Rituparna Goswami Pande
I used to dread Amoti aka Ambubachi during my childhood. Oh dear, Aita would turn into a control freak during those three days.... and turn into a rapper, lisping, "You can't touch this… you can't touch that...!" all through the day.
She would have frequent baths on some pretext or the other, she would bring the house down if anyone even dared to go against her scheme of things and the house in Uzanbazar would turn into a fruit market with the fruits stored everywhere and then on the fourth day, it would resemble a dhobi ghaat with innumerable number of clothes washed and laid out to dry.
But the best part was visiting the Kamakhya temple during Ambubachi. Those were innocent times when the heart was free, unbridled and untainted by the knowledge or the horrors of the practice of animal sacrifice. I would be perched on my father's arms and enjoy a bird's eye view of the goings on in the temple premises, the wares displayed in the stalls lining the stairs leading to the temple. I would invariably end up with a few plastic toys....
Not just for Ambubachi, visits to Kamakhya temple were frequent those days - be it for Durga puja, Kumari Puja or Kali puja - we paid regular visits to the goddess every two-three months. Oh yeah!The Lady of Nilachal featured quite often in our lives.
And dad's best friend being a 'Panda' (a purohit) in the sanctum sanatorium, Kamakhya was like a second home of sorts. After offering our prayers we would be treated to a sumptuous lunch at his house. So many beautiful memories abound of those good times associated to that holy place. A visit to Kamakhya was a festive affair....waking up early, having an early bath and wearing washed clothes and an empty stomach which would be satiated only after a darshan of the devi marked our visits to Kamakhya.
Being able to get a panoramic view of the city from the View Points in the Nilachal hills, during evenings where the lights in the city, shining like a million stars in the sky, was what I often looked forward to....
After washing our feet in the SoubhagyaKunda, we would patiently await for our Panda on the platform while he quickly disappeared to cater to other devotees, I would sit on one of the big rocks and marvel at the green colour of the SoubhagyaKunda believing that its green colour was due to some divine power.
After offering prayers at the GarbhaGriha, we would circumambulate the temple, offering prayers to all the deities and finally finishing off by sticking a coin on the sticky surface of the Ganesha statue embedded on the wall. I would be crestfallen if I failed to make the coin stick to the vermillion paste...
The pigeons taking flight in unison would be such an engaging view....and the prasad in the form of those little white sondesh were divine to say the least. And the little pieces of red cloth also known as the AngaVastra would be a prized possession that we preserved for many years.
Meanwhile, back home, my grandmother would be a bundle of nerves during Ambubachi..... 'Xathlagil', which meant that Ambubachi has begun and would mean that Aita would renounce cooked food and would now stick to a fruits diet. The decor in her kitchen would change to make way for tables where the fruits would be kept. She would not take anything kept on the groundas the ground i.e. mother earth is said to be impure for those three days.
For it is believed that during Ambubachi, which falls on the Monsoon season, Mother Earth menstruates and all temples are closed and become off limits for devotees. Aaita too would cover the puja ghar with a cloth to give the goddess some privacy and rest during her menstrual cycle. Visitors would also bring only fruits for Aaita and her dining room would resemble a fruit market with all sorts of fruits jostling for attention. Bunches of bananas would be hung on strings and the crisscross of those banana strings would be an image that stuck to me always....
All hell would break lose once anyone would put anything on the ground or touch Aaita's stuff. And on the fourth day the house would turn into a 'dhobi ghaat', with every curtain, every bed linen being tossed into a bucket to be washed and purified.Incidentally, it is a ritual that only those women who have lost their husbands are expected to follow. I wonder why men were excluded from this ritual; men who had lost their wives, they are for some inexplicable reason exempted from all things ritualistic. Why is it that most of the rituals are reserved for the woman folk while the men are free of such obligations?
Thankfully, times have changed and people are not so dogmatic these days. There is no pressure on anyone to follow those traditional inflexible rituals.
Those were different times, different eras and with time, many of those rituals have disappeared and so has Aaita.
However, there is still an undercurrent of expectation, hesitation and bewilderment in women who believe it is expected of them to follow in on the footsteps of their ancestors when it came to observing Ambubachi rituals.
Consuming only raw fruits during those three days is a prodigious task today with fruits treated with carbide and other chemicals. My aaitas were lucky that way that at least they consumed fresh fruits minus chemical fertilizers and pesticides. But not anymore, for the food we eat today is far inferior then that of the bygone era. Therefore, surviving on a fruit diet is not recommended for elderly people who are already fighting various ailments like gastroenteritis, acidity, etc. As a result of which observing the rules of Ambubachi strictly ends on a bad note with many falling sick and unable to do justice to the superstitious beliefs.
It's high time we loosened the strings around those dogmatic rituals and made adjustments if at all one deems it necessary to follow them.
The occasion of Ambubachi has been completely hijacked by the tourism sector which has turned it into a festival of sorts to rope in tourists in the state toeing the line of the Kumbha Mela. Guwahati turns into a bride with the streets and parks are lit up with decorations and lightings.
I felt like a tourist too this year when I was invited to spend some time in the Prashanti Tourist Lodge at the Nilachal Hills. One of my acquaintances had parked himself there on the lodge for the three days and spent his evenings at Maa's service. He served free food to the visitors, hobnobbed with the different tantriks and sadhus that came to offer prayers.
Tantrics are said to experience an inexplicable rush of power during Ambubachi and practice various rituals during this time. "One of the sadhu's could lie prostrate on the lake and even read a book in that position" added one of my acquaintances. So curiosity got the better of me and hopes of meeting such tantriks led me towards Kamakhya temple to feel the energy of the sacred hills during Ambubachi. The path leading up to the temple was choc-a-bloc with people, the pavement was turned into small kiosks selling everything from toys to clothes.
As we set foot at the lodge it was as if we were transformed to another world inside the womb of the hills. The view of the Nilachal hills and the city was akin to a hill station, and it felt divine to be standing there taking in the fresh air and the beautiful verdant hills. The sound of a train chugging down into the contours of the city manoeuvred my train of thought into a different direction and we decided to take a stroll around the temple soaking in the divinity of the charged atmosphere. A few hours and an enriching experience later our group headed downhill, into the city, into our lives feeling blessed and enthused with inspiration. Such is the power of the Lady who reigns in those hills.
It is a totally different world up there with excited faces, devout faces, stunned faces, saffron clad sadhus high on devotion all congregating to celebrate the menstruating goddess. With a silent prayer that her children, her daughters in the mortal forms in this mortal world are also treated with the same reverence and respect, I bid adieu to the goddess silently thanking her for letting me tread and guiding my steps for a divine embrace.
(Rituparna Goswami Pande is a prolific writer, noted columnist and author. In this new column, Guwahati Bytes, she elucidates her experiences of growing up in the mystical city of Guwahati. She can be reached at email@example.com.)