The Supreme Court last week restored the administration of Guwahati’s Kamakhya temple to the Bordeuri Samaj, families of priests who had run the temple since time immemorial until 1998 — when the Kamakhya Debuttar Board was formed. What led to the court’s intervention, and what happens now at one of India’s most important centres of Shakti worship?
The administration and day-to-day affairs of the temple has for centuries been in the hands of the Bordeuri Samaj, comprising five main families of priests. Families of the priests of the main temple call themselves Bordeuris, while families of the priests of subsidiary temples are known as Deuris. The head priest of Kamakhya is called Doloi.
In 1998, a rival group comprising individuals from the families of the priests, as well as representatives of sections who have traditionally not had a role in running the temple, formed the Kamakhya Debuttar Board, which took over the rights and privileges of the Bordeuri Samaj. Litigation followed — first in Kamrup courts, then in Gauhati High Court and finally in Supreme Court. On February 3, 2012, the SC split responsibilities at Kamakhya, asking the Debuttar Board to run the temple administration, while restricting the role of dolois (priests) only to religious activities. On July 7, however, a Bench comprising Justices Fakkir Mohamed Ibrahim Kalifulla and Shiva Kirti Singh rejected the claims of the Board and restored the traditional rights of the Bordeuri Samaj.
The Doloi is elected by members of the Bordeuri Samaj and other priests who run the other nine temples in the Nilachal Hills (on which Kamakhya stands). The last election was held in 1991-92, at which Jnanada Prasad Sarma and Paran Chandra Sarma were elected Doloi and Saru Doloi respectively. The next election, due in 1996-97, was not held, provoking an attempt by a section of devotees (shabiats), and Brahmin and non-Brahmin functionaries associated with the temple complex, to democratise the temple management, and dilute the control of the Bordeuri Samaj and Doloi by creating the Kamakhya Debutter Board.
The functioning of the Debuttar Board too came in for criticism. In June, Gauhati High Court directed the Kamrup (Metro) district administration to take short-term measures to benefit visitors, and a long-term plan for development of the temple complex. The court asked the district administration to clean the Saubhagya Kunda pond, and build waiting sheds for pilgrims with facilities for the sick, elderly and children. Separately, a group of citizens under the banner of Forum of Conscious Citizens has alleged misappropriation of funds by the Debuttar Board. The Board has denied the allegations.
The Kamakhya Devalaya, one of the most significant of the 51 Shakti peeths in the subcontinent, is the most important of the 10 temples — Dasa Mahavidya — that stand atop the Nilachal Hills overlooking the Brahmaputra. The Dasa Mahavidya were a township and independent town committee on their own until 1974 — when the Guwahati Municipal Corporation came into existence. The Nilachal Hills currently constitute a ward of the Guwahati Municipal Corporation.
The main temple is a cave of indeterminate age, with rock steps leading down to the garbhagriha. According to Kalika Purana, the site marks the spot where the yoni of the Goddess fell as her body was being carried around by Shiva, and the hill turned blue. The deity is represented by a representation of the yoni.
Ironically, however, the temple to the Mother Goddess, who even has an “annual menstrual cycle” marked by the Ambubachi Mela, has no place for women. While women priests at Kamakhya is still a distant dream, the Supreme Court has also turned down — “with a heavy heart” — a plea by a group of citizens to grant voting rights to women belonging to the priests’ families while electing the Bordeuri and dolois. “It is indeed difficult for this court to come to a definite conclusion that the petitioners claim to equality (for women) for the purpose at hand is well established,” the court has said.
The Debuttar Board is now defunct, and has been given a month to vacate the premises it has been occupying in the temple complex. The court has ordered the transfer of all its properties to the Bordeuri Samaj. It has also asked the Samaj to hold elections every five years, and entrusted the District Judge of Kamrup to settle any dispute that may arise in the future. Kamrup (Metro) District Deputy Commissioner M Angamuthu set up, on July 9, a committee to implement the court’s orders.