Assam governor helps break taboo against women

By Syed Zarir Hussain, IANS,

Barpeta (Assam): Bhabani Pathak and Kamala Bharali are excited and yet haunted with a sense of guilt. They were among the few women who broke a more than 500-year-old tradition by entering the sanctum sanctorum of a revered Xatra or Hindu monastery in Assam.

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“I am overwhelmed as I was among the very few who stepped into the kirtan ghar (sanctum sanctorum) of the Xatra, but at the same time I don’t know why I am filled with a sense of guilt,” Bhabani told IANS.

The Xatras or monasteries were formed by 16th century saint philosopher Srimanta Sankardeva who propagated Vaishnavism, a sect of Hinduism in Assam.

The move came after Assam Governor J.B. Patnaik visited Barpeta in western Assam Sunday night to attend a function of the Xatra Mahasabha, the apex body of an estimated 600 Xatras.

On his way back, the governor decided to visit the Patboukhi Xatra, a monastery founded by the saint himself.

“I saw a group of women waiting outside the Xatra and when I enquired with some locals, I was told women don’t enter the sanctum sanctorum. I was a little stunned,” the governor said.

Patnaik then tried reasoning with the male members and the Xatra management – that Sankardeva preached equality and never discriminated between men and women.

The Xatra management conceded to the governor’s reasoning and he took some of the waiting women inside the monastery.

“We are part of history no doubt, but then still don’t feel like breaking the tradition. Somehow, don’t know why this guilt feeling is there,” Kamala said.

But a day after the historic decision, there was a mixed reaction in the Xatra – people are yet to come to terms with reality.

“There are no written instructions or decisions of not allowing women to enter the sanctum sanctorum, but it was just a tradition practised for centuries. We are not against the decision, but have to see the reaction of the locals,” Dhiren Bayan, president of the Patboukhi Xatra, said.

“I feel happy that the people accepted my reasoning,” the governor said.