Worshipping the Snake Goddess in Northeast India

Dr Mikel Burley is Associate Professor of Religion and Philosophy at the University of Leeds, UK. A more extensive account of the Manasā Pūjā festival at Kāmākhyā appears in his article ‘Dance of the Deodhās: Divine Possession, Blood Sacrifice and the Grotesque Body in Assamese Goddess Worship’, Religions of South Asia 12/2 (2019).

The photograph was taken on the second day of the three-day Manasā Pūjā festival in the extensive courtyard of the Kāmākhyā Temple near the city of Guwahati, Assam, on 18 August 2017. Assam is one of the most north-eastern states of India and the Kāmākhyā Temple is located near the top of a hill that is close to the southern bank of the Brahmaputra River.

Manasā Pūjā celebrates the goddess Manasā, who has a strong affinity with snakes. The mythology surrounding her portrays Manasā as an ambivalent figure. As a goddess of fertility, she is a bringer of life, reproduction and relief from illness; yet, as a snake goddess, she also has the power to instigate misfortune and death for those who fail to worship her with due devotion.

The Manasā festival at Kāmākhyā Temple involves prolonged drumming at a high volume, performed by between thirty and forty drummers and a similar number of cymbal players. In the photograph, the men wearing red T-shirts in the foreground are playing cymbals and those wearing yellow T-shirts are drummers. The sound is loud enough for the vibration to be felt throughout one’s body; at times it resembles a powerful heartbeat.

The drumming is accompanied by a shamanistic dance, known variously as Deodhanī Nāc or Dewadhvani Utsav. These terms are generally claimed to derive from the Sanskrit devadhvani, meaning a divine sound or echo. Between sixteen and twenty-one men participate in the dance; they are known as Deodhās, which again means someone who echoes or voices the divine, because they are held to be possessed by deities. These deities include several of the most ferocious goddesses of the Hindu pantheon, such as Bhairavī, Chinnamastā and Kālī; Manasā is also among them, though she is not one of the most fearsome.

The photograph shows a young girl placing a garland of flowers over the head of one of the Deodhās. Two of her younger siblings are with her, one of whom is kneeling on the ground to touch the Deodhā’s feet. Offering a garland in this way is regarded as auspicious: one is, in effect, offering it to the deity who is held to be in possession of the man, and one receives the deity’s blessing in return. The dancer’s skin has been smeared with vermilion paste and he is carrying various weapons, including a trident (triśūla) and two long batons. Given the trident’s close association with the male deity Śiva and the female deity Durgā, it is likely that this dancer is held to be possessed by one or other of those deities, though a high degree of fluidity and overlap is present in the ways that the various deities are embodied in the ritual performance.

A man in a white T-shirt, towards the left side of the photograph, can be seen holding a broom. He is one of the men employed to sweep leaves and flowers off the path, to keep it clear for the Deodhās’ dance.

The sacrifice of animals is a prominent feature of worship at the Kāmākhyā Temple, and the number of sacrifices intensifies during the Manasā festival. Dozens of young male goats and even greater numbers of pigeons are ritually beheaded over the three days. On the day after the festival in 2017, at least three water buffaloes were also sacrificed. The heads of the animals are normally carried into the temple and placed before the altar of the goddess Kāmākhyā. The bodies are taken away to be butchered and consumed by the family who donated the animal or by the wider community. Disapproval of animal sacrifice has been expressed by animal welfare advocates, both in Assam and elsewhere in India, but its practice remains a routine part of temple proceedings.

Manasā Pūjā epitomizes a number of aspects of religion in Assam. Although many deities, both male and female, are worshipped throughout the state, the worship of goddesses – or of ‘the Goddess’ (devī) – is especially prevalent. Goddesses are often referred to simply as ‘Mother’ (, māta), and this generic epithet facilitates a blurring of the distinctions between them. The form of religion typified by the Manasā festival may be termed Śākta Tantrism; it is a form of Tantric Hinduism in which the principal focus of worship is, precisely, the power (śakti) that is embodied by – or simply is – the Goddess, the divine mother.

Written By: Dr Mikel Burley

Image Credit: Dr Mikel Burley

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