On June 19, the headless body of a woman was found close to the Kamakhya temple in Guwahati. Police officers on the case are investigating the possibility that it was a human sacrifice.

“It looks like a murder that has stemmed from superstition,” said Deepak Kumar, the city’s police commissioner. “The crime scene definitely suggests so: everything was in order; the woman’s body was wrapped in a blanket next to which was a bottle of water and other puja essentials.”

Such speculation has been fuelled by the fact that the Kamakhya temple is known to be a seat of tantric practices, often associated, at least in the popular imagination, with human sacrifice.

The timing of the incident seems to have bolstered the theory. It occurred days before one of the most important events on the temple calendar, the Ambubachi Mela, which has hordes of devotees and ascetics descending on the temple complex.

The mela, an annual affair, marks the goddess Kamakhya’s menstrual period, which is believed to occur only once a year. The temple remains closed during that period – according to religious belief, the deity is in a state of impurity. However, the supposedly impure blood of the goddess is also believed to be a harbinger of life and vitality. When the temple is opened, usually after three days, pieces of red cloth, representing the goddess’s blood, are distributed among devotees.

But the temple establishment insists that human sacrifice has never been part of the Ambubachi ritual. “When it did happen – and it has not in forever – human sacrifices were only made during Durga Puja,” said Rajib Sarma, a member of the Kamakhya Bordeori Samaj, the family trust which runs the temple.

Between history and mythology

Nihar Ranjan Mishra, author of Kamakhya: A Socio-Cultural Study, agreed with this. “There is mention [of human sacrifice] in some texts, but the practice stopped long ago,” said Mishra, who teaches English at Mangaldoi College in Middle Assam.

Mishra said the historical records were fuzzy but said he suspected the practice stopped with the arrival of the neo-Vaishnavite reformation in Assam in the 15th century. “But one cannot really say with certainty,” the professor cautioned.

Many temple researchers and tantric practitioners say that the linking of human sacrifice and tantric practices at Kamakhya in popular culture may stem from a misreading of historical texts.

“In terms of historical texts, there is next to no evidence to suggest that nara-bali or human sacrifice was prevalent in Kamakhya at any point of time,” said Surya Das, a temple researcher. “There are, of course, references in the Kālikā Purāṇa, but then that is semi-history.”

The Kamakhya temple in Guwahati. Credit: IANS.

The Kālikā Purāṇa, one of the 18 minor Puranas in the goddess-centric Shakta tradition of Hinduism, which rituals in the Kamakhya temple heavily borrow from. A verse in it purportedly says: “When a human being is sacrificed, the goddess remains pleased for 1,000 years, and when three are sacrificed, for 1,00,000 years.”

However, according to Das, the verse was never taken literally at the Kamakhya Temple. “Effigies made of flour or rice-powder were used,” said Das. “That perhaps happens even now, but then everything is shrouded in so much mystery that it is difficult to say with certainty.”

A translation error?

Yet Edward Gait, the colonial historian, contended otherwise in A History Of Assam (1933). When the kings of the Koch dynasty constructed the temple complex was in its current form in the 16th century, he writes, “the occasion was celebrated by the immolation of no less than a hundred and forty men who heads were offered to the goddess on slavers made of copper”.

Das said this claim stemmed from the mistranslation of a passage in Darrang Rajavamsavali, a recorded history of the Koch dynasty. “Whoever translated it for Gait made a mistake,” claimed Das.

Indeed, the 1938 Journal of the Assam Research Society, authored by the historian Kanak Lal Barua, also notes this alleged translation error.

The other site of sacrifice

Sacrificial rites involving humans may have been practised in other temples of Assam. But the Kamakhya temple is not believed to be the primary site for them. According to some historical texts, it was rather common at the Tamreswari copper-roofed temple in Upper Assam’s Sadiya. Once patronised by the Chutiya dynasty, the temple is almost obliterated now.

But as the writ of the Ahom dynasty spread and finally overtook the territories controlled by the Chutiyas, the practice was put to rest the Ahom king Gaurinath Singha who ruled between 1780 and 1796. “In fact, the Chutiyas widely believe that the downfall of the Ahom dynasty was a direct result of the ban on human sacrifice in Tamreswari temple,” said Das.

Work of an impostor?

Still, there is another school of thought that argues that conventional historical records may not do justice to the subject. “It was all extremely secretive and continues to be so,” said Sarma, himself a practitioner of the Kulachara Tantra Marga, the school of Tantrism that is primarily practised at Kamakhya. “A lot of it is oral history, passed through generations in families like ours who have been involved in tantrism since centuries.”

Sarma, however, said this particular case seemed to be the act of a criminal, to “create a sensation”. “The crime scene could very well have been doctored to mislead the police,” he said.

Abantika Parashar, another temple researcher, concurred. The act looked like the handiwork of an impostor, she said, pointing out that the Kālikā Purāṇa categorically spelled out the profile of an “acceptable sacrifice”: a young man without any blemish. “This could be very well a ploy to cover-up a sexual crime,”she said.