Srijani Bhaswa Mahanta, a student at Lady Sri Ram College (Delhi University), and a Sattriya dancer was denied entry to two of Assam’s most revered religious places, Ajan Fakir’s Dargah and Batadrava Than. Read her account to know how religious institutions instead of working on the principle of acceptance for all are consciously keeping women out.
‘I’ve always been very proud of Assam’s syncretic history; Sankaradeva led the Bhakti movement through his Vaishnavite traditions while Ajaan Pir established Sufi Islam in the region. I love the Borgeets and the Jikirs – the way the words are crafted, the melody, the themes of mutual respect and peaceful coexistence. Was in Sivasagar earlier this week, and we happened to visit Ajaan Pir’s Dargah, located in the Saraguri Chapori area, some 20 km from the town.
I was soaking in the peaceful ambience of the place only to discover a while later that here too, (like Barpeta Kirtanghar), women aren’t allowed inside. The sign, put up by the Dargah Management Committee, reads – ‘Women pilgrims must maintain adequate distance from the mausoleum and offer their prayers from such distance.’
‘Went to Batadrava Than, Bordowa (Sankaradeva’s birthplace) during my short trip back home. To my surprise, I wasn’t allowed to enter the naamghor. Their reason? ‘Improper clothing’. I was taken aback. When I confronted them about it, one of the caretakers said something that completely shocked me. School children in Assam are taken on excursions to places of historical importance under a programme called Gyan Yatra. Fearing that ‘Miya kids’ might enter the sanctum sanctorum, the management committee had imposed a dress code two years back that would only allow men wearing dhoti-kurta and women wearing mekhela-chadar to pray there. They then asked me to pray from a distance, which I refused and went straight to the committee office to question them on their disrespectful decision. They denied the caretaker’s words outright and said it was for the preservation of Assamese culture and identity and that they were perturbed by the fact that couples thronged the Than premises, transforming it into a dating spot of sorts. One of them even said that as an exception, they ‘allowed’ the Bodos, Mishings, Karbis and other tribal people to wear their own attires.
Sankaradeva’s philosophy was about simplicity and liberalism in religious practice. An individual’s relationship with her God is very personal; he rejected the role of a facilitator/mediator. Today, self-appointed guardians of morality and tradition have corrupted that egalitarian vision.
Bhokti mur kot – hridoy’t ne pusak’t, (ne khadyo’t)? From where does my devotion emanate – my heart, my clothes, (or the food I consume)?’