December 16th 2012: It was about the time the sun had positioned low in the western sky to call it a day. My eyes swayed between my wrist watch and the western sky. I was accompanied by my other half, Sailaja, in my small car that kept on speeding on the familiar kind of gravel laid rural road. I was speeding because I had to reach my destination before it grew dark. She kept a control over my speed driving especially on such a road with frequent warnings to slow down. I was late owing to some other preoccupation. My heartbeat grew louder and faster. Oh God if there had been something, we never knew, that could stop the flow of time. At last, the man in the paddy field who was reaping his crop pointed to a distant structure and said “Look at that compound having a house. That is what you are looking for.” Yes my esteemed readers it was my today’s destination, a long standing structure – “GOPAL ATA’S THAN” at Old Bhawanipur, somewhat three kilometers westward from the main Chowk of Bhawanipur at NH 37 of Barpeta District. What feelings did stirred our emotions at that moment when we arrived at the main gate of the compound; we just cannot express it in words. It’s a beautifully placed area amid paddy fields with a soothing, divine serenity that can make your mind and soul free of all anxieties.
Gopal Ata founded this than at Bhawanipur century ago. Mahapurush SriSri Madhabdeb stayed here for six months. This Gopal Ata had great contribution towards the construction of the Rangawan Griha or the Rangial Griha or the present Naamghar / Kirtanghar (Prayer House) of Barpeta. It is said that Mahapurush Madhabdeb disclosed before one of his his blue eyed disciples Gopal or Gopal Tati (different from Gopal Ata) alias Mathuradas that the place for daily prayer had somewhat been not enough in size and shape to accommodate large number of people and expressed his desirousness of renovating it to his envisaged prayer house Harimandir, the Temple of God. He engaged all his disciples in this project which he himself supervised. Thus when beams of timber measuring about 18 feet in length were required for the construction Mahapurush Madhabdeb urged Gopal Ata of Bhawanipur to make those available and transport to Barpeta. Gopal obeying his Guru’s command alone rowed his boat loaded with timbers and beams down the river PALLA to Barpeta. Rivers were the only preferable means for transport in those days.
On the way to the “Than”, we came across village inhabited by Bodo community also besides the Assamese. But interestingly we discovered that the populace in the close vicinity of the THAN belonged to a community other than Assamese who ordinarily spoke local Bengali dialect.
When we got down from our car we were greeted with a structure that had been built by someone Lakhimi Bora of Zoo Road Guwahati, Hotel Ambarish. Thanks to this good person. The main prayer house, the NAAMGHAR, was well illuminated with the golden rays of the afternoon Sun. Having a deep breath we stepped forward in total silence. The main door was locked.. Some children were playing in front ground under the big trees. They grew curious and stopped their activities. I took a few steps around while my wife talked to the children. They informed us that the Atoi has left for his native place and the key of the NAAMGHAR’s main door with Shibu. I inquired of if Shibu was available. Some said Shibu had gone home or somewhere else and wouldn’t return. But one little girl disapproved and said that he was available at home. So I asked the eldest one of the group to send for Shibu. By then two ladies arrived there who then started interacting with us. In reply to our queries they told us that Daily prayer was performed both in the morning and evening under the supervision of the Atoi who was not available then. The Atoi, according to the villager women, we talked to, is from Nagaon. They did not know the exact name of his native village. As no male was available to ask more about the Than we maintained short conversation with these ladies. I wanted to know if they were aware of the management of the day to day expenditure and they said pointing to the immediate paddy fields it was done mainly earnings from the lands that belonged to the Than and donations /contributions in the form of Pranami (Offering) by visitors from time to time (থানখন চলিবৰ বাবে টকা –পইচাৰ ব্যৱস্থা কেনেকৈ হয় জানেনেকি?
উত্তৰ- প্রধানকৈ,কাষৰৰ খেতি পথাৰলৈ আঙুলিয়াই,খেতিৰ পৰা হোৱা আয়েৰে খৰচৰ জোৰা মৰা হয়। তাৰোপৰি সময়ে সময়ে দর্শনার্থীসকলে দিয়া দান-দক্ষিনা (প্রণামী ইত্যাদি)ৰ পৰাও হোৱা আয়ৰে ব্যৱস্থা হয়।).
Butin recent times there had been developments of weighty concern – like unknown people coming with intention of buying the crop growing lands that belong to this Than. (মাজে মাজে কিছুমান মানুহ ক’ৰবাৰ পৰা আহে [আঙুলিয়াই দি] সেই মাটিবোৰ কিনিবলৈ).
“What do you do then?” I asked.
“We have been resisting till now. We will not allow to sell or buy these lands; for these are the only income source of the Than to accomplish its activities.
(আমি সদায় বাধা দি আছো। এই মাটিখিনি বিক্রী হ’লে নামঘৰটো কেনেকৈ চলিব)
“Do you take part in daily prayers?” I asked
“Yes we do and we love to do it”. They replied.
“Does people from other places do visit this Than?” My wife wanted to know.
“Yes. In the month of Bohag, the first month of Assamese Calendar, which begins on 14th or 15th of January of each Gregorianthe number is very big and the atmosphere becomes festive. But it decreases remarkably thereafter.” They replied.
“How do you feel then?”- I asked again.
“We feel lonely” the other lady said.
(আমাৰ বেয়া লাগে).
By then someone among the children shouted- “Shibu has come.”
Our attention got detracted from the conversation and eyes roved around.
A little figure appeared at the north end entrance of the compound. A gamosa clad little boy with another gamosa round his neck approached us. We were astounded to see him but the very next our hearts filled with joy and smiles of happiness rolled over.
“Are you Shibu?”
The boy nodded.
“Do you have the key to the locked door of the Naamghar?”
“Yes”. He said.
Together we entered the Naamghar to have a look and take few snaps. I had already taken some snaps of the compound including the residence where Sri Sri Madhabdeb and Gopal Ata stayed.
“What do you do here?” I asked the boy.
He answered “I clean the Naamghar daily and light the lamps every morning and evening in front of the Asana, the altar.”
“Who has trained you up?” My question.
“Atoi has taught me all these? He replied.
“Do you enjoy doing it and how is your feeling towards Atoi?” Again I asked.
Shibu said “I love to do it. We all here love Atoi and Atoi too loves us very much.”
Inside the Naamghar I took a brief interview of Shibu – Sri Shibu Arya, a student of Sixth standard. It seemed most of the residents were of Arya title. When I started recording Shibu politely and very attentively gave a short interview. I could visualize a reliable caretaker or an Atoi of the future. After the interview I offered a hundred rupee note to purchase oil for the lamps. Then I told him that we wanted to offer prayer by bowing down before the altar, the Guru Asana. Shibu then in traditional manner of Thans allowed to do that and stood near us till end. I felt as if it was not Shibu but someone else showering blessings on us.
It’s time the Sun was ready to conclude its journey on its chariot at west horizon. We walked out of Naamghar. No sooner than we were at the main gate of the compound we heard sound of Drum. We looked back. Shibu started beating the drum, the DOBA, with his little hand and we bowed for the last time to God. I could visualize a blurred picture – a man rowing down to Barpeta with two big beams in his boat. The Sun ,already half dipped below the horizon, stopped for a little bit of time, perhaps to bid us adieu. We started our journey back to Dhaligaon with a heavy heart full of mixed feelings.