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Garmur Sattra


Garmur Sattra
                                 A patriotic, liberal and philanthropic heritage
           Garmur Sattra belonging to Brahma samhati was established by Jayaharideva in the year 1656AD under the patronage of king Jayadhwaj Singha at the tip of an embankment called Sewatol. The sattra was located at the origin (mur) of the embankment (gor). Hence  the name Garmur. One has to cross the mighty ‘male river’ Brahmaputra from Nimatighat, near the town of Jorhat  in eastern Assam to reach the river jetty at Kamalabari. After a few kilometers of bumpy ride through the flood-ravaged Majuli terrain, one enters the historic Garmur Sattra. The ambience is solemn, much like that of an ashram-a monastery. Bamshi Gopal Dev, the chief preacher of the Vaishnava cult in eastern Assam, is the guiding spirit for the way of life for the pontiffs and the apostolate of Garmur Sattra. He was the godfather of Jayaharidev and Mishradev who later became the precursor of the two great sattras—Garmur and Kuruabahi.
            There were two Garmurs before—the great and the little Garmur. Though both of them were located side by side, they had independent identities. While the Bor Garmur (the great one) was following the celibate order, the little Garmur allowed marriages. Only during the 20th century, the two Garmur sattras merged into one.
          In the olden days, the Garmur Sattra too had the usual practice of having four hatis. However, the celibate order was done away with by Sattradhikar Pitambardev Goswami. Ever since, all the disciples are married and live with their families. Only the Sattradhikar continues to remain a celibate monk as part of the tradition.
        The sattra is run by a management committee. There are various officials like one Borpujari (head priest), five pujaris (priests), three naamlogua (choir leader), one Borbayan (chief instrumentalist), one Borgayon (chief vocalist), three Borahs (executives), two deuris (distributors), one namghoria (in-charge of the prayer hall), one Amuktiar (liaison officer), and one Bhorali (store keeper). Out of them, while Borpujari, naamlogua and naamghoria are given a monthly salary, others are allowed to cultivate and take the proceeds of the land belonging to the sattra.
         The sattra had lost much of its earlier riches, thanks to its age-old anti-colonial stand. As per the account of Gangadhar Hararika, Garmur Sattra lost 24,000 acres of land as the then Sattradhikar Raghudeva wrote a letter to the British authorities declining to accept total allegiance to the crown. An order to that effect was issued by Captain David Scott in 1836 AD. Other sattras in Majuli, however, accepted Scott’s orders and managed to retain their land. Of the remaining property, the British auctioned off vast stretches of land belonging to the sattra when the last two Sattradhikars (prior to the present one) plunged into the Indian freedom struggle. Presently, therefore, the Garmur Sattra is certainly not at par with its three other famed counterparts namely Auniati, Kuruabahi, and Dakhinpaat. Earlier, the sattra had several branches in different parts of Assam. Today, the branches include those at Phulaguri and Puranigudam in Nagaon district, and one each in Guwahati, and Toklai, near Jorhat.
            Historically, the sattra had been at the vanguard of promoting educational pursuits. The great reformer Pitambar Deva Goswami had traversed inhospitable terrains and lived with the tribal people in the present day Karbi-Anglong and set up as many as twenty primary schools in the area way back in the 1950s. As a mark of gratitude to the great soul, several schools and a college at Majuli are named after Pitambor Deva Goswami. Garmur Sattrahad also donated land in Phulaguri and Puranigudam where two major schools were set up in the name of Pitambor Deva Goswami. The land of Nehru Park of Jorhat where the present Polytechnic High School is there, and the location where the Dainik Janambhumi press – is presently situated, belonged to Garmur Sattra.
          The very first encounter, when His Holiness, the Sattradhikar appeared from inside his boha (abode) to bow to us, was somewhat puzzling. Accustomed as we are to the Sattradhikars being mostly in their 60s, here was a smiling and enlightened looking personality in his 40s. His solemn look and physical appearance could well resemble the proverbial Greek God. There were others along with us sitting on the tiled floor, in mats. Some had come from far away places to pay obeisance to their Guru. Others from nearby areas were discussing ordinary goings on in Majuli. We saw several disciples moving about, attending to their usual chores in a typical laid back atmosphere.
        As we engaged him in conversation, a few of his close aides came by. We had tea served in the typical sattra way—on bell-metal bowls along with Assamese delicacies prepared by the monks. We spoke as we walked around the sattra premises. “Prabhu, please tell us about yourself. We understand you belonged to a family like any of us, how have you been able to adjust to a sacred life? And you are celibate?” These and many others questions arose out of nothing but curiosity.
        Prabhu is not one to shy away from such probing questions. “It has been a break from tradition in my case. The practice till the last Sattradhikar has been to select a person to occupy this position from among the male descendants of the Kuruabahi Sattra. My mother draws her lineage from the Kuruabahi Sattra,and I happen to be the only person adorning the post from the side of a female descendant of the Kuruabahi Sattra”.
      Haridev Goswami belonged to Punia Namdang Sattraat Gaurisagar in the eastern Assam district of  Sivasagar and is the youngest of the three children of Narayan Chandra Deva Goswami. He was undergoing a graduate course in commerce at the Sivasagar Commerce College. Like other college going youths with dreams in his eyes, the well-groomed Haridev was getting on with life in familiar environs. That is when the news broke.
       Young Haridev was nominated to be the Adhikar-designate of Garmur Sattra. “I was in shock for days together. I had this internal conflict on what to do,” he reminisced. Even his parents were not very inclined to let him go initially. But the then Sattradhikar and the apostles finally prevailed. “You must respond to a calling”—the nostalgic pontiff sighed. Haridev’s spiritual self managed to conquer his material instincts and he convinced himself finally to take the path of higher realization. He started his journey towards Garmur on 27th October, 1983.
         Majuli has not been a distant land. Well acculturated in the way of life in the sattra, Haridev found the ambience of Majuli in general and Garmur in particular fairly familiar to his understanding and imagination drawn on the basis of hurriedly done homework. The welcome accolades unnerved him, for along with those came the commitment to a strict regimen. He missed his mother. He kept remembering his free-wheeling days in college from where he finally graduated. “I owe a great deal to reverend Krishnedev Goswami Prabhu, my predecessor, as the chief of the sattra. He was my mother’s uncle and I was lucky to have received his unconditional love as he guided me on the wonderful world of theology.”
          As he immersed himself in the world of scriptures, rituals, organizational and preservation work, including reaching out to the disciples in far flung areas, the loneliness no more disturbed him. “I believe in the divinity drawing itself in a place where the pursuit of the spiritual actualization was a never ending process, especially when the environment inherits pious and non-materialistic legacy. “My surrender to God is total and I am committed to carry forward the mission of my great predecessors. Perhaps to do so, the unseen power blesses this pious land of the sattra  which in turn keeps my mind and body free of desire.” He also talked about the tradition inherited from the past about certain regulations, eating and other habits which help in ‘controlling the mind’. He considers the great number of disciples, well wishers and fellow   monks as his family and that his present emphasis has been on bridging the gap between the people in mainland Assam with the people of Mishing tribe mainly around Majuli. “A sustained and genuine effort to break the shackles of conservatism and bring the communities traditionally rendered backward into the Vaishnavite fold in the modern era was the need of the hour. This need was fulfilled by the famed revolutionary Guru, the twelfth Sattradhikar of Garmur Sattra”.
           And then, he took us to the world of Pitambar Deva Goswami,   the twelfth Sattradhikar who initiated sweeping reforms in practically all walks of life. Thankfully, the activities of the great pontiff were scrupulously recorded in a diary format by one Gangeswar Hazarika,an ardent disciple.  The story of Pitambar Deva Goswami (1885-1962) is that of a messiah during a very important part of history in Assam and India. While Tarun Chandra Pamegum, former vice president of Asom Sahitya Sabha, termed him as a “most curious subject of research in university”, Mahendra Mohan Choudhury, former Chief Minister of Assam, said that till the last days of his life, Goswami entertained the desire to achieve the impossible in all walks of life. Certainly his life and contribution have tremendous relevance in the present day society.
            Large part of life and work of Sattradhikar Pitambar Deva Goswami centered round addressing various concerns of the tribal people. He   presided over the first meeting of what is known as Mishing Bane Kebang on 16th July, 1923 at Gajera Miri village. He had advocated education, prohibition and organization for the people of this tribe. Goswami held the view that their eating habits and permissiveness do not disqualify them from their position in the society. Having shown healthy respect towards the culture of the tribal, Goswami had facilitated universal entry into the Vaishnavite prayer hall in the sattra.   He vehemently protested the casteist prejudices of most of the sattras in Assam and decried the meaningless rituals which alienated many, including the ethnic groups in Assam. 
         In 1921, he set up the Gopaldev Ashram where caste Hindus and tribals lived together for educational purposes. In 1946, despite failing health, Goswami marched with a motley group of followers to the present day Karbi-Anglong called Mikir Hills earlier . Without any kind of formal help, the great visionary set up 20 primary schools where the medium of instruction was Assamese.
        Majuli is known for its conservatism; cemented over centuries by a system of administration by the celibate monks. In such a backdrop, Goswami, the chief of one of the most conservative Vaisnavite  monasteries , played  a stellar role in respect of ameliorating the condition of women, right from the beginning of the 20th century. Way back in 1928, Goswami led the movement for establishment of the first girls’ school in Majuli. Despite severe criticism, he doggedly fought in favour of re-marriage of widows. He not only addressed various awareness meetings and wrote articles, he also practically arranged many remarriages of Brahmin widows . The history of women taking part in dramatics in Assam is not very old. Only in 1930, Bajranath Sarmah introduced the practice of female participation by inducting several women in Assam Kohinoor Opera Party. Goswami did the impossible by introducing girls to play women characters at the sattra when he trained artistes and put up performances in a newly constructed auditorium, Bamshi Gopal Natya Mandir, within the sattra premise. This was in 1950. He also wrote and advocated against, in his trademark aggressive style, early marriages of girls. His writing and various other documents indicate that he had studied the scriptures in great detail on the issue of celibacy and had done away with the binding of celibacy among his disciples after thorough public analysis of the same.
          Pitambar Deva Goswami was initially appreciative of the British reforms, especially the drive against the then existing social evils. Way back in 1909, he led a delegation to P.R.T Gordon, the then Commissioner of the Brahmaputra Valley, seeking sympathetic intervention for socio-economic and spiritual welfare of the Assamese people.  Since 1917, he had abandoned use of any kind of British goods. It was only in 1921, that he got attracted to the Swadeshi Movement and played a leadership role, especially in the Sipahikhola Swaraj Mela for six days starting 2nd April, 1921. Embarrassed at the open defiance of the prohibitory order, the District Magistrate, Phriel, with a police force, tried in vain to disperse the gathering but could do so only after humbly placing his fire-arms at the feet of Goswami. The gathering took an oath not to pay land revenue of six mouzas (unit of a cluster of villages) in and around Teok.
           Goswami participated in the All India Congress Session in 1926 at Pandu, near Guwahati, where he met Mahatma Gandhi in a highly cordial atmosphere. In the early 30s, Goswami went around organizing various meetings to further the cause of the Movement. During this period, he simultaneously focused on organizing the people against social evils. In the process, he became the president of Assam Provincial Association of Prevention of Untouchability, and the founder president of Assam Harijan Sewak Sangha (1934). He also built a Harijan Mandir in Jorhat. Driven by the nationalistic surge, he also became the founder President of Assam Hindi Prachar Samiti in 1936. As against the governmental apathy, in 1931, he organized the poor people of forty villages around Telahi in Lakhimpur and Kamalabari and initiated the difficult task of construction of the Ranganadi river embankment.
        Goswami jumped into the freedom struggle in a big way in the 40s. Initially, as a repressive measure, the Adhikar was kept under house arrest within Garmur Sattra. From the 3rd October of 1942, Goswami organized various meetings through the Peace Squads and the Death Squads (Shanti Bahini and Mrityu Bahini) to cut off the military supplies to the British. Finally, a warrant of arrest was issued against the monk and he was taken to Jorhat Jail in 1943. He was set free only in April 1945.The visionary Sattradhikar breathed his last on 20th October in the year 1962 at the age of 76.
          Awareness of the greatness of Pitambar Deva Goswami and the relevance of what he stood for and believed is relatively a recent phenomenon in Assam. There is increasing conviction that the modern day sattras must carry on from where the great visionary Sattradhikar had left and that lessons drawn from his life and contributions are more relevant in the present day society than ever.


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