Kamakhya – the Goddess of Desire…

The Indian Great Goddess, Adya Shakti, is not only wise, valiant and the source of creation, she is also very much in touch with her sexuality, fertility and related bodily functions. She is worshipped as yoni (vulva) in her Kamakhya form. The name Kamakhya literally means ‘She whose title/definition is Sexual Desire.’ The Kalika Purana, an important Hindu text, gives the description of the innermost cave of the main temple where the deity resides –

‘Inside the cave there exists a very lovely pudendum on the stone which is 12 angulas (9cm) in width and 20 angulas (16 cm) in length gradually narrowing and sloping… It is reddish in colour like vermillion and saffron. On that female organ the amorous Goddess Kamakhya … The primordial force resides in five different forms.’[1]

The main Kamakhya temple is situated near the city of Guwahati in Assam, India.

Kamakhya Temple in Assam

Kamakhya Temple near Guwahati, Assam

According to another important text, the Devi Bhagavata Purana

‘…in Kamakhya-yonimandala[2] …the goddess…dwells forever, the site being the jewel of all the holy places. No sacred place can excel this one in which the goddess is seen menstruating every month… It will not be an exaggeration if it be said that though the wise persons have identified the entire world with the body of the goddess, the said Kamakhya-yonimandala has no second in reflecting her real glory.’[3]

Goddess sculpture in the Kamakhya temple.

Goddess sculpture in the Kamakhya temple.

The relevant myth with slight variations is the story of Sati, an incarnation of Adya Shakti (Primal Power), and daughter of the celestial king Daksha. She married Shiva, the destroyer god, the personification of the Great Time, the first Yogi, without her father’s consent and angered him. Once when Daksha organised a gathering of the most honoured gods, goddesses and celestial beings, he purposefully left out Shiva and Sati from the invitee list. His intention was to publicly reject Shiva as a god of any importance. Sati could not believe her father would do this on purpose and decided to attend the ceremony anyway. Shiva refused to attend and tried to stop Sati from going, but in vain.

Sati reached her natal home and were publicly humiliated by her father. Shiva too was insulted and maligned in his absence. In anger and pain, and in protest, Sati burnt herself to death. Shiva reached the spot in a terrible rage and inconsolable grief. He sent his most terrifying aspect to kill Daksha; then he picked up the lifeless body of Sati on his shoulders and started dancing the tandava (dance of destruction). Everything went in turmoil and the whole creation came under imminent threat of annihilation. But Shiva in his terrible grief proved unstoppable by any force in the universe. The god Vishnu devised a plan to stop Shiva’s madness and sent his weapon to slice away Sati’s body without Shiva noticing. Sati was sliced into pieces which fell in various parts of the earth. Shiva came back to his senses and stopped when he realised Sati’s body had incrementally disappeared from over his shoulder and creation was saved. Wherever these pieces of Sati’s body fell, it became auspicious; and temples were built over them. These 51 temples of Adya Shakti are called the Shakti Peethas (Abodes of Shakti). The place where her yoni fell, became the abode of Mother Kamakhya, one of her forms.

This picture is not of the main temple is Assam as photography is not allowed within the main temple. This is the Kamakhya Yoni worshipped at the Kamakhya Temple in Devipuram, Andhra Pradesh.

This picture is not of the main temple is Assam as probably photography is not allowed within the main temple. This is the Kamakhya Yoni worshipped at the Kamakhya Temple in Devipuram, Andhra Pradesh.

It has been argued that yoni worship is a much older tradition than the myths themselves. According to Biswanarayan Shastri, the yoni is regarded as the symbol of creation and worshipped with the utmost regard. The creative female force is conceived as the visible symbol of the invisible female and is identified with the Goddess.[4] Every year the festival of Ambubachi celebrates her menstruation for four days; the temple is closed during these days and when re-opened is considered the most auspicious time to pray to the Mother.[5]

Brenda Dobia writes about an interview she conducted with a temple priest on her pilgrimage to the Kamakhya temple –

‘He repeatedly affirmed the yoni’s fundamental role in srishti, creation, and elaborated Kamakhya’s central importance as the yoni of the Earth itself. Significantly, the annual Ambuvaci festival which celebrates the menses of the Goddess involves a ritual remembering and replenishment of her powers, with Tantric adherents from Goddess sites all over the sub-continent converging there. Julia Jean reports that the regeneration of both the Earth and the devotees at this time is understood to derive from the shakti (power/energy) in the menstrual blood of the Goddess.’[6]

The temple of the Great Mother Kamakhya is located in modern India in the district of Kamrup (literal meaning, embodiment/manifestation of desire) in the state of Assam. It is named after the ancient kingdom of Kamrup (or Kamarupa) which took its name from the presence of goddess Kamakhya. The superfast cross-country train that runs daily between my city and Kamrup is officially called the Kamrup Express. As a teenager, I remember being intrigued by the name of the train and the ‘mysterious’ place it connected us with. With years, the sense of mystery had given way to a feeling of awe at the myths of this Mother who shares the most intimate pains of my womanhood, who bleeds like I do; who is defined by her sexuality and yet holds the capability to lend her name to entire kingdoms and districts in the past and in the present.

This too is a picture of a family of mother worshippers in the Kamakhya Temple at Devipuram, Andhra Pradesh

This is a picture of a family of Mother worshippers in the Kamakhya Temple at Devipuram, Andhra Pradesh

There are many more Kamakhya temples dotted around India, but the Kamrup Kamakhya is the predominant in fame. Again, the menstruating goddess is found in other forms in many places in India who too are worshipped as forms of Adya Shakti herself – for example, goddess Bhagavati in the Chengannur Mahadeva temple in South Kerala.[7] The temple website says –

‘…[The] festival of this Temple is Triputharattu which is considered as a symbol of fertility. This festival is connected with a menstruation ceremony, which is observed periodically in the temple. That is why this temple is also considered as Shakthi Peedam (a local language version of the word Shakti Peetha).’[8]

In Orissa, the annual festival of the earth goddess (Harchandi) is called the Raja Parba (literally, menstruation festival). The earth is believed to be menstruating on these days and the worshippers refrain from ploughing, digging or interfering with her in any other ways.[9] To Harchandi’s worshippers, women’s menstruation is the gift from and continuous with the menstruation of the goddess.[10] In my marital home in Orissa, my in-laws celebrate the earth mother’s menstruation with utmost respect and love; women wear new clothes and dress up to mark the renewal of mother earth. Intriguingly, one of the main rituals for this festival is for girls to swing on a rope-swing. This in all probability symbolises female exuberance and fertility as a creative force.

A poster of the Menstruation festival of the goddess or Raja Parba

A poster of the Menstruation festival of the goddess or Raja Parba

Another poster

Another poster

Raja_Doli_khela_Odia_festival

A girl’s first menstruation too is celebrated by women as a gift of the goddess; it is one of the most significant days of her life. My sister-in-law was extremely disappointed that I could not travel from the UK to India for her daughter’s first menstruation rite. It is almost as if I had not been able to attend a close relative’s wedding. In the Shakta (Shakti worship) traditions, menstruation is not just a biological fact; the cyclical changes in a woman’s body are believed to represent the cyclical changes in the environment, the seasons and in the very order of the cosmos.[12] But the Great Mother’s close relationship with the bodily processes of menstruation, sex and birth do not devalue her divinity or her status as the all-powerful primal force in the universe, nor undermine the notions of her wisdom. She is a woman, a lover, a mother, a creator, a protector, a warrior, and the all-knower, all-powerful all in one.


[1] Kalika Purana, as quoted by Biswanarayan Shastri, ‘The Mother Goddess Kamakhya’ (2005) 1(2and3) Ishani  available at

https://www.indianfolklore.org/journals/index.php/Ish/article/viewArticle/284 (accessed 21 May 2011)

[2] The word yonimandala in all probability means ‘the circle of the yoni’ or ‘the place of the yoni.’

[3] Devi Bhagavata Purana, 8.38.15-18 trans. follows N.N. Bhattacharyya, The Indian Mother Goddess (New Delhi: Manohar, 3rd edn, 1999)

[4] Biswanarayan Shastri, ‘The Mother Goddess Kamakhya’ (2005) 1(2and3) Ishani (online journal. See note 1 above for the url)

[5] Same as above.

[6] Brenda Dobia, ‘Approaching the Hindu Goddess of Desire,’ Feminist Theology, 16 (2007) 61, 74

[7] Biswanarayan Shastri, ‘The Mother Goddess Kamakhya’ (2005) 1(2and3) Ishani (online journal. See note 1 above for the url)

[9] Kartikeya C Patel, ‘Women, Earth and the Goddess: A Shakta-Hindu interpretation of Embodied Religion’ (1994) 9 Hypatia 69, 78

[10] Same as above.

[12] Kartikeya C Patel, ‘Women, Earth and the Goddess: A Shakta-Hindu interpretation of Embodied Religion’ (1994) 9 Hypatia 69, 72-73

6 thoughts on “Kamakhya – the Goddess of Desire…

    • Hello, thanks a lot for your comment. I feel blessed to be able to write these posts and share with readers who connect to the goddess. Hope to write more soon. Thank you for the appreciation. Madhu.

  1. Pingback: an uber ‘modern’ goddess | wild woman in the west

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