I and Suman had just finished 2 weeks of traveling around Tripura, Assam (Haflong only) and Mizoram. Since we could not cover Meghalaya due to an unfortunate curfew, Suman had a couple of days to spare in Guwahati. She was looking for places to visit nearby Guwahati when Kopou Escapes came to our rescue with a half-day trip to Hajo and Sualkuchi.
I had visited Hajo and Sualkuchi in my childhood but was ecstatic to visit again. I knew a bit about these places but was eager to learn more. So we set off in the morning to find out what makes the two villages so special. A guide from Kopou Escapes, Ritutpal da also accompanied us. But first, a peek in to the history of Assam to understand more about the pilgrimage centre of Hajo later on.
Assam in medieval times used to be known as Kamrupa – the land where the ‘Kama’ (God of love) regained his ‘rupa’ (form). In the Hindu epics, the Pauranik and Tantrik literature, there are numerous references to ancient Assam, which is known as Pragjyotisha in the Mahabharata and as Kamrupa in the Puranas and Tantras. The ancient kingdom spread from Kartoya River (in West Bengal and Bangladesh) on the west to the Dikhow River on the east. It roughly included the Brahmaputra valley, Bhutan, Rangpur (now in Bangladesh) and Cooch Bihar (in West Bengal). Being the most prominent place of Assam, Kamrup (present day Guwahati) witnessed a steady growth in the number of religious centers over time across various dynasties.
Located around 30 kms from the city, Hajo is a unique village in the north bank of the mighty Brahmaputra. It is a living example of religious unity where the three religions – Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism live harmoniously with each other. It is perhaps the only place in the state where one may find shrines and temples dedicated to Vishnu, Siva, Durga, Buddha and a Muslim saint.
Established by Raghudev (son of the great Koch King, Chilarai), Hajo was once the capital of the Koch Dynasty. At that time, this Koch kingdom comprised of Goalpara, North Kamrup, a part of the former Darrang district and also the present day Mangaldoi subdivision in Assam. It was also known as Apurnabhava, Manikuta, Bishnupuskar, Manikutgram and Sujabad.
Our first stop was the Hayagriva Madhava Temple, atop the Manikut Hill. It is one of the most revered temples in the State and is an important center for Vaishnavism. We kept our footwear in the car and began walking the stone stairs to the temple. Nostalgia kicked in as I remembered visiting the temple with my parents while I was in school.
Ritutpal da gave us insight into the temple history as we explored the temple campus. We realized how ancient it is through the beautiful sculptures on the walls. The Hayagriva Madhava Temple is dedicated to the Lord Vishnu. The word ‘Hayagriva’ means horse-headed(‘Haya’ is horse and ‘Griva’ means the head with the neck) and refers to the form of Vishnu with a horsehead.
A Buddhist temple was also constructed next to the Madhava temple, as the Buddhists believe that Buddha died at this place. The Buddhists believe that a great Caitya was constructed at this place over the cremated relics of Buddha’s body in the premises of the Hayagriva Madhava temple. Hence the temple get a fair share of believers from Sikkim, Bhutan, Tibet, China etc. every year.
There is certainly a feeling of divinity and calmness around and the temple complex is well maintained. We went inside to take the blessings of the Deity and the Head Priest even allowed us to take photographs. He told us in detail about the 5 forms of the Lord Vishnu, whose idols lay inside the main temple.
While we were mesmerized by the beautiful view of the temple tank from the top of the hill, our guide told us about a unique tradition of the villagers. Every year during Magh Bihu (January), people take part in a peace-rally from Poa Mecca to the Hayagriva Madhava Temple. When the procession leads from the temple, it is headed by the Imam of Poa Mecca, and when it is from the Mosque (Urs Mubarak), it is led by the head priest of Hayagrib Madhava temple, thus becoming a supreme example of communal harmony in the country.
The big pond facing the Hayagriva Madhava temple is known as Madhav Pukhuri. The fish and tortoise of the pond was offered as Bhoga in the Kedareshwar temple in earlier times. They are believed to be auspicious and often fed by the devotees. Lucky for us because that’s how we got to see some of the tortoises swimming near the steps leading to the pond.
Next stop was a lesser-known tourist spot called Bhima’s Bowl ( Bhimor Choriya in Assamese). We could see a rusty old sign of the Government tourism department but the place is clearly not well maintained. I have heard about some stories about Bhima marrying a princess from North East (supposedly the demon princess Hidimba, Ghatotkoch’s mother) and so was not surprised to find any related artifacts here. There was this huge bowl made of stone, from which only Bhima could have eaten. Carefully walking along the slimy pavements, we took our photographs and proceeded towards our next destination.
Another famous temple in Hajo is the Kedareswara temple. It is a well-known medieval Shiva temple, established in 1753 by the King Rajeswar Singha from Ahom dynasty, according to the inscription on the walls of the temple. The shrine is situated on top of the small hill called Madanchalla.
It is believed that Lord Shiva is worshiped in the form of linga, known as Swayambhu Linga in this temple. People believe that it has the rare self-originated phallic symbol, or Swayambhu Linga, that too in the Ardhanariswara, or androgynous form which makes it different from all other ‘Shivlinga’ or Shiva temples. The priests and Pandits have put the ‘linga’ in a metal bowl which covers it externally.
The temple complex had beautiful stone sculptures lying around and we could not help wondering why the Archaeological Department does not have any interest in preserving the same. I had seen similar cases in various parts of Assam and it greatly saddened me to see the plight of our ancient, rich history getting erased due to negligence. Nevertheless, we entered inside the temple and the Priest lifted the metal bowl to show us the Linga. He also told us a bit about the history behind the temple and how there used to be direct road between the hills that led to Poa Mecca in earlier times.
Next on our list was the Nandi temple, that was nearby and also happened to be on the way to the Beula-Lakhindar Dhobi Ghat. There were a series of stairs that led to the temple and then one has to walk down towards the other side for the dhobi ghat. I have read about the story of Beula-Lakhindar in my childhood (as many Assamese children have; scroll below for the story) but was not aware of their dhobi ghat. The curious me was eager to find out what it is. But first we checked in on the Nandi Temple. A temple specially dedicated to the mount of the Lord Shiva is a rare sight in this part of the country. It is believed that devotees used to pray here first before proceeding to Kedareswar Temple.
According to the Assamese version of the ballad of Beula-Lakhindar, there was a Kachari King (Village chief) whose name was Bisuram Kachari, Chand was his son who was born as a boon of Lord Bathou i.e. Lord Shiva. Chand grew up to be an ardent devotee of Lord Shiva and became an affluent merchant in Chaygaon (in Kamrup District). Being a true Shaivite, he refused to pray to any other Gods or Goddesses, which irked Manasa Devi (Indian folk Goddess of Snakes). She felt offended and punished him several times. Chand Saudagar ended up losing his six sons and all his merchandise.
However he had a son by the name Lakhindar and was determined to save him. The Goddess had already planned to kill Lakhindar on the first night of his wedding. In due time, Lakhindar was married to Beula, the only daughter of Saheraja. In order to protect his son, Chand built ‘Merghar’ – a very beautiful and protective house. But Manasa tried Her best to take revenge on Chand and killed Lakhindar by sending Kalinag into Merghar on the first night of their marital life.
A grieved and determined Beula sailed to Devaloka along with the body of Lakhindar by a raft made of banana plantains. By dint of her chastity and sanctity, she could manage to bring him back to life along with his six brothers.
We had started walking down the stairs from Nandi temple towards the Ghat when we heard a melodious voice with the sound of spinning yarns. So we raided the house, introduced ourselves and troubled her with endless questions. The lady’s name is Kamini Das and she gracefully allowed us to take photos of her loom. She obliged happily when we bugged her to sing another song for us. Quickly, she changed into a prettier Chador (which originally was a long Gamucha), let her hair down and got her prayer-book so that she can sing us a good one.
I knew that there are some traces of the story of Beula-Lakhindar in Chaygaon but was amazed to know that the story also had some significance in Hajo. Since I remembered bits and pieces of it, I asked Kamini Baideu (Baideu means Sister in Assamese). She told me about it just like she’d been there. Just like she had seen every bit of it happen even though she claimed that she doesn’t know all the details. But talking to her, getting to know the stories, listening to her sing and spin was the best thing to have happened that day.
According to another version narrated by Kamini baideu, the dhobi ghat is actually known as Netai dhubuni ghat. Netai was the daughter of the Head Priest at Nandi/Kedar temple. It is at this ghat that the raft of Beula-Lakhindar came ashore and knowing their story, she took them to her father. The Head Priest was known to have supernatural powers, including bringing back the dead. Upon the requests of Netai, her father agreed to bring Lakhindar back to life so that he can live happily with his wife.
Poa Mecca was our last stop in Hajo before we proceeded to Sualkuchi. The hilly road leading it to is breathtaking with panoramic views of the green fields that lay below.
We left our shoes inside the car and walked towards the mosque. I have heard many a divine stories about this mosque and that even Hindu devotees come to offer their prayers in this mosque. It is commonly believed that the mosque has one-quarter (poa means a quarter) of earth from Mecca, which is the holiest city for the Muslims and thus by offering prayers in this mosque, devotees gain one-fourth of the good grace that they would have gotten in the real Mecca. However, my misconception was thwarted by one of the Imams in the mosque who told me the real story behind the name ‘Poa Mecca’.
It is situated at the top of Garudachal Hill in Hajo of Kamrup district, Assam. and is actually spelt as Poa Makka, derived from the word – Poa-Moqam. The mosque comprises of two sacred structures – Dargah of Sultan Ghiyasuddin Auliya and a Masjid. During the reign of Lakshmi Singha (an Ahom King), the Dargah was known as Bar Moqam (meaning big religious place). Known to be a fair king and lover of mankind across all religions, he granted one-fourth (Poa) share of the revenue from the total income of land under his jurisdiction as subsistence allowance to the Mosque. Because of this one-fourth share, it was later called as Poa Moqam, which came to be subsequently called as Poa Makka.
Like I said earlier , the festival procession in Poa Mecca is led by the Head Priest of Hayagrib Madhav temple, the most famous being ‘Urs Mubarak’ observed in Maghi Purnima (January) which is celebrated with much pomp and grandeur.
Though it was a sunny day, the windy weather in the cool countryside made up for it. After a quick tea-break, we headed towards the Silk Village of Sualkuchi. We hoped to see the weavers in action behind their looms. Our guide had arranged a meeting with a local weaving company, who would show us around. Since we arrived in the afternoon, all the weavers had gone home for lunch and rest and would only resume work in the evening. So we walked around their looms and tried to understand the intricate work that goes in the process of weaving. It blew our mind to see how each thread was arranged to create the pattern/design of the cloth.
As we were about to return dejected, we found a couple of local women washing their dishes. We asked them whether they would show us how weaving worked for a while and one of them agreed. We were grateful because we could see how the weaving process is done over the looms and could only imagine how tough it is on their body to keep weaving the entire day.
As we were curious about the entire process of silk weaving, we asked the local person whether he could show us some silkworm rearing farms. He agreed and took us to a government farm where we got to know more in detail about how the different types of silk came from respective silkworms reared on a particular tree.
There are three major varieties of silks that are indigenous to Assam – the golden Muga silk, the colourful Pat silk, and the classy Eri silk. The silks are categorized based on the kind of silkworms from which they are derived. Muga and Eri are non-mulberry silks and Pat is mulberry silk.
- Muga silk is produced by the muga silkworms (in the pic), which are fed on som and sualu leaves. Ths golden-yellow silk thread is derived from these silkworms.
- Pat silk is produced by a mulberry silkworm that feeds only on mulberry leaves. Brilliant white or off-white coloured silk thread is derived and is dyed to give colorful and bright texture.
- Eri silk is derived from the silkworm that feeds on castor oil plant leaves and hence known as castor silk. It is believed that the name “Eri” derived from the word “Era”, which means castor plant in Assamese. It is known as ‘peace silk’ or ‘non-violent silk’ as the moths are not destroyed in the cocoon but are allowed to emerge and the pierced cocoons are spun rather than reeled to produce the eri silk yarn. A fine white, soft silk thread is produced that have wool or cotton like appearance, and mostly woven as shawls and quilts.
We spent some time at the farm and questioned the care-taker about the process. Though an old man, he explained to us patiently and also showed us the machinery used to spin the yarn from the cocoons.
Content with the new knowledge about the temple town and Assam Silk, we returned to Guwahati after spending a great day doing what we loved best – traveling and finding more about places, cultures and the stories behind these nooks and corners.