Role of the State and Traditional Institutions in Identity Formation: A Study of the Namghar in Assam

By Ankita Dutta

The Neo-Vaishnavite movement of Srimanta Sankardeva in the 14th century led to the subsequent formation of an ‘Assamese’ identity centering around the Sattra (a Vaishnavite monastery) and the Namghar (the former’s extended wing). Both the Sattra and the Namghar are intimately associated with the socio-cultural and religious life of the Assamese society. The ‘democratic’ institution of the Namghar provides a common forum for villagers to assemble and not only discuss collectively their common issues and problems but also resolve the local disputes of the village through locally evolved judicial procedures and methods. This paper tries to locate the role of the Namghar as a traditional institution in today’s context of the fragmentation of the Vaishnavite community into different sects and sub-sects. It makes a study of the factors resulting in the ‘fracture’ of the ‘Assamese’ identity in the context of the Namghar, and looks into the several ways by which people identify and distinguish themselves from the ‘other’. It also tries to emphasise the complementary relationship between the traditional and the modern, and how the continuous interaction between the state and traditional institutions seeks to create and re-create new identities and new dynamics of legitimacy and power relations, having implications on the way of functioning of both.

Keywords: Neo-Vaishnavism, Namghar, Sattra, identity, Assam.

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