrate the festival. The normal visitor (read Hindu) is allowed to have Darshan of Maa Kamakhya. There is no official notice or announcement that the temple is open for Hindus only. However, the pandas (assistants to priests) and the locals keep constant vigil on visitors. A short circuit camera network was also installed in the temple premises.

The main gate of the shrine opens at 8 am and remains so till the sunset with a break from 1 to 3 pm. The entrance gate of the temple is open from 6 am to 8-9 pm. Sacrifice is done in the temple every morning. The temple committee offers a goat every day before the Puja starts.

The sacrifice by the devotees can be of anything, like a pigeon, a goat or a buffalo, etc. A 1933 journal of the Assam Research Society narrates that that Narabali (sacrifice by people) was done till the reign of King Gaurinath Singha (1780 -1796). Now, following hue and cry from animal right activists, most of the devotees prefer to set free the animals taken for sacrifice. The large number of pigeons (and even he-goats) in the temple campus has grown up with these inmates. There are around 150 recognised priests in the temple (as informed by the temple management committee, Kamakhya Debutter Board).

More than 500 pandas, who help the devotees for Devi Darshan and offering puja, are available in the premises. The pandas speak in Assamese, Bengali and Hindi. Some of them know even Nepali and English. A pond nearby the main temple, named Soubhagya Kunda (fortune pond) is believed to have been built by Devraj Indra. Religious rites are performed in western bank of the pond.

Devotees believe that going round the pond is a holy exercise. There is another pond Bhairab Kunda famous for giant turtles. Marriages with Hindu rituals are also arranged in the temple. Normally they prefer same caste marriages like Brahmin vs Brahmin, Kalita vs Kalita, Kayastha vs Kayastha, etc. There has to be three witnesses from each side (bride and groom) for the occasion. Along with Tantrism, Assam also embraced neo-Vaishnavism in 15th century, as Mohapurus Shrimanta Shankardev initiated Nam Dharma that preaches to worship only one God (Lord Krishna or Bishnu).

The greatest son of the soil in recent centuries, Shankardev with the help of his prime disciple Mohapurus Madhabdev established many Satras (Vaishnavite monasteries) across Assam, most of which are still vibrant.

(The writer is the Guwahati-based Special Representative of The Statesman)