Namghar: Lifeline of Assamese society

The Assamese Namghar has the shadow of tribal houses—Dekachang, Morang Ghar, etc. So naturally, it has inherited the functions of the said tribal houses.
Namghar: Lifeline of Assamese society

Arup Saikia 

(Author Arup Saikia is a noted cultural enthusiast, writer, and alumnus of the University of Delhi.

The Assamese Namghar has the shadow of tribal houses—Dekachang, Morang Ghar, etc. So naturally, it has inherited the functions of the said tribal houses.

PUBLIC PLATFORM: The Namghar is the only public place in rural Assamese society, where a person gets the first opportunity to present himself or herself in public. It is just like the first rehearsal house for generating human resources. Namghar basically grooms people in their respective fields, from culture, spirituality, to political leadership, in the early years of life.

VILLAGE PANCHAYAT: The introduction of the “Panchayati Raj” system is also unable to take over the role of Namghar in total. It may be because of its non-political, permanent institutional nature. The disputes and discord among villagers are much better settled in Namghar than anywhere else.

RURAL CLUB: The Namghar is the only venue in rural areas of Assam where people acquaint themselves with each other in a cordial manner. Nowadays, many libraries are also constructed adjacent to the Namghar. Even many indoor games are also played in the extended shed of Namghar. The Assamese Namghar serves in all aspects: auditorium, playground, religious discourse, political meeting, trial court, etc.

SPIRITUAL GUARDIANSHIP: The most important and effective feature of Namghar is its spirituality. The power of Namghar originates from common religious beliefs or weaknesses in spirituality or religion. It is like a church in mediaeval Europe. The Namghar enjoys the status of an unquestioned judge among innocent people because of its religious tag. So sometimes its judgement authority is greater than that of  government-aapproved legal institution.

EXPANSION OF NAMGHAR AND XATRA: No kingdom of Assam had ruled the entire Assam. But Saint Sankardeva reached out and preached everywhere.

During his long lifespan, Mahapurush Sankardeva wandered and frequently changed locations. Sankardeva earned the wrath of the respective monarchs for the initiation of a new religious order. His main foe or enemy remained among the kingdoms of Kachari, Ahom, and Koch. Sankardeva started his religious preaching in Borduwa and Alipukhuri. The family of Sankardeva was an independent landlord. But the powerful Kachari was their neighbour. Once a quarrel erupted between them, Sankardeva was compelled to move from middle Assam to the Ahom kingdom via Singori and Routa (approximately in 1516/1517). Finally, they settled in Gangmou (1527). Sankardeva stayed there for almost five years and wrote Ankiya Naat, “Patni Prasad.” The position of the Ahom kingdom was destabilised by the attack by Koch monarch Biswa Singha. Again, Mahapurush migrated to Dhuwahat, presently within the Majuli area. Sankardeva at Dhuwahat somehow expressed himself as a mass preacher. He converted many people to “Ek Sarana,” and a vast group of his religious sect successfully emerged. This had rung an alarm bell for the priestly Brahmins. The Brahmins started to antagonise Sankardeva, and the wrong message reached against him in the ears of Ahom monarchs. Hostility arose unabated. The most remarkable event of his stay in Dhuwahat was the meeting of another great saint, Madhavdeva.

Koch king Nara Narayan rose to the throne in 1540. Sankardeva got comfortable with royal patronage there. Even King Nara Narayan became his follower. Mahapurush Sankardeva finally settled in Patbaushi, Tantikuchi (Barpeta). But he frequented Koch Bihar and his residing place, Bheladonga.

The most formative period of Sankardeva started after his migration to the Koch kingdom of lower Assam. Most of his prominent Ankiya Naats and devotional songs—Borgeet—were created in Patbaushi. Moreover, Patbaushi, or Koch Bihar, is the revered place that established Sankardeva as a religious icon. The disciples from various ethnic backgrounds are converted to “Ek Sarana.” They’re Damodordeva (Brahmin), Govinda (Garo), Jayaram (Bhutia), Murari (Koch), Chand Sai (Muslim), etc.

OVERVIEW: We can conclude from the above discussion that the subjects of the Koch kingdom are ardently or easily converted to the Sankari cult (Bhakti). This is only apparently true. The dominant socio-cultural ethos of Assam originated in tribal society. Even the first aryanized dynasty, the Varman, was of Mleccha origin. The people of Assam are aryanized through assimilation only, not by birth. The people of western Assam are more aryanized than those of the eastern part. Because the western part of Assam is easily connected to mainland Indian territory, The Bhakti movement of Sankardeva is, as such, a revolt against aryanized casteism. The parochial attitude of Brahmanism never cordially embraces the casteless Bhakti cult. It became inimical to their existence. So the seeds of Xatra and Namghar definitely germinated under the Koch kingdom but were grown with fruits in the Ahom kingdom. The rulers can inculcate faith in their subjects to a limited extent. The subjects of the Ahom kingdom never endorsed the animosity between Sankardeva and their monarchy. The tribal people of upper Assam under the Ahom Empire are not totally acquainted with casteism or professional classification. So, they wholeheartedly accepted the Namghar, or Xatra-centric religion of Sankardeva. This is one of the prime reasons for the unhindered expansion of Namghar within the Ahom kingdom. The flow was so intense that the preacher of classless society, the Kala Sanghati Satra, got a dominantnt foothold in upper Assam only. Later Shaktism in Bengal posed a conflicting environment. The Moamoria rebellion is a product of that conflict which immensely contributed to the fall of the Ahom dynasty.

On the other hand, the rulers of Kochi Bihar are more akin to the rulers or cultures of the western and northern parts of India (Undivided Bengal, Delhi, etc.). More than a hundred xatras were created in undivided greater Kamrupa until the second decade of the nineteenth century. These flourish based on the ideal of Barpeta Satra. But the Assamese Namghar couldn’t become a mass culture in Kamrupa. The Ahom’s administrative system was conducive to a formative Assamese society. The pedestal strata of the Assam people were built in the Ahom kingdom. Namghar was born out of that. The small kingdoms under the Koch empire also couldn’t develop the Bhakti cult very deeply. The Darrangi kingdom was originally established under the Koch empire. Even Darrang was a subordinate kingdom under Ahom for nearly a hundred years. But the influence of Bhakti religion in the socio-cultural life of Darrang was not conspicuous. Gradually, the Koch kings, after Nara Narayan and Lakshmi Narayan, disconnected their ties with the Brahmaputra valley. Their close affinity with Delhi-based Mughals and the British alienated the people of the Brahmaputra Valley. The culture of Bengal overshadowed the Assamese customs. Where is there room for Namghari culture? The peaceful coexistence of many “shakti peethas” like Kamakhya hadn’t obstructed the rise of the Bhakti movement. But the North Indian and Bengal influences are shaking the very essence of Assamese culture. After much upheaval, Xatra and Namghar remain pillars of Assamese society. The people of Assam should be careful enough to comprehend the differences between Namghars and temples. Nowadays, some structures in Namghar look similar to those of temples. The “Monikuts,” or the facades of some Namghars, are built in temple shapes, polluting Assamese indigenous architecture. If it continues, it will be like the aryanized hegemonic interference of North India.

CHANGES IN NAMGHAR: The Namghar is an institution created about five hundred fifty years ago. Naturally, it won’t remain intact. Change is inevitable with time. The religious rites and rituals are also changed in all institutions. But the influence of religion in Namghar is paramount. It has been observed that the basic spirituality of Namghar hasn’t been changed. The various cultural programmes are held in Namghar, but generally with religious undertones. The power of Namghar as a village panchayat or mediator is decaying. Now, qualified people expect to be tried depending on circumstantial evidence for all the disputes. The morality of Namghar matters less in serious cases. The transition from feudalism to democracy resulted in the acquisition of personal freedom. Even common people are involved in politics for voting rights. This wasn’t the same in the colonial era. The beginning of the industrial revolution ended the agrarian economy. Commodity products occupy the economic set-up of a society. These are done under direct political administration or government. So the government and relevant modern institutions like the judiciary and police are slowly replacing the age-old social authority of Namghar. The voting, evidence, and democratic majority are not adjustable with socio-religious institution.

The basic architectural look of the Namghar remains the same. But for the non-availability of indigenous materials—bamboo, straw, timber, and cane—the original scenario of Namghar disappeared. Now all the above-mentioned materials are replaced by concrete. So the look and design were also changed. The masons are mostly outsiders. They can’t distinguish the differences between the Namghar and temple. So the triangular roof, façade, monikut, and extended shed sometimes resemble Hindu temples.

DETAILED PARTS OF NAMGHAR IN BRIEF: The inner premises of Namghar are divided into nine parts with meaningful significance. The eastern part near “Monikut,” where “Guru Asana” is kept, is regarded as the first room, or “head.”. 

Serially towards the west, the second one is “heart.”.

The third one is “Stomach.”

The fourth one is “Navel.

The fifth one is “thigh.”

The sixth one is “feet.”

The second, third, and fourth parts are used generally for congregational purposes. The remaining two sections, fifth and sixth, remain vacant or utilised to receive devotees and guests.

Moreover, the entire Namghar is demarcated into three imaginary divisions. The “head” is called Archana Sthana. The “heart” and “stomach” are called Bandana Sthana. The area from fourth to sixth is called Padasevana Sthana, where devotees sit for prayer.

ROOFING: As stated earlier, some Vaishnava scholars consider the structure of Namghar to be the feet of Lord Vishnu. The shape starts from the hip of the Lord. The roof should be the back of an elephant. According to Vaishnavite scholars, the Namghar should have three roofs. One is on the top, and the others are on the on the east and west sides connected to the top. The head, or horn, of this elephant is the monikut. The tail starts from the top, and the triangular skin on the top is the thigh and hip. The rest of the area has two stomachs. There should not be division on the roof for the porch. The sloping roof is revered as a female roof. The Namghar is considered “natural.”. This “naturecovers the inner “male.”. The combined “Nature-Male”(Rakriti and Purush) is the creator of the world—the Almighty.

Let Namghar, born out of marvellous tribal architectural aspects, flourish in the heart of every Assamese.

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