Assamese Muslims comprising communities such as Goriyas and Moriyas, form an integral part of Assamese society. However, not much literature regarding their histories and narratives is easily available. In his debut book, Zafri Mudasser Nofil, details out the history and culture of Assamese Muslims. In this piece the author pens down his reasons for writing this book and also provides an edited excerpt from it.
Zafri Mudasser Nofil
Do you know that some prominent Muslims from Jorhat and nearby areas initiated what is believed to be the first cooperative movement in Assam? Due to their endeavour, the Islamia Trading Company Limited was established in June 1927. People would frequent this departmental store for the various products it sold – from daily essentials to sweets like Miskiti halwa (a softer version of Karachi halwa popular among Assamese Muslims). After being operational for twelve years, it however, went bankrupt due to various reasons and closed shutters in September 1939. The Comilla Union Bank came up in its place.
Also are you aware that in Jayantipur in Nagaon, a mosque was built as early as 1570, even before the Jama Masjid of Delhi or the Taj Mahal came up? The mosque known as Bor Masjid was constructed when Assam was under the rule of Ahom king Suhungmung. It is regarded as one of the earliest existing mosques in Assam. According to the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, the characteristic of this mosque is the naamghar like top, though the arch and other structures are typical Islamic architecture. A small mosque (Horu Masjid) was established five years later in the same village. This mosque is also characterised by the adoption of local Vaishnavite designs for the roof. An amalgamation of Islamic architecture and local styles is seen in both the mosques. In the Bor masjid, a canon, believed to be from the Ahom era, and several big brass utensils can be found even today.
The ancestors of the Daullahs, a respected Muslim family in Sivasagar town played the negera – a kind of drum – at the Dols (temples) in Sivasagar during the reign of the Ahom kings. During those days, animals were sacrificed on Ashtami day of Durga puja as offering to the goddess. As a gesture of respect to people of other beliefs, the Sivasagar Dol Development committee offers a sacrificial goat to the Daullah family even now.
These are among some of the interesting bits of information I have included in my recently published book, The Identity Quotient: The Story of the Assamese Muslims.
Muslims have a history of over seven-and-a-half centuries in Assam. They came to Assam in various phases. Ali Mech is believed to be the first person to convert into Islam sometime in the early 13th century and ever since, Muslims have merged into the sociocultural milieu of Assam.
Over the years, Muslims have assimilated to the greater Assamese society to such an extent that barring religion, there is not much to differentiate them culturally. Assamese Muslims have contributed significantly to the composite heritage of Assam and adopted Assamese as their mother tongue. Some even share Ahom kingdom designated surnames like Hazarika, Saikia, Bora, and Borbora, with the Assamese Hindus.
Litterateur, Padma Bhushan and Padma Shri awardee Syed Abdul Malik, saw this assimilation at the grass-roots level to a ‘point of almost indistinguishable oneness’.
I grew up in an area in Dibrugarh (Bairagimoth) where one can hear the sound of the doba from a naamghar more prominently than the azan from a mosque. Our family happens to be among the couple of Muslim families in this area. Eid for us meant having lunch together with our neighbours and all would gather for the Bihu bhuj (feast) every year. Diwali is an occasion when we burst crackers and lit fireworks together.
Assam has over the years set a perfect example of Hindu-Muslim unity. Former chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal has mentioned about this harmonious coexistence in the foreword he has written to my book.
‘The state has been an epitome of Hindu-Muslim unity which becomes evident from the symbiosis of Hindu-Muslim friendship’, Sonowal says. ‘The Zikir and Zari songs of Azan Pir inspired by Srimanta Sankaradeva essentially preach the secular message, the same way as to how Dr. Bhupen Hazarika’s songs reverberate the message of equality, peace and unity between religions and humanism’, he adds.
However, Assamese Muslims of late, have been facing an identity crisis. There have been several incidents of this indigenous community being bracketed with the immigrant Muslims as ‘Miya’.
My book was the result of a need to document the history and narratives of Assamese Muslims as well as to clear some misconceptions about the community. The book covers topics ranging from the community’s history to how they have contributed to various aspects of Assamese society including, literature, art and culture. The book details how Azan Pir came to Assam and propagated his Zikirs and Zaris and how Bhupen Hazarika sung many songs eulogising amity between Assamese Hindus and Muslims. The book also has chapters on Moriyas, Deshis, Julhas, Muslims of Barak Valley, stories of bonhomie, stories of achievements, dargahs, mazaars and mosques, food and cuisine, marriages, contribution of Assamese Muslims to movies, music and literature, besides exploring the politics of the National Registry of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).
Here, is an edited excerpt from the chapter titled Band Baaja Baarat which is about marriages in Assamese Muslim society:
Marriages in Assamese Muslim society are conducted with Islamic customs but with some closely entwined common traditions with the Assamese Hindus.
Arranged marriages comprise two main ceremonies – angothi pindhuwa or juroon (ring ceremony or maagni) followed by the nikaah. The groom’s family visits the bride’s place to formally ask for her hand. After the families of both sides agree on the marriage, a date is fixed for the ring ceremony, which usually takes place a few months before the wedding.
On that day, relatives of the groom including his parents go to the would-be bride’s home and gift a gold ring, clothes, ornaments and sweets. The groom’s party is treated to a sumptuous meal. Nowadays, in many cases, the groom also accompanies his parents. The juroon marks the beginning of the wedding festivities.
Then comes the nikaah. But before that there are a couple of short ceremonies. One is a milad sharif in which a maulvi recites some verses from the Quran and prays for the smooth conduct of the marriage. A feast follows and the usual food items offered at these gatherings are pulao, meat curry and meat roasts.
Murot tel diya is the other ritual before the nikaah. This is a practice which is influenced by maah halodhi diya of Assamese Hindu marriages. Oil is applied on the hair of the bride and a paste of lentils and turmeric on her body and she is given a ceremonial bath. The groom also goes through the same process. This practice is, however, not prevalent among all Muslims of Assam and is mostly celebrated by the Goriya community of Brahmaputra Valley. Ballads called biya naam are also sung in many marriages, particularly in rural areas.
It is interesting to note that the brides wear resplendent mekhela saadors both in the nikaah as well as the reception ceremonies while the groom dons a sherwani and a paguri (turban) on the day of the nikaah . This dress code can be attributed to the fact that when the Muslims first came to Assam, they married local Assamese women. And so, the grooms now wear the sherwani and turban, perhaps carrying on the legacy of their forefathers who came from outside and made Assam their homes. And the brides kept on the Assamese tradition and wear mekhela saadors and not lehengas and ghagras as are donned by Muslim women in other parts of the country. The brides also wear traditional Assamese jewellery.
The groom is accompanied by a tamuli or a best man who has some key tasks to perform on the day of the nikaah. A friend of the groom who is of marriageable age is usually chosen as the tamuli. The term tamuli is derived from the Assamese word tamul (betel nut). The tamuli helps the groom in offering tamul to guests, which is a tradition in Assamese society. In Assamese Hindu marriages, the tamuli is known as dora dhora. There is no such role for a bridesmaid.
The groom cannot move inside immediately after he arrives at the bride’s place: he has to fulfil a demand. This is called dang dhora and it demonstrates that the bride’s family won’t allow the groom to take the girl that easily. The groom is allowed to proceed only after he agrees to a monetary demand made by some of the young cousins and relatives of the bride and he pays them the amount they ask for. The tamuli is responsible for these negotiations. The elderly from the bride’s side welcomes the groom and his party.
Tea and refreshments are served to the groom’s party before the nikaah ceremony commences. Young cousins of the bride, including children, take part in a small ritual called aator diya. They garland the groom as well as the tamuli, put aator or itr (perfume) on their foreheads and offer milk and sweets, mostly rosogollas to the duo. The kids in turn are given gifts and even cash sometimes.
The main nikaah ceremony begins with both the groom and the bride’s sides deputing a senior member of the family or society to conduct the proceedings who are known as the ukils (advocates). The ukils brief the people attending the ceremony about the two families. One of the notable features during their conversation is the exchange of tamul paan (betel nut and betel leaves) in botas or small rounded brass trays with stand. Tamul paan is a key feature of the Assamese socio-cultural life. The ukils then choose a couple of witnesses to help them in this ceremony. These designated people go to the bride and the groom and seek their consent for the marriage. Both the bride and the groom reply to them saying kobul korisu (I accept). The maulvi then recites prayers and the nikaah is completed. The nikaah ladoo is distributed among the people along with a packet of assorted dry fruits and some sweets.
Another integral thing of a Muslim marriage is deciding on an amount to be paid by the groom to the bride as a gift. This Mehr amount should be given to the wife as soon as possible. The amount decided is announced by the ukils during the nikaah.
There is also a practice of showing to the guests the ornaments and the clothes gifted by both the sides to the bride. Women display these items in big trays. The feast after the nikaah ceremony is a lavish affair. The bride joins the groom and they are served separately with some friends and a few relatives. The rest of the groom’s party have their meal together. The groom and the bride cute a cake after the feast is over. In this ceremony, girls from the bride’s side quiz the groom about how much he knows about his wife. For every incorrect answer he is ‘fined’ and has to pay a hefty amount to the girls.
Before the bride leaves for her new home, there is another small ritual called tamul luwa in which her family and relatives bless the couple and present them gifts and the newly-weds in turn give them tamul paan or mitha paan. This ceremony later takes place at the groom’s place after their return when all his family members and relatives are introduced to the bride. After the newly wedded couple enters the house, kids welcome them by washing their feet. The bride throws coins in the air for the kids to collect. A vessel full of rice in which a gold and silver ring are hidden, is presented to the bride. The bride is expected to find the golden ring which will prove that she is extremely lucky for the family that she has married into. Another ceremony called the aath mongola, is celebrated on the eight day of the marriage when the couple is invited to the bride’s house and a feast is organised. Gifts are exchanged between the members of both the families.
- The two-piece gorgeous sarong-half saree is the traditional dress worn by women of Assam. It comprises the mekhela that is the lower garment and the saador or the upper piece. The mekhela is pleated much like a sari except that the pleats face the right side. While the saador is draped like a dupatta.
The Identity Quotient: The Story of the Assamese Muslims
Publisher: Har-Anand Publications
Page extent: 179 pages
Price: Rs 595
Available on haranandbooks.com, Amazon.in and in Kindle version.
Zafri Mudasser Nofil is a journalist with over twenty years of experience and is currently with the Press Trust of India (PTI) in Delhi. He started his journalistic career as a freelancer before joining The Sentinel in Guwahati and then the Indo-Asian News Service (IANS) in Delhi. The Identity Quotient: The Story of Muslims of Assam is his first book.