By Ashiq Zaman
Translated from Assamese by Parvin Sultana
The Goalpariya Muslims more commonly called the ‘deshi’ Muslims are an indigenous community of Assam. According to written history, this community was formed when local Mech kings converted to Islam at the time of Bakhtiar Khilji’s attack on Assam in 1206. In the official history of Bakhtiyar Khilji called Tabaqat-i- Nasiri penned by Minhaz al Siraz, the local Mech King is regarded as Ali Mech. While Ali Mech is often regarded as the forefather of Deshi Muslims, these Muslims are in fact converts from local Rajbongshi people and their history of conversion from Rajbongshis goes back to earlier times than Ali Mech.
Dr Suryakanta Bhuyan mentions about the Sufi saint Shah Jalaal being around in the second half of 12th century. Similarly Amit Dey in his article “Some aspect of Sufi Movement” published in the journal Review of Historical Studies states that around 1053 A.D there were instances of the Koch Rajbongshis of Western Assam converting to Islam. While at present there is a consensus among historians that the deshi community is a result of conversion from indigenous tribes of lower Brahmaputra valley like the Rabhas, Garos, Mech, Nath-Yogi, the main strain has been the conversion from Rajbongshis. In medieval period the Koch King Chakradhwaj Singha embraced Islam under the influence of Sufi Saint Ismail Gazi (1430-1490). This is proof of the fact that many local people were attracted to Islam and converted to this religion. The shrines of many Sufi Peers situated in different parts of undivided Goalpara district bear witness to this history. The 600 year old historic Panbari Masjid situated near Gauripur which is the heart of Goalpariya culture, the shrine of Kalu Gazi established in the 15th century near Jaleshwar, the Panch Peer Dargah established in Dhubri in 1662, the dargah of Shah Kamal Peer in Mahendraganj (a part of erstwhile Goalpara and present day Meghalaya), the dargah of Khorasani Peer in Goalpara town, the mazaar near Dolgoma are living tribute to the history of the formation of the deshi community in this very soil of Assam. Moreover the semblance between the physical features, language, music, attire, folk tales and socio-cultural activities between the Rajbongshis and deshi Muslims also proves the fact that these Muslims have converted from local Rajbongshis.
Coming to the festival in concern, just like the Boisagu of Bodos and the Boishu of Rabhas, the deshi Muslims of lower Assam also have their own Bihu which they call Beshoma. With varying locations it is also called Bishma or Chait-Boishne. This festival is celebrated on the last day of the month of Chaitra. As deshi Muslims have converted from Rajbongshis, the rituals of Beshoma are very similar to the celebrations of Rajbongshis which they call Bishma or Bishuma.
Just like ‘Goru Bihu’, on the day of Beshoma the villagers take their cows to the village ponds and bathe them. After bathing them a dao (a traditional knife) is heated a little and the skin of the cow is slightly singed. This is called ‘Sengta dewa’ or ‘dagni dewa’. After this, the people smear turmeric and neem leaves on their bodies and then wash themselves. It is believed that this will prevent all kind of skin diseases in the coming summer. On the other hand pieces of dried gourd shell and garlic are tied on a thread and put around the waist of small children. This is believed to keep away the evil and diseases (Chotor Bao). Similarly garlic pieces are tied to the roof of the houses to keep bad spirits away. Shotmul tree (a shrub with many roots) with medicinal value is kept in the house. Some others immerse the leaves and flowers of this tree in water along with dried pieces of ginger and sprinkle the water in their house. It is believed that this helps in keeping away diseases as well as insects.
Unlike the Assamese people while eating homemade cookies called pithas in the morning of Beshoma is not very popular, after bathing the cows people eat a mixture of rice and various pulses fried with onion and chillies called Saat Misheli. This is an important cultural feature of Beshoma. Similarly there is a tradition of partaking some bitter food. Usually juice of leaves of Chiretta (a medicinal plant) is drank. In the evening seven types of leafy vegetables are mixed together and cooked. Jute leaves are a must in this mixture of seven leafy vegetables. This tradition is practised by Rajbongshis as well. They call it Saat- Shaki or Katali. Another common food related tradition is having powdered barley with curd made from sheep’s milk.
Deshi Muslims believe that the day of Beshoma should be the day they start having the season’s mango. There is a popular belief that eating mango before that will not only cause stomach problems but also lead to bad luck. One can interpret such beliefs to be useful in keeping little children away from raw mangoes which causes stomach ache and the juice which causes sore ulcers in the mouth. It also ensures that the mangoes are not plucked before they are ripe.
Another aspect of Beshoma is the fair that takes place around it. In different parts of undivided Goalpara district such fairs have been taking place since centuries. The Chandishila Mela near South Salmara-Phulbari, the Saat Beshma Mela near Gaibandha-Haribhanga of Goalpara, the Bura-Burir Mela near Lakhipur-Jaleshwar, the Bishma Mela of Bogularvita are noteworthy. Traditional sweets like jilapis, batasas, kodmas are bought from these fairs and relished. Among these fairs, the Bura Burir Mela of Jaleshwar is a unique example of communal harmony. In this fair, the Muslims pray at the mazaar of Kalu Gazi and the Hindus pray to Shiv-Parvati. Kalu Gazi of Muslims is the Satya Peer of Hindus. Even the Garo people do their traditional puja and slaughter two goats in this fair. The Deshi Muslims set free pigeons believing that it will fulfill their wishes.
There is another popular belief associated with Beshoma. As it ends, there are storms and tornadoes which local people call Mundisira Jhakas or Dabari. Mundisira is equivalent to Bordoisila of Assamese people and Bordoichikla of Bodos. In some places instead of fairs various competitions of games and music are held. Among games and sports popular are Dang Guti, Nobon Dari, Kori and flying kites. Competitions are held in singing Goalpariya songs and dancing Kushana Nritya and Goalpariya Nritya. All these lead to a festive environment in the villages.
However in the throes of modernity on one hand and assertive religiosity on the other, people have moved away from this traditional festival and it is on the verge of becoming an extinct tradition. The people in urban areas have almost cut off from their roots. This is a dangerous development as no community can survive only on the basis of religious identity. Along with religion, cultural identity is equally crucial. These two identities need not be mutually exclusive. Moreover as ethnic identity is an important factor in the socio-political mainstream of our state, the deshi Muslims must assert their ethnic identity and conserve its rich historical traditions. The liberal democratic ethos of Islam will surely not undermine the rich cultural traditions of an ethnic group. There are innumerable examples of co-existence of ethnic and cultural identities in Islam.
A good news is that on the behest of well known writer Imran Hussain, the educated people from Deshi Muslim community have come together to form Deshi Janagoshthiya Mancha. This apolitical cultural association hopes to safeguard the culture and traditions of the Deshi community. In the last decade the state government has initiated development councils for different groups including linguistic minorities like the Hindi speaking people but it is yet to declare the formation of any such body for the Deshi Muslim community which has an 800 year old history. A similar silence pervades the quarters of those who claim to uphold the right of indigenous communities. Why are these organisations silent on this issue? Had Ali Mech and Chakradhwaj Shingha not converted to Islam, would it have been possible to ignore the plight of their descendants in this way? Raising these difficult questions in the festive season of Rongali Bihu may not seem very nice, but it is high time that the genuine concern of Deshi Muslims who are an indigenous group of the state is addressed.
Ashiq Zaman is currently working as Deputy Commissioner, Indian Revenue Service and is posted at Mumbai. He regularly writes on socio-political issues for various newspapers and is associated with a number of social organisations.