Assam the Land of Devotion

  • By Rajiv Malik
  • October 26, 2017
  • 7059 views
 

Temples of Siva Sagar

Fifty miles southwest of Dibrugarh is the famed ancient temple popularly known as Sivadol, located in the town of Siva Sagar, former capital of the Ahom kingdom. It sits on the banks of the large Siva Sagar tank or reservoir, a half mile on a side. Sivadol is a majestic example of Ahom temple architecture with a center tower over one hundred feet tall—one of the highest pre-modern structures in India, we are told. Nearby are located the smaller Vishnudol and Devidol temples in the same style.

 

There is no murti of Siva installed in the inner sanctum of this unusual and quite powerful temple. As shown in the picture on page 31, there is simply a hole in the altar where the Lingam would normally be placed. The worship is conducted to this unseen Lingam. The chief priest, Suresh Badthakur, explains, “The God here is formless, and one can use one’s imagination to visualize His own form and worship.” Siva here is known as Mukti Natha, which means He who grants liberation to those who worship Him. Badthakur shows us the sacred shaligrams in the main sanctum, for which he alone is allowed to conduct the worship. Representing Vishnu, their significance in this Siva temple is unclear to me.

A senior temple official, Ganga Prasad Barguhai, 83, tours us about the grounds and relates the history of the Ahom people and the temple. The Ahom originated in south China and came to Assam via Myanmar in 1228 under the Tai King Sukapa. Ahom means “undefeated,” while the “Tai” are a large group of people in southern China and southeast Asia who speak related languages, including the people of Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and the southern part of the Chinese province of Guangxi. Today the Ahom people speak Assamese. In 1671, at a key moment in India’s history, the Ahom general Lachit Borphukan stopped the eastward expansion of the Mughals by defeating their forces near Guwahati. Had he failed, the entire northeast might have come under Muslim domination.

“King Sukapa,” Barguhai told us, “brought with him a complete civilization which included the Furalong religion, medicine, agriculture and dairy farming.” The Ahom were originally Buddhists, then in 1654 King Jaidhava Sing adopted Hinduism. The Ahom still follow some of their ancient traditions, especially in their worship of ancestors.

 

The stone-and-brick Sivadol temple, 195 feet in diameter and 104 feet tall, was built between 1742 and 1744 by Jaidhava Sing’s great grandson Sivasinga and his wife Ambika Devi. Sivasinga invited priests from Ujjain—Badthakur’s ancestors—to come and serve in this temple. Other kings brought priests from Bengal to serve in the many Hindu temples they built across Assam. On account of its age, Sivadol comes under the jurisdiction of the Archaeological Survey of India. Barguhai complains that the ASI bureaucracy makes it difficult to maintain the temple properly. The outer walls are adorned with stunning sculptures, especially of the many forms of Goddess Durga. In one corner, bells are hung and red threads tied, as at Tilinga Temple. Sivadol’s largest annual festival is Mahasivaratri.

Here we encountered Ashini Kumar Chetia, 42, chief advisor to the All Tai Ahom Students Union at the Sivadol Temple. The organization’s purpose is to preserve the ancient monuments of Assam and to nurture the Ahom culture. “We call ourselves Hindus, but our Ahom culture is different than Hindu culture. For example, our way of worshiping is different. At the Siva Sagar temple, we can, if we want, request the puja be conducted by our own priests in Ahom manner. We worship not the usual Hindu Gods, but an esoteric power named Shundev. The animal sacrifice that is done here is not part of our tradition. There are four million Ahom in Assam, mostly landowners engaged in agriculture. All of us, our youth in particular, love our culture.”

The 129-acre temple tank is a marvel in itself, as its banks maintain a water level ten feet above the adjacent ground level. The average depth is 27 feet, and the source of the water is unknown. Auspicious in its own right its water is used during festivals and social occasions such as marriages. The tank is also a popular picnic area for the local population.

Here we met Purvi Rajkunwar, 28, a member of the Ahom community who said she considers herself a Hindu and worships Lord Siva. “As do other Assamese, we also follow the philosophy of Sankardev and visit the naam ghars. We worship the Siva­lingam, but not idols. In our homes you will find pictures of the Gods and Goddesses, but not statues as such. Our young girls are as free as our young boys; both are given equal love and equal opportunity.”

 

Dibrugarh Area

Dibrugarh is called the Tea City of India. Located 439 kms east of Guwahati, it is the center of industry, communication and health care for the upper Assam region. Here we mostly visited the local headquarters of the same organizations we encountered in Guwahati.

By chance in Dibrugarh we encounter a tribal dance festival underway near a tea shop where we stop for refreshments. This is the annual Karam festival for the children of the tea estate workers. These workers came around 1860 during the British era—about the same time the Nepalese arrived. The workers hailed from a group of small princely states known as Chota Nagpur, now part of the modern Indian states of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and West Bengal. Karam Devta, honored in this dance festival, is a God of power and youth worshiped in Chota Nagpur and adjacent areas.

 

The gift for every guest in Assam is the red and white gamcha shawl, with every region having different designs. The storekeeper whose goods you see at right only brought out the shawls when asked; he felt they were sacred to put on display like ordinary merchandise. We asked Dr. Nath to explain this regional symbol.

EVERY COMMUNITY HAS ITS OWN SPECIALLY DESIGNED RED AND white gamcha shawl. It is a symbol of all Assam; the red represents all the tribes; the white represents peace. It is a symbol of tolerance toward all castes and religions. The gamcha is also called fulom which means floral design. Whatever flowers are available locally are woven in the gamchas. Women of every family and every caste weave these gamchas. In other parts of India, weaving is treated as a low level profession. But in Assam, weaving is done by everyone: the queen, the brahmins, the peddlers on the road. All the tribal women make them. During the Ahom kingdom the queen had her own weaving workshop where women were taught to make gamchas with the training given by the queen herself. Every tribal community in the whole northeast has its own piece of cloth that is a type of gamcha but the colour is different. The red and white colours belong to the Assam valley.

Two-thousand students attend the English-medium Sampoorna Kendra Vidyalaya school. Principal S. P. Suresh explains this is a private trust set up to promote Indian culture and values. “Earlier, only the three missionary schools in Dibrugarh were English medium, and the cream of our society opted for them. In fact, I can say we have reduced the influence of these missionary schools by setting up our own well-managed institutions.”

We next meet with local RSS leaders at the clinic of Dr. Ramesh Agarwal, an eye specialist and head of Dr. Hedgewar Sewa Samiti. Dr. Agarwal tells us that just a few years back people here were not very familiar with the RSS, its activities or ideology, but now there is more appreciation for their work. A major topic of discussion at the meeting is the high and unabated rate of infiltration into Assam from Bangladesh, which is impacting Assamese life in not only the cities but in the villages and tribal areas. The other major challenge to Assamese life is the Christian missionaries’ concerted efforts to convert the tribals.

“Our approach to the tribals,” explained Dr. Agarwal, is to allow them to preserve their distinct identity and way of worship. At the same time we tell them that their worship and identity is very close to that of Hindus and Hinduism. They are not different from us. They face the same pressure from urbanization to change their culture as does the rest of Hindu society.”

As to youth,” he went on, “the Bangladesh infiltration has made them aware that our whole existence is under threat. The long-term fear is that Assam will be captured and annexed to Bangladesh. In India, after Kashmir, it is Assam with the highest Muslim population by percentage. Most Indians are unaware of this.”

Another volunteer, Dr. Mukul, an engineering professor at Dibrugarh University, said when he was young, the Muslims of his village would participate in the Hindu festivals and all lived in a cordial manner—just a few decades back. “In the nineties it all changed when Bangladeshi immigrants took over as imams,” Mukul explained. “The Muslim community stopped participating in the Hindu festivals, and the women even started wearing burkas—a very big shift.”

 “The Bangladesh infiltration made our youth aware that our whole existence is under threat.” Dr Ramesh Agarwal

While in Dibrugarh we visit the Ekal headquarters, situated in a huge campus in a posh locality. A lively training program is in progress for the artists who go with musical instruments from village to village singing bhajan, dancing and holding satsang. Through these sessions the Ekal movement has been able to establish a strong personal bond with the villagers of the areas where Ekal projects are running. The villagers, in turn, are very helpful with the Ekal projects, especially the schools for their children. Besides the Ekal, the RSS, Vivekananda Kendra, Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, Vidya Bharti, VHP and Sewa Bharati all work in this area.

 

One Ekal supporter and member of Vidya Bharati, Dinesh Modi, stated, “In the India of the 18th century, according to a British survey, there were 720,000 gurukulam schools running in the country. The British made a deliberate move to disrupt this traditional education system and introduce a new one. Now Vidya Bharati is running 18,000 schools in India to connect to our roots through our ancient system while incorporating the modern one.

 

Conclusion

 

Our nine days of intensive travel through Assam’s cities, villages and tribal areas impress me strongly with the relaxed outlook on life, inherent religiousness, affectionate behavior and loving nature of the Assamese people. The beauty and essence of Assam lies in its multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic and multi-religious society. Here one finds all three main streams of Hinduism: Shakti worship at the Goddess Ma Kamakhya temple, Siva at the temples of Siva Sagar, and Vaishnavism throughout. This great diversity encapsulates the whole of India in the one state of Assam. No wonder it is called an India in miniature.

Courtesy "Hinduism Today magazine, Hawaii"

Also read

1. To read part 1 of article on Assam 

2. Kamakhya Temple 

3. Bell Temple Almora 

4. Brahmaputra Cruise 

5. Places to eat in Guwahati 

Receive Site Updates