Essays Featured — 12 May 2017

Naina discovers the historical background and significance of Assam’s Namghars, the ethnic community prayer halls.

Assam is home to several ethnic groups and a vibrant culture. Speaking different languages and dialects that fall largely into three main groups, Indo-Aryan, Austroasiatic and Tibeto-Burman, they form a multi-religious society. The population of Assam consists of inhabitants who migrated into the region at various periods of history mainly from Tibet, Burma, Thailand and Bengal, and over a period of time they became integrated and gave birth to the greater Assamese nation.

Srimanta Sankardevi

An amalgamated Assamese identity was created with the dawn of a Neo-Vaishnavite movement in the second half of the 15th century. Initiated by mystic saint, Mahapurush Srimanta Sankardeva (1449-1568), the movement evolved into the new establishments of Satras and Namghars which began to serve not only as institutions to spread faith, but also helped sustain and stabilize Vaishnavism by making it part and parcel of Assamese social and cultural life. It appealed mostly to Hindus and indigenous animist people. Islam and Christianity never took hold in the region.

Simanta Shankardeva transformed and modernized Assamese society with his egalitarian ideology. He praised all gods such as Shiva, Krishna, and Rama in his songs but mainly spoke of the formless or the omnipresent one.

He worked in diverse fields such as religion, literature, music, dance drama, architecture, social reconstruction, etc, and founded an entirely new school of mysticism. He left his body at the remarkable age of almost 120 years.

His kavya (poems) include Kirtana-ghisha, Gopi Uddhava Samvada, Amrta manthana; Bhakti texts such as Bhakti-Pradipa and Bhakti-Ratnakara, and transliteration of the Bhagawat and Ramayana. Much loved by the people of Assam are his borgeets (great songs). Composed in the Brajavali language, the borgeets are devotional songs, set to music and sung in various raga styles. Only 34 borgeets exist now out of the 240 composed by him; the others were lost in a fire.

The unique Namghar

Naamghar

Namghar literally means ‘House of Names’; it is a community prayer hall where people recite the name of God. Srimanta Sankardeva established the first Namghar at Bordowa in Nagaon district of Assam. In Assamese, naam means prayer and ghar means house. A Namghar is not only a place of prayer, but is also a centre of learning, an institution for imparting education, a community hall where people gather to discuss their social problems, a training centre of arts and crafts. Namghars are also used for cultural activities like bhaona (drama) and dances. It plays the multi-faceted role of a Cultural Centre, prototype Panchayat (village council), and a forum for Decentralized Planning and Decision-making. Originally they were always built at the banks of a pond, the water supply source that was essential for ritual cleansing as well as all other water requirements.

The Namghar is usually a rectangular building with a gable, gablet or a hip roof raised on pillars. The main pillar is called the Ghaai Khutaa. The floor around this pillar is raised a little. It is usually identified by a Gamosaa (a hand-woven piece of cotton cloth that has distinctive borders all around in red color and embroidered with various flowery patterns) tied around it. No one is allowed to sit near this pillar as it is considered as the place of Burha-Dangoria (a holy spirit). When in the Namghar any mah-prasad or offerings are distributed after a service, at first an offering is made to that pillar as a custom. The pillar is also called Lai Khuta.

Monikut

The building has two major spaces, the Monikut (the sanctuary) and the assembly space. The Monikut, a small structure with hipped or gabled roof, has either no windows or very small ones. It shelters the Xinhaaxon (the altar) and devotees pray in the assembly space of the Namghar. Except for the Xotradhikar (spiritual leader of the community) and other privileged elders, no others are allowed to enter this space. It is smaller and darker and creates a sense of mystery.

Women gathering

It is important to note that the Xinhaaxon is a space provided for the satguru or the ultimate formless one. Hence there are no gods or goddesses or any other forms of idols to be found in the Namghar. The people who belong to this sangha, do not go to any other temples or worship any god at home although they are Hindus and follow all other Hindu customs.

All the temples lead you only up to concentration. They cannot lead you beyond because all the temples have an object in them: the image of God is an object to concentrate on. All the temples lead you only up to dharana, concentration.

That’s why the higher a religion goes, the temple and the image disappear. They have to disappear. The temple should be absolutely empty, so that only you are there – nobody, nobody else, no object: pure subjectivity.

Osho, Yoga: The Alpha and the Omega, Vol 5, Ch 5

A Namghar’s architecture reflects its usage pattern, Assam’s climatic conditions, and the indigenous building materials; they are found in almost all Hindu villages in Assam. The identity of the village folks in such places are tied closely to the Namghar they attend.

The public Namghar’s design is unique in that the assembly space is always very open, large, bright and airy. There are distinct advantages to the thatched roof in the acoustical quality of the assembly hall. The underside of the roof is one of the best acoustical ceilings possible, because even today there are no such high noise-absorbing ceiling materials available. It is architecturally significant in view of the use of Taal or Bhor Taal (large bronze cymbals used in the communal singing / chanting of hymns / recitation of scriptures, in a Namghar service) which are extremely loud and metallic sounding.

Food offering

The Namghars rarely have food service in the manner one sees in temples elsewhere in India. The mah-saul, or the fruit and soaked green lentil offerings, are distributed after a service and are almost always prepared at several homes, who are suitable to participate in food-serving.

Distribution of Prasad

Those who serve food are called deus or deuris and are selected based on their standing in the community, religious knowledge and competence. This too is a privileged position. Therefore, there never were any kitchens or pantries associated with Namghars, although this may be changing nowadays.

Today, Namghars have successfully retained the best features which can be traced to their earlier position as a common platform for devotees cutting across social and economic divide. Local people in their own way laid the foundations of many Namghars, and devised methods that enabled its functioning in a way that has survived the test of time.

Related discourse excerpt by Osho
The temple is a symbol of God’s dwelling

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