A Historical Note on Sri Sri Kamakhya Temple

This is sacred land of spiritual upliftment, a land yearning after what life is beyond. The rest of the world is agog with material pleasure, the life that is present seems to be the summumbonum of mankind, so there is a race for drinking the pleasure of life to the dregs.

The holy Nilachal Hills, where the famous temple of Mother Goddess Sri Sri Kamakhya has been shining with pride and glory, is now a part of the metropolis Guwahati, the gateway to Northeast India. The mighty Brahmaputra, mentioned as Louhitya in Sanskrit epics and Puranas, is flowing on the northern side of these sacred hills. Near the holy shrine of the Mother Goddess there are temples of the Dasamahavidya, Lord Shiva, other Deities and numerous Gupta Peethas scattered all around.

The temple of Sri Sri Kamakhya in the Nilachal Hills is the springboard and centerpiece of Shakta worship in India.

The history of Assam is closely related to the history of Sri Sri Kamakhya. Mention of this Shakti temple of Kamakhya has been made in Devi Bhagavata, Devi Purana, Kalika Purana, Yogini Tantra, Hevajra Tantra, Tantra Chudamani, and is cited many more times in other ancient literature. According to Hevajra Tantra (8th century C.E.) and Kalika Purana (earlier than 1000 C.E.) the deity of Sri Sri Kamakhya in Kamarupa had become already established as the main center of Tantric worship. The Kalika Purana and Yogini Tantra already extol Assam as a land where Shakta Tantra was fully established.

The temple of Sri Sri Kamakhya in the Nilachal Hills is the springboard and centerpiece of Shakta worship in India. Situated between the two hill ethnic groups that follow the matriarchal system, the Khasis of the Austro-Asiatic family and the Garos of the Mongoloid group, the temple of Kamakhya is regarded as belonging to a Goddess who represents the pro-creative aspects of nature. SHE is a Mother Goddess. No image of the deity is worshipped in the temple; it is the yoni of the Goddess Sati, the consort of Lord Shiva, that is enshrined within.

Sex worship, in whatever form, was common throughout the Austro-Asiatic and other countries in the ancient past. Robert Briffault in his Sex in Civilization says that “the Roman Saturnalia and carnival of Southern Europe are similar instance in the West.” V. F. Calverton is more comprehensive in his opinion: “Survival of sex-worship was common through the dark ages.” In the temple of Sri Sri Kamakhya, the yoni symbol of the Mother Goddess is regarded as a source of magic influence and is a living relic of an ancient custom. This temple itself is a living relic of the ancient Austro-Asiatic cultural impact on this land, and a beautiful assimilation of patronization by the series of dynasties who ruled Kamarupa until the British took control over Assam in 1826.

The Kamakhya temple’s origins are pre-Aryan. Religious literature tells us that the temple of Kamakhya was built with stones by Kamdeva with the help of Biswakarma. The temple was originally full of beautiful architectural and sculptural wonders. Perhaps due to some upheaval against religion or natural disaster, the upper part of the temple was ravaged and the lower part was gradually buried. The temple was covered with sixty four carved stone images Yoginis and eighteen carved stone images of Bhairavas, which one can still find in the present temple.

An analytical study reveals that there is no mention whatsoever in any stone or copper inscription, text, sloka, or oral materials of 7th – 9th century that Sri Sri Kamakhya was a Deity of any of the Kings of Kamarupa. On the other hand, historical evidence indicates that Kumar Bhaskara Varma (d. 650 C.E.) was a devotee of Lord Shiva. After him, the kings of Shalastambha dynasty (650-750 C.E.) were distinctly Buddhist, and again from Balavarmana II (750 C.E.) to Balavarmana III (875 C.E.) the deity of the dynasty was Lord Shiva in HIS different forms. Then finally, during the rule of Vanamalarmana, the Kameswara-Maha Gauri became the official deity of the dynasty, which continued until Indrapala (1030 C.E.). Somehow the name of Kameswara-Maha Gauri again vanished via the royal edicts of King Gopala (1075 C.E.). Hence it is apparent that the original temple of Sri Sri Kamakhya may have been built before Kumar Bhaskara Varma, and to shed more light on it we can draw reference from a book by P.C. Choudhury titled Assam-Bengal Relations: “The remains centering round the present temple of Kamakhya belong to different period history, beginning with 7th century if not earlier.” At the same time it is also generally believed that the Kamakhya temple was built during the rule of Pala Dynasty.

As it was necessary to determine the age of the Sri Sri Kamakhya Temple, the department of Geo-Sciences, University of Gauhati, came forward and conducted a Radio Carbon Isotope age determination experiment. The result indicates that the bottom layer of the temple is 2200 years old, and the second layer is 1500 years old. From this exercise it can be assessed that the original temple was built before Christ, and an attempt to rebuild the temple was made during 500 C.E. Though there is no concrete historical evidence available on the original temple, there is evidence on the second layer in the form of a stone inscription found in the Nilachal Hills that was cut during the rule of Surendravermana (Mahendravarmana?) in 500 C.E. Thus a conclusion can be drawn that during 500 C.E. a beautiful stone temple of Sri Sri Kamakhya was erected in the Nilachal Hills.

There is less controversy with the upper part of Sri Sri Kamakhya Temple, as there are written records available from the period of King Bishwasingha of the Koch Behar Kingdom. Biswasingha, who came to power in 1515 C.E., rebuilt the temple of Sri Sri Kamakhya (1515-1525). It is generally believed that between 1553-1554 the temple was destroyed by the invading Muslim commander Kalapahar in his crusade against Hindu temples, but history says otherwise. Kalapahar invaded the Koch Kingdom in 1568, and there is no historical record found anywhere that Kalapahar came to Guwahati. It is again becomes even more controversial when the written records indicate that King Naranarayan started renovating the temple in 1555 and completed in 1565. Thus, the story of Kalapahar destroying the temple in 1553-1554 is confusing. There are possibilities of a natural catastrophe that occurred during the later part of the period of Biswahsingha, which could have damaged the upper part of the temple.

After the Koch Kingdom the Ahoms became patrons of the Sri Sri Kamakhya Temple, and the influence of the Ahoms is clearly visible in the present temple. Moreover, there are many stone inscriptions and copper plates that elaborate the active involvement of the Ahom kings with the Sri Sri Kamakhya Temple.

Historical evidence indicates that between the 11th and 12th centuries, when there were repeated looting expeditions  from Bihar and Bengal into Assam, the temples of the Nilachal Hills, including the Kamakhya Temple, were damaged and looted by Nasiruddin (1227) and Malik Uzbek Tughril Khan (1225 and 1257). During these looting expeditions the temple complex was likely severely damaged.

The temple was repaired with stone chips, Portland cement and steel reinforcement after the massive earthquake of 1897, and this was done during 1910-1915. Further repair work was also undertaken after the famous earthquake of 1950. Apart from that, the dome of the temple was also renovated during the sixties, with the contributions of donors.

There has been no serious effort made to study and document the history of the Nilachal Hills and the Kamakhya Temple to date, and only scattered information can be found, which cannot be chronologically linked with desired homogeneity.  There is no publication in a single cover which one can refer to regarding the documented history of the temple. On the other hand, it would also be wrong to say that there has been no work done at all, but it is a strenuous task to collect articles and research papers published since 1837, which are scattered throughout the world in various journals.

Nevertheless, Kamakhya is not only a religious center, but also a place of natural life. This abode of the Great Goddess abounds in natural beauty. Nature bestows all her charm and fills the place with beauteous grandeur. Kamakhya supplies all the amenities of life. The Bhubaneswari Temple to the east of Kamakhya stands on the top of a hill 690 ft. high and overlooks the Guwahati town and the Brahmaputra river. Thus the natural scenery of hills and rivers, the exquisite beauty of the surroundings, the supernatural significance, the sincere devotion of the dwellers, all these make the Sri Sri Kamakhya Temple a seat of inexplicable mystery.

Photo credit: Sri Sri Kamakhya Temple Spire, by Kulasundari Devi