When a Muslim Worships a Tree: Syncretic Islam of the Char Chaporis of Assam

in Overview
Published on: 27 November 2019

Md Shalim Muktadir Hussain

Md Shalim Muktdir Hussain is a doctoral candidate at the Department of English, Jamia Millia Islamia, where he researches on Assamese literary aesthetics. He is also a writer and translator. His first book of poems, ‘Betelnut City’, won the RL Poetry Award (Editor’s Choice), 2017.

Assam is a land of many peoples. Through the centuries several communities and tribes from Myanmar, Thailand, Nepal and Bhutan, and other Indian states such as Bengal, Odisha, Bihar and parts of Northeast India made this state their home. Over time, these different cultures commingled to give rise to a syncretic and intricate culture so much so that now it is almost impossible to refer to a standard Assamese culture. Moreover, a large number of indigenous tribes exist in Assam with their own independent identities and distinct rituals, languages and festivals. To attempt an overview of the representative culture of Assam would be akin to a sensual kaleidoscope, with varied, seemingly un-connectable colours, dresses, food habits and languages that have, over time, merged into each other. 

The dangers of a pluralistic state have, however, reared their ugly heads repeatedly, leading to secessionist movements, state-sponsored pogroms and spontaneous acts of violence among the communities living in Assam. Despite all these, Assam manages to maintain its multicultural plurality and move on with the tides of modernism.

The most recent of the communities to make Assam its home are the Char Chaporis who migrated to the banks of the rivers Brahmaputra and Barak from erstwhile Greater Bengal. Though most of these migrants were Muslims, they were recent converts (low-caste Hindus who had accepted Islam to safeguard themselves against the oppressive force of their high-caste landlords). On their arrival in Assam, they settled in small hamlets on the occupied banks of the Brahmaputra (also known as char chaporis, from which the community gets its name), close to ethnic Assamese villages. Gradually, they underwent a process of organic and inorganic ‘Assamisation’ and adopted a number of practices from their Assamese counterparts. 

The broad classification of Muslims under the heads of Shia and Sunni exists in Assam, but alongside these, communities follow the fakirapanth (the mystic way) and the paglapanth (the mad way), bringing them closer to the Sufis in mainland India and the Bauls in Bengal respectively. Some smaller groups also follow the Krishnapanth (the Krishna way) and the putulpanth (the idol way), which include ritualistic worship of the image of Lord Krishna and other tribal totems along with traditional Islamic rituals.

Char Chapori Identity and Contestations
The history of the Char Chapori community can be loosely traced back to the late 1870s when a zamindar from Goalpara brought 500 farmers from then undivided Bengal to work on his fields. More farmers followed them into Assam and settled on the riverbanks. In 1902, a descendant of the migrants, Usman Ali Sadagar from Nagaon, started an Assamese-medium school and the Assamisition of these people began. In the 1951 census, a large number of these migrants chose Assamese as their mother tongue, which caused a major imbalance in the demography of Assamese speakers. The reason for this sudden change in allegiance, as it were, was that in the 1911 census a large number of actual Assamese citizens had been wrongly categorised as Bangladeshis simply because they spoke Bengali dialects. During the following census, speakers of the Rajbonshi dialect were newly classified under the table of Assamese speakers. Because of this, the number of Assamese speakers rose by an astounding 63 per cent.[1] The acceptance of Assamese as their mother tongue by the char chapori residents justified the status of Assamese as the official language of Assam and the medium of instruction in schools. 

In 1963–69, however, a series of agitations and government-sanctioned actions were taken against Muslims from the char chaporis. They were referred to by the derogatory title of miyah and although most of them were second- or third-generation Indians, government action was taken to deport them to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). According to some estimates, ‘more than three lakh of these people were herded into trucks like cattle and transported to East Pakistan’.[2]

Immigration has always been a touchy issue in Assam, even before the Assam agitation (an Assamese students’ movement against the ‘illegal’ immigrants) of the 1980s, as evidenced in the words of former Assam chief minister Golap Borbora. He writes that the 1931 census showed a sharp increase in the population of Bengali Muslims in Assam as compared to the two earlier censuses:

After the publication of the census report of 1921, the system of line permit was established in Assam—meaning that the lowlands around the Brahmaputra river were allocated to migrant Muslims and an imaginary line was drawn beyond which tribal farmers couldn’t venture for cultivation…to increase the government revenue, poor Muslim farmers were brought from Mymensingh, Naokhali and other parts of East Bengal and given land permits to areas around the Barak and Brahmaputra rivers: this was a part of the official government policy.[3]

In recent times, immigration from Bangladesh has diminished. According to Assamese historian, economist and poet Amalendu Guha: 'It should be mentioned here that between 1971 and 1991, the influx of immigrants, whether from Bangladesh and Nepal or from Bihar has virtually stopped: in fact, the number of people moving out of Assam is more than the number of people entering it.[4]

However, this has not stopped several parties from assuming that immigration from Bangladesh continues unabated and that the char chapori residents are somehow complicit in allowing immigration and harbouring immigrants. In recent times, acts of violence in the name of identification and deportation of illegal migrants has led to a number of deaths and severe destruction of property. This, in turn, has led to some radical measures on the part of Char Chapori Muslims. Apart from claiming Assamese as their mother tongue, their attempts at assimilation include the acceptance of Assamese motifs such as the fulam gamusa and Assamese festivals like the Bohag Bihu. Fulam gamusa can be roughly translated as shawl/towel with floral designs on it, but it is one of the enduring symbols of Assam. It is usually gifted on auspicious occasions, especially Bohag Bihu. It is against these organic and inorganic processes of assimilation that the current cultural landscape of the Char Chapori Muslims can be read. 

Traditions of Assimilation

The assimilation of Assamese and Islamic influences can be seen in the superstitions the Char Chapori Muslims believe in. For example, in most of the remote chars of Assam, the umbilical cord of a newborn baby is slit with a sharp bamboo sliver, as is the case in a number of tribal communities of Assam. In some instances, this can turn the wound septic. Entrails of a goat are burnt and the ash is smeared over the umbilical cord, though this practice can often lead to death of the child. The Char Chaporis, however, attribute the infections resulting from these hazardous superstitions to the influence of pisachas (demons) and dainis (witches), just like they do with diseases such as epilepsy. Illnesses are treated by the village oja (medicine man). If a mature male child suffers from a major disease or is on the deathbed, he has to get one of his ears pierced; in case of a female child, she is given away to a relative along with an offering of betel nut and paan.[5]

Other ways of treatment are reading aayats (verses) from the Quran into a glass of water and consuming it, and wearing a written verse of the Quran rolled up in an amulet. If there are complications during labour, the mother of the pregnant woman, or any other elder woman from the family, spreads the aanchal (end) of her sari towards the west and prays to God. On the walls of the house in which children are born, dried branches of berry trees, bones of a cow and a broom are hung to protect them from the evil eye. For the same reason, a machete and a knife are placed on the head of the child’s bed, and anyone who wants to see the child has to warm themselves by a small bonfire made inside the room with rice husk and hay. The seventh day after a child’s birth is considered to be an auspicious occasion when their fate is decided. On that day, things that the child is supposed to need later in life are placed beside their bedstead. These things include pen and paper, a dictionary, a few sheaves of grain, turmeric and ploughshare.[6] These practices have been handed down to the Char Chapori Muslims from their Hindu ancestors or have been borrowed from their Assamese neighbours.

Magh Bihu is the principal harvest festival of the people of Assam. Among the Char Chaporis of Assam, it is celebrated under various names including Pushura. An attempt to examine the history of Pushura shows that it is a tradition the ancestors of the migrants carried with them from Bengal. The word pushura comes from Push (or Pausha), the first month of winter which overlaps with December and January of the Gregorian calendar. An interesting part of the Pushura festival is the ritual of magan singing (similar to carol singing), with cattle herders going from house to house singing magan songs and collecting money for a feast. The leader of the group is called sonahar or sonarai. When the boys go around collecting alms, they sing several intricate songs that paint the sonahar as a godly young unmarried man and claim that the money collected will be used for his wedding. This practice is similar to husori singing among the ethnic Assamese people, where, as in the magan tradition, a group of young boys go from door to door singing songs and collecting money for a feast.

Kati Bihu (named after Kati, the month that overlaps with October and November of the Gregorian calendar) is also celebrated in the char chaporis. Since during that season no crop survives and not much is grown, this festival is also called the mora (dead) Kati. On the day of Kati Bihu, a portion of the courtyard is cleaned and plastered with soil creating an auspicious spot where betel leaves, dubori (scutch) grass, mustard oil, bamboo shoots, turmeric, banana stem, jute seeds, sheaves of grain, a pot of water, coconuts and vegetables are placed. The offerings are left in the open courtyard overnight in anticipation of dew and consumed in the morning before the first crow caws; the pot of water is used for bathing. This practice is called gasshi jaga which gives the Char Chapori version of Kati Bihu the alternative name of Gasshi Rati (where rati means night).

An interesting aspect of the Kati Bihu celebrations is the performance of ‘cutting the barren tree’. On Gasshi Rati, young boys go out in groups with machetes and axes and put up a show of cutting trees that have not borne fruit during the preceding season. One of the boys pretends to cut the tree while another defends the tree, begging his friend to spare it for one more year as it will surely bear fruit the next season. The defence is sung in the following manner:

Gaas katiyona, katiyona goshai
Eibaar phal dharbe, kosai kosai
Kati masher akale
Gaser phal beisa aamra
Maarum basarer dhar.

Don’t cut the tree, don’t cut the tree, my lord
Surely, surely it will bear fruit this time
In the famine of Kati
We won’t cut more trees
We will sell its fruits
And clear the year’s debts

The boy pretending to cut the tree relents. A rope of hay is then tied around the trunk of the tree and a lamp is lit before it. The boys kneel before the tree and pray that it provides fruit soon. It is also believed that giving a barren tree a few blows of the axe after sunset or at night restores the tree’s vitality.

During the night, young boys go out and steal the offerings left out in the open. This is done in good spirit, and the folk belief is that someone who manages to steal the gasshi offerings will remain disease free for the coming year. Prominent writer and cultural activist Ismail Hossain writes that actual thieves also have a belief of their own about this auspicious night; they believe that a safe and uneventful robbery implies that they will not be caught in the coming year.[7] These rituals are not specific to Muslims alone; char chapori residents, irrespective of their religion and language, take part in these activities. The protection of barren trees has far-reaching environmental benefits. 

A curious ritual of prime importance followed by Char Chapori Muslims is the tradition of leaving a well-prepared meal in the fields.[8] A platter of sweetmeats is left in the fields as an offering to the fertility gods and one’s ancestors. It is believed that this offering will bring the attention of the gods to the fields and result in a successful harvest in the coming year. Some Char Chapori Muslims also leave a burning earthen lamp under a tulsi plant, which is a direct continuation of the traditions that have been carried over from the Hindu roots of the char chapori residents.

Another interesting ritual with pre-Islamic roots that has blended perfectly with the Islamic tradition of the Char Chapori Muslims is the practice of lathibari (stick fighting). This is a form of stick fighting that may have started as a means of defence or offence. Lathibari, now an elaborate performance, probably comes from lathials (lathi-wielding troupes that landlords maintained as bodyguards and to keep peace and order among their peasants). However, it now exists as a highly stylised performance that is performed on special occasions like marriages and births and on the festival of Muharram. It is usually performed before a large assembly where the village elders are seated on chairs and other members of the audience either squat on the ground or stand in a circle, forming a natural arena for the performers. The leader of a lathibari group is the sardar who sings songs throughout the performance to inspire his men and to keep the audience engaged. The overall performance of the lathibari shows some interesting examples of syncretism. The performance begins with the announcement of the name of the group and that of its sardar by one of the performers; for instance, in the case of one of the performances:

Sardar aamar Imaan Ali|
Roumarite ghar
Tahar charane aamar haazaro saalam re ...

Our sardar is Imaan Ali
From Roumari
We bow before him a thousand times.

The members of the lathibari troupe then approach the elders of the community, touch their feet and hold their hands, saying their salaams and seeking their blessings. The sardar of the team then announces:

Dhani dhani shobai bole
Dhanire niranjan
Aalahor name aijka aami
Bandhlam komor

All the rich people 
Say that wealth is God
But I take Allah’s name 
And gird my loins.

The lathibari performance then commences in a flurry of whirling bamboo sticks. How this performance came to be a part of Muharram festivities can only be guessed but it is an exhibition of intermingling of Islamic and non-Islamic rituals. Over time, the saffron cummerbund worn by the performers has been replaced by the fulam gamusa which, now worn by the performers as bandannas, brings the costume of the lathial closer to the traditional costume worn by male Bihu dancers.

In the Fateha-e-dowaz daham festival, celebrated by Char Chapori Muslims with fervour and solemnity, as well pre-Islamic folk songs have been incorporated into an Islamic festival. On the day of the festival, women gather and sing ghazals and bhajans. Among the obvious religious songs, some of the songs sung are secular in nature and deal with the well-being of the women’s husbands. 

The following is taken from a song that deals with the nature of an unfaithful wife:

Asati narir pati temun
Bhanga nayer gula
Bhanga nayer gula zemun
Thak-bak kore
Asati narir pati temun
Jale duiba more(Chaudhury 89)

The unfaithful (asati) woman’s husband
Is like a broken boat
The broken boat
Tumbles and fumbles in the river
The asati woman’s husband 
Drowns in the river.

The use of asati is distinctive. The word is a negative form of the name of the Indian goddess Sati who symbolises ideal womanhood. ‘Faithful’ is a very insufficient translation as the name Sati denotes several traditionally glamourised feminine virtues, including purity, good conduct and subservience. The use of this name and its negative form in a song sung during an Islamic festival points to the syncretism not only of the language used by Char Chapori Muslims but also of their religious beliefs and values.


[1] Guha, ‘Brahmaputro Upatakyar Asomiya Samajot Bahiragata: Ek Drishtipat,’ 21.

[2] Hussain, ‘Char-Chaporibashi Purbabangiya Mulor Asomiya Musalmanor Samasya,’ 275.

[3] Borbora, ‘Bideshi Bitaran Andolan Byartha Hoisil Kiyo? Etiyao Vastav Samadhan Upay Ki,’ 98.

[4] Guha, ‘Brahmaputro Upatakyar Asomiya Samajot Bahiragata: Ek Drishtipat,’ 20.

[5] Khatun, ‘Char Chaporir Lok Sanskriti,’ 120.

[6] Hussain, ‘Char-Chaporibashi Purbabangiya Mulor Asomiya Musalmanor Samasya,’ 309.

[7] Hossain, Asmor Char Chaporir Jiyon aru Samaj, 112.

[8] Ibid., 113.

Borbora, Golap. ‘Bideshi Bitaran Andolan Byartha Hoisil Kiyo? Etiyao Vastav Samadhan Upay Ki.’ In Asom Andolan: Pratishruti aru Falashruti, edited by Hiren Gohain and Dilip Bora. Guwahati: Banalata, 2007.

Chaudhury, Kurban Ali. ‘Dharmiya Utsav.’ In Miya Samajor Loka-sanskriti. Guwahati: A Karim, n.d.

Guha, Amalendu. ‘Brahmaputro Upatakyar Asomiya Samajot Bahiragata: Ek Drishtipat.’ In Char Chaporir Jibon Charyya: A Collection of Articles in Assamese, edited by Ismail Hossain. Guwahati: Nutan Sahitya Parisad, 2000.

Hossain, Ismail. Asmor Char Chaporir Jiyon aru Samaj. Guwahati: Publication Board, Assam, 2008.

Hussain, Anowar. ‘Char-Chaporibashi Purbabangiya Mulor Asomiya Musalmanor Samasya.’ In Char Chaporir Jibon Charyya: A Collection of Articles in Assamese, edited by Ismail Hossain. Guwahati: Nutan Sahitya Parisad, 2000.

Khatun, Kasema. ‘Char Chaporir Lok Sanskriti.’ In Char Chaporir Jibon Charyya: A Collection of Articles in Assamese, edited by Ismail Hossain. Guwahati: Nutan Sahitya Parisad, 2000.