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Rediscovering a civilization

By The Assam Tribune
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Swapnanil Barua

It was with great persuasion and following religious prescriptions that the artefacts were brought to the workstation to get the required works done. The owners of the artefacts were not aware of the damage that had set in while storing them without periodic maintenance.

Mayong was an exotic name, known to many as a place of witchcraft and black magic, but never did one realize that it was a melting pot of civilizations, both tantric and Vaishnavite. It lay neglected in-between deep and dense jungles and floodplains, with the Kolong-Kopili rivers flowing through it and draining into the river Brahmaputra in the north. The area lay cut off from modern day hustle bustle as communications to the area were flooded in summer and could be reached only through dust trails in winter. This was a blessing as we later found as an ancient civilization lay protected as well as the natural environment. This undisturbed natural environment made the Pobitora sanctuary a haven for the endangered one-horned rhino and the Asiatic water buffalo, along with exotic species of migratory birds in thousands in winter.

What emerged in due course is that the Mayong area was a centre of tantric practices in the past, probably of the Aghori sect. Tantricism, a branch of the Hindu religion, has many exotic and erotic practices, shrouded in secrecy and limited to a very closed circle of intense believers. They believed in occult practices and deep meditation in crematoriums. Thus, an aura was built around the tantrics and common men stayed away from the community, seeking their succour only in times of deep distress. The laity on the other hand came into the Vaishnavite fold by becoming followers of Srimanta Sankaradeva, the patron saint of Assam. Thus, Mayong evolved as a mix of tantric and Vaishnavite influences, which coexisted together in a strange way. Each practitioner left space for the other in peaceful cohabitation. The geographical isolation, till a few years ago, allowed century-old practices to carry on. On the anthropological aspect also the tribals, the Hinduized tribals, the Nath Yogi community, and the fisherfolk who formed the bulk of the population, added the practices of their own communities to form a beautiful potpourri.

The little information and artefacts that were available on the civilization was housed in a museum built assiduously by two locals Lokendra Hazarika and Dr Utpal Nath. The taking up of conservation of the Mayong Museum was a challenge from the day one. The museum was owned by the community and its affairs were managed by a committee, which neither had the resources nor the expertise to run a museum. Repeated floods had damaged the building and it was in a state of collapse. The artefacts were not catalogued, the display not done scientifically and periodic maintenance of the fragile artefacts were near about absent. The Indian National Trust for Culture and Heritage (INTACH), Assam chapter came forward to help.

The first issue to be tackled was to build up the confidence of the community to accept INTACH as a partner in the restoration. The district administration also came into the picture to assist the community in confidence building measures and begin the work on the museum. The local panchayatalso came forward to help the INTACH team to begin the work.

Initially it was thought that the work of restoration of the Assam Type structure would be done. On assessment, it was found that the building with its weakened foundations and damaged super structure, was beyond economic repair and hence the idea was junked. The next choice was to shift the museum to the incomplete building next door. The incomplete but designed building was built to shift the old museum. However, the fund flow for the project died out with the change of government and, hence, it remained incomplete. The floods of 2019 and 2020 exposed the vulnerability of the concrete building to flooding inside. Hence, it was decided that if the artefacts were not to be damaged by floods, the floor of the building had to be raised by half a metre. This was an additional cost that was not factored in while preparing the estimate for renovation. Savings were found out to begin the work, while the village council came forward to help to complete the additional civil works. No sooner had the work began, the Covid-19 pandemic struck to slow down the works. However, the team managed to keep the work going on following Covid protocol, which albeit reduced the speed.

The scope of the project was increased once it was realized that it was not just a museum that was going to be renovated, the remnants of a whole civilization had to be documented. A listing of all monuments, archaeological sites and temples of the region starting from Kajolichoki in the west to Pobitora in the east and south had to be documented. A separate team under the leadership of Dr Manjil Hazarika was constituted for the purpose. The team had to work in consultation with the Land Records Department of the Government to map the sites, document the specialities and also build up a narrative to link the dots of the connect with the Mayong civilization. This also involved liaison with the Deputy Commissioner of Morigaon district and the Circle Officer, Mayong to provide the revenue maps and related details of land ownership, etc.

The next issue was getting the people to part with their antiquities, be it sanchi bark manuscripts, items of religious and social use for documentation, repair, digitization and cataloguing. There were restrictions on taking these valuables out of the homes. It was with great persuasion and following religious prescriptions that the artefacts were brought to the workstation to get the required works done. The owners of the artefacts were not aware of the damage that had set in while storing them without periodic maintenance. The restoration team headed by Mridu Moucham had a difficult time in restoring the artefacts. Their diligence and persistence paid off and it was a heart-warming feel –when the restored artefacts were returned to their owners in a new look. The gratitude of the owners needed to be seen when they couldn’t believe their eyes after the restoration job was done. This documentation and digitalization of the manuscripts will open up a new phase of research on the little known Mayong civilization.

All the while, the renovation of the museum was going on under the watchful eyes of historian Dr Shelia Bora, assisted by this writer. The display plan was prepared, the display compartments designed and assembled, photographs restored, printed and framed, name tags of the artefacts on display sorted out, the dioramas sculpted and the painting of the building completed, observing Covid-19 protocol. The coordination duo also had to shop for restoration chemicals and equipment, most of which had to be procured from outside the State. The liaison with the panchayat, the Land Records Office, the district administrator and the community meant frequent meetings and on-the-spot solution of problems. Mayong being a village, every small article had to be procured from Guwahati or Morigaon town which meant commuting a hundred kilometres both ways.

However, all efforts and difficulties bore fruit when the museum came up finally after a year’s toil. The teams did a marvellous job of the responsibilities assigned to them in a spirit of service and the joy of resurrecting a living heritage which was dying. Above all, nothing would have been possible without the grants from the Gerda Henkel Foundation of Germany, which is another saga of international cooperation in preserving the world heritage of mankind.

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