At a time when Assamese society is becoming more and more fragmented, primarily due to the feeling of alienation among the myriad ethnic communities, the Srimanta Foundation for Culture and Society in collaboration with the Asom Sattra Mahasabha, the apex organization of the sattras in Assam, has embarked on an ambitious project aimed at social re-engineering, with the aim of bringing all the communities of the State together as a cohesive unit.
The project, titled Setubandha, was first held from September 25 to 28, 2003 at Guwahati. Its main objective was to alleviate the feeling of alienation felt by many communities in society by the use of bhaona – a time-tested vehicle to build bridges between people. After 2003, the Asom Sattra Mahasabha has been conducting the Setubandha festival at regular intervals in different parts of the State. A total of 25 bhaonas have been performed by various communities in their original form, i.e. Brajawali, the language of the original scriptures.
Dipankar Mahanta, Secretary of the Srimanta Foundation for Culture and Society, explains, ‘The term Setubandha, as has been mentioned in the ‘Hema Kosha’, an etymological dictionary of the Assamese Language by Hem Chandra Barua and published under the authority of the Assam Administration in 1900, symbolically means ‘a ridge of rocks (Adam’s Bridge), extending from the southern extremity of India towards Ceylon and which was supposed to have been built at the command of Lord Rama. The term Setubandha is also present in Verse 640 of the ‘Nam Ghosa’. Setubandha is therefore a term which has a historical perspective having wide and deep connotations for an evolving harmonious society towards a kutumb (family).’
He further explains, ‘If we are to literally translate the term, it means a Building Bridge. This bridge building is all about defeat of evil forces, about brotherhood and human relationship, about connecting our Self (jeevatma) with the higher Self (paramatma) to ultimately realize the Supreme Truth.’
However, in the year 2012, the organizers of the event realised that in the absence of an objective evaluation and analysis of the programme, they were not in a position to say for certain if the programme has been effective, given that in the present social context, more and more communities are seeking autonomy. The organisers had been able to spread awareness about the cultural practices as outlined by Mahapurux Srimanta Sankardeva but the need for an integrated Assamese society still remained.
Mahanta says, ‘Thus, given the above background Setubandha was once again re-planned with the outlook of designing it as a social re-engineering process with the focus of building Social Security and Capital through two important innovations i.e. performance of bhaona in Bodo and Mising language and a post-Setubandha follow-up programme.’
In addition to cultural integration, the Srimanta Foundation had also sought to empower the people in focus areas so that they could benefit economically. According to Mahanta, ‘In 2013 we had organised a training programme for goat rearing for the bhaoriyas and had given yarn to the village women and fingerlings for fishery in the villages where the bhaoriyas came from. We also brought the weavers from Jengraimukh to make them participate in one of the trade fairs at Maniram Dewan Trade Center.’
For a society which is caught in the crossroads of multiple identities, Setubandha or the bridge that the Srimanta Foundation and the Assam Sattra Mahasabha is trying to build is definitely exemplary and vital to attain the dream of a united greater Assamese society.
words by- Aiyushmaan Dutta