Naamghar is a community prayer hall in Assam where people gather for religious and other cultural activities. The Neo-Vaishnavite saint Srimanta Sankardeva established the Satras and the Naamghars for people to gather and engage in naam and other cultural activities. Srimanta Sankardeva inspired the pan-Indian Bhakti Movement in Assam and propagated the Ek-Sarana-Naam-Dharma or Neo-Vaishnavism. Neo-Vaishnavism focuses on devotion to Krishna in the form of congregational listening (shravan) and singing (kirtan) his name and deeds.
A Naamghar doesn’t idolize a deity but the Guru Asana, which is a multi-tiered, pyramidal wooden structure standing on four pillars and adorned with lion-elephant-tortoise motifs. The asana is mostly nine tiered but can be seven or five tiered too; and on the top is the amohi ghar which contains the text Gunamala, which is the abridged version of the main text of Neo-Vaishnavism, Bhagavat. The guru asana has its own roof in the form of a turon which is made of white cloth with red frills and red floral apliques. The turon is tied on four poles or pillars which surround the asana in the monikut structure. Monikut is the central structure in a Naamghar, referred to as the Sanctum Sanctorum, which houses the guru asanas. Literally meaning “jewel house”, the monikut is an independent room located towards the east in a naamghar.
Two parallel rows of pillars lead towards the monikut and in the space devotees sit and perform naam-praxanga in worship of the Supreme Being, Krishna. Sankardeva’s Krishna is Narayana, the Supreme Reality or Param Brahma and not merely an avatar. Naam-praxanga is performed by reading the text Kirtana Ghosa accompanied by the bor taal. An offering is made in the traditional xoraai at the beginning of the naam-praxanga which basically consists of tamul-paan, maah prasad, fruits and a humble offering of money called orihona. This is later distributed among all the devotees present.
Satras and Naamghars
Satras are actually cultural institutions where young boys are taught to lead a disciplined life in the praise and dedication of the Lord Krishna. They are also taught art and literature as a part of making a scholar out of them. Satras are the nerve centres of Ek-Sarana-Naam-Dharma or Neo-Vaishnavism culture. The Satras consist of a large prayer hall facing the simple shrine which is surrounded by dormitories and bathing tanks for monks. Guests can stay over if they want where they can take part in the worship rituals and witness the traditional bhaona and other cultural performances. The prayer hall is called the Naamghar or Kirtan Ghar and is the central structure in a Satra.
Naamghar is also built independently and not always as a structure in a Satra. A Naamghar is, in fact, the most important socio-religious and socio-cultural institution in Assam. Naamghar as the name suggests is a prayer hall where the community gathers for congregational worships or other socio-cultural activities.
To know more about Satras read: Mesmerising Majuli: The Land of the Satras
Famous Naamghar of Assam
Naamghars are widespread in Assam and in every village or town more than one naamghar exists. People of a certain locality or with common set of religious ideals get together and form a congregation and become part of a certain naamghar. All naamghars follow the same text, rituals, traditions and ceremonies but with slight differences in incantations and tone. Though all naamghars are same no matter their size, but there are a few which are considered important from the religious point of view and with a history or legend behind it. These famous naamghars are:
1. Dhekiakhowa Bornamghar: Established in 1461 by the Neo-Vaishnavite saint and reformer Sri Madhavdeva, Dhekiakhowa Bornamghar is a very important religious site located in Jorhat, Assam. Sri Madhavdeva visited this place to preach about Ek-Sarana-Naam-Dharma and was hosted by an old lady with great kindness. Later when the naamghar was established he kindled an earthen lamp and assigned the old lady to keep kindling the lamp. This lamp has been burning till today as the priests dutifully refuel it as and when required. During the entire month of Bhadra, naam praxanga is held three times daily and devotees visit in huge numbers to offer prayers.
2. Sri Sri Athkhelia Naamghar
Located at Bosa Gaon, Golaghat, Sri Sri Athkhelia Naamghar is a very important pilgrimage site in Assam. Built around 1681 by the Ahom king Swargadeo Gadadhar Singha, there’s a little history behind it. When Gadadhar Singha was still a prince, the then ruler Lora Roja had ordered to maim all Ahom princes in order to secure his position as the king. Gadapani or Gadadhar Singha had fled the kingdom and took shelter in a hermitage in Nagapahar. He was taken great care by the hermit and the few other families residing there.
Later when Gadapani ascended the throne as the Ahom king in 1681 AD, he set out in search of the hermit but didn’t find him. He established a temple in the hermitage and assigned the eight families who lived there with the responsibilities of maintaining the hermitage. These eight families constituted eight clans in the course of times which were called kuri or khel. Unitedly they were called Athkuria meaning eight clans, which was later renamed as Athkhelia.
3. Moinaporiya Naamghar
Moinaporiya Naamghar located in Lahdoigarh, Jorhat is dedicated to Narasingha Murari, the incarnation of Lord Vishnu who was part human and part lion. Narasingha is one major deity in Vaishnavism and celebrated for his triumph over evil and restoration of Dharma. Moinaporiya Naamghar is another very popular pilgrimage site for the Assamese people who visit in large numbers to offer prayers and seek blessings from the Gods.
Read more about Srimanta Sankardeva: The Pioneer of Assamese Culture