The Divine Fragrance of Nostalgia

Author – Liza Borah

Bakul-flowers
Image via Wikimedia

At times the mundane things in life make the most impact. A day started just like any other. The flamboyant monsoon sky of the Bhadra month, painted in the hues of orange, red and coupled the green surrounding compelled me to take a stroll around our locality. As I sauntered zig-sawing through the muddy patches, I came across our community Naamghor (Prayer houses for congregational worship in Assam and mainly for the Ekasaran sect of Hinduism). As I bow down outside the main gate to pay my obeisance to the Almighty, my mind was captivated by an old lost divine fragrance from a nearby tree. Speculating the same, I find myself face to face of a huge canopy with bright green branches, outside the Naamghor gate and strewn below are the petite creamish flowers, radiating that divine fragrance, which pulled all my senses to act synchronously. These are the Bakul flowers, long lost in the memory lane. I gently picked those flowers, till it filled my fist.  Though I make a point to visit the Naamghor, everytime I am home, but somewhere laid neglected were those forgotten splendours. As I stared at those forgotten miniature beauties, its celestial scent brought in some limpid memories of the yester years that laid the foundation of my beliefs and inclination towards spirituality.

Unlike the jasmine, ketaki, rajnigandhi or the gaudy roses, renowned for its marvellous tints, these tiny flowers are neither of flashy appearance nor of very hard fragrance. They are considered amongst the scared exotic flowering trees. They are associated with the deities and legends from mythologies. They are always found at the entrance of Naamghors. They are considered to be the male trees and following the ancient custom of marrying male and female trees, Bakul trees are ideally planted on the right side, whereas the chalta (elephant apple) tree which is considered to be a female tree is always planted on the left. Though they are of sombre appearance, but their potently sweet fragrance can pervade the surrounding locality and divulge a purified consciousness by burning away the uncertainties of the mind. Whenever we make flower offerings before the Almighty, we generally pluck fresh flowers and then offer them and not the ones fallen on the ground. But Bakul, Shiuli (Shefali / Parijat/ Har-Sringar) and Champa are the only flowers which can be picked up from the ground and offered to God. They fall naturally to the ground as offerings from the tree. They are frequently mentioned in romantic contexts. In Hindu mythology it is believed that Lord Krishna charmed the milkmaids of Vrindavan with the melodious notes of his flute which he played relaxing under a Bakul tree. They are generally sewed into garlands and are then offered to the Almighty. The divinity of their fragrance is such that it keeps lingering on in the surrounding even after they have dried up.

These flowers reminded of those childhood days, where I would fondly accompany my grandma to the Naamghor for the evening Naams (singing devotional songs), which she regularly attended during the month of Bhadra, with a bait to collect some aromatic Bakul flower garlands. Joining her regularly, though I successfully mugged up some Naams sang by her and the other lady Bhakats there, but never bothered to understand the meanings of those songs. It was only for my love for those flowers I accompanied her. The days when I couldn’t accompany her, I would impatiently wait for her return, as she without a fail would bring a garland for me and which I would fondly place in the prayer-asana of our home without fail.

Now Naamghors and Naam- Kirtan is an indispensible part of the Assamese culture. Till the advent of 15th century, the horrors of casteism reached its zenith, breaking the social harmony into fragments.  Also, some of the religious cults in Shaktism paved way for Tantrik practices which also posed as a threat to humanity. When a religious renaissance was felt, Mahapurush Sankardeva propagated and founded the panentheistic  form of Hinduism, the  Ek-saraniya dharma, i.e, devotion to a single God, for which he used the form of Krishna, solely by uttering his various names (naam), thus surfacing the Neo-Vaishnivism movement of Assam, which differed from the greater Bhakti movement by rejecting vedic and other estoric rites of worship.  This lead to the establishment of various Sattras , which are the institutional centres associated with  the Eksaran tradition, under the control of individual adhikars or Satradhikars. Naamghors, also emerged as a part of this religious movement. These are basically the Kirtan Ghars primarily used for worship but also functions as a meeting place for congregations and as well as theatres for dramatic performances (Bhaona).

This religious system is defined by the four reals or the sari vastu, i.e.,

  • Guru:- admiration of a Guru or Spiritual Preceptor.
  • Deva:- Worshipping a single God
  • Naam:- Congregational prayers sung in admiration for the Lord from Vaishnavite religious texts like Kirtan Ghosha. Generally, taal, khol nagara and clapping of hands are used as instruments. The songs are sung in a response style. The month of Bhadra is considered a sacred month and evening naams are held regularly for a month in Naamghors.
  • Bhakat or Bhakta:- The associated devotees.

But as reality struck, the effervescent and exuberant voices of the young and middle-aged naamotis (women who sing naams in naamghors) and bhaakats, which once made the surrounding empyrean, have now become frail and feeble. Even their once zealous clapping of hands while singing those naams, sounded languid.

The Bakul flowers too remain scattered below, waiting to be picked and stitched into a garland so that it can be offered to the Lord, thus fulfilling its purpose of its existence in this world. In this fast pacing and competitive life, where people are juggling continuously for a better life of comfort and luxuries, somehow these traditions seem to be waning away. Although we may outgrow such customs, but their impact can be hold in simile with the fragrance of those flowers, whose celestial fragrance continue to exist even after they have dried up.

Liza Borah
Currently working in the IT sector in Gurgaon. The diverse Indian culture, tradition and mythology has always mesmerized me. Every culture and tradition has its own tale to tell and as my love for travel introduces me to new cultures and stories every time, I attempt to document these experiences so that they don't get lost in the sands of time.