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temple administrator appeared unexpect- edly—or by divine intervention, listened to our plea and requested a priest, Viraj Sharma, to show us around. Viraj’s grandfather was a popular priest, but Viraj has an outside job and serves at the temple part time out of devotion to the Goddess. The temple’s 300 priestly families have various heredi- tary duties, as assigned by the kings many generations back, according to Bhupati Kant Sharma Badpujari, one of the priests who conducts puja. We started at the Ganesha temple, which


was unexpectedly powerful, then moved on to the queue for the main sanctum. The inner sanctum is situated below ground level in a small, dark cave reached by a narrow, steep _ 5 3 ^33


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spring. It is this natural depression in the rock that is worshiped as Ma Kamakhya. The priest there invited me to touch the water of this spring and then sprinkle it on myself as the blessing from the Mother Goddess. The whole experience of walking towards


the sanctum to sprinkle the water took per- haps twenty minutes, but seemed much lon- ger as the mysticism in the air here put me in a meditative state. Similarly, other devotees were in a mood of stunned amazement. Back outside, we slowly adjusted to the hectic ac- tivity. Many of the priests and devotees were dressed in red cloth, a symbol of Ma Kamak- hya’s blessings. The color red is linked to the


menses of the Mother Goddess, said to take place here once a year during the Ambuba- chi Mela in June during the monsoon sea- son. That festival attracts hundreds of thou- sands, including many sadhus, tantrics and West Bengali Baul singers. The inner parts of the temple are closed to devotees for the ^ 3


ôô õ U3L S õôR ôô3 S 3 -


ing outside. On the fourth day the temple is opened again. There are exquisite ancient statues on the


outer walls of the sanctum where devotees reverentially pray by lighting incense. An- other priest, Hemadri Sharma, 33, explained that while the time for darshan is short, the area around the temple is ideal for extended sadhana and meditation. Two types of pujas are performed here,


Vedic puja from morning to evening, and tantric puja, which is done at night in secret anywhere on the temple grounds. Allaying a common concern, Hemadri said that tantra is “just a system of worship, not a form of black magic and is not dangerous in any way.” We encountered the area of the temple 3


S ô ô ^ ôõ õ U ^ ô 3 õ ô ôL 5 5 U ô


was in progress at the time in the blood- stained shed. Viraj explained that one goat 3 3


designated group of priests. More are some- times offered during the day. With animal 3


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preached against it four centuries ago—a number of animals are simply donated to the


Worshipers at Kamkhya Temple


temple by devotees and not killed. -


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-


mal sacrifice rather hypocritical: “It is dif- ficult to understand why, when so many animals are eaten each day by people all over the world, so much noise is raised when just a few animals are sacrificed and then con- sumed.” Hemadri defended the animal sac- ^ ôL 3


5L V+ ô S ô õô 3 Rô ô


animal attain moksha and be liberated. The ultimate aim is to grant salvation to the ani- mal from the bondage of animal life.”


Shankardev’s Birthplace The most prominent Hindu saint of Assam is Srimant Shankardeva (1449-1568), a mul- tifaceted individual who made Majuli, the world’s biggest river island, a seat of Neo- Vaishnavism and cultural capital of Assa- mese civilization. His birthplace, Barduwa Than, Nagaon, is 123 km east of Guwahati. Shankardeva remains unquestionably the most widely influential religious figure, especially due to the thousands of Naam Ghar temples set up by his disciples under the system of 1


1, or religious centers, found across Assam. They preach Ekasarna


A varied religious landscape: Xõï QJ ï 3ö E


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ï Q 1ö 3 öï ï Q S 1ï óóï11


all photos: thomas l kelly


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