Sunday, 24 June 2012

Memories dear and close ....

Fire singes heritage building

June 10th was a lazy Sunday afternoon. After lunch, switching on the television, I perked myself up cozily in bed. Suddenly my attention was caught by these particular lines flashing on the screen, while browsing through the news channels. "Fire broke out at a heritage building in Upper Assam". "Fire fighters trying to douse the fire, no reports of casualty...... ".
My heart sank. Jumping out of bed I mechanically picked up the phone and dialed a number. But before my call was responded, live telecast of the sad news of this heritage building was on. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I saw the huge flames gulping the roof of this Colonial building. I could see men running in and out carrying with them whatever they thought of some importance or value. Books, files, furniture all scattered on the front lawn. It was extremely painful as I watched helplessly, the smoke billowing out of this majestic mansion.

With much difficulty the fire could be stopped from spreading to the ground floor. However, the entire roof and a portion of the first floor was completely damaged.

 I am talking about the stately colonial building, the official residence of the Commissioner of Upper Assam, where I lived a wonderful stretch of my life. My time here was full of memories, sweetly fond. Jorhat, a charming little township, a district headquarter, where this building stands tall. 

Jorhat was the last capital of the Ahom Kingdom. This commercially flourishing town was completely destroyed by a series of Burmese invasions till around the year1817. The British force arrived at Jorhat in the year 1824. Tea industry soon grew up in and around this small yet beautiful township. 

This bungalow, one of the oldest buildings of Assam, was constructed in the year 1921 as the official residence of the superintendent of the Jorehaut Tea Company. Much later, after the end of British rule, the Assam Tea Corporation Limited owned this building till finally it was formally taken over by the State Government of Assam.  

The two-storied house with its distinctive green roof and whitewashed walls has remained ever imposing. It is the witness to the history of Assam during the rule of the British.

My memories gradually carried me back to those exquisitely idyllic days in this colonial bungalow in the picturesque surroundings. How I loved to put in all my efforts to keep the interiors as well as the outdoors in top form. The teak floors needed frequent polishing, the endless window panes needed wiping and the huge doors, dusting. Quite a few workers had to toil everyday completing this job. A sprawling 22 bighas of land comprising the kitchen garden, flower garden, the front lawn and the back yard with a number of fruit trees. I remember sitting on the lawns umpteen times, planning, discussing and finally instructing the gardeners about planting of crops, culture of flowers, arrangement of potted plants and flower vases. In these sessions of exchanging tips I gained quite a bit of knowledge which has now come in handy. That was the time I had even ordered and studied several foreign publications on how to grow annuals and perennials, culture of bulbous blooms and nurture of exotic house plants. The cut flowers, vegetables and flower arrangements from my garden begged several awards in respected flower show competitions.

Few of the silvers the flowers of this garden brought me.

The swimming pool was of course no longer in use when we moved into this heritage building. The water lilies in the pond were a delightful sight with a few tiny fishes jumping in and out occasionally. The garden with this pond was a major attraction for the visitors.

I named the extreme left room on the first floor, the 'morning room'. This room would be filled with the first rays of the sun making it so very pleasant and glowing with hope! Passing endless time looking out of the window as far as my eyes could take me, turned out to be a hobby. Most of the time my pot of tea would sit on the trolley covered with tea-cozy getting cold. My mind would wander away from where the eyes failed and a few verses would flow .......

On one of those rosy days ........ my father playing with his grand children and one of the family pets. 

Guest room was on the extreme right side where an elegant four poster bed stood enhancing the beauty of the room. Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, had spent a night in this bungalow and used this very bed in the year1961. My particular attention and care went to a few last lovely colonial bed side tables, book shelves, dining table and a few chairs scattered all over the spacious rooms. The huge heavy mahogany secretary table in the bungalow office, downstairs, was a masterpiece. Keeping them all shining was a major task to complete for the workers.

The ball room, the dining hall, the master bed room, the children's room, the kitchen (which was away from the main bungalow), the long lounge ....oh, all so wonderfully fresh in my memory. The fans hanging on long pipes from the high ceiling, their wide and long blades served so well even today. The extra long T bolts on the equally tall doors were fascinating. The immensely high ceiling made you look really tiny inside the rooms. The carpeted stair way leading to the lounge up stairs was so awfully gorgeous. The graceful fire places which we rarely used added to the ambiance.

The classy little rose wood book shelf was my personal favourite. I had it placed near the couch in the morning room. Arranging my collection of Thomas Hardy, D H Lawrence, Jane Austen and Leo Tolstoy I would feel myself right in midst of all those characters I so adored. Being the lady of this magnificent mansion, I travelled hundreds of years behind, to the era of Emma, Anna, Bathsheba, Elinor and Merianne the Dashwood sisters ........  Oh how enchanting it was, to be in that age!

My heart could not accept the fact that most of it was gone now, destroyed by the menace of a single electric spark. Assessment of the damage and plans to restore this heritage building is on as I write this piece ........... 

The restored heritage building now .... (2013)

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Poem : Delusion of Love

                                  Hazy was her world,
                                              Beatitude played hide n seek; 
                                  A life uncared for and bleak,
                                              Lay under a cindery sheet;
                                  As if a pebble diminutive.

                                  His oblivious elevation,
                                              Sheltering warmth;
                                  And auspices to name a few,
                                              Made dreary dainty brave;
                                  Into a world exclave.

                                  Radiating in euphoria,
                                              Enthralled in embrace;
                                  Of his unbounded care,
                                              Into a bauble she turns;
                                  Submitting to him forever.

                                  But alas! 
                                              Care he does shower,
                                  Yet, heart bestowed
                                              To that fairness enchanter; 
                                  Who is his loveliest wonder.

                                  Scarcity in the midst of opulence,
                                              Hope turning to despair;
                                  She remains in a life of glorious hollow,
                                              with companion loneliness;
                                  Holding her hand to always follow ...............

Ruprekha Mushahary
2nd May 2011

Sunday, 3 June 2012

Dhekiakhowa Bor Namghor

The entrance to Dhekiakhowa Bor Namghor 

A Namghor is a socio religious centre where villagers assemble to pray and to discuss religious matters. The Namghors follow the "Ek xoron hari naam dharma, founded by the great saint, scholar, social and religious reformer Mahapurush Srimanta Shankardev. This form of religion is also popularly known as "Mahapuruxism" or ''Vaishnavism'' which only worships Lord Krishna.

The other entrance to Dhekiakhowa Bor Namghor, the 'haatir turon'

Spread over 13 bighas, the Dhekiakhowa Bor Namghor is situated some four kilometers off the NH 37, in Jorhat District of  upper Assam.
Jorhat, a quiet little township surrounded by lush-green tea gardens, was home to my AjuKoka and AjuAaita (great grand parents). I have fond memories of visiting this lovely place and the Bor Namghor  as a young girl with my Koka and Aaita (grand parents). It gave me as much peace even then as it does today.

The long passageway that leads you from the 'Haatir turon' to the main door of the Namghor. The paintings on the sides depict stories from the life of Lord Krishna..

 As a child, what always fascinated me about Jorhat was the beautiful Colonial Bungalows that dotted the town making it look even more charming. Little did I know then that I would later on end up living in two of those most beautiful Colonial bungalows of Jorhat. In those bungalows, I passed one of the most beautiful stretches of my life. Those were wonderful years filled with fables. I shall write about that sometime later, but for now, let me narrate the story of the Bor Namghor.

During my stay at Jorhat, I visited Dhekiakhowa Bor Namghor often. Interacting with people associated with the Namghor, I lapped up whatever they could tell me about the origin of this Namghor. Following was what I gathered.
Mahapurush Madhavdev, a saint and a reformer was the greatest disciple of Mahapurush Srimanta Shankardev. It has been universally acknowledged that the joint effort of these two Mahapurush made this religion, the Bhagawati Vaisnav Dharma, gain popularity and flourish. However, their mission was never a smooth sailing one. Many who opposed them, approached and persuaded the Ahom King to resist the movement. King Suhungmung being convinced, ordered both of them to act as interceptors of elephants in the elephant corridor. This was nothing but punishment for the two religious heads to intercept elephants with their followers. Despite their reluctance, both had to abide by the king's order and accordingly started performing their duties.

The Bor Namghor

One day, they saw a herd approaching them, headed by a white elephant. White symbolizes truth and the mission of the two religious heads too being truth, Shankardev let the herd go. This act of the interceptors provided the opponents an opportunity to persuade the king once again to take action against them. The king immediately sent out an arrest warrant against Shankardev. On the insistence of the devotees and Madhavdev, Shankardev fled the place with some of his followers. In absence of the Guru, Madhavdev and Harijowai, another disciple, who happened to be Shankardev's son-in-law, were arrested by the king's men.

The king observed that Madhavdev had taken sanyas (asceticism), therefore, in his death none would shed tears. On the other hand, Harijowai had a complete family of wife and children, who would be living in sorrow for the rest of their lives in his death. So, the king ordered Harijowai to be beheaded. There was no escape from this death sentence. Harijowai requested Madhavdev not to leave his side while his death sentence was carried out. After much pleading, Madhavdev was allowed to be present to witness the gruesome sentence being carried out.

The age old twin Banyan trees standing confidently in the court yard of the Bor Namghor as if to tell many tales from the past. No body is sure how old these trees are.

  As he was readied for the execution, Harijowai started his prayer and Madhavdev, with a tormented heart, sang a soulful devotional song. The enchanted melody had an incredible impact on the listeners, including the king. The king was moved by the bewitchingly divine melody. In midst of the prayer and singing, the death sentence was carried out. But to their utter astonishment, even after the head was severed from the body, not a drop of blood flowed! As a rule, the blood stained sword had to be produced before the king after completion of a death sentence. Instead, the king was informed of this miracle. The king then realized that those two were no common human beings and that he committed a grave mistake by killing an innocent man. He ordered immediate release of Madhavdev and set him free with honour and plenty of wealth. Madhavdev refused to move out of captivity unless the king himself came to him to express his mistake and saw him off. The king obliged. Madhavdev left the place but did not accept a single penny the king had offered him.

The main Manikut or the Thapona (alter) of the Bor Namghor

In the mean time, Mahapurush Srimanta Shankardev started the ritual of Paal Naam for safety and well-being of his two disciples. Paal Naam is a prayer meet with devotional songs, which continues non-stop for several days. This ritual is maintained all over the state of Assam till this day with great devotion. Paal Naam is performed in Dhekiakhowa Bor Namghor every year in the holy month of Bhada (from middle of August to middle of September). Pilgrims and devotees throng the Namghor during that time.  

Dhekiakhowa village

After his release, Madhavdev wandered around for a while and finally reached this village where the Bor Namghor now stood. He arrived at the hut of a poor elderly couple in this village. On finding the Mahapurush himself in their hut, their joy knew no bounds. But was worried about entertaining their guest as they didn't have any food to offer him. The rice they collected by begging that day was hardly enough even for the two of them. God had been so kind to give them the opportunity of serving a meal to the Mahapurush which they were not capable of doing. The old couple finally decided to cook and serve the rice to the guest and stay hungry themselves.

The piece of driftwood

In the mean time, Madhavdev went to a stream that flowed by the hut to take a bath. This was actually a river, which dried up looking like a stream during the winters. Sitting on a piece of driftwood he took a bath. That piece of driftwood still lies in a corner of a room in the Bor Namghor. Devotees pay their homage by covering it with gamosa and offering prayers.

Madhavdev relished the meal of steamed rice. The poor couple somehow managed one meal for their guest and now planned for the next one. Those days, braids made of human hair were popularly used by women as wigs. Artificial hair was not available back then. This was known as 'seng sooli'. The poor old woman cut her hair off, braided them and sold them in the nearby market. She then bought some food grains, salt, oil etc with that money and asked her husband to collect some ferns which were available by the banks of the river.

This edible fern called Dhekia, has always been a favourite of the Assamese.

The old man collected some 'dhekia' (ferns). While Madhavdev cooked a meal of rice and curry of dhekia, he asked the old man to inform the villagers to assemble at the old couple's hut. Villagers  gathered around Madhavdev. He poured some oil on a peel of 'Outenga' (Elephant Apple) and lit a saki, (lamp). Preaching on Vaishnavism, he requested the villagers to tend the lamp so that it was never put out. This lamp is burning even today in the Bor Namghor. 

Akkhoy Banti

The Akkhoy Banti (the lamp/diya), that was lit by Madhavdev, is burning in the Bor Namghor till this day. For hundreds of years devotees have been pouring oil and tending this lamp to keep it from extinguishing. This lamp has come a long (484 years) way, burning non-stop from a peel of Elephant Apple to an earthen diya, a diya curved out of stone and finally the present one made of brass. Detailed reference of this lamp can be found in manuscripts, that are preserved in Kamalabari Satra of Majuli, Assam.  

Madhavdev relished the meal of rice and dhekia curry that day and since then the village came to be  known as Dhekiakhowa. As a mark of gratitude to the old woman, he named the stream by the hut as 'Buri Diha'. During summer this stream swells up turning into a big river submerging its banks.

Dhekia flower

A hundreds of years old Dhekia flower, that is being preserved in the Bor Namghor. It is believed that a Dhekia flower is not easy to find. Flowering of Dhekia itself is a rare phenomenon.

Madhavdev left this village after bringing unity to the villagers and organising them into Vaishnavism, proceeding to yet another village to bring more people under the same umbrella of Ekxaran Harinaam Dharma. He was soon united with his Guru Shankardev and together they continued their long and arduous journey.
 The old couple passed away. The villagers constructed a Namghor on the spot where the hut stood. They named it 'Burha Namghor' in memory of the old couple. In due course the name got converted to Bor Namghor. As no written history of the Namghor could be found with accurate date/year, from various other literature by both the Gurus, the year of foundation may be taken as 1528.

A part of the pond at the premises of the Bor Namghor.

Behind the scene, cleaning and cutting the fruits in progress before the Naam (prayer meet) starts.

Devotees assemble for a session of  'Naam-Praxanga'.

Over the years the Namghor has been built and renovated many times and has finally come to what it is today. It can accommodate hundreds of devotees at a time. During the month of Bhadra, thousands of devotees take part in the Naam Praxango, in three batches a day.

After Naam, the offerings (proxaad) are distributed among the devotees on banana leaves.


Xasi Paat manuscripts at the Bor Namghor

 The museum of the Namghor is under construction. The 'Xorais' made of bell metal, the 'Xasi Paator Puthi' and many more valuables will be preserved in this museum. Assam is known for this rich tradition of manuscripts made on the inner bark of the 'Xasi' tree. The method of preparing these manuscripts were not easy. These Xasi paat manuscripts are hundreds of years old. Satras and Namghars preserve, study and carry out research work on these Xasi paat manuscripts.

The gold and silver flowers the devotees offer to the Bor Namghor.

Mainly four festivals are celebrated in Dhekiakhowa Bor Namghor.
1. Month long Paal Naam, during the month of Bhadra (from mid August to mid September).
2. Srimanta Shankardev's birth anniversary, during the month of Aahin (middle of September to middle of October).
3. Madhavdev's birth anniversary, during the month of Jeth (from 15th of May to 15th of June).
4. Bhawona Utsav, during the month of Soat or Chaitra (from 15th of March to 15th of April).

Bhawonas are dramas written by Srimanta Shankardev to convey religious messages to the masses through entertainment. The Bhawonas have characters of Gods, kings, queens, demons, soldiers etc depicting triumph of truth over evil.

Dhekiakhowa Bor Namghor has kept the tradition and uplifted the Ekxaran Bhagawati Vaishnav Dharma for hundreds of years irrespective of caste and creed, turning it into a holy place/heaven for the pilgrims. 

Friday, 1 June 2012

Dhekia Xaak Bhaji

Dhekia Xaak Bhaji (Fried edible fern)
This edible fern, called Dhekia (vegetable fern) has been a favourite of the Assamese. Can be eaten in many ways. Be it a curry or cooked dry, Dhekia tastes delicious. 
Dhekia is generally not planted or grown in gardens. They grow wild by the banks of streams,  roadsides or any unused plots of lands. This is probably the most common edible fern found all over Asia. The scientific name is Diplazium esculentum.
The name Dhekiakhowa Bor Namghor of Jorhat came from this very fern. 

Here is a very simple and most common Assamese Dhekia recipe : 
                                Ingredients :

 3 small bunches of Dhekia

2 eggs (preferably duck egg)
1 fresh green Chilly
1 pod of Garlic (optional)
Salt to taste
2 tbsp Mustard Oil
1/2 tsp Turmeric (optional)

                                         Method :

Clean, wash, chop Dhekia. Only the very tender stems can be eaten, the hard ones must be cut off. Heat oil, crush the pod of garlic and fry. Add the chilly and Dhekia. Keep stirring, add salt and turmeric. Cook covered in low heat till Dhekia is cooked. 

Add eggs

Keep stirring. Remove as soon as the egg is well blended. 

Serve with a plate of steamed rice.