Ever since I developed this knack for photography, I have kept an open eye for any cultural or traditional ceremony worth capturing. Such an inquisitive “shutter” interest led me to the Ambubachi mela at Kamakhya mandir held from June 22 to 26 this year. I knew the mela would to be an excellent opportunity to compose a photo-essay or photo-story type of thing based on one of the most significant religious gathering in India. Also, it would be a wonderful scope to capture the unique mentality and faith which drives lakhs of people to visit the Kamakhya temple and spend about a week here.
Primarily associated with the Tantric Shakti cult of worshipping, Ambubachi celebrates the menstruation period of goddess Kamakhya. For three days the temple gates remain closed, when the goddess is believed to be going through her cycle, and the huge gatherings outside the temple read scriptures, mediate on life’s journey, sing devotional songs, hold religious discourses and celebrate the occasion. The temple opens on the fourth day and it is considered to be extremely auspicious if devotees get a darshan of the Devi, and procure a piece of red cloth known as the anga–bastra believed to be used by the Devi during the period. The mela also coincides with the onset of monsoon in Assam and referred to as an event to celebrate the fertility of mother earth herself.
On June 23 early morning I entered the temple premises with my camera hanging down from my shoulder and a backpack containing two other lenses, a packet of biscuits and a water bottle on my back. From the moment I stepped there, I could sense a strange energy in the air, with hordes of devotees and pilgrims from different cultural backgrounds moving about the place vibrant with activities. In a field near the main temple, a huge pandal had been made for a fair to come up with numerous vendors putting up stalls. Walking up from the parking lot to the temple entrance, I saw numerous tantric sadhus clad in deep red moving about carrying trishuls, the physically handicapped and amputees begging, and women selling various kinds of accessories on the footpath. Though pilgrims came from all over the country, they constituted mostly of people from rural West Bengal- simple, poor, blinded-by-faith Bengalis. They bathed in the ponds of the mandir, had food in the community distributions, slept in the community arrangements, chanted prayers, sang songs and waited for the auspicious blessings of the Devi.
That day I spent most of the time trying to shoot portraits of the pilgrims in their different moods- someone was smoking ganja and people beside him were enveloped by the smoke, a sadhu spoke about life and the fruitlessness of materialism to his devotes, a lady sanyasin stood illuminated by a faint ray of sunlight entering through the architectural curves of the temple and wondered about the meaning of it all, a group led by a turbaned singer went on singing kirtans, while volunteers and security people struggled hard to manage the show without any hassles. Food and drinks were distributed to the pilgrims by the authorities and there were long queues and in some places there was even a hasty rush towards the serving centre. There were queues even for the washrooms and many people were changing and washing their clothes right on the road.
In a building just adjacent to the mandir, there assembled around 300 naga sadhus (naked holy men). On being asked one of them said that it’s for the first time that such a huge gathering of naga sadhus have taken place at Kamakhya, with different naga sadhu organisations taking part this time. I got some portrait shots of them- talking to their followers or smoking or sleeping. However in a special room, many of them including the head of the lot, a completely naked man smeared with ash all over his body, Digambar ji, sat and overlooked an ongoing yagya.
Then, using a wide angle lens I tried to capture the attitude of the crowd and a certain inert madness omnipresent in the gathering. Staircases coloured by clothes kept for drying, the gallery next to the mandir filled with devotees- men, women, sadhus, media people, volunteers… Then I went down to the pond famous for tortoises, which had been turned into a bathing place for the pilgrims. Near to a pond was one of the langars for the pilgrims and it was nice to shoot hundreds of people sitting together and eating- all united by a solid faith of devotion. Out of the blue, suddenly there raised a commotion regarding the sighting of a huge ajgar coiled up on a bamboo tree nearby. I followed directions, and soon found myself amidst a huge crowd of onlookers looking wide eyed at a huge coiled up mass on a tree. It was a lifetime experience, considering especially the thrill of the moment and felt as if we were all curious tourists in a famous wild life sanctuary. In this way ended my first day at the Ambubachi mela.
In the next two days nothing worth mentioning happened other than the fact that the crowd increased and rains started. As the Kamakhya hill remained covered by greyish clouds, the festivities surrounding the mela gathered momentum. But on the fourth day, the day of temple re-opening, everything underwent a dramatic change. Lakhs of people thronged the temple premises, and I just floated with my camera in the crowd. Right from the security check at the entrance of the temple, to the Gate 1, inside the temple, there was not enough space to put your feet without stepping on another. People appeared to be in frenzy, in a trance. Everyone wanted to get a glimpse of the Devi and seek divine blessings. I clicked a few shot of the crowd and tried to capture the excitement among the people and a sense of joy and fulfilment that appeared on the faces of the pilgrims.
There can be a lot of interpretations and debates on such a gathering as the Ambubachi, but on the whole this is definitely an event which will attract anyone interested in social history or folk traditions or trends of spirituality and devotion in India.