The Role of Namghar in Assam

The Northeast Dialogue

Speaking of traditional institutions in Northeast India, as we have them today, they largely originated among communities in pre-colonial times.  Each state in Northeast India has a different set of location-specific hopes, aspirations, and concerns. The institution of the Namghar in Assam is based on people’s participation and community development at the grassroots. 

The traditional cultural life of the Assamese Vaishnavite community revolves around the Namghar, which is also called Harigriha or Kirtanghar.  The Sattra and the Namghar were at the epicenter of this organizational transformation. The Namghar evolved as an offshoot, an extended wing of its parent institution, the Sattra. Originally, the Namghar was a long and open hall with no idol on the altar, but only the Bhagavata Purana symbolizing the supreme God. 

Not only religious discourses and daily devotional recitations known as naam-kirtan or congregational prayers were held in the Namghar or kirtan-ghar, but also regular public meetings concerning issues affecting the village community. It acted as a social meeting ground for people from various backgrounds. The foundation of the Namghar was based on the twin principles of equality of man and recognition of the worth and dignity of every living being. In due course of time, it came to serve as a forum for not only religious but also socio-cultural activities of the community. 

Historically, the Namghar has played a role of immense significance in arousing the socio-political consciousness of the villagers and promoting a sense of unity and community spirit among them. Namghars still serve the function of a village court. Villagers can sit together in the Namghar premises and unanimously resolve their local disputes in accordance with the local judicial procedures and methods. Much before the formal institutionalization of local self-government at the village level, the Namghar initiated the system of Panchayati Raj in Assam. 

Women play an important role in the Namghar. Women organize their own congregational prayers (duprasangas and diha-naam) generally in the afternoon. Traditional religious groups of women in the Namghar called the namoti dol often take up social issues exclusively concerning women, which work closely with members of the Mahila samitis. 

But after 700 years, hundreds of Satras, established by Sankardev, his disciples, and Vaishnavite reformers are facing a tremendous existential crisis, mostly because of aggression and encroachment by illegal migrants. 

It can be concluded that the role of Namghar in villages that developed after Sankardev’s Neo-Vaishnavite movement in Assam has been contributing as a cultural center, a village court, and a village parliament.

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