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Coexistence of Diverse Traditions in Divine Feminine Literary Cultures of Assam

Dr Dhurjjati Sarma, Assistant Professor of Comparative Indian Literature, Department of Modern Indian Languages and Literary Studies, Gauhati University Assam, spoke about “Localising The Divine Feminine: Exploring the Classical-Folk Narrative Interface in an Assamese Sitala Kavya at the Tantra and Tantric Traditions conference held recently.”

Could you tell us how the Tantric traditions of Assam are explored in modern scholarship? How have you been influenced by it?

Assam is considered as one of the major hotspots for Tantric practices in India, prominently articulated by Kalika Purana (tenth century CE) and Yogini Tantra (sixteenth century CE). One major textual intervention in twentieth-century Assam was Banikanta Kakati’s work entitled The Mother Goddess Kamakhya, first published in 1948. In this book, the author endeavours to locate and analyse the position of Assam-Kamarupa vis-à-vis the traditions of Shiva and Shakti worship across the pan-Indian landscape. Following a comparative perspective, the author studies the coexistence of Aryan and extra-Aryan devotional practices in Assam, and derives his materials primarily from the Kalika Purana and Yogini Tantra, as well as from the then discovered copper-plate inscriptions of the pre-Ahom kings. Following the same methodology, Nirmalprabha Bordoloi undertook a critical study of the Shakti cult in Assam in her book called Devi (1986), where she explores the varied manifestations of the goddess in the region, encompassing the range of female deities worshipped by the caste-Hindu and the indigenous-ethnic communities inhabiting the region. In the year 2004, Pranav Jyoti Deka published a book entitled Nilacala Kamakhya: Her History and Tantra, which outlined a concise history of the temple and the Tantric practices associated with the worship of the mother goddess. In recent years, one important book on the Tantric traditions of Assam has been The Power of Tantra: Religion, Sexuality, and the Politics of South Asian Studies (Library of Modern Religion), by Hugh Urban published in 2010, which deals with the interface of kama (desire) and shakti (power) as the two major pathways of experiencing the power of Tantra. The book also maps the socio-cultural significance of Kamakhya as a major meeting ground of Vedic Hindu and other non-Vedic indigenous worship practices of Assam from the precolonial to the present time.

As a researcher engaged in the study of early Assamese literary culture, these works were immensely significant towards enabling me to develop a sound methodological base in comparative cultural–religious studies, and to grasp the interactive dynamics historically existing among the diverse worship practices (Shaiva, Shakta, Vaishnava, Surya, and Ganapatya) prevalent in Assam. As part of my research, I also explored the existence of a Tantra epistemological order in Assam between the tenth and the sixteenth century, and a range of literary works composed during the sixteenth century by poets like Mankar, Durgabar, and Pitambar who were the devotees of the snake goddess, Manasa. Simultaneous with the dominant Vaishnava literary–cultural movement existing in full force around the same time, the Saiva–Shakti sect of Assam, represented by the aforementioned poets, was instrumental in setting forth a new secular sensibility, and, by extension, in preserving the indigenous idiomatic rhythm and style of the Assamese language through the early modern period. The composition of an Assamese Shiva Purana by the Ahom king Rudra Singha (reigned 1696–1714) is a testament to the continuation of this tradition well into the eighteenth century.

Read more about this here:  (Localizing The Saiva Sampradaya In Assamese (Rudra Singha’s Shiva Purana) – Indic Today  ).

How has the worship of Kamakhya influenced the social fabric of tribals of Assam? Also, what has been its impact on other Hindu worship practices?

 As noted by Hugh Urban, the Tantric tradition of Assam is deeply characterised by extra-Vedic and extra-Hindu elements originating from the indigenous religious cultures of the northeast. The worship practice of Kamakhya, therefore, has also developed accordingly with the spirit of mutual recognition and cohabitation among/between these diverse traditions, each with their unique perception of Shiva and Shakti. The group of tribes commonly referred to as the Bodo-Kacharis worship Shiva as the primary deity of their communities. The Bodos, in particular, refer to Shiva as Batho, Bathou, Bathou-Brai, and Bathou-Shivrai. The Khasis revered the mother goddess Kamakhya in the form of Ka-Mei-Kha, emphasising upon the primordial principle of feminine energy invested in her divine persona; similarly, for the Bodo-Kacharis, she is Kham-Maikha (the mother of yore), thereby drawing attention towards her long-standing position of strength and reverence within the indigenous communities of northeast India.

The continuing practice of worshipping Shiva and Shakti in Assam-Kamarupa with the attendant ritual practices of both animal and human sacrifice constituted a major factor of contestation with the increasing popularity of the neo-Vaishnavite movement propagating the philosophy of ekasarana-namadharma (unmediated devotion to one Godhead) instituted under the leadership of Sankardeva in early sixteenth-century Assam. The neo-Vaishnavites denounced a number of Tantric practices and aimed to propagate a more exoteric culture of devotion characterised by the singing or chanting the name of God in a collective manner in the open space of the namghar, a prayer-cum-community hall, presently found in almost all the villages and towns of Assam.

How do festivals like Ambubachi Mela reflect the unique approach of Assamese traditions in the Shakta cosmos?

 The Ambubachi Mela is an annual event at the Kamakhya Temple, held annually for four days in the month of Ashadha (June–July), in order to mark and celebrate the yearly menstrual cycle of the mother goddess. As against the prevalent taboos and restrictions associated with menstruation as a social–cultural phenomenon, the deification and ritualistic observance of the annual cycle of menstruation of Goddess Kamakhya signify the empowered position of the divine feminine within the Tantric geography of Assam-Kamarupa. The sociological implication of this consciousness is concisely yet powerfully articulated through the assertion — “anyatra birala devi, kamarupe grihe grihe,” meaning that whereas the presence of the mother goddess is rare in other places, she resides in every household of Kamarupa — which is found in both the Kalika Purana and the Yogini Tantra with reference to Assam-Kamarupa as a Tantra geography with Kamakhya as its centre. This is highly suggestive of the democratising nature of the divine feminine as part of the Shakta cosmology found in the region. Furthermore, this could also be seen as the consequence of the continuing interface between the Aryan and extra-Aryan devotional practices in Assam.

How have you been able to document the local worship of the Devi by exploring the folk narrative interface in Assamese Sitala Kavya? How is it different from the rest of the North East as well as Bengali tradition?

The Bengali sitala mangal kavya developed into a full-fledged genre due to multiple poets like Krishnaram Das, Harideva, and Nityananda Chakravarty, who, through their respective versions, explored manifold dimensions of the “smallpox goddess” Sitala. They also looked at the varied dynamics of devotion and appeasement associated with her worship in Bengal. However in Assamese, so far only one such “text” singing the glory and grandeur of Sitala has been discovered.

The narrative structure of the text is styled according to the conventions of a panchali kavya which was the favoured genre for the Manasa (Shakta) poets of Assam, namely, Mankar, Durgabar, and Pitambar in the sixteenth century. The text under discussion also differs from its Bengali counterparts in terms of its acquisition of narrative content from the Sanskrit Kalika Purana which was composed within the Tantra epistemological order prevalent in Assam-Kamarupa around the tenth century. The close interrelationship between Manasa and Sitala, most specifically in the context of Assam-Kamarupa, is attested at the very outset of Jayaram Das’s Sitala Panchali Kavya, where he describes the birth of Sitala as “manasar navi mule sitala janmila” … 16 (From the navel of Manasa, was born Sitala). This is at variance with the description found in one of the most popular sitala mangal-kavyas in Bengali, by Nityananda Chakravarty, where Sitala is stated to have emerged from the sacrificial fire (debikan, agnikunde mama janma hoila!).

(Figure 1 : Sitala (śītalā) Devi)

Even though Jayaram Das’s Sitala Panchali Kavya is the only extant narrative poem in Assamese centred on Sitala, there are, however, songs transmitted orally which sing the glory of the goddess — announcing her arrival at the outset of spring every year. In a song recorded in S.N. Sarma’s Asomiya Sahityar Samikshatmak Itibritta, Sitala is invoked as being accompanied by her seven sisters (which could also be a reference to the yoginis). An excerpt from the song reads like this: “sahar phuribo aailok aahise jibadan magiso aami// najani xomalo, aair phulbari, nisini singilo koli/ ibarar doshake kshemiba goshani mata charanata dhori//.” The translation is as follows: “The mother-goddesses have come to roam about the city — we pray that our lives be spared. Unknowingly we trespassed into the garden of the goddess, inadvertently we plucked a bud — Pardon us for our trespass for this time, O Mother! we humbly lie at your feet” (My Translation). As evident, these lines do reveal the paradoxical implications of devotion towards the goddess Sitala. The notion of trespassing is also relevant here, since certain quotidian activities come under restriction within a household afflicted by the fever of small-pox. In conformity with the association of Sitala with the state of “being cool,” the afflicted person is offered cold food — an act that has both spiritual and physical ramifications. Such acts of abstinence have more to do with the quotidian lifestyle rather than any ritualistic obligation on the part of the householder.

How can the feminine archetype be studied in Assamese literature? You work with languages and literature, could you tell us more about the comparisons in the literature of the different states you have been studying with regard to folk devi traditions. 

The feminine archetype in Assamese literature, as is the case with other traditional literary cultures, could be studied through a classical–folk continuum where representations of the female self have been actualised through vernacular retellings of the epic (as in Madhav Kandali’s Satkanda Ramayana), localising the purana-based narratives of Vedic and extra-Vedic female deities through the vernacular kavyas (panchali kavyas singing the praise and glories of Manasa, Sitala, and Chandi), and the wide prevalence of oral–performative folk forms (aai naam, apechora naam, lakhimi-sabah-geet, and devi-aair geet). These songs are sung by the womenfolk mostly in the villages of Assam on various occasions ranging from seeking respite from epidemic or illness (particularly, smallpox), during celebrations or festivals where the presence of the goddess is invoked, praying for the benediction of goddess Lakshmi at the beginning and end of the agricultural season, etc. A large number of wedding songs (biya naam) centre on the marriage-story of Shiva and Parvati.

The folk devi traditions of Manasa and Sitala are prevalent across the many vernacular literary cultures of India, albeit with diverse appellations signifying “local” and evolving engagement with the narratives and cultural practices associated with the respective devotional cults. The worshipping patterns of Manasa and Sitala alike within a specific geographic locale, for instance, in Assam or in north or south India, are also determined by the climatic and environmental features endemic to the region(s), which have obvious sociological implications. One could draw possible parallels and departures regarding the literary–cultural representation of Manasa in Assam and Bengal with that of Mane-Manchamma in south India. Similar studies could be conducted vis-à-vis the differential representations of Sitala across the literary cultures of north India, say, from Rajasthan to Assam. These subjects provide fascinating avenues for sustained academic engagement within the domains of comparative folklore and cultural studies.

View Dr. Dhurjjatti Sarma’s talk here:

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