The temple at Kamakhya, in Guwahati, Assam, was built in the seventeenth century by the kings of Cooch Behar. However, the deity within is an ancient one, a tantric goddess, a goddess of the local Khasi and Garo tribes, predating Vedic culture, according to some believers, or even older. But long earlier, the temple was identified with no particular goddess, but was simply a natural rock formation, a cleft in a sheet of stone, resembling – at least to the human eye – a yoni, or the vulva, the entrance to the female genitalia, on the shallow bed of a mountain stream.

Every year, following the first rains, it is said that a red fluid gushes out from the cleft: underground soil according to rationalists, vermilion powder sprinkled by local priests say the cynics, menstrual blood of the earth, hence the goddess, say the believers. For three days, therefore, as part of Ambubachi Mela, the temple doors are shut, to let the goddess rest and regain her fertility.

When I first entered the shrine at Kamakhya many years ago, I felt as if I was entering the womb of the earth.

A flight of steps leads down to a subterranean chamber where a spring flows, and there before you are three crowns, representing the three forms of the Goddess: Lakshmi, Saraswati, and Kamakhya, with the third one being the centre of all attention, covered with red cloth and flowers. Beneath the crown, I was told, is the cleft.

Legend has it that when Shiva’s consort, Sati, killed herself, following a dispute with her father, Shiva was inconsolable in his grief. He clung to her corpse and wandered the earth, until Vishnu cut her body into many pieces, forcing Shiva to let go. The places on earth where the various body parts fell became shakti-peethas, or the seats of the goddess. The number of these shrines varies, depending on the scripture one refers to or the tradition one is familiar with. But one thing is clear: the womb of the goddess fell at Kamakhya.

Today, any discussion of genitalia, especially female genitalia, in public evokes shame, embarrassment, or disgust, a result of our social conditioning, which frowns on all things associated with reproductive organs. Yet, in Hindu tradition, the divine is often represented by them. Some Western scholars may find this titillating and some Hindu fundamentalists may find this insulting, but until recent times, India had a very healthy approach towards sexuality and fertility.

In fact, Hinduism emerged from the Vedic substratum as a countermove to the asexuality and sterility evoked by monastic traditions such as Buddhism and Jainism. This tension between the world of the hermit and the householder was communicated using various sexual and non-sexual imagery.

The former was classified as tantric, the latter Vedic, or rather Vedantic. Non-sexual imagery communicated the same idea as sexual imagery. Instead of the womb and phallus, the latter used plants, animals, geometry, artefacts, and human iconography, as metaphors for life and fertility.

The belief that the earth is the goddess and like all fertile women she, too, menstruates is a common theme in agricultural communities. In Odisha, there is the famous Rojo festival, during which women are asked to rest and not step on the earth, as she is also resting. This is a time for playing games all day in bed, or enjoying the swing, while celebrating womanhood. In this festival, women are not seen as “dirty”. Their bodies, capable of bearing new life, indicated by the monthly flow of blood, is celebrated.

The fear of menstruation, and the female body, the shunning of fertility and sexuality, can be traced to the monastic orders. Buddhism tells us how the Buddha outsmarted the daughters of Mara to find freedom from suffering. In Hinduism, Mara becomes Kama, and his daughters become his army of damsels known as apsaras, who distract the sages from meditation.

Shiva, with his third eye, even sets Kama afire, but the eye (aksha) and desire (kama) merge to create Kamakhya.

They transform Shiva from Kamantaka, the killer of desire, to Kameshwara, the lord of desire. In Buddhism, Tara embraces the Bodhisattva, giving rise to the erotic yab-yum (father-mother) images of Tibet. Thus, the goddess, or nature, triumphs over god, or mind, that seeks to break free. (It goes against the idea of not using the gender divide.)

In South India, Kamakhya is called Kamakshi, and she is visualised with the symbols of Kama: sugarcane, flowers, and the parrot. In Assam, she is visualised very differently – as a six-headed, twelve-armed goddess, seated on a lotus that rises from the navel of Shiva, who rests on the back of a lion.

This image reminds one of the more popular Vaishnava image of Brahma seated on a lotus, rising from the navel of Vishnu, sleeping on the coils of a serpent. While in Vaishnava traditions, Brahma is visualised as frightened after his birth, Kamakhya of the Shakta traditions is visualised as all- powerful, even placing her foot on Shiva’s chest.

Kamakhya is sometimes identified as Kamala (she who sits on the lotus) or as Sodasi (she who is sixteen years old), and is sometimes seen as a part of the Mahavidya collective. Images of the ten Mahavidyas can be found in the temple complex of Kamakhya, but these are clearly from later tantric traditions.

Also at Kamakhya is one of the few Chinnamastika temples, where the goddess is seen as decapitating herself and drinking her own blood, while seated on a copulating couple. This image of violence and sex is a direct challenge to the non-violence and asexuality that is glamorised by monastic orders.

Kamakhya is sometimes identified as Bhudevi, the earth-goddess who is the wife of Vishnu. This is seen as an attempt by worshippers of Vishnu to claim the goddess, who is popularly linked to Shiva. When Vishnu in the form of Varaha rescued Bhudevi, she gave birth to a demon-child called Naraka, who was killed by Krishna.

Krishna bhakti with its vegetarian customs was introduced to Assam by the famous saint, Shankaradeva. But, in his school of bhakti, unlike the Chaitanya Vaishnavism of Bengal, there is no mention of Radha, perhaps to keep out the influence of the goddess and her celebration of fertility and sexuality. Thus, we see a tension between sexuality and asexuality, householder and hermit, tantra and Vedanta, centuries ago, resonating with the tension of contemporary times. So it has been. So it will always be.

Pilgrim Nation: The Making of Bharatvarsh

Excerpted with permission from Pilgrim Nation: The Making of Bharatvarsh, Devdutt Pattanaik, Aleph Book Company.