Weaving the Body and the Cosmos

Two Menstrual Festivals in Northeastern India

In: Worldviews: Global Religions, Culture, and Ecology
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  • 1 Smith College, USA, Northampton, MA
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This paper explores the cultural context and ecological implications of two menstrual festivals in northeastern India: Rajaparba in Orissa and Ambuvaci in Kamakhya, Assam. We argue that these festivals are extremely fruitful sites to explore questions of women and power in religious communities where the Goddess is a central focus as well as their ecological implications for an integral worldview. These festivals, usually held at the beginning of the monsoon when the Hindu Goddess menstruates, are times when the earth is regenerated, when the body of the Goddess is regenerated, and when women and communities are regenerated in various ways. Participants report that pilgrimages to these festivals are indeed transformative and have positive impacts on their lives. As a result, we critique feminist arguments that claim that Hinduism is the basis for women’s social disempowerment, and as a result, the only meaningful social change must occur on a secular basis. We also use these festivals to critique contemporary feminist developmentalist ideologies.


This paper explores the cultural context and ecological implications of two menstrual festivals in northeastern India: Rajaparba in Orissa and Ambuvaci in Kamakhya, Assam. We argue that these festivals are extremely fruitful sites to explore questions of women and power in religious communities where the Goddess is a central focus as well as their ecological implications for an integral worldview. These festivals, usually held at the beginning of the monsoon when the Hindu Goddess menstruates, are times when the earth is regenerated, when the body of the Goddess is regenerated, and when women and communities are regenerated in various ways. Participants report that pilgrimages to these festivals are indeed transformative and have positive impacts on their lives. As a result, we critique feminist arguments that claim that Hinduism is the basis for women’s social disempowerment, and as a result, the only meaningful social change must occur on a secular basis. We also use these festivals to critique contemporary feminist developmentalist ideologies.

The First commandment might read, “Thou shalt not have an Earth Mother”.

Thomas Berry (2006:25)

1 Introduction1

Issues surrounding women, power, and religion have been intertwined in the conversations among South Asian2 and western3 feminists activists and scholars for some time. Inherent in these conversations and debates are questions of, and assumptions about, the applicability of feminism cross-culturally (cf. Mohanty 1988, Kishwar 1990), the Marxist and neo-Marxist position that social liberation for women and men is linked to economics, or development ideologies, and/or production, and that religions (specifically Hinduism in this context) are inherently patriarchal, caste based and hence oppressive, systems that must be done away with in order for social equalities to prosper on the subcontinent.

In an overview of Hinduism and feminism, Sharada Sugirtharaj has this to say: “Most of those who are happy to call themselves feminists have little to do with religion, and some prefer to distance themselves from it. They shy away from religion or dismiss it as being oppressive and restrictive (2002:97).” We would propose that one of the major difficulties encountered by those who are happy to call themselves feminists when confronted by some forms of Hinduism, and in particular by those forms of Hinduism we are addressing in this paper, is that it presents us with a radically non-dualist perspective.

In the two festivals of the menstruation of the earth/the Goddess/women, Rajaparba in coastal Orissa, and Ambuvaci at Kamakhya temple in Assam,4 there is a literal identity among women, the earth and the Goddess.5 In a modernist perspective, such identity can only be comprehended as an analogy, a metaphor or a symbol. The radically dualist character of the modernist perspective makes it virtually impossible to take these identities seriously, let alone understand them.

At the heart of these two festivals is a view of generation as a cosmic, an earthly, as well as a human process. There, generation, along with regeneration, cross cut the human, the earthly and the cosmic plane. In contrast, a modernist understanding of women’s generativity is in terms of a biological process. In this view of generation as biology, of the human body as biology, the thorough going dualism of modernity is inscribed.

The modern biological body is a unique creation of the past 300 years in the west. This biological body was created as a new kind of object, the discrete, objectified and material body, one of the many consequences of the 17th century Cartesian separation between res extensa (“the extended thing”) and res cogitans (“the thinking thing”). Women’s bodies were experienced quite differently in pre-modern Europe. Women’s periodicity and fertility were the wellsprings of many village rituals of life and death. Old women could divert a thunderstorm by baring their buttocks and virgins could influence the weather by opening their bleeding vulvas to heaven.6 The body was not a discrete entity, enclosed by the skin and separate from the larger cosmos. It was open and fluid (Duden 1991; Ginsburg 1985). The non-dualist view of the body and of women’s bodies in particular was exterminated in the burning of the witches and the occult philosophers who had been decreed heretics by both Protestant and Catholic Inquisitions in 16th and 17th century Europe. With this the non-dualistic, vitalistic cosmologies of pre-modern and Renaissance Europe were eradicated. With the Scientific Revolution and the birth of modernity, the body was enclosed by its skin and became an object, part of the ‘extended thing’, the res extensa, and thus radically separated from the mind, the res cogitans. Biology, the body, were, as all of nature, objects to be studied and probed by the res cogitans, the mind, which was radically separate from it.

Furthermore, the object status of the body allowed it to become the property of the self. The emerging modern self, housed in a discrete and separate, objectified and biologized body, became the individual economic and political actor as well as the civic individual, the citizen. In late 18th century France, the philosopher Volney considered the body to be the most elementary form of property (Duden 1991:13). This was the culmination of a process during the 18th century which created the bourgeois body, that is the human being as an economic factor in its physicality, with its closed, clean and restrained body (Elias 1978).

The concept of the modern body as a biological entity arose in the context of the political establishment of the bourgeoisie, the creation of the centralized state and the deployment of capitalism. Descartes’ dualism divided the mind from the external world and the body. Thus, the body became a mechanical object of scrutiny to be dissected, internally explored and defined. This biological concept of the body was deployed through education and public propaganda as well as through the professionalization of medicine.

With this dualism, the more-than-human world along with the body became agency-less, inert, and mechanical objects. A modernist understanding of women’s generative capacity as principally biological processes implies a fundamental rift between women’s natural—that is biological—processes and their cultural—properly symbolic—capacities. It is here that the modernist dualism between nature and culture is located. In this dualism lies the estrangement between what a modernist consciousness considers “properly human capacities” and the more-than-human world. If generation/regeneration are subsumed under the category of biology, the rift between the human and the more-than-human cannot be breached in western worldviews.

From a modernist perspective, a modernist ontology, the enactments during both the Ambuvaci and the Raja Parba festivals of South Asia, are metaphorical and ritualistic—in the modernist pejorative sense of this term—actions that cannot have transformative, real, effects; actions that are not “real” but merely symbolic or metaphorical. Furthermore, many mainstream feminists see the generative capacities of women as being biological and hence natural, that is something without agency, mind and volition. Thus, the sacralization of these capacities is rejected since nature is seen as universally dominated and controlled by culture.7

Such views have deeply colored the way feminists have perceived varieties of Hinduism and women’s place within these practices and beliefs. A brief overview and critique of such views is necessary in order to clear the way for a less biased approach to the menstruation of the earth, the Goddess and women in eastern India.

2 Mainstream Feminism from Colonial Times to the Present

In colonial narratives, especially those bearing on Hindu and Muslim societies, women were seen to suffer behind the veil from segregation, isolation and seclusion. In the case of Hindus, sati was highlighted as emblematic of women’s dismal position in society (i.e., Ahmed 1992; Chaudhuri and Stroebel 1992; Mani 1989; Ware 1992) The treatment of women was the measuring rod or “index of civilization” of a society, measured against the standard of British Victorian womanhood which stood at the apex of an evolutionary incline.

Leila Ahmed (1992) has shown how in colonial Egypt the veil became the symbol of women’s oppression in westernized narratives and came to stand for the backwardness of the society as a whole. In the rhetoric about the veil, colonialists and Victorian feminists combined to conflate women and culture. The comparison of womanhood in “civilized” Britain and in colonized Egypt made it possible for someone like Lord Cromer (then Governor of Egypt) to oppose Victorian feminists at home while simultaneously using Victorian feminist arguments about Egyptian women to argue for the wholesale overhaul of Egyptian ways of life. As Ahmed puts it:

… what was created was the fusion between the issues of women, their oppression, and the cultures of Other men. The idea that Other men, men in colonized societies or societies beyond the borders of the civilized West, oppressed women was to be used, in the rhetoric of colonialism, to render morally justifiable its project of undermining or eradicating the cultures of colonized peoples … [W]hatever the disagreements of feminism with white male domination within Western societies, outside their borders feminists turned from being the critic of the system of white male domination to being its docile servant. Anthropology, it has often been said, served as the handmaid of colonialism. Perhaps it must also be said that feminism, or the idea of feminism, served as its other handmaid.


In India, sati played a similar role to that of the veil in Egypt. Lata Mani in her historical study of sati during colonial times, shows that the colonial discourse on sati represented Hindu women as essentially passive (1989, 1992). Women who committed sati were either heroized as faithful widows and obedient keepers of tradition or seen as passive victims who needed to be saved. Official rhetoric made a distinction between good and bad sati. Good, in the official rhetoric, was sati performed voluntarily by the widow in blind obedience to Brahminic scriptures; bad was sati performed under coercion to secure financial or other material gains for the survivors. Colonial officers categorized the former as legal and the latter as illegal. Colonial officials called upon brahmin pundits to provide scriptural authority and vouch for the authenticity of the act. These procedures amounted to the constitution or invention of tradition in the 19th century (Mani 1989:113). Colonizers’ ostensible effort to preserve the dignity of women performing sati was made through an equation of women and tradition, since it necessitated the identification of what constituted authentic Indian tradition. This attempt to distinguish between authentic and inauthentic sati was based on the colonizers’ classificatory act of decreeing Brahminic scriptures and their brahmin interpreters as the locus of authenticity. In this they projected Christian and western notions of the primacy of canonical scriptures onto a Hindu context. Colonial officials perceived themselves as democratizing the scriptural authority of the pundits by making visible to the masses the scriptural basis of sati. But such notions were and are foreign in a Hindu context where local oral traditions can and do supersede scriptural prescription and where the scriptures themselves are far from univocal. There are no canonical scriptures binding on all Hindus, nor is there a unified, centralized religious priesthood. Furthermore, local practice, even if not codified in any text, can, and typically does, have more authority than pan-Indian texts. This was made clear to Apffel-Marglin during a conversation about sati with K.C. Rajaguru of Puri,8 shortly after a sati had been performed in a Rajasthani town in 1987. Rajaguru was the highest authority supervising rituals in Jagannatha temple as well as the purohit of the king of Puri, and the head of the Mukti Mandapa Sabha, the assembly of Sasan (high) brahmins who interpret the dharmashastras (Apffel-Marglin 1985). Rajaguru on that occasion said the following:

In our area this sati custom has never existed. In some parts of India, it existed and still exists. But nowadays it is more important that the widow become a brahmacarini. Our shastras say that if the husband dies prematurely the wife has three choices: 1. she can become sati. 2. she can become brahmacarini 3. she can remarry. It is not our tradition here to do sati. Our widows [here he means the widows of his caste] become brahmacarinis.

Asked about the 1987 sati in Rajasthan and the pronouncements made at that time by the Puri Shankaracarya (one of four in India, but himself not an Oriya) in support of this act, Rajaguru said the following:

At the sati in Deorala there was drumming; they forced her; she was shouting ‘save me, save me!’ and they threw her in the fire. Do you think that is according to the shastras? The shastras would never support this. It should never be done. Shankaracarya should never have uttered the sentence he did. What happened in Deorala should never be done.

At this point, his 53-year-old eldest daughter who was present confirmed this by saying: “The tradition of sati never existed in this region. It is not our custom. Our widows become brahmacarinis.” Apffel-Marglin’s subsequent enquiries in Puri, as well as in villages in Puri District, substantiated what Rajaguru and his daughter had said.

From this conversation it is clear that texts do not wield ultimate authority and that local custom is very varied and furthermore is determinant in local practice. British notions of authentic/inauthentic were colonial creations. The perception by colonialists of Hindu women being oppressed, weak and passive, has been, in Lata Mani’s words:

… fertile ground for the elaboration of discourses on salvation, in contexts of colonialism, nationalism, and more recently, Western feminism. For the most part, all three have constructed the Indian woman not as someone who acts, but as someone to be acted upon.


The colonialist perception of Hindu women as passive and acted upon has been continued up to today, particularly in the writing of developmentalist feminists (i.e., Boserup 1970; Buvinic, Lycette and McGreevey 1983; G. Sen and Grown 1987; among others). In development rhetoric, poverty has acquired the status that the veil and sati had in colonial discourse. Poverty, along with the veil and sati, mean oppression, tradition and patriarchy, all of which need to be eradicated. Once again, the equation of women with tradition and poverty, and those with economic backwardness, utilizes women’s position in society to measure that society’s progress, progress having replaced the status of being civilized. And once more, the standard against which third world women are judged is that of the emancipated (formerly the civilized) woman in the first world; namely the autonomous, economically independent woman, fully integrated into a commodified world.

When women’s own self-perception concerning their well-being is not that of the autonomous, independent self, but rather of a self embedded in kinship and other social webs, as well as a self embedded in the larger cosmos, the developmentalist feminist logic leads to invalidating these perceptions as not being true to reality. Such a logic privileges the experts’ construction of reality over that of the woman. An example of just such a logic is articulated by the economist Amartya Sen:

It has often been observed that if a typical Indian rural woman was asked about her personal “welfare”, she would find the question unintelligible, and if she was able to reply, she might answer … in terms of her reading of the welfare of her family. The idea of personal welfare may not be viable in such a context ….

This empirical problem of perception and communication is indeed important. [But] it is far from obvious that the right conclusion to draw from this is the non-viability of the notion of personal welfare ….

… and the lack of perception of personal interest combined with a great concern for family welfare is the kind of attitude that helps to sustain the traditional inequalities …. It can be a serious error to take the absence of protests and questioning of inequality as evidence of the absence of that inequality …. Third, personal interest and welfare are not just matters of perception; there are objective aspects of these concepts that command attention even when the corresponding self-perception does not exist …. There is need to go beyond the primitive feelings a person may have on these matters, based perhaps on unquestioning acceptance of certain traditional priorities …. [P]erceptions must not be confused with the person’s well-being, or alternatively, taken as evidence of the non-viability of any perception of well-being.


According to this argument, a woman’s self-perception of her self-interest as inseparable from that of her family or community is highly suspect due to the possibility of inequalities within the family or community. What is disturbing in such an account is the assumption that the source of inequality resides in tradition, which tends to be equated with backwardness and constraints, whereas modernity, education, and in sum the integration of women in industrial capitalism, is assumed to be liberating. In fact, several feminists have identified development itself as a source of inequality for women (Bunch and Carillo 1990:74–77; Buvinic and Yudelman 1989:3; G. Sen and Grown 1987:15–16, 25–26, 28). Such negative effects of development on women, however, have led developmentalist feminists to urge for better development rather than question the logic of development itself.

The ahistorical category of tradition used by Amartya Sen, becomes the repository of all the forces contributing to women’s oppression; there is no attempt to inquire into the historical interplay between the processes of integration into the market and the status of women. Rather, Amartya Sen undermines the knowledge that any rural woman may have concerning her own situation. Any words on her part that fail to acknowledge oppression are seen as the product of a distorted perception, the product of primitive feelings. Essential to this argument is the well-worn colonial narrative of: “We know what is best for them in spite of what they may say for themselves.” Cognitive authority, once again, resides with the expert who has access to objective reality and not with the women themselves.

The content of the developmentalist feminist discourse differs from that of the feminist colonial discourse, but what remains constant is the binary opposition between the civilized/emancipated, autonomous western(ized) woman and the oppressed/backward non-western(ized) woman bound by a transcendental, ahistorical tradition. Such binary oppositions are possible only with the western(ized) subject as the primary reference point. As Chandra Mohanty points out, the representation of third-world women in much scholarly feminist discourse is largely a product of the self-representation of the historically mediated and culturally specific experiences of women in modern industrial societies. In Mohanty’s words: “Beyond sisterhood there are still racism, colonialism, and imperialism (1991:68).” The third-world woman is a creation of western(ized) feminists that amounts to a discursive colonization at the level of knowledge. Such a creation suppresses the heterogeneity and historical particularity of non-western, non-modern women. It also maintains the dualist modernist epistemology/ontology. Simultaneously it reproduces the prevailing notion that such women are voiceless, passive and unable to speak truthfully and objectively about themselves. The image of the “ ‘third-world oppressed woman’ exist[s] in universal, a-historical splendor, setting in motion a colonialist discourse which exercises a very specific power in defining, coding, and maintaining existing first/third world connections (Mohanty 1991:71–73).”

This view of global oppression, furthermore, prioritizes constructs of gender based on experiences of gender in modern industrial economies. It confers priority on social, economic, and legal equality. It is based on a construct of the individual as a bounded unit, separate from and in competition with other similar individuals, as well as one who is pitted against an inert, machine-like environment from which he or she is radically estranged. The first-world woman emerges as the mythical norm, so aptly captured by the late black American poetess, Audre Lorde as “white, thin, young, heterosexual, Christian, and financially secure (1984:116).”

We will close this section with the views on gender and Hinduism of another prominent Indian scholar, the father of the influential subaltern school of historiography, Ranajit Guha. In his article “Dominance without Hegemony and its Historiography” (1989), Guha mounts a scathing critique of bhakti, along with it of gender constructs within bhakti, and beyond. His language extols autonomy and rationality and excoriates the rasas at the heart of the devotional attitude of bhakti. He argues that the rasa of dasya, that is the sentiment of a servant toward a master, is the dominant and root attitude in bhakti. Guha sees no problem with the transcendental status of rationality that, since the advent of modernity, transcends all that is of the body and the world whereas he sees evidence of the extolling of dominance/subordination schemes in the Bhagavan’s transcendence of all that is of the body and the world (1989:259). For Guha, the superiority of the autonomous subject-agent and of his [sic] rationality is self-evident. It is ironic that Guha, the severe critic of capitalism and imperialism, unselfconsciously embraces this particular creation of modernity and industrial capitalism.

Rosalind O’Hanlon has identified the Achilles heel of Subaltern Studies, namely the identification of a subject-agent with a unitary sovereign consciousness. She points out that:

Critics have attempted to dismantle this figure [the subject-agent with a unitary sovereign consciousness] which is … a masculine one. All [the critics] recognize in its insistence upon us all as fundamentally free, equal, and autonomous selves, a profoundly repressive strategy of power ….


What O’Hanlon summarizes here is that the modern forms of repressive power function not only between persons, but within the person her/himself. This is what Foucault famously called the “capillary nature of power” (1977). Power in modernity flows within the capillaries of our bodies. With the autonomous subject-agent, subaltern studies reintroduce the universalizing tendency of capital, otherwise eloquently critiqued by Guha. The autonomous subject-agent is a result of industrial capitalism’s creation of labor as a commodity. It is constituted by a unitary proprietary relationship between a self and a body. Claims of a non-market nature on the labor of a person, such as those of kin and rituals, must be eliminated so that labor can become a commodity freely available on the market.

Guha understands bhakti as “an ideology of subordination par excellence” (1989:259):

All the inferior terms in any relationship of power structured as D/S [dominance/subordination] within the Indian tradition, can be derived from [bhakti] … Bhakti conferred on the superordinate the sanctity of a deity or his [sic] surrogate, and translated dominance into the benign function of a palaka [protector], prabhu [master] or lalaka [superior relative] … to whom the subordinate related as devotee.

1989:259, 260

The argument is extended to gender relations which are characterized in a similar manner. Gender relations are discussed in the context of shringara rasa, the erotic mode whose function, according to Guha, is: “primarily to spiritualize and aesthetize male dominance … Bhakti actually prescribes such passivity by depicting the gopis as women who have no sexual passion (prakita kama) of their own (1989:258).” Guha, following S.K. De (1925) and Jiva Goswami (2015), contrasts kama and madhura-bhava (or prema) where in the latter the woman devotee or the gopi, surrenders her own pleasure for the sake of the Bhagavan’s pleasure. As Apffel-Marglin has argued, based on both what the devadasis of Jagannatha temple have told her and on the description of their rituals and songs (1985, 1990, & 2008), the contrast between kama and madhura-bhava is a contrast between procreative love-making and non-procreative, non-ejaculatory love-making. In fact, the devadasis insisted that their own pleasure was immeasurably enhanced in the latter form of love-making because “it lasts and lasts.” The inference is that this is what creates the erotic space for women’s multiple orgasms (Apffel-Marglin 2008).

It may be that the devadasis of Jagannatha temple have a different interpretation, a more shakta interpretation, of the female experience in bhakti and in erotic love-play, than those of other bhakti exponents. This simply reinforces our contention that there is no singular tradition in Hinduism and that the term patriarchy as well as the term Hinduism are much too blunt, much too broad to permit any general characterization whatsoever. Hinduism is a marvelously manifold and rich river into which flow many different streams. If we all subsume them under the term patriarchal tradition, or patriarchal Hinduism we will obscure what in fact may become a rich source of inspiration for non-dualist forms of feminisms anywhere. However, even if Guha is right about some forms or contexts and practices of bhakti, the fact remains that he is blind to the repressive strategy of power inherent in the autonomous subject-agent with a unitary sovereign consciousness. Guha, like many kinds of feminists—liberal, socialist, and Marxist in particular—has appropriated the rational transcendent subject. This subject is a parcel of sovereignty and is thus constituted by power, and the idea of the individual is conflated with the concept of a self; this is the ideal of autonomy (Addelson 1994:10; Fox-Genovese 1991:116). And as Judith Butler has pointed out, the ability of this individual to establish a set of norms that are considered ultimate and beyond question is a way of disguising as well as extending its own power through recourse to universality (1992:7).

In fact, the rejection of Hinduism, or bhakti, or tradition, as patriarchal, is itself a manifestation of the modernist sovereign unitary consciousness. Such consciousness is not only the manifestation of a repressive strategy of power but also a thoroughly modernist, hence dualist, phenomenon. It is a consciousness from which the non-dualist shakta Tantric practices that we present in this essay are impossible to behold.9

3 Festivals of the Menstruation of the Earth, Women, and the Goddess

Festivals celebrating the menstruation of the earth, women, and the Goddess are documented in various parts of northeastern India. Raja Parba is a village-oriented festival in coastal Orissa that has been studied and written about by Apffel-Marglin (2008). Ambuvaci10 is celebrated at the Kamakhya temple in Guwahati, Assam District, which is a major shaktipitha and where the Goddess Sati’s yoni resides. There is also mention of a menstrual festival at Kalighat in Kolkata (Samanta 1992).11

While all of these festivals find their greatest prominence and elaboration among shakta Hindus, it is also clear that these festivals have broader influences and are embraced by a very diverse population. According to Jean’s research collaborators, this is a festival held not just for the local Assamese, but “Ambuvaci is for the world, for the earth, for the universe.”

This paper is meant as an overview of the different levels and ways in which Kamakhya and the Ambuvaci festival are understood by devotees and shakta practitioners. While there is much overlap here with the Raja Parba festival, we focus on Ambuvaci since the material on Raja Parba is already available. One of our goals is to open up understandings of Tantric Hinduism on its own terms. We do not presume to exhaust the entirety of possible meanings, practices or beliefs in this paper. And, there is much that is central that must be put aside at the moment. We hope to address other concerns such as the cultural practices associated with menstruation, sacrifice, and cosmogonic time in the future.

Just after the first monsoon rains in Ashad (mid-June to mid-July), the Goddess menstruates at both Raja Parba and at Ambuvaci. At Kamakhya, the main temple and all the temples for the surrounding Dasamahavidhyas are closed for three days paralleling the time frame of menstrual pollution and menstrual practices of many Hindu women.

During Ambuvaci, the water that covers the Goddess Kamakhya’s yoni is said to run menstrual red just as the red-clay earth is running menstrual with the power of the monsoon rains. Many writers have tried to explain away the menstruation of Kamakhya, by noting the reddish color of the local soil and how all water turns reddish during the monsoon. Hence this is why the Goddess is said to menstruate. We argue instead, that these are parallel and interconnected processes. To view these events as causative is to refuse to enter into the non-duality of local worldviews. As Bagchi writes, “The festival takes place in the first week of the month of ashada …, for it is believed that during this time the Earth like a woman menstruates and gets ready for cultivation (1980:162).” This points out the parallelism of the processes, not one that searches for empirical data to explain away the menstruation of the Goddess. Our friends and collaborators in South Asia have also framed these festivals in terms of related processes that flowed into and out of each other.

One can only reach the heart, or center, of the Kamakhya shrine by literally entering a very warm womb-like chamber. Pilgrims, practitioners, tourists, and devotees all must enter the central shrine the same way: by sharply descending a series of stairs hewn into the bedrock. At the bottom of the stairs, one finds that one has entered a cave which is dark and often quite hot and stifling as a result of the press of people in queue for darshan. Kamakhya’s rock-cleft yoni is covered by several millimeters of water that seep in from an underground spring, adding additional dampness to the environment. The male shakta Tantric brahmin priests who tend the main shrine on a rotating basis are never shy to tell those who might hesitate to get on their knees and reach down into the rock cleft: “Touch it! You must touch it!” in order that the Goddess and her devotees move closer together in embodied practice.

The menstrual blood, pieces of menstrual cloth, fruit, flowers, and small packets of vermilion powder (sindur) that are taken away at the end of Ambuvaci (and sometimes even after darshan at non-festival times) are divine offerings. People use them in a variety of ways, including to increase the potency of their spiritual practice (sadhana). As one young priest told Jean: “… [menstrual] blood is the main shakti12 [generated during Ambuvaci]. It is shakti. Kamakhya is the Mother of the Universe and Her blood is discharging [at that time] and it is powerful.” This points to the theme of generating shakti which is common to Tantric practice through embodied practices that focus on the Goddess’ yoni.

Sitting on a rush mat in the midday heat of Chaitra,13 Tyagibaba, a Tantric sadhu who had been initiated almost fifteen years before, told Jean: “The yoni is the land. We are the land, trees, wind, mountains. All are from the yoni. We all come from yoni and lingam. We are all yoni and lingam. [There is] no male, no female, no religion, no nation, no separateness, only Goddess.” In telling Jean his beliefs about the relationships among the yoni, the Hindu Goddess, the local landscapes, and even something about shakta Hindu philosophy, Tyagibaba was trying to explain the essential non-dual nature of the Ambuvaci festival for devotees and shakta practitioners.

Kamakhya and the Ambuvaci festival draw pilgrims, devotees and renouncers from a variety of religious backgrounds, ethnicities, castes, and nationalities. Householder women and men, sadhvis and sadhus (female and male renouncers), gurvis and gurus (female and male teachers) arrive from all parts of South Asia to sing, dance, pray, and pay their respects to the Goddess. At Ambuvaci in 2001, Jean witnessed an entire busload of elder Gujarati women and widows arrive and camp out during the festival, coming overland for more than 2000 kilometers. Sadhvis and sadhus come on foot, by rail, bus, and plane adorned in the resplendent colors of their lineages, practices, and paramparas: bright reds, hottest pinks, a spectrum of oranges, yellows, and even white. Many renouncers reported to Jean that Ambuvaci is an especially auspicious time when they reunite with their gurus and with their spiritual brothers and sisters, take new teachings, clarify practices, enter new levels of initiation, and receive transmissions. Jean interacted with pilgrims, devotees, and even tourists from all over South Asia (and the world!), including Bangladeshis, Bhutanese, Nepalis, and Indians over several Ambuvaci festivals and during non-festival times as well. Jean also witnessed Adivasis (tribals) from the region in queue for darshan pressed front to back with the others.14 The temple, and its associated festival are for all people, whether they do sadhana or not. This makes the philosophies and practices available to more than just the initiated. This strongly parallels what occurs at the peasant festival of Raja Parba which is a set of folk practices that are for all castes in the community. These are clearly not sectarian festivals but events that bring together—regenerate—community in vital ways.

As in Raja Parba, during Ambuvaci, participants hold that the land must rest completely during these three days. Just as the Goddess rejuvenates during her menstrual period, so too must the land rejuvenate. It must not be plowed, harvested, or even trod upon in some cases. Another shakta guru told Jean that during this time of rest and regeneration, the Goddess remakes the entire cosmos anew. One female pilgrim at Ambuvaci said that the Goddess rests when she menstruates, and women must also rest during their menses. These conversations, and many others, led Jean to understand how deeply intertwined the Hindu shakta Goddess is with the land, the bodies and minds of women, menstruation, and with the entire cosmos.

We know that social life is deeply embedded in space, place, and geography throughout South Asia. We know that many formal and informal communities find some of their social glue in the shared notions of the centrality of place (cf. Thompson 1997). These relationships among individuals, families, communities, landscape is prominent. In addition, pilgrimage is one of the ways that people connect themselves and their communities to these broader landscapes.

Because Kamakhya is the shakta pitha of Sati’s yoni—which as we mentioned before is the central shakta pitha—and because Ambuvaci is a festival for the entire sub-continent (“for the world”), we conceive of Ambuvaci at Kamakhya as the central festival in relation to Raja Parba, and to Ambuvaci as it is practiced in Kolkata, and other menstrual festivals for the Goddess/earth/women in South Asia.

It is within these shifting and multifaceted contexts of Hinduisms, and indeed of Tantrism, that we come to definitional issues regarding shaktism and Tantra as practiced in South Asia. Definitional issues in Tantric studies are well debated and dealt with in various publications (i.e. Brown 2002, White 2000). Even so, we would like to posit some themes to elucidate shakta philosophy and practice. First, we would like to emphasize that Tantric philosophy and practice places women’s bodies at the center of spiritual life (as we elaborate later). Secondly, shaktism is intertwined with and at the heart of what we now call Hinduism. It is not counter-cultural, or marginal, as many would have us imagine. The fact that Raja Parba is a village level non-sectarian set of practices reinforces this position.

Part of the reason for the biases towards marginalization in our descriptions and analyses is a result of the relative invisibility of shakta Tantra. It has been rendered invisible on at least several counts: because of how it is studied (with methodological foci on texts, historical analyses, and second- hand accounts and conjectures); because of the relatively esoteric, or secret and hidden, nature of the practices and texts; and because of the biases in how those outside the circle of initiates view Tantra. Even the book Tantra in Practice (White 2000) deals primarily with histories, texts, and macrocosmic perceptions without many connections to the microcosmic realities of daily lived practice. We acknowledge that textual sources are vital to the study of shakta Hinduism, and yet to rely on them without reference to daily life is too narrow of a focus. We argue for a dialectical understanding of text and practice in this arena, knowing that it can open up our perceptions of cultural life and allow us to understand shakta Tantricism on its own terms.

A further insight into the multilayered worldview of shakta Tantrism is what Apffel-Marglin documents in her book on the devadasi rituals at Jagannatha temple (1985b). Among temple servants, a common saying is: “I am a Vaishnava in public, a shaivite in private, and a shakta in secret,” demonstrating that there are different levels of accessibility in each of these traditions, and that some practices and beliefs are more publicly acceptable than others. Jean’s witnessed this same layering of social interactions and practices regarding devotion to the Goddess at the Kamakhya temple. It takes time and immersion in local community life before the inner levels of shakta tantra begin to be hinted at to researchers. The same is true for initiates, where inner realms of understanding (which invariably are widely divergent from outer realms) are revealed only after years of practice and testing.

With this layering of practices and philosophies in mind, we would like to return to definitions. Padoux (1986:273), citing Biardeau, describes the doctrinal aspect of Tantra as “an attempt to place kama, in every sense of the word, in the service of liberation … not to sacrifice this world for liberation’s sake, but to reinstate it … an embodied liberation (White 2000:8).”

The goal of Tantric practice (sadhana) is an effort to gain access to and appropriate the energy of consciousness of the “absolute godhead” that courses through the Universe, giving its creatures life and the potential for salvation. Humans in particular are empowered to realize this goal through strategies of embodiment—that is, causing that divine energy to become concentrated in one or another sort of template, grid, or mesocosm—prior to its internalization in or identification with the individual microcosm.

White 2000:18–19

Padma Kaimal describes some of the forms that the acquisition of this “energy of consciousness” might take:

What I do mean by Tantra are the many esoteric traditions teaching that dualism is an illusion, teaching that phenomenon that we may think of as opposites—like male and female, or body and mind, or divinity and devotee—are unities rather than polarities. Tantric enlightenment lies in perceiving that unity. Non-dualism is admittedly a principle taught in many branches of Indic philosophy. What makes the Tantric version of that idea distinctive is, as I understand it, its use of sexual metaphor, its emphasis upon the role of the Goddess, and its conviction that the practitioner is himself [sic] the deity.


We would add to these definitions that the role of secrecy is also significant in the transmission and practice of Tantric Hinduism on the Indic subcontinent. Initiations and teachings are usually passed orally from a guru to a disciple, creating spiritual families (paramparas), and extended networks of disciples all over the region.

Hugh Urban has documented (along with other scholars) that in shakta Tantric contexts, the focus and practice of secrecy concentrates energy (or shakti) for the practitioner. This secret knowledge (and its consequent accumulation of power) are then passed from teacher to student in the form of initiation that concentrates it in the student in potent forms. Tantric texts, teachings, and practices have been notoriously difficult to study because of this esotericism. We must also remember, as Urban has so eloquently discussed, that the actual secret content of these traditions may indeed be less important than the ways in which these secret forms are conceived and deployed (1998). In many of these cases, the structures that have secrecy at their base—and the social relations embedded in those structures—may be more important to investigate than the actual content of the secret.

Esoteric does not necessarily imply unknowable or even that the secret oral knowledge is somehow more important than the more public faces, or than the philosophical texts. What much recent research in Tantric studies has helped us to articulate is how potentially mainstream Tantra actually is throughout the subcontinent both now and historically.15

We argue that knowledge of secret practices does not necessarily cause the shakti to leak out of the forms and structures in which it is contained. We understand that these kinds of unearthing, the weaving together of these various threads in a larger tapestry,16 make these forms knowable to broader audiences, and thereby reduce much of the stigma associated with Tantra. It is also good to keep in mind that symbols are multivocal, flexible, changeable, and as such, meaning may shift and morph (with time, and context) even while the forms remain.

Tantra has had a marginalized status in society and scholarship for several reasons which has been one of the contributors to a growth in distorted images. One reason is that there are now denials that Tantra ever existed, the prevalent beliefs that Tantra is synonymous with a kind of debauched and dangerous sexuality or sex magic, and as a result contemporary practices are becoming increasingly channeled into right-handed paths (or more conservative interpretations and practices) (i.e., White 2000:4–5) leading towards a kind of ideological homogenization in Indic South Asia.

Another reason—one that reaches back further into history—for the marginalized status of Tantra in society and scholarship, is that it often challenges social and canonical Brahmanical norms.17 We must be careful to continue to try to analyze and evaluate Tantra on its own terms and not with the lens of Brahmanical norms or standards.

As a result, there is an ongoing need to use innovative research methods and techniques in order to understand this set of rich religious traditions, practices, and symbols on their own terms—something inherent in Tantric philosophy. In addition, because of Tantra’s focus on both enlightenment and worldly success (Brown 2002), we may need to look for evidence in innovative places as well as in innovative ways.

At a time of increasing nationalism across South Asia, it is vital that we not marginalize these traditions. Studies of Tantra illuminate non-canonical worldviews and have implications for our understandings of social life at a time when differences are being glossed over, ignored, or thrown out (sometimes violently), in order to claim a false national, religious, or cultural unity.

As cultural anthropologists, we are interested to know how contemporary practitioners make meaning out of these icons, aniconic forms, deities, texts, structures, and philosophies. Cross-disciplinary investigations such as these will clearly support our growing understanding of Tantras’ mainstream influences and impacts, across geography, time, and Tantric schools/lineages/paramparas.

4 Yantric Homologies at Kamakhya

Our understandings of Ambuvaci as the central menstrual festival, and of the Kamakhya temple as the center point of a three-dimensional yantra arose while trying to puzzle out what we felt were some anomalies in the spatial relations on the hill and the prominent presence of the Dasamahavidhyas both below the main shrine and above it in geo-spatial relation. While looking at a devotional image of the entire Nilacala Hill and of one depiction of the yantras of the Mahavidhyas (Khanna 1979:58–59), we also remembered the descriptions from the tourist brochures of the four directionally placed gateways leading into the main temple courtyard at Kamakhya temple. Our confusion over the placement of Kamakhya in the center of the hill (rather than at the top as we had expected), and over the fact that some of the Mahavidhyas were above Kamakhya on the hill, lifted. We understood that what we were looking at was a three-dimensional approximation of a yantra with Kamakhya at the center. Then Jean went back through her fieldnotes and discovered that she had been told: “Kamakhya is the bindu.” We then quickly pieced together the realization that Kamakhya is the bindu of a three-dimensional yantra that not only encompasses Nilacala Hill but extends further out to include the subcontinental shaktapithas and even further into the cosmos.

The festival, and the temple at Kamakhya can be understood as a series of linked homologies among the yantra, the yoni, the earth, the Hindu Goddess, the human body (both female and male, yet in different ways), the temple, and the cosmos. Yantras, a two-dimensional geometric composition (or diagram), are one of the ways that practitioners move across these dimensions. The yantra is one of the major ways that these homologies are held together and condensed for devotees and practitioners. Yantras help devotees and practitioners move among the different homologies and remember that when they focus on one of the homologies, all the other levels are present simultaneously.

A sacred geometric diagram used in meditative practices: “Yantras function as revelatory symbols of cosmic truths and as instructional charts of the spiritual aspect of human experience (Khanna 1979:12).” Khanna also states that yantras can also be the two-dimensional residences of the deity (1979:12 ff.).

In addition, many situate yantras as central focus points for Tantric practice.

One of the keys to understanding Tantric practice is the mandala,18 the energy grid that represents the constant flow of divine and demonic, human and animal impulses in the universe. This grid is three dimensional in the sense that it locates the supreme deity, the source of that energy and ground of the grid itself, at the center and apex of a hierarchical cosmos.

White 2000:9

“Yantras have been described as symbolic extensions of the sacred pilgrim centers (pitha-sthana)—the most holy temples of the Supreme Goddess which are scattered throughout India …” (Khanna 1979:21).

“[Broadly,] the symbolic syntax of yantra can be divided into two specific dimensions,” … the macrocosmic and the microcosmic (Khanna 1979:21).

Despite its cosmic meanings a yantra is a reality lived. Because of the relationship that exists in the Tantras between the outer world (the macrocosm) and man’s [sic] inner world (the microcosm), every symbol in a yantra is ambivalently resonant in inner-outer synthesis and is associated with the subtle body and aspects of human consciousness.

Khanna 1979:21–22

“Yantras are most commonly drawn on paper, or engraved on metals or rock crystal, although any flat surface such as floors or walls may be used, especially for temporary yantras. Three-dimensional yantras may be on a small scale, or on the scale of architecture (Khanna 1979:22).” Yantras are like “transcriptions” that allow the microcosms to enact the macrocosms.

The fully created cosmos (…) arising from the union of male and female principles, in which the world of multiplicity is held by the unity of the primordial bindu at the center. Each triangle of this yantra has its presiding deity. Many epithets of the Supreme Energy, such as Adya Nitya, … Lalita, and Tripura-Sundari, are invoked as the central divinity in this yantra, known as Shri Yantra.

Khanna 1979:73

Yantras can be two-dimensional or three-dimensional, and people talk about yantras in both ways. Bindu is the center point (inside a yoni) and is conceived as female and male together. Shiva-Shakti join to produce the bindu, the primordial seed of the universe, as a result of the intense impulse of procreation in the universe (Khanna 1979:13). It is understood as the fertilized union of feminine and masculine energies, the flow or Shiva and Shakti together emanating out into the cosmos. “It is the image of a drop (bindu) that recurs, across the entire gamut of Tantric theory and practice, as that form which encapsulates the being, energy, and pure consciousness of the divine … (White 1988:174).” As one of Jean’s collaborators reported, “Where there is a yoni, then Shiv is also there. Kamakhya is the yoni and Shiv is also there.”

5 Temples, Festivals, and the Communities of Devotees

At the Ambuvaci festival in 2001, a Tantric guru pilgrim who had come to be reunited with his sanga and his shishyas, reported to Jean that during the annual festival, the world is made anew. Jean was told that pilgrims bring the parts of Sati from the other shakta pithas back to Nilacala hill to be reunited with Kamakhya, and as a result, the Goddess literally made whole again.19 Then, after the fourth day (when the temple doors are reopened and devotees line up for darshan), pilgrims return to the other shakti pithas with the regenerated/rejuvenated parts of the Goddess to reinvigorate the sacred geography, the temples, and the communities in those places. It is as if the outer edges of the yantra are being focused into the bindu of Kamakhya during Ambuvaci, the same way that in certain yogic practices the outer edges of the yantra or mandala converge with the inner drop.

There is a belief that during the celebration of the menstruation of the Goddess as a time of joy: people endeavor to make women happy, and then the Goddess is happy, who receives pleasure through the joy that her female devotees engender. Men are essential to these processes, the same way that the masculine principle is essential for creation, regeneration, and also destruction. In terms of human males, it is one of their responsibilities to do what they can to promote the happiness of women, and thus the Goddess, in daily and ritual life. As a result, they are a necessary part of the dialectic. This is mirrored in the presence of the masculine principle in the center of the bindu. Shiva is present at every moment, in every place where the divine feminine is honored at Kamakhya, as a trident (trisul) propped up near Kamakhya’s yoni, as a devotional image (as on paper) that is affixed on the wall near the Goddess, or through the presence of an actual man during a ritual. So, while the Goddess is prominent, and primary, on Nilacala Hill, she is never alone, never without a divine masculine counterpart.

With Kamakhya and Shiva at the center of the yantric bindu, and at the center of the main shrine of Kamakhya, and with the geo-spatial relations present on the hill, we argue that there are a minimum of five linked homologies (which can be imagined as concentric circles) that emanate outwards from the center point of the Kamakhya shrine. We understand that these homologies move inwards and outwards in geographic space mirroring the meditational movements from the bindu outwards to the edges of the yantra in cosmogenesis (Khanna 1979:70 ff.), and also from the outward reaches of the yantra (or Nilacala Hill), where the yantra symbolizes the link between humans and the cosmos to the bindu through the realization of the oneness (Khanna 1979:75). This movement from the center to the edges and back to the center, is a direct experience (not metaphorical) of the movements and relationships among the microcosms and the macrocosms, as well as in terms of how pilgrims and practitioners move through the sacred space of the hill. The first homology is that of the human body as yantra. The second is the temple as yantra. The third, moving outwards, are the Dasamahavidhyas and their temples on Nilacala Hill as an outer map of yantra. The fourth homology moves outwards even further in geography to encompass the shakti pithas as they are manifest across the subcontinent. And finally, the fifth homology is the entire cosmos as yantra.

6 The Goddess Kamakhya as the Bindu

The community that makes their home on Nilacala hill is of concern here; this is a community that lives intertwined with the power of the yoni of the Goddess Kamakhya as well as the yonis of the Mahavidhyas, the Mahavidhyas are deities in the yantra.

This intersection of the most powerful part of the body of the Goddess, combined with the location, makes this an especially potent Shakta Hindu community, loci of goddess/woman/body/earth/cosmos. The Goddess is the Land. The monsoon is her menstruation.

We have also found in these different cultural contexts, that these beliefs and practices that venerate human women as embodiments of the divine feminine flow out of the ritual contexts of the menstrual festivals into other festivals and into daily life. As Apffel-Marglin has written elsewhere,

This imaginative world of myth and ritual, inhabited by goddesses, gods, demons, ghosts, ancestors, and other beings, should not be thought of as a reflection of the everyday world, but as part and parcel of it … ritual captures what can be identified and reidentified in what has been done, in social practice. Ritual is to the everyday flow of interaction what literature is to the flow of speech in dialogue. In other words, ritual is the poetry of everyday practice.


Taking this dialectic relationship between ritual and everyday practice as our starting point, at both Rajaparba and Ambuvaci, we have found that the festivals are intimately tied to the cycles of production and regeneration of the land. The residents on Nilacala Hill make up a community much like a village with its interdependent social structure, political organization, and kinship networks.

Indeed, based on our work on Rajaparba and Ambuvaci, we maintain that the relationship between the earth, the Goddess, human women, and cosmology is enacted in both festivals in similar and different ways. The yantra plays a central role at Kamakhya in a way that it does not at Rajaparba. We will attempt to talk about the role that the yantra plays in the homologies between women’s bodies, the earth, and the cosmos. According to Khanna, yantras are sacred enclosures, or a ‘dwelling’ for the deity (1979:12). In addition, she writes:

Yantras have been described as ‘symbolic extensions of the sacred pilgrim centers (pitha-sthana)’ [Beane 1977:206]—the most holy temples of the Supreme Goddess which are scattered throughout India—and as ‘spatial digits’ of the divine [Eliade 1962:201].”


Khanna goes on to give a brief description of Sati’s dismemberment and how her body fell across the subcontinent.

These places became sacred centers of pilgrimage, temples saturated with holy power. Thus, yantras should be seen, not as ‘artworks’ isolated from the religious tradition in which they developed and which sustains them, but as two-dimensional pitha-sthana, or pilgrim temples, in which the movement from the profane to the sacred takes place. The yantras of the devatas are ‘revealed’ images of transcendental reality.


Besides condensing the movement from profane to sacred, the yantra literally enacts a homology between the human body, the earth and the cosmos. There are different kinds of yantras: two-dimensional and three-dimensional. Two dimensional yantras are found in paintings, on cloth, paper, and etched on copper plates.

In its next emanation, this landscape yantra moves out even further to include the body and the adornment of the Goddess as she is spread out across the entirety of South Asia. David Kinsley hints at this kind of mapping of the body of the Goddess when he refers to the “structure” of the landscape in Hinduism (1998:229).20

7 The First Homology: The Human Body as a Yantra

One form of a three-dimensional yantra is the human body. Women and men, boys and girls, are literal embodiments of the Goddess for shakta Hindus at Kamakhya temple in non-ritual and ritual contexts, in festival times and in non-festival times.

While it might not seem so obvious, men embody the Goddess, although not in the same way. In the daily puja that some Tantric Brahmin priests (and others) perform, they ask the Goddess to enter the different named parts of their body through a series of practices that include invocation, mantra recitation, visualization, and mudra, that creates a state of purity within the male body. Some men told Jean, that for these practices, they even don saris (much like the teacher Ramakrishna did) in order to fully feel the power of this transformation, and in the process, they come closer to women.21

According to a 32-year-old unmarried shakta Brahmin priest who has lived his entire life on Nilacala Hill, “after becoming pure [through these practices], we should link our bodies to the Goddess. Then I become a priest because then I become one with the Goddess. Otherwise [when we pray to Her] she will not understand us.” He continued, “through this puja, we configure ourselves to be just like the Goddess, but only for the period of puja time. We become like the Goddess at this time. Then when we dismiss Her, she goes away.” When Jean asked this man about whether he physically felt anything at this time—in order to clarify how this kind of embodiment for male priests might be different than the kind of embodiment that females experience during kumaripuja or sadhavapuja—he replied: “The Goddess comes, and She establishes something inside of me. I feel something,” he emphasized. “I never think of anything [else] at that time. There is something that we are feeling at that time when the Goddess comes into our body.” In emphasizing how men must do this set of practices for the Goddess to be inside of them, he told Jean: “If we don’t give our mind to the mantras, then She won’t come into our body. We must keep our mind on the Goddess.”

The process of embodying the Goddess is quite different for those who inhabit a female body and points to how the female body acts as a yantra in ways that it might not for a male, even when he has performed the above-mentioned set of practices. One way this difference can be seen is that males do not embody the Goddess for others, but for themselves in their own sadhana. Women are the Goddess merely by residing in a female body. And, as a result, others can interact with women and gain the graces of the Goddess as in kumaripuja or sadhavapuja. At Ambuvaci women embody the Goddess in especially auspicious ways, and in more prevalent ways than at non-festival times. Jean has witnessed men prostrating before a woman as she passed by on the road. Jean also witnessed sadhus saluting a crowd of women at one of the Mahavidhya temples by blowing on their conch shell horn every time the women passed by them in their perambulations. While these sadhus were clearly calling forth the Goddess’ presence with their conch shell, they were also paying homage to the shakti inherent in these women.

Another woman, in her late 20s, stopped by a water tap during Ambuvaci in 2001 in order to rinse the accumulated mud from her feet. Jean witnessed a male sadhu approach this woman and request (through gestures) that he be allowed to wash her feet. She smiled and assented. He filled a small plastic jug and rinsed her feet, using his hands to remove the caked-on mud. At one point, when she lifted her foot from the ground slightly to ease his cleanings, he cupped his hand under her foot to collect a few drops of the water that were running off. He then poured this water into his mouth and swallowed, signifying his much lower status. Jean was able to talk briefly with the woman about what she had just witnessed. This woman reported: “I am the Goddess. Currently, men worship me as the Goddess.” In contemporary Kathmandu, and in the Kathmandu Valley as witnessed by Lynn Bennett (1983) in the 1970s and 1980s, and by Jean in the 1990s, high-caste women often wash their husband’s feet when he returns to the house (sometimes after being in the field), and drink a bit of the water that runs off their feet; they are literally ingesting that which has run off the lowest part, ingesting the lowest part, to become the same as the lowest part. In Tantra, there are many stories about people being liberated by eating the dust from someone’s feet.22 These two sets of symbolism, the water and dust of the feet of a superior, are set in different cultural contexts, time frames, and moments in ritual contexts, even so, the underlying symbolic metaphors, and literal ingestions, are understood (read) clearly by others. This woman, in her brief remarks to Jean, and during the foot washing,23 demonstrates that this vibrant stream of shakta Hinduism continues to help us refine our notions of Hinduism as universally repressive to women, and that places men above women in an unchanging hierarchy that includes high-castes over low-castes.24

In addition, the inner yogas that initiated women practice are quite different from the sadhana that men do. While initiated males establish the Goddess throughout their bodies—as mentioned above—a woman’s cervix (or clitoris depending on the parampra) is understood as the bindu, the center of a yantra that both encompasses their own bodies (and the cosmos) and is at the same time comprised of their bodies.25 In addition, one of Jean’s collaborators, a married Tantric Brahman woman in her 40s, reported that it was not just that she should embody the Goddess, but even more specifically, that she should be the Goddess with the promise of creation present in her own body. She told of how she was the Goddess when she menstruated. While most women went through menstrual seclusion, it was because they had not prepared their bodies throughout the prior month so that their menstruation should be both auspicious and pure. We know, as Apffel-Marglin has described, that in most cases, menstruation is simultaneously impure and auspicious (2008). Yet, what this woman reported was that there were inner yogas that she could engage in that would maintain her purity, and the purity of her menstrual blood. When this happens, then her menstruation is also pure, just as Kamakhya menstrual blood is auspicious and pure during Ambuvaci. As another person told Jean: “[Menstrual] blood is the main power. It is the symbol of power. Kamakhya is the Mother of the Universe and Her blood is discharging [at Ambuvaci] and it is powerful.” The concern with the generation of power or potency, shakti, is a common theme among shakta Tantrics.

As a result of her menses, women’s bodies are the body of the Goddess, and at the same time the female body is a yantra in and of itself. Just as the yoni of the Goddess is at Kamakhya, and the third eye of the Goddess is many hundreds of kilometers south at Tarapith in West Bengal, and Her womb (or anus, depending on the source) is just outside of Kathmandu, Nepal, so too is a female initiate’s body like a cosmic landscape with creation and the power of regeneration inherent in her body through the bindu yoni and through the creative and regenerative processes of menstruation. When taken together, we can see how the inner body of the practitioner is a manifestation of the cosmic body of the Goddess.

There is also evidence for this kind of inner yogic landscape in Tantric Buddhist practices as described by Miranda Shaw in her groundbreaking book Passionate Enlightenment (1994).26 Here is how Shaw describes one of these inner yogas:

In the visualization that supports this yoga, the inner anatomy of a woman’s sexual organ is seen as a mandala, the jeweled palace at the center of a Buddha-land. This palace has no set dimensions, for it is a “measureless mansion” on the visionary plane of experience. The center of the mandala radiates out from the cervix, or innermost point of the vulva, but the size of the envisioned mandala will vary depending upon the purpose of the meditation … Regardless of the precise meditation, the purity, bliss, and wisdom that coalesce into the mandala emanates from the central point, the cervix, which is where the woman focuses her attention for this mediation.


Khanna discusses this same set of relationships in Hindu Tantric contexts:

… [another] aspect of yantra syntax is its psycho-cosmic symbolism. Despite its cosmic meanings a yantra is lived reality. Because of the relationship that exists in the Tantras between the outer world (the macrocosm) and man’s [sic] inner world (the microcosm), every symbol in a yantra is ambivalently resonant in inner-outer synthesis and is associated with the subtle body and aspects of human consciousness. Thus, for instance, the bindu in a yantra is cosmic when viewed as the emblem of the Absolute Principle but psychological when it is related to the adept’s spiritual center. By aligning these two planes of awareness, the yantra translates psychic realities into cosmic terms and the cosmos into psychic planes.


In summary, while both females and males embody the Goddess in different ways, at Kamakhya, the female body is itself a yantra as a result of her embodied presence at this sacred site. While men draw the Goddess into their bodies for specified periods of time through sadhana, women are the Goddess even without these practices. When an initiated woman does practice, her body then is a yantra in even more significant ways.

8 The Second Homology: The Temple as Yantra

Prime examples of three-dimensional yantras are manifold and can even include the underlying architectural plans of temples (which are understood in their two-dimensional aspects as yantras and then are embodied in the world in three-dimensional form as temples) such as at the Kailasanath temple in Kancipuram, Tamilnadu. Here according to scholar Padma Kaimal, “the temple complex articulates Tantric principles (2002:1).” She has shown that there are “sacred diagrams [mandalas and yantras] underlying the ground plan of the vimana [a tower form at this temple and a large square interior area] (2002:1).” The one-to-one correlation between yantra and architecture is quite clear from the visual overlays.

In the case of the Kamakhya temple complex, the relationships are not so precise geometrically, architecturally, or visually. Even so, many devotees understand that the rock-cleft yoni of Kamakhya is the bindu (or drop, i.e. the center) of a yantra that emanates outwards.

David Gordon White discusses the level of abstraction that a yantra embodies in the world in the following way:

Even at this level of abstraction, the Tantric mandala remains a template through which humans may interact with the divine, and thereby come to experience reality from a superhuman perspective. The practice of the mandala generally involves a meditative or performative projection of both the meta-cosmic godhead and the proto-cosmic self into its vortex, followed by an implosion of the entire grid into its center point [the bindu]. Here, the underlying assumption is that this implosion is a reversal of the original cosmogony—that is, of a primal impulse or flow (samsara) into manifest existence—back into the source of energies mapped on the grid. One’s self-projection into the mandala and gradual return to the center is therefore a return to the source of one’s being; at each level, one is gnoseologically transformed into a higher, more divine, more enlightened being, until one becomes the god[dess] or buddha [dakini, yogini] at the center (except in some dualist forms of Tantra).


Although the name, attributes, and entourage of the deity located at the center of the mandala vary from one tradition to another, nearly all Tantric practice of the mandala has this same goal, of transacting with and eventually identifying with that deity.

Devotees and practitioners understand the hill with the surrounding temples of the Dasamahavidhyas27 that spiral outwards as a kind of physical three-dimensional yantra that can be walked into, or through, and even embodied while on the hill. Pilgrims can actually buy copper yantras at a variety of small shops on the temple hill.

The Yonitantra (cf. Maharaj 1985 and Schoterman 1980) is a text that has vigor in the cultural practices at Kamakhya. In one interpretation of this text,

The Yoni-tantra describes the yoni as though it were a sacred landscape, through which pilgrimage should be made. Ten spots within the yoni are sacred, says the Yoni-Tantra, to different forms of the Mother Goddess. Each yoni-tirtha has its own appropriate prayers and meditation.

Sinha 2000:142

This yoni bindu, is re-represented, re-empowered, and re-configured in the temples of the ten Mahavidhyas that are also on Nilacala hill. Jean’s Tantric Brahmin collaborators who resided on Nilacala Hill28 spoke of how each Mahavidhya stood on her own, or was worshipped in her own right, and yet each was also a part of the yoni of Kamakhya.29 Just as there are three-dimensional deities “invoked” in the two-dimensional Kali yantra that surround the central bindu, so too do the Mahavidhyas surround Kamakhya on the hill in a three-dimensional yantra.

9 The Third Homology: The Dasamahavidhyas

Kamakhya is in the “center” of the temple hill where one would expect the bindu to be. Kamakhya is not at the top of the hill as would be the normal placement of a temple. Instead, Kamakhya is in the middle of the hill with the Mahavidhyas spiraling out, arranging themselves around Her geographically.

The Dasamahavidhyas are known as the

Ten Great or ‘Transcendent’ Wisdoms … these ten energies encompass the whole knowledge of the universe. Together, they are expressions of the cycles of life, and the summary of all planes of existence. These feminine embodiments of knowledge constitute the power of wisdom that rouses the aspirant from the illusion of existence and awakens dormant qualities of mind towards conscious awareness and perfect wisdom. In their yantra forms they are a cluster of varying degrees of concentration and are aspected as divine, heroic, terrifying, demonic, peaceful, or as embodiments and consummations of human perfection

Khanna 1979

Inside each temple, including inside the innermost shrine at Kamakhya, Shiva is always present in the form of a trisul or lingam.

Nowadays, people drive up a large motorable road that intersects the old walking route in some places, crisscrosses with it, but doesn’t necessarily parallel it. Instead of passing by each of the Mahavidhyas (along with Ganesha, Shiva, and other temples), now, one drives underneath a large pink gate with all the Mahavidhyas carved into it. On the gateway, Kamakhya is portrayed as one of the Mahavidhyas in the central place.

10 The Fourth Homology: The Shakta Pithas

According to some of the legends and texts there are four, 51, or 108 shakta pithas, or seats, in Hindu South Asia where the parts of Sati’s body are enshrined (c.f. Sircar 1973).30 At each of these places, the Goddess is actually embodied in—and through—the landscape. In his discussion of sacred Hindu geography, David Kinsley writes:

At the most general level in Hindu tradition, the earth (the Indian subcontinent) is said to be a goddess (Prithvi, Bhu Devi, or Bharat Ma). In the Devibhagavata Purana it is said that the oceans are the Devi’s bowels, the mountains are her bones, the rivers are her veins, and the trees are her body hair. The sun and the moon are her eyes, and the nether worlds are her hips, legs, and feet (Devibhagavata Purana 7.33.21–41). Somadeva’s Yanastilaka says that the goddess Aparajita has the stars for pearls in her hair, the sun and moon for eyes, the heavenly rivers as her girdle, and Mount Meru as her body (Mishra 1973, 25). A Gupta inscription says that Kumaragupta rules over the whole earth, whose “marriage-string is the verge of the four oceans; whose large breasts are [the mountains] Sumeru and Kailasa; and whose laughter is the full-blown flowers showered forth from the borders of the woods” (Fleet 1970, 86). Another vivid expression of this Hindu belief is the cult of the shakta-pithas, holy places associated with the goddess Sati.


Kinsley then goes on to describe one of the Puranic stories that tells of Sati’s dismemberment.

Wherever a piece of Sati’s body fell, a sacred shrine was established. In effect, India became her burial ground and was thus sacralized. The myth also stresses that the numerous and varied pithas and the goddesses worshipped at them are part of a larger, unified whole …. In short, the Indian subcontinent is the goddess Sati.


While there is some contention—in the textual sources and in everyday practice and belief—about which part of Sati’s body is enshrined where, most would agree that her yoni is at Kamakhya, in Assam. The temple is the center of much shakta Tantra worship. As Urban writes, it is “almost universally accepted as one of the most holy power centers of the Shakta tradition (2001:787).” Jean’s ethnographic research supports these assertions.

For others, Kamakhya is embedded in a more local landscape that has relations with other temples and sites in Guwahati and the surrounding areas (like Peacock Island). And, just as the Brahmins who reside year-round on Nilacala Hill participate in the broader cycles of the shakta pithas during Ambuvaci and when they work with pilgrims, the Hill residents also participate in the Assamese cycle of rituals and practices that have an ongoing impact on household life, social structure on the Hill, and gender relations.

11 The Fifth Homology: The Cosmos

The Nilacala Hill residents told Jean repeatedly that many understand the Kamakhya temple as part of the landscape of the shakta pithas that ties Kamakhya into the broader geography of South Asian Hinduism. What Jean focuses on here are primarily the Brahmin families who live on Nilacala hill year-round and for whom the Goddess Kamakhya, the ritual cycles of the temple, and the annual agricultural calendar structure the rhythms of life.

Beyond this, we also know that shakta Tantrism assumes (in many texts, beliefs, and practices) that women have equal access and ability as any male practitioner to achieve enlightenment, or liberation, in this lifetime in the body of a woman. Indeed, there are important female gurus, lineage holders, and practitioners practicing today throughout South Asia, passing on the teachings and liberating others (cf. Khanna).

The implications of this philosophy, from our evidence as anthropologists, are that it has ramifications for broader social life beyond esoteric contexts. This belief does indeed flow out into broader cultural contexts and has an impact on social structure, ritual cycles, and household relations.

One of the reasons that the festival has this meaning is that it can be read on many levels, from the surface understandings that are presented in pamphlets, handouts, and newspaper clippings, to the deeper meanings that are understood by pujaris and pujarinis, and devotees, to the secret/inner/esoteric meanings held by gurus, mendicants, and revealed partially in some of the more esoteric texts. Yet, the multiplicity of meanings is not exhausted by any single community or individual.

These meanings will often intersect (and/or contradict and/or illuminate) with other sets of beliefs in ways that make meanings negotiable and shifting and flexible. Meaning is not fixed and as a result we take the reports of our research collaborators and friends and of the authors of the relevant texts to be primary.

12 Conclusions

In this paper, we have attempted to present the practices and lived realities of some South Asian women and men in the context of two festivals of menstruation. In doing this, we have attempted to make ourselves and our readers aware of taken for granted assumptions embedded in modernist epistemology and ontology. The latter two have often profoundly distorted understanding of these phenomena, and of South Asian women’s experiences in general. We have tried to address these distortions as well as attempted to make visible the root assumptions of modernist ontology relevant to these matters. This was necessary in order to attempt to speak of the yantra not as a representation, but as an instrument for certain types of enactments. Specifically, for enactments that bring about a literal weaving of microcosm (the body) and macrocosm. We have gathered our information and insights from many years of fieldwork in Orissa and at Kamakhya as well as through personal practice. Without this experiential dimension, we believe that it would have been impossible to gain the understandings communicated in this paper.

We also maintain that this study has ramifications for both village and city people. Even while urban dwellers are often disengaged from the cycles of the land, and the harvest, and may not have the same sets of understandings about the festival, its symbols, and meanings, they too partake of the richness and fruit of these menstrual festivals and the associated sadhanas. This study has implications for South Asians—and others—who are looking for the multiplicities in thealogies and for deeper understandings of what is often presented as monolithic. The threads (and presuppositions) embedded in modernist ontology have erased women’s voices, experiences, and subjectivities from our understandings of these vital and vibrant traditions. As such, we (as scholars, activists, and practitioners) have much work to do to bring greater levels of awareness to scholars the world over about the importance of Shakta Tantrism in offering avenues for women’s enlightenment, social liberation, ecology and a revisioning of oppressive social and cultural systems.


A partial and early version of this essay was presented at the International Seminar “Shaktika on the Ascent: Reframing Gender in the Context of the Culture of India” Sponsored by The Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts in collaboration with The Department of Sociology Utkal University, Bhubaneswar, Orissa, India in 2004.


We chose to use the terms South Asia and South Asian instead of India or Indian to describe this world area and its’ cultures and practices. It is more accurate geographically as well as more inclusive of the actual cultural contexts. For example, there are vital Shakta Tantric sites and practitioners scattered throughout the Himalayan regions, in contemporary Swat, Pakistan, and Tibet, as well as throughout many of the eastern parts of the South Asia. Practitioners, and practices, flow across these national and geographic boundaries, and practitioners often risk their lives for the sake of these pilgrimages. These boundary crossings can be understood as one of the sources of Shakta Tantra’s continuing vibrancy.


We use the lower case to designate west, western, first world, and other related terms in order to decenter the taken-for-granted hegemony that upper case letters often imply, especially in relationship to their contrasts, such as east, eastern, non-western, and third world.


When this essay was first composed, it was among the first ethnographic works based at the Kamakhya temple that includes academic ethnographic accounts of the Ambuvaci festival. There is some literature that discusses Tantrism in Assam, with specific reference to the Kamakhya temple (Urban 2001), brief descriptions of Ambuvaci in Bengal are given by Suchitra Samantha (1992), June McDaniel (1992:35–36), and N.N. Bhattacharyya (1981:133–136). There are some brief passages scattered here and there regarding the history of the Kamakhya temple (i.e., Gait 1933). Some literature exists on contemporary Hinduism in Assam (Cantlie 1984), as well as on textual and mythic traditions in Assamese Tantrism (Shastri 1990, 1992; Urban 2001), on the history and archaeology of the temple, and temple architecture (Goswami 1998, Sharma 1981–1982), and textual evaluations that consider Kamakhya as a Shakta pitha and pilgrimage site (Bagchi 1980; Bhardwarj 1983:35–36, 48, 68, 99; and Sircar 1973). Some brief survey work was also done at Kamakhya resulting in two chapters in an edited volume (Jha 1995 and Singh 1995).


Data on Raja Parba is based on Apffel-Marglin’s work in coastal Orissa (1983–1993). Data on the culture of Kamakhya residents and pilgrims, as well as on Ambuvaci is based Jean’s work at the Kamakhya temple in Assam (2001–2003).


These relations between women’s bodies and weather are not restricted to the past, nor found only in European contexts. Recent journalism reports that about 200 women in Bamke District, Nepal, “came out naked and ploughed at midnight,” in order to “appease [sic] God Indra who, as per a belief, will cause rainfall during drought (Anonymous 2002c).” This is not an isolated incident: in northern India, women danced “naked in their fields in a desperate ritual to call on the gods for rain (Anonymous 2002a).” In December, 2002, a group of Australian women were influenced by the Nepali women: “the women from Ouyen in the far northwest of Victoria state will carry out a naked rain dance in the barren outback in early March [2003], just ahead of the planting season for the next crop (Anonymous 2002b).” This points out the ongoing connections among women, the earth, generation, regeneration, the divine, and the cosmos in both South Asian and western cultural contexts.


This view was most forcefully articulated in an early essay by Sherry Ortner “Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?” (1974). The cross-cultural applicability of these concepts has been heavily debated. Ortner has updated her argument in 1996, and yet while she nuances the categories, she does not completely acknowledge the conceptual problems of her earlier work.


K.C. Rajaguru passed away in 1992.


For a more in-depth treatment of the subject of this section see Apffel-Marglin and Simon (1994); Apffel-Marglin (1995); and Apffel-Marglin with Loyda Sanchez (2011).


According to Sanskrit scholar Biswanarayana Shastri (of Guwahati), in the Assamese language and its dialects, the Sanskrit word Ambuvaci may be rendered as Amvuvaji or Amvuvasi. Shastri also told Jean that sometimes the festival is called Bhumi Daha, or Burning of the Earth (personal communication March 20, 2002). Although Jean has not encountered this usage among her collaborators, it is also a term that is used in connection with the Raja Parba festival and refers to the 3rd day of the festival (Apffel-Marglin 2008).


We do not preclude the possibility that these festivals might occur in other parts of South Asia. We welcome—and are actively seeking—any information on other menstrual festivals.


The term shakti is usually translated as power, but we find this translation restrictive as shakti does not necessarily include the concept of “power over” (Starhawk 1982:1–14) but instead it is a power or energy that activates. As a loose translation, we prefer energy and consider this a more neutral term that obviates the implications of “power over.” We do not, in this loose translation, mean to negate the possibilities that in some contexts, shakti can indeed have the connotation of “power over,” such as when someone has acquired siddhis, or perfections. Siddhis are “one of the many supernatural powers possessed by Siddhas as a result of their practice, their sadhana. Included among the siddhis are the power of flight, invisibility, the power of attraction, and the power to realize one’s every desire (White 2000:632).” In this definition, it is clear that the accumulation of siddhis could be manipulated to create “power over” contexts and situations. In general, though, we argue that shakti is a broader term that could include “power over” but need not in the full range of possible meanings. White also translates shakti as energy (2000:631). Dennis Hudson translates the term as ‘potency’ (in Apffel-Marglin & Hudson, JVS 2002).


This is the month in the North Indian and Nepali calendars equivalent to the Gregorian calendrical period from mid-March to mid-April.


At non-festival times, Jean has confirmed the presence of a similar cross-section of visitors from across the sub-continent and from a variety of religious and ethnic backgrounds: Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Nepalis, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, ethnic Chinese, Bhutanese, and Indian. Assamese governmental statistics report that over two lakh (200,000) people attended Ambuvaci in 2002. During Ambuvaci in 2003, Jean conducted a systematic census to document fully the range and diversity of the festival attendants.


Two panel session at 31st Annual Conference on South Asia, Madison, WI, USA, (2004) was entitled “Tantra as Mainstream.” The goal of the collected papers (from the disciplines of Art History, Languages and Literatures, and Anthropology, among others,) was to provide more evidence for the prominence of Tantra across the subcontinent historically and in present times.


One of the potential etymologies of the word Tantra is to weave.


When we use the term canonical Brahmanism, we acknowledge that Brahminism is as multilayered as Hinduism or Tantrism, and that there are vast regional differences in practices and philosophies. For example, brahmins in Orissa, Bengal, Kashmir, and Assam all eat meat which is rare for brahmins in other regions.


White conflates yantra and mandala at this point in his discussion. Yantra is generally used in Hindu contexts while mandala is generally used in Buddhist contexts.


Jean is still in the process of trying to learn more about how this is done in ritual contexts.


For more on the relationships between deities, sacred geography, festival cycles, and ritual in South Asia, see Slusser’s Nepal Mandala (1982) and Levy and Rajopadhyaya’s Mesocosm (1990).


For such a practice see also Apffel-Marglin & Hudson, JVS 10(2) 2002:111–121.


See Apffel-Marglin JVS Vol. 27, 2, 2019.


For other examples of a foot washing ritual performed by women for their husbands in other Hindu contexts on the subcontinent, see Bennett 1983. Bennett reports that this ritual is a sign of women’s inferiority in comparison to their husband among high-caste Hindus in rural Nepal.


On this topic see F. Apffel-Marglin Rhythms of Life, Part II on Raja Parba with many instances of the same issue (2008).


It is very difficult to gather this type of information as these are secret inner practices that are not discussed in everyday contexts. Even so, what is reported here should not be understood as aberrant or unusual. Readers should refer to Miranda Shaw’s work (1994) for more confirmation of these practices in other South Asia ritual contexts. There are also hints of these practices in David Gordon White’s “Introduction” in Tantra in Practice (2000).


We know that the Tantric Buddhism that Shaw unveils in her book has similar origins to Shakta Tantra, with many of the same lineage founders and histories. We also have evidence to support the parallels in contemporary practice and belief.


See David Kinsley (1998) for more on the Mahavidhyas in South Asian Hindu Tantric contexts.


Jean’s collaborators on this research project include a wide variety of people, some of whom make their permanent home on Nilacala Hill and some who are pilgrims. The people with whom Jean works are aware of the content, context, and extent of her research, and they are aware that Jean is working on these writing projects. They have kindly graced this work with their approval and support.


These understandings of the Mahavidhyas as various parts of Kamakhya’s yoni are underscored by passages from the Yonitantra (cf. Maharaj 1985 and Schoterman 1980).


This is according to the myth as it is told in the Puranas. There are also local Assamese myths, legends, and histories that describe the founding of the temple by the Goddess Kamakhya in different ways. See, for example, Banikanta (1989), Gillespie (1984), Jha (1995), Kakati (1989), Sarma (2002), and Urban (2001).


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