Our first outing of the tour was to Kamakhya Mandir, way up in the hills above the city. It is, we were told, important for the worship of Shakti, and as the place where Sati’s yoni fell to earth when her body was cut into seventeen pieces by Shiva.
We were somewhat taken aback to find it is a temple where many animal sacrifices are made – goats, pigeons, buffalo. Some people release the animals instead of sacrificing them, so the entire compound is full of pigeons and baby goats. A slaughtered buffalo was carried past soon after we arrived; suddenly it was there, far too close, far too vivid.
Because it was festival time there were many people queuing to enter the inner sanctum, so many people that they would clearly be waiting for several hours to get inside. We were not at all surprised to learn that one can pay to jump the queue. The inner sanctum is below ground, where there is a pool of water than turns red for three days each month as Sati menstruates. We could hear cries coming from inside as we walked past the grill.
The age of the central temple is uncertain, but it reminded us of the oldest places we’ve seen in Cambodia and Lao. It is more similar to the Meenakshi Temple in Madurai than other northern Indian temples; fully alive (even with the animal sacrifices) and a real part of people’s normal lives.
We’ve grown accustomed to visiting Hindu temples and found it unsettling to be somewhere that looked very familiar but was completely not.