Assam the Land of Devotion

  • By Rajiv Malik
  • October 26, 2017


An Assamese Overview

Prof. Dambarudhar Nath holds the Sri Sri Aniruddhadeva Chair in the Department of History of Dibrugarh University. He is the author of Religion and Society in North East India and other books on Assam. He heralds from Majuli and is a disciple of Auniati Satra, which we visited earlier. We interview him at Mayamora Satra, founded by Anirudhadeva (1553-1626) a householder guru in the teaching lineage of Sankardev.


In Assam, VAISHNAVISM HAS FOUR BRANCHES, or sanghatis: Brahma, Purush, Nika and Kaal. The first two are grouped under the Sagun Panth and the second under Nirgun Panth. All consider themselves followers of Sankardev in some fashion and all derive their philosophy from the Bhagavat Purana. In the Sagun Panth, bhakti is practiced, and the incarnation of God with attributes is worshiped in the form of a sacred murti or image. Those following Nirgun Panth, which is similar to the philosophy of Sikhism and Kabir, do not worship idols but believe in the principle of Param Brahma [transcendent God]. In Sagun Panth, the caste system is observed, and in Nirgun Panth it is not. Ani­rudhadeva himself expounded the philosophy of mayamora, literally “illusion kill,” which is part of the Nirgun Panth. It is a kind of advaita view, like that of Adi Shankara, which holds that earthly life is an illusion, and there is no distinction between the Supreme Reality and this world.

This satra was founded in 1601 in Majuli, but shifted here to the eastern side of the Brahmaputra when its original location on the river’s bank eroded away. It is now the main Mayamora satra. In the Maya­mora system, the head of the satra may nominate any relative as successor; Anirudhadeva himself appointed his son. The present guru, 90 years old, has appointed a relative who is now effectively the head of this satra. Anirudhadeva believed in a direct relationship with God through bhakti, without seeking any mediator, including priests—an approach that appealed to the tribal and low-caste people of the area, who all joined Anirudhadeva’s movement. This was a political factor in the great civil war of 1769, the Moamoria Rebellion, in which the king was deposed and a follower of this satra succeeded him. The war was so violent it is said half the population of Assam was killed, among them 800,000 followers of this sect.

At the time of Anirudhadev, upper Assam was full of tribals. They were Sanskritized and in a way detribalized, as their tribal culture was eroded by Vaishnava culture. That is the role which Sankardeva and Vaishnavism have played, and that is a great role. Now, although they are disciples they maintain the original culture of drinking, eating meat and moving hither and thither in the jungles. They maintain some part of tribal culture and also maintain their Vaishnava culture. This Mayamora sect has a huge following; almost half of the Vaishnavites of Assam belong to it. It may not have 10,000 naam ghars, but it has a million disciples.

Assam and India

We do not need to look into our connection with India keeping in mind just the 14 km corridor that connects us. India is interwoven and united with Assam. If you think India lives here in its heart, its spirit and spirituality, then this narrow geographical corridor is of little consequence. In the 16th century, Sankardev wrote in praise of India in Bhakti Ratnakar: “Life in India is fruitful. Life in India is to be welcomed. Life in India is to be congratulated. Life in India is meaningful for all human beings. ” He repeats those lines 46 times—this when many people had little sense of India as a whole.


The Bangladeshi infiltration problem in Assam is very serious. Assam is now full of Bangladeshis. Out of the 30 million population of Assam, around ten million have infiltrated from Bangladesh. The situation is such that you will be afraid of travelling to some parts of Assam. When you visit these places you will feel that you are in Bangladesh and not India. People in the rest of India do not understand the kind of problems we are facing due to Bangladeshis. In some of the places full of Bangladeshis our Hindu population does not even venture out in the marketplace in the evenings, as they are afraid they may be attacked. Human migration is something which is well accepted, but there must be a certain limit.

There is all this talk of Hindu and Muslim Bangladeshi. How can we distinguish between them? A Bangladeshi is a Bangladeshi. He is a foreign national. The problem with foreign nationals is that they do not have any loyalty for our country. They are loyal to another country, not to India. When the country was divided in two parts on the basis of religion, a point was made, and still the impact of that is there in the minds of the people. The people who have formed the government of Assam today are the people who always had the interest of Assam in their mind. So now I trust that they will do good for Assam and not bad for Assam.

Tribals and “Mainstream Hinduism”

Why should the tribals be persuaded to come into “mainstream Hinduism”? This is something problematic. In fact, what the tribals do, they are doing within Hinduism already. I think Hinduism has a lot of variety in it. For example, if you undertake animal sacrifice, you are a Hindu. If you believe in nonviolence, you are a Hindu. If you use the priesthood you are a Hindu; if you perform the rituals yourself, still you are a Hindu. Even if you do not perform rituals, still you are a Hindu. If you bury your dead, you are a Hindu, and if you burn your dead, still you are a Hindu. Are we not varied? 

The tribals are also following systems of their own and can still be a part of Hindus and Hinduism. We, as Assamese, would like to maintain the plurality to form a better Hindu culture by allowing even the smaller cultures to grow. We do not look down upon any as an inferior religion or “animist;” we treat them as equals. When you have to embrace so many people coming from different backgrounds and you have to make a united India, you will have to see these things in the right perspective.


It may appear to an outsider sometimes that the tribal youth or our Assamese youth are not much interested in our culture. But if you get to see and participate some of the big religious festivals, like Durga Puja and Sankardev Utsav, Ras Leela, Bhavna, etc., you will realize they very keenly get together to celebrate and organize these events. So, from their Western dress style, which includes jeans and T-shirts, please do not conclude that they do not take interest in their own culture, or that they are going away from spirituality and their own culture. I believe their soul is still connected to their culture.


Tinsukia's Bell Temple

The small but powerful Tilinga or “bell” temple was founded in 1965. The local tea estate workers had discovered a svayambhu (natural, self-manifested) Sivalingam emerging from the ground near a banyan tree. The estate management then built a small Siva temple at the site. No one is precisely sure how the custom of offering bells began, but at some point, a devotee who came to pray at the temple promised to tie a bell to the tree if his prayer was answered. His prayer was answered, and he dutifully came and tied the bell. The news spread, and as more and more people had their prayers fulfilled, the tradition of tying bells to the limbs of this grand old banyan developed. Eventually the tree became unable to support so many bells; so now they are hung on the walls enclosing the temple grounds.

The temple is a full of great energy, life and charm. Priests are available to perform puja for the devotees, and occasionally one will dash outside to the street to bless a new vehicle, a popular service of this temple. But anyone can approach and personally offer worship to the Sivalingam at the base of the banyan with lighted lamps and incense.

After making their prayer, a devotee ties a red sacred thread around one of the temple pillars. Once the prayer is fulfilled, he or she returns to offer a bell. If you are not likely to come back—as in our case—you can tie your bell immediately after making your wish, in anticipation of a positive outcome. Thousands of bells are hung here, each a symbol of hope, aspiration, prayer and gratitude by pilgrims whose prayers were fulfilled.

Outside the temple we witness a procession of more than a hundred devotees of Sankardev walking barefoot along the road. One is carrying Srimad Bhagavad Purana on his head and the others chanting the name of Lord Krishna. All are dressed in white, with the traditional red-and-white gamcha scarves around their neck. It is a charming demonstration of the remarkable devotion to Sankardev present in Assam.

 “The truth is, Assam and the northeast have a special place on the religious map of India.”

Offering a Hindu Education

Our first stop after the bell temple is the nearly completed Ekal Abhiyan Gramothan Research Centre. According to Shri Sanjay Trivedi, head of the Van Bandhu Parishad, the center is being established to foster village economic development through improved education, health, medical services and farming techniques. The Parishad already runs 270 Ekal Vidyalayas in the area.

Next is a boys’ hostel run by the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, part of their nation-wide program to uplift India’s tribal population. The local leader, Girdhari Parikh, tells us this particular hostel, one of five they operate in Assam, is for children from poor families in the scheduled caste and scheduled tribe communities.

Parikh said once the children complete eighth grade and depart to pursue higher education, the ashram loses contact with them and they may fall under the influence of Christian missionaries. “The missionaries have a very wide network,” he explained, “and their level of work is much bigger than ours. For example, they have orphanages which can accommodate hundreds of Hindu children, and we have no such similar facility. They specifically target the people our society has neglected. But the situation is changing fast because of the Ekal schools.”

He offers his view on a topic we asked several people to comment on: the relationship of the northeast with the rest of India. “It is unfortunate that there is this feeling we are different or there is some kind of a gap between the North Indians and us. The truth is, Assam and the northeast have a special place on the religious map of India. Parasuram, an avatar of Lord Vishnu, is associated with this area, as is Rukmini, wife of Lord Krishna. Bhima and Arjuna of the Mahabharata married girls from here. In fact, Assam is a great pilgrimage destination and should be promoted as such.”


We stopped at the offices of the Shri Hari Satsang Samiti, a wing of the India-wide Ekal Abhiyan or movement. Its head, Madhu Gupta, explains they have 108 speakers, known as Vyas Kathakars, trained in Vrindavan and Ayodhya to narrate Srimad Bhagavat Purana and perform Ram kathas. They do so in two - to three-day events at both large and small venues, mostly in the villages with an Ekal school. The speakers teach the villagers how to perform puja and other simple rituals.

Nepalese Community

Again here we searched out the local Nepalese community, this time in the remote Doom Dooma Taluk of Tinsukia district. They originally came to other parts of Assam during British times, and were resettled here along with other communities following the massive 1950 Assam earthquake. The magnitude 8.6 quake devastated entire regions of the state with landslides and floods. At the time, this area, called Philobari, was dense forest, but it has been developed with extensive government assistance


We are welcomed by a few hundred people in an event organized for our visit, a highlight of which is the performance of traditional Nepalese dances by the young boys and girls. They are delighted when our Kathmandu-based photographer, Thomas Kelly, addresses them in fluent Nepalese. The hardworking community, now numbering about 50,000, is doing well financially in agriculture, as tea estate workers and in other businesses. They have some temples in Nepalese style, but also worship in the area’s Hindu temples and visit the nearby naam ghars.

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