It’s difficult to make your way through the bustling crowds at the normally serene Kamakhya temple in Assam during Ambubachi Mela. MAA’s energy is wild and potent, and She is alive in the palpable energy that pulses through the throngs of Her devotees gathered outside Her temple. Almost every square inch of the grounds is covered with crimson-clad devotees who sing, chant, meditate and shout their devotion to the Divine Mother, positioning themselves just outside Her most holy shrine during the time of Her annual menstruation.
Devotees of all varieties from across India, Nepal, Bangladesh, and a few from other countries as well, ascend the Nilachal Hills to be at MAA’s feet during this time. From regular families to black-clad aghoris, from foreign tourists to sadhus and sannyasis, this time of year calls to those who adore the Divine Mother and wish to be close to Her during Her most potent and sacred time. The festival especially draws those from the various Shakta and Shaiva Tantra kulas, generally recognized by the red or black clothes they wear, often with long dreadlocks and typically situated in group encampments outside the temple. Between 100,000 and 150,000 devotees typically reside at the Sri Sri Kamakhya Temple grounds during the four-day festival each year, and between 50,000 and 100,000 visit the temple every day during the festival. Some have claimed that as many as a quarter million people have crowded their way into the temple complex in years past.
She is desire itself, as well as its fulfillment.
During Ambubachi, for three days Mother Earth Herself menstruates, and all the temples in the region are closed to devotees. Inside the Kamakhya temple, MAA is bathed and dressed daily, and given a red silk cloth in consideration of Her menstrual flow, and also given fruit and light worship. Families who live near the temple cover their own shrines and offer fruit and simple worship to Devi, preferring to let Her rest. On the fourth day, the temple doors are opened, and devotees wait for hours to receive Her special darshan. Devotees plead to receive a small piece of rakta bastra, the red silk “blood cloth” upon which Devi sits during Her menses (also called anga bastra). As a talisman or amulet, this piece of cloth is said to be very auspicious and powerfully beneficial if tied onto the body, typically around the arm or wrist.
Kamakhya, or Kameshvari as She is also commonly known, is the Reknowned Goddess of Desire whose shrine is situated in a cave in the heart of the Nilachal Hills in Guwahati, Assam. As the yoni (which means source, vulva and womb) of Mahadevi, She is recognized as not only the form of desire (Kamarupa, Kamarupini), but She is the very source of our desires, and also the One who grants our desires. She is desire itself, as well as its fulfillment.
The Sanskrit term ambuvācī, from which the local Assamese word ambubachi or ambubasi is derived, literally means “the issuing forth of water,” referring to the swelling of the Earth’s waters from the onset of monsoon. Outsiders often mistakenly think that this festival is a celebration of Kamakhya’s menstruation, but in fact it is the menstruation of the entire Mother Earth, and as Kamakhya is the seat of Her yoni, it becomes the focal point for related festivities.
Being the yoni of Devi, and the Goddess here being intimately connected to the matriarchal tribes of these hills for thousands of years, it’s no wonder that this powerful and uniquely female cycle would be celebrated and venerated here. For devotees, especially amongst Tantrics at the temple, Ambubachi is a time of tremendous power and celebration. We believe that Mother Earth cannot be impure, and that this is a time of potency and reflection. It is a time to relinquish selfish desires, to focus totally on MAA and celebrate with joy all that She is, to celebrate the gifts that Mother Earth gives to us – food, shelter, the very foundation of life – by offering Her simple worship, serving Her totally, and not asking for anything for ourselves. Recognizing one’s own selfish nature without judgment is a powerful part of releasing the ego and striving toward oneness with MAA.
How to celebrate Ambubachi in your own home
During Ambubachi, it’s important to allow Mother to rest. Every day we are asking Her for things, so on this day we serve Her rather than asking Her to serve us. In the United States, this concept is similar to Mother’s Day, when we pamper our mothers in some way to let them know how much we love and appreciate them.
Ambubachi is observed June 22-26 each year, near the start of the monsoon season when the waters begin flowing from the sky to the earth, turning, as they say in Assam, the roads into rivers.
You can observe this important holiday the way it is observed by families at Kamakhya. On the first day take a piece of cloth (preferably red silk, but use what you have access to) and cover the altar or the murti. If you have a temple room in your home, close the door. You can also draw a curtain in front of the altar. This is to give MAA some privacy and rest during this time, to honor Her. We could also say that She is very, extremely powerful at this time, in the activity of purifying and regenerating the entire Earth, which is Her body itself, and it’s best to give Her a wide berth!
Here at our temple, we follow kulacara Tantric philosophy and so do not consider menstruation impure, nor can the Mother ever be made impure. So our worship continues, but in a way that makes no request of MAA. Several times a day (for instance, in the morning and evening) offer fruit, water and you can also offer simple arati to MAA behind the curtain or closed door. Sing songs to Her and simply offer your devotion, asking for nothing in return. You are simply there to worship Her, not to have your desires fulfilled. If you notice that you begin to ask MAA for something out of habit, let this desire go and forgive yourself.
You can also recite Her pranama mantras:
You may also wish to meditate silently during these three days, focusing on your gratitude to MAA, and total release of desire. Other ways to observe this time would be to participate in activities that care for the Earth. Clean up your local beach or park, water or fertilize your garden (but don’t disturb MAA by planting anything in Her body), etc.
On the fourth day, remove the cloth, open the door to the temple, and clean everything thoroughly. Replace your altar cloths with ones, give all the deities new clothes, etc. Offer worship with your whole family as elaborately as you are able to, and sing devotional songs. Offer your full heart and on this day you can ask for anything you desire. If you are a gardener or farmer, this is also a good day to plant something, symbolic of your highest and purest intentions for the coming season, year or for the rest of your life. Choose a plant accordingly that will grow in rhythm with this intention and will remind you to stay close to your true path in life during this time period, whether it is for one season or for the rest of your life.
When you ask with a pure heart and with the highest good in mind, this pleases Devi. Our Mother wants to give us what we truly need, and wants to fulfill our desires. She allows us to live joyfully and comfortably in the world, while pursuing oneness with Her. But Mother knows what is best for us, and so we must often release the rigid notions we have of what Her divine gifts will look like. When MAA gives us what we ask for, we sometimes don’t recognize the package in which it is delivered, and if we ask for harm to come to someone else, those negative energies can come right back to us to teach us a lesson. Take the time during Ambubachi to purify your heart, recognize your imperfections and humble yourself at Her feet. Through disciplined practice, devotion and humility, we can release the stranglehold of the ego, becoming more confident and growing strong, seeing in ourselves the beauty and grace that MAA radiates through us in every moment.
In this way you can observe Ambubachi and the most powerful time of the year of our Divine Mother Earth in all Her many forms.