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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Celebrating Holi: The Barpeta Way

Holi is a festival which is loved by almost everyone. Some of the most vivid and colourful images of Holi come to our minds from the ones that come in from places like Mathura and Vrindavan. In Assam, celebrating Holi has been a major activity for the people of the Vaishnav faith. The Satras (Vaishnav monasteries) have their own individual traditions of celebrating Holi, but none of them can come to the massive celebrations that take place in Barpeta Satra.

A group of women enjoy the colours of Holi.

The Satra at Barpeta town is regarded as the prime Satra in Assam within the Vaishnav cult, and has a rich tradition of celebrating Holi which is called here as the Doul Utsav or the Xuaeri Utsav. Holi here becomes a festival of three to four days and becomes an occasion for people to wear their new clothes of the year. The city wears a festive look and devotees come in from all corners of Assam to witness the celebrations that reflect the Assamese community’s rich cultural heritage.

Fire crackers being burst on the occasion of the Holika burning ceremony on the first day’s evening.

This year, the Doul Utsav was for three days. The first day sees the celebrations kick off with various groups and teams compete in the Holi Geet contest. The various performers take part in a parade through the main market of the town where they show off their prowess in the traditional Assamese Holi songs. The evening sees people gather in large numbers at the Satra premises to witness the Holika burning ceremony and then the traditional busting of fire crackers, which is one of the prime traditional attractions of the festivals. During this period, the idol of Lord Krishna and his wife, referred to by the locals as Ghunusa are kept out of the main Satra building and in the courtyard where they are worshipped. Day two sees the idols shifted to the Doul building in the premises where people make offerings in the form of Holi colours and incense sticks. The second day also sees the crowd building up within the Satra premises as people gear themselves up for playing Holi the next day.

People gather in the premises of the Satra to witness the Holika burning ceremony.

The idols of Lord Krishna and his wife Ghunusa on display.

The main entrance gate of the Satra decorated for the evenings of the Doul Utsav.

People gather at the Doul temple within the Satra premises to offer pujas to Lord Krishna and Ghunusa on the second day of the Doul Utsav.

A group of young boys indulge in traditional Assamese Holi songs.

The third day sees all the people in the town go wild as they gather up to play Holi. Every nook and corner of the town is painted colourful as people sing traditional Holi Geets and splash colours on each other. Some of the best Holi festivities are seen at the market around the Satra and within the Satra premises itself. 

Holi festivities in full swing at the main market in front of the Satra.

Revelers enjoy the spirit of Holi with colours and songs.

A group of boys enjoy the spirit of Holi.

Fried boiled eggs are the favourite delicacies of Barpeta during the Doul Utsav.

The second half of the day sees large crowds of people gather up at the Satra premises as Krishna and Ghunusa are taken out on two palanquins by a large procession of devotees to the neighbouring village of Ganak Kuchi as part of the celebration finale. Devotees playfully block the path of the Lord throughout the way as the ones carrying the palanquins break their way through it. It is a real treat for the eyes to watch it. Once back from Ganak Kuchi, the palanquins are ritually made to circumnavigate the main Satra building seven times before they are finally put to rest in their traditional spot in the Satra.

Devotees carry the palanquins of Lord Krishna and Ghunusa towards the main gate of the Satra for their trip to Ganak Kuchi.

Lord Krishna’s palanquin being carried by devotees during the circumnavigation process as part of the final day’s ceremony of the festival.

This year saw a massive attendance of people at the Doul Utsav as colours were thrown in the air and traditional Holi Geets were sung by the merry making people of Barpeta. It is a real treat to watch for anybody who wants to see Holi celebrated in a customized Assamese tradition. Next year, The Doul Utsav will held for a period of five days with the final day reportedly culminating on March 8. Trust me, you wouldn’t want to miss that one. 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Goddess in the Backyard

The famous Nilachal Hill of Guwahati is full of surprises. While the whole world knows that it is the site of the most revered Kamakhya temple, the hill is itself the holder of many secrets and fascinations. While some people regard the hills around Kamakhya and the rest of the Maligaon area as pretty good for trekking purposes, the locals believe that the Nilachal Hill holds a lot of mysteries which have not yet manifested properly for normal humans. Until most recently, I discovered that most of these mysteries are small shrines or temples that have laid hidden and forgotten for centuries within jungles and caves in various corners of the hill.

The view of the majestic Brahmaputra from the side of the Nilachal Hill.

I’m myself not a religious person, but when my overtly religious friend Pravanjan Bhattacharjee told me about this hitherto unknown shrine of Vaishno Devi in the Nilachal Hill, it captured my imagination like anything. Everyone knows that Vaishno Devi’s shrine is at Katra in Jammu. To my knowledge, there is no other shrine of the Goddess anywhere else but Katra. A Vaishno Devi shrine at the Nilachal Hill was an opportunity I could not just give away and so I begged my friend to take me to this place.

The spot of the shrine with the mystical tree and the makeshift hut.

To go to this shrine, you need to make an exit through the western gate of Kamakhya, which is known as the path of Hanuman as it takes you all the way to the Balak Hanuman temple at the foothill of Nilachal which is quite close to the banks of the Brahmaputra. Since we were walking to a shrine, we left our shoes at a shop near the temple and walked down the rough path to the shrine halfway down the hill. First you exit the western gate of the temple and then make your way through the little colony of houses where the families of the priests and pandas stay. A ten minute long walk walk suddenly brings to a rough stony path that goes through the jungle. Now here is the good part for adventure lovers and people who love to go for an occasional trek in the embrace of nature, the way to the shrine is full of spots that enchant you. First of all is the majestic sight of the Brahmaputra flowing below the hill. On one end you can see the Saraighat Bridge and on the other end you can see the Umananda island. It is really a sight to behold and gets breathtakingly lovely during the time of sunset. You also pass by an old Shivakund, a small lake by the hilly fringes of the jungle that also houses a Shivalinga with it. Nilachal Hill is dotted by many such Shivakunds that are spread over various spots.

Cyclewallah Baba seated in the makeshift hut.

For people who don’t have the habit of walking much or have gained weight recently may find the walk a little bit tedious as I did. You have to do a bit of climbing along the way as the path meanders up and down the hillway. For those who are worried over directions, it is fairly a straightforward path that rarely deviates from the way. Plus, it is advisable to ask the locals before you set out as they know the proper directions. After a walk that lasted around 40 minutes and was spread over the some beautiful sights of nature, we reached the spot of the shrine.

The exterior of the main cave entrance of the shrine of Vaishno Devi.

The way leading through the main cave entrance into the shrine of Vaishno Devi.

The spot is dotted by a makeshift hut where two priests live and two caves are situated within close ranges of each other, one dedicated to Vaishno Devi and the other for Shiva. There is also a mystical tree that captivated our attention for most part of our stay there. I followed my friend into the hut and saw two priests seated and reciting sholkas from the Devi Puran. We sat down in front of them and listened to the recitation of the hymns for sometime. That really sat the mood for some devotion and then after sometime the priests took a break to talk to us. The two priests, who are otherwise not very comfortable talking to strangers, told us about the place.

The chakras on one portion of the tree.

 It was an ancient site of a Vaishno Devi temple within the cave that had got forgotten for a long time. It was one the priests, who introduced himself as the Cyclewallah Baba, who discovered the place after getting a revelation from the Goddess in a dream. Baba recounted that it was the time of the yearly Ambubachi Mela during 2007, when the dream came to him one night. Soon he made his way to the spot and discovered the temple hidden inside the cave behind a huge thicket of jungle. The Goddess instructed him to keep the location of the temple a secret for three years and ordered him to clear the spot of the jungle and make it decent for offering pujas. Baba continued with his efforts in preserving the vicinity of the temple for a period of three years. Both the caves were cleaned up and pujas began to be offered there. Baba soon made the revelation to other people and then his friend, the other priest joined him in the daily pujas there.

The seat of the Goddess which was also the spot where Gorakhnath is said to have performed penance.

Me and my friend offered pujas at the Vaishno Devi shrine in front of the stone idol smeared in sindoor and prayed there for a long time. I must admit there is a strong feel of other worldliness in the area and I became religious for that period of time. Taking photos inside the cave of the Devi is not aloud and the place has a strong cooling affect that worked great after the day’s walking that had left us exhausted in the heat. Between the two caves is a huge stone which is labelled as the throne of Vaishno Devi. It is also regarded as the site where the legendary seer Baba Gorakhnath had performed penance ages ago. Near to it is the mystical tree I had mentioned sometime back. Now what is interesting about this tree is that it has got naturally formed circles or chakras in various parts of its body and the trunks. The priests swear that if you look closely at the chakras then it reveals the form of the Goddess. Also, the chakras keep appearing and disappearing in different parts of the tree thus revealing different forms of the Goddess from time to time. From there we walked over to the cave of Lord Shiva, who is referred here as the Brahmand Baba. The climb inside this cave is however difficult as it is narrow and you have to be careful of the rocks. But soon, we made our way to the main cave chamber and were greeted by the Shivalinga inside it. I stood inside the main chamber which has an opening over the top among the roof and marveled at this natural formation that has given way to a great sight of devotion. Fortunately, we were told that Brahmand Baba is not shy at all and so I happily took some photos here.

The rocky underway leading to the cave of Brahmand Baba.

Cyclewallah Baba also informed us that the manifestation of the Vaishno Devi here at Nilachal is the same that is seen at Katra in Jammu. So that means if you visit this shrine at the Nilachal Hill, then you really don’t need to go all the way to Katra for a darshan of the Goddess. The two priests run the place now at their makeshift hut and also hold a bhandara (community kitchen) every Sunday with the help of the local people. I could see that the two men run the place with a lot of effort and there is no electricity here at all. A water pipe was recently installed at a point near the temple spot, but before that the two priests had to go all the way up to the temple premises to gather water for the day. The path is also quite rough and stony and frankly speaking not very safe at certain points. The spot is known to the two priests and the local people who live on the Nilachal Hill. A few other regular devotees like my friend know about it, but it is mostly an unknown fact to outsiders and occasional visitors to the Kamakhya Temple.

The main chamber of the cave of Brahmand Baba.

Cyclewallah Baba feels that the place has a great scope to improve provided the temple gets a bit of publicity and sees a rise in the number of devotees. He said that facilities near the shrine spot can improve greatly and the road can be repaired and made safe for all to tread on only if people start visiting the place which would eventually make the authorities take notice. Here, I knew what he meant because if this small spot has the same potential as the Vaishno Devi shrine of Katra, then we are staring at the next big shrine in the vicinity after the Kamakhya Temple itself.

They say you cannot visit the shrine of Vaishno Devi until she decides its time for you to do so. During my decade long stay in Delhi, I had thought several times of visiting the Vaishno Devi shrine at Katra. But somehow things never worked out. But ironically, the Goddess gave me a darshan at my own hometown after all these years. Maybe it is a sign for all of us to love and respect our homeland's soil more than ever. I will keep visiting the Devi from time to time now. I hope you do it too if you are in Guwahati or anywhere nearer to it than Katra.