A slow melodious chorus of voices floats out of a small shed in a village in Udalguri. Inside, a group of women, all similarly clad in yellow &lsquodokhonas&rsquo (a traditional Bodo wrap from chest to ankle) and white &lsquofalis&rsquo (a wrap around the bust) are singing along to the beat of the &lsquokham&rsquo (an indigenous drum), and the &lsquosifung&rsquo (a flute) played by young men. A priest is at the altar, lighting lamps and incense. Outside the shed, elders sit, nodding to the music. This is the scene at the village Thansali or Bathou temple, where the small community gathers to worship the Bwrai Bathou, the Supreme Being of the Bodo pantheon. Nearby, there is a larger, more formal thansali called the Nwlwbari Bathou Ashram, which comes alive on festival days, attracting many people from surrounding villages.
An Ancient Faith
Bathouism, the ethnic religion of the Bodos, is an ancient faith. There has been no proponent of the religion and therefore, there is no discernible date of its origin. It reveres no form or idol, nor is there a scripture from which the religion draws its tenets. The Bodos worship the Primodial One, whom they address as Bwrai Bathou or Sibrai (the greatest or eldest of them all).
At one time there was a complete overlap between the words &lsquoBodo&rsquo and &lsquoBathou&rsquo. The religion defines the socio-cultural life of the community, and defines much of the rites, rituals, social norms, culture, traditions, ethics and philosophy of the Bodos. Every household will have a sijou altar in its north-east corner. Indeed, for a large part, Bodo society has withstood the influences of other cultures and faiths. Dr Mangal Singh Hazowary, an acclaimed scholar and author on the Bathou way of life, says, &ldquoAbout 80% of Bodos currently follow Bathouism the rest, some have converted to Christianity, some to Brahmanism, Vaishnavism and some also follow the Satsangi path.&rdquo
The religious rituals of &lsquoKherai&rsquo are among the most important celebrations, and the timing of the worship syncs with the seasons of the year. Whether in their own homes or at communal sites like the thansali, offerings of flowers, fruits, liquor and animal sacrifice are common during the religious ceremonies. At public community gatherings, a male priest called Douri and a female priest called Doudini usually perform the rituals. Naturally, the occasions call for feasts and dances such as the Bagurumba and Rwnswndri.
To the Bodos, the number five is of tremendous importance. The creation of the world, its social customs and moral order all come from the five primary elements earth, water, air, fire and ether. Over this is the almighty or supreme power known as Bwrai Bathou &ndash omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, infinite, eternal and absolute. In fact, the word &lsquoBathou&rsquo derives from two Bodo words Ba meaning five and thou meaning deep. This is reflected in so many ways the sacred Sijou tree (Euphorbia splendens) is treasured for its tendency to grow five ridges, sifung, the Bodo flute, has five holes against the usual six, there are five guidelines to everyday life and so on.
Inside any thansali, there is a small, low mud-smeared altar bearing a lamp, a pot of holy water, and possibly an offering of flowers. People walk in, soft in reverence, kneeling before the shrine, bowing in worship offering flowers, coins and small notes donated towards the upkeep of the temple.
Behind this circular shrine, there is a small rectangular aperture through which one can see another altar on the other side. This altar comprises a set of symbols that, taken together, form a powerful representation of everything that is revered by the Bodo people. This is the shrine of the sijou tree . To the right is a &lsquotulsi&rsquo or Basil plant, signifying truthfulness to the left, a &lsquojatrasi' plant (Justicia assamica), indicating wisdom. The triumvirate of plants are ringed by a bamboo fence &ndash not just a functional structure, but a highly precise and symbolic one. There are five rows to the fence and the circle is made of sixteen or eighteen pairs of bamboo stakes with five fastenings. Each pair of stakes represents the male and female aspect in fact, each twig, each knot and each row represents either a concept or deity.
Although culturally distinct, scholars find that Bathouism has close affinity to Hinduism as well as yogic principles in its essentials if not practices. Sibrai is seen to be Shiva and Bathou&rsquos inordinate attention to the number five is reflective of the yogic assertion of all existence emanating from the &lsquopanchatatva&rsquo or the five elements.
There is no quick way to observe or absorb the Bathou way of life &ndash any visitor to this region needs a little time to steep herself in the deep and profound rituals of everyday life. However, a slow, lingering sojourn holds the promise of getting just a little bit closer to a life lived in the holistic unity of the sacred elements of nature.
Where Hirimba Bathou Thansal in village Chinakona, near Khoirabari in Udalguri district.
Location The thansali is about 65 km from Guwahati and 6km from Khoirabari. Address Hirimba Bathou Thansali, Bagari Bari, Assam 784522. Contact Didom Daimari (8011476599) for information and assistance.
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