The Prayer Hall of Assam What Is A Namghar? Namghor literally means The House of Names. It is a simple structure where the Vaishnavite Hindus of Assam recite the name of God. Namghors were introduced in Assam by the Vaishnavite saint Sankara Deva (1449-1569). He was the first of the religious reformers of Assam in the Middle Ages. The General Organization of A Namghor Namghors, primarily have two major spaces, the Monikut (the sanctuary) and the assembly space. The direction of the principal axis of the Namghor is always in the East-West direction. The Xinhaaxon or the altar is placed at the East facing West. Devotees sit facing the Xinhaaxon towards East. The Monikut shelters the Xinhaaxon. The devotees pray in the assembly space of the Naamghor. The Namghor's architecture reflects its usage pattern, Assam's climatic conditions, and the indigenous building materials.
There are Namghors in most Hindu villages in Assam. In some areas such as Nagaon district, there is at least one, sometimes several public Namghors, in every village. The identity of the village folks in such places are tied closely to the Namghor they attend. There is an ancient Namghor called the Kirton Ghor in the town of Borpeta, located in the Borpeta Xotra. The Uses of A Namghor The public Namghors are not for everyday use, unlike the temples of South India, for example. They are places of assembly for special religious events and memorial services only. Private, family Namghors are like small private chapels. Sometimes there is an added assembly space, particularly when it is attached to the residence of the Xotradhikar, the spiritual leader of the community.
Aside from religious and memorial services, Namghors serve as theaters for the performance of the indigenous performance art-form, the Bhaawnaa (a folk opera if you would). Spectators almost always overflowed the halls. Since this usually happens in the evening, rural Namghors without electricity use lanterns for illumination. Climatic Factors and Materials The public Namghors design is unique in that the assembly space is always very open, large, bright and airy, unlike temple assembly halls elsewhere in India. It is a response to the extremely humid, relatively mild temperatures and infrequent breezes during the most oppressive days. The roof is the primary feature, walls often being a bamboo screen, and sometimes even non-existent. Till a few decades ago, most rural Namghors had thatched roofs over bamboo rafters and woven bamboo sheathing/sub roof. It was an elegant, cool, environmentally friendly, and economically sustainable solution. In the late twentieth century, most namghors have shed their thatches for tin roofs. This is despite the fact that tin roofs are hot, glary, noisy and lacks the friendly visual embellishments provided by the natural bamboo rafters and woven sheathing (saal) topped by the tan and brown blades of dried grass roofing. Thatch roofing provided unusually high heat penetration resistance, probably the roofing with the highest R value, even today, aside from its beauty and appropriateness in the pastoral and lush green settings of Assam.
In earlier days, the roof used to be supported by timber columns or bamboo poles although reinforced cement pillars are becoming common. Rural Assam's indigenous builders/architects did not understand the concept of braced walls/column supports. So often, when the timber or bamboo poles buried in the soil rotted or got damaged by termites and other organisms, the whole structure took the shape of a rhombus with the onset of Bordoisila (the spring winds). It was a recurrent sign of disrepair and economic deprivation in rural Assam, and still is. X-bracing with bamboo strips could extend the life of these leaning structures that remain.
In earlier days, the floors almost always were of mud. It used to be wiped before and after an event, by hand, with a rag mop and clay punning. Today's cement floors are an improvement. However, even today, a central longitudinal area in a Namghor is kept unpaved with cement. This is the area where actors amble during the performance of a Bhaawnaa. The Monikut
The Monikut, a small structure with hipped or gabled roof, has either no windows or very little ones. This is the mysterious space. Children and those who are not privy are not allowed to venture into one. It was a space to be entered only by the Xotradhikar and other privileged elders. The structure itself was no different from the assembly hall, just smaller and darker to create a sense of veneration and mystery. The Ghaai Khutaa One other architectural element of the Namghors is the Ghaai Khutaa, the Main Pillar. It is usually an oversized column in the assembly hall. It is the second left facing North East from the The floor around this pillar is raised little. It is usually identified by a Gamosaa tied around it. (A Gamosaa is an ubiquitous hand-woven piece of cotton cloth that resembles a light towel or scarf that has distinctive borders all around--usually red in color. It is also embroidered with various flowery patterns, large or small at the two ends along the length.) No one is allowed to sit near this pillar as that is considered as the place of Burha-Dangoria (a holy spirit). When in the Namghor any "Mah-prasad" or offerings are distributed after a service, at first offering is made to that pillar as a custom. The pillar is also called Lai Khuta. Acoustical Quality There were distinct advantages to the thatched roof in the acoustical quality of the assembly hall. The underside of the roof, which was the exposed thatched roof soffit (bottom surface), is one of the best acoustical ceilings there could be. Even with today's Western technology there are no such high noise absorbing ceiling materials. One can hazard a guess that the Noise Reduction Co-efficient (NRC) of a thatched roof soffit is close to 1 (0 is the worst and 1 being the highest in the scale--the best high NRC ceiling material we have in the USA carries an NRC value of about 0.85). The NRC of thatched roof ceiling is architecturally significant in view of the use of Taal or Bhor Taal (large bronze cymbals used in the communal singing/chanting of hymns/recitation of scriptures, in a Namghor service) which are extremely loud and metallic sounding. Under a tin roof these can cause extreme acoustical discomfort. The open sided assembly hall also aids the acoustical quality, since there is NO sound reflecting SOLID walls. Other Facilities or Lack Thereof
The Namghors rarely have food service in the manner one sees in temples elsewhere in India. The mah-saul, or the fruit and soaked green lentil offerings, that are distributed after a service are almost always prepared at several homes, who are eligible to participate in food-serving. Those who serve food are called deus or deuris and are selected based on their standing in the community and religious knowledge and competence. This too is a privileged position. Therefore there never were kitchens/pantries associated with Namghors although this may be changing.
Public facilities such as restrooms were not seen around rural Namghors, except for a screened facility for the ladies. These were rarely required, because of the short duration of events.
Namghors were always at the banks of a pond, the water supply source. This was essential, for ritual cleansing as well as all other water requirements. Summary
All in all, the Namghor architecture used to be a superbly appropriate solution to local needs and its scale reflected the nature of Sankara Deva's followers' relationship with their God. The structures were not long lasting, so historically Assam's architecture is almost non-existent. This may be considered a positive attribute in so far as architecture is concerned. It allowed the architecture to be a living one, evolving to respond to the needs of the communities in shorter intervals unlike the elaborate and massive masonry temple architecture frozen in time seen elsewhere in india.
Written primarily by Chandan Mahanta of St. Louis, Missouri, USA, with help from Tasir Ahmed of Golaghat, Assam; Kamal Sarma of Columbus, Ohio, USA; and Jugal Kalita of Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA.
The photgraph of the Kirton Ghar or the Recitation Hall in the town of Paatbaauxi was taken from a calendar for the year 1989 published by Rashtriya Shankardev Vikash Samaj, Danish Road, Pan Bazar, Guwahati 78001. The photograph was taken by Tapan Das. The calendar was also sponsored by The Gauhati Co-Operative Town Bank Limited (established 1906), Danish Road, Pan Bazar, Guwahati 781001. It is at this Namghor that Sankara Deva held his services when he was banished from Nagaon. The drawing of the Xinhaxon or the Altar that is found in all Namghors is also from the same calendar.
Written: April 10, 1998.