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Hope binds Majuli monks and Dhola victims’ kin

Search for sustainable livelihood on island
Monks gather at one of the xatras in Majuli
Monks gather at one of the xatras in Majuli
Picture by Gaurav Das

Gaurav Das   |   Majuli   |   Published 04.04.19, 07:36 PM

There was a ray of hope for bhakats (monks), cutting across age groups and living for decades at some of the prominent xatras (Vaishnavite monasteries) in Majuli, when Sarbananda Sonowal became the chief minister of Assam in 2016.

Sonowal was elected to the Assembly from Majuli. He had back then looked promising and he still is with some of the promises he kept: of looking after the xatras and help resolve some problems.

But for the bhakats, the promises did not trickle down to them as some of them said the required resources are still to reach them and existence for them is anything but satiating, an issue which they feel should be addressed by an elected representative.

The issues that require immediate attention are the need for a sustainable livelihood and a fixed income from the government in preserving the xattriya traditions.

Dilapidated living quarters, some of which are more than 50 years old, no proper channelling of funds for the monks, no fixed monthly annuity, incomplete restoration of the kirtan ghar or monikut (sanctum sanctorum), no supervision of the living conditions of the monks, no strict regulation on commercialisation of xattriya music and dance, no transparency on the utilisation of funds given by the state government, and most importantly the fading of the tradition of sending young boys to xatras by families, are some of the other issues.

“Why should families send their sons to become a bhakat? This year alone, 10 to 12 monks have left the xatra,” said Premo Ojha, a burha bhakat (senior monk) at Natun Kamalabari Xatra, which was established in 1936.

The sexagenarian monk, who has spent over 50 years at the xatra, rued that they are living in near penury.

“Even if any politician visits the xatras, they only meet the xatradharikars (the chief abbot who holds an influential position).We do not get anything from the xatra or from the government. Our main sustenance is agriculture but that is also fast depleting. There is no transparency as to where the money is going. The xatradhikar knows about our condition but ignores us. The government should learn about our condition. We seek deliverance,” said Ojha, who joined the xatra in 1952.

Besides the economic woes, the incomplete reconstruction of the kirtan ghar or monikut at Natun Kamalabari Xatra is what saddens the monks more. “We are willing to starve but the kirtan ghar should be completed. The government should intervene,” said Haribora Borbayan, a renowned gayan bayan, who receives a monthly pension on account of his decades of work on xattriya culture.

Around 12km away, at Dakhinpat Xatra, another prominent 17th-century monastery near the Brahmaputra, burha bhakat Pratik Sarmah, a sexagenarian, too rues about the economic condition. He suggested if there was a monthly stipend from the government, young boys may be attracted to join the xatras. Sarmah said three monks left the xatra last year.

“The government should give us a stipend. We carry out farming to sustain ourselves and get a little money by offering prayer services. If we can’t go to the cities for prayer services, we are unable to get a decent income. Every year on special occasions, we get a stipend to buy paddy. If the government offers a regular stipend, young boys will be attracted in joining the xatras. Someone should raise our concerns in Parliament. Our xatra is near the river and the main embankment has not been completed for many years and the roads leading to the xatra are not good,” said Sarmah.

At Auniati Xatra too, the same issues surface. “It would be helpful if we got a monthly stipend. We are dependent on the public for resources. We want better water supply in our xatra and the surrounding roads need to be developed. Since we cannot approach any politicians directly, we do pray that an elected representative hears our voice and does something,” said Ajit Sarma, a deka (young) bhakat. The monks live an apolitical life but they do cast their vote in hope for a better tomorrow.

Majuli, which falls under Lakhimpur parliamentary constituency, goes to polls on April 11.

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