This is the story of a place, the ‘magical’ practices associated with it and the turn-around of its reputation — from a place of ambivalent fear and mystery to a tourist destination. It is the story of an attempt to revive an ancient art form, a kind of local knowledge (vidya), that is in danger of going into oblivion.
It was a cold winter night in 1989, I was a medical anthropology doctoral student at Michigan State University, trying to come up with a research topic on cultural ideas on illness and health. I wanted to work in Assam, where I come from, but could not think of what to work on. All of a sudden, a word popped into my head, bej. And along with it, almost immediately, another word, Mayong. The two words were so closely associated in my mind that one could not be thought of without the other.
As I delved into my mental recesses to see what I remembered about the bej, I found that though these were two words I had grown up with, and were a part of my vocabulary, I really knew very little about them. The Assamese dictionary defined bej as a faith healer (chikitsok) who heals by incantations and medicines, but somewhere in my mind another rather sinister definition also loomed, again coming from snatches of conversations I remembered from growing up in Assam. Snippets of gossip such as “Mayongor bej logaise” roughly translated as “(they)have employed bej from Mayong”, broke through hazes of memory. Such things were often spoken about in awe and in context of things as diverse as a politician trying to get power to someone trying to break up a family. There was a sense of mysteriousness about the term Mayong, as well as a sense of fear.
The very next morning, I trotted off to the university library to find out more. These were pre-internet days, and hence the almost instinctual Google search was not yet a part of our lives. As I researched through the maze of books on Assam in the very well stocked library, I did not find much information. Some history books vaguely mentioned a Kamrupi medical system, with associations to Mayong and a Kamrup-Kamakhya complex (Kamrup is the ancient name of Assam, Kamakhya is a predominant temple and Tantric site in Assam), but there was nothing substantial to go on from that.
When I reached Assam and tried to identify people who were called bej, or practiced bejali, I ran into a wall. Firstly, no one could relate to the term Kamrupi medical system. What the history books called the Kamrupi system was obviously just a generic phrase used by historians to refer to the healing practices of the area. People knew about bej and bejali, and connected these two terms to Mayong, but had difficulty pointing out a person who they could categorically call a bej. Associated with the term bej were other terms — ojha, sadhak, dhanantari, vaidya. All these terms were conceptualized very loosely, without rigid boundaries. The same person was termed bej by one informant, and as a sadhak by another. I was often directed to people who were referred to as bej but who did not see themselves as such. Some were in fact, quite displeased with the label.
I then started rephrasing my questions. Instead of trying to categorize people as a bej or not a bej, I started asking people what a bej did. Through the confusion of terminology, there appeared one recurrent factor — the use of mantras. All of these practitioners used mantras in one way or another. Some use mantras to identify and get rid of their client’s problems, while others use mantras to get rid of problems created by other peoples’ mantras. It was more an issue of semantics rather than categories. Nobody would admit to being a bej, as the word had negative connotations. Two others terms with negative associations were “Mantro korile”(done mantra on) and “tontro montro”. However, I also heard phrases such as “Teo bohut kiba kibi jane. Mayongoto xikisil” (he knows a lot of different things. Had learned in Mayong), which were not really said negatively. I soon realized that because I was starting with a label, a negative label, I was getting nowhere. I was looking for a system, but there was no system to be found — just individual healers who had learned the art from their guru or a range of gurus. And as each guru was different, each healer too was different, bringing in a great deal of eclecticism in their practice.
Though the practitioners saw themselves as different from each other, their clients consulted them for similar problems. I was speaking to a group of people who were waiting to see a rather revered practitioner, Sri Ghana Kanta Goswami, of Thekeraguri, near Nowgong, Assam, also known as Mayongia Gosain (the ‘gosai‘from Mayong). When asked why they came to see him, one lady said that she came regularly whenever she had a problem, such as knowing in which direction a lost cow would be found, getting rid of quarrels in the house or illnesses in the family. Others standing around butted in with other reasons — whether a missing person will return home or not, where that person might be found, why someone’s rice mill is not working, how to get rid of labour problems plaguing a factory, whether stolen goods can be found, where it will be found, the identity of the the thief, why a person is behaving in an uncharacteristic way, will an expected ‘transfer’ to a particular job location come come through, and so on. All over Assam I met people who had similar reasons for going to a practitioner, whether the person was labeled a bej or not. These practitioners also provided remedies — mantras to stop marital quarrels, mantras to get interfering in-laws out of the way, mantras chanted on a sari or a mekhela sador worn by a prospective bride at a girl-viewing, which will make the boy’s family like her instantly, mantras to keep an unsuitable suitor away, mantras to make a childless woman conceive, mantras to get a coveted promotion. And many of these remedies were often associated with Mayong, either through the antecedents of the practitioner or from the legends and stories told about Mayong in which similar feats were common.
The more I talked to people, it became apparent that most of the information about Mayong was in the form of these legends and stories — very few people had any real experience of the ‘power’ of a bej from Mayong. But the fear was real. One of the most common stories circulating about Mayog was that these bej could control others — they could keep a person with them forever, making the person forget his or her past life, affiliations, family and friends. Some people absolutely believed in the mystery and magic of Mayong, and some were ambivalent or indifferent to it. But most of this second group too were wary about the place — what if there is some truth to what is being said.
The reaction of most people I talked to regarding my intention of visiting Mayong was an attempt to dissuade me from going. I was told stories of how these bej just had to show a person a flower, and the person would be his slave for life. I was told never to go there alone and to beware of young men. The bej from Mayong were supposedly experts in the Mohini baan — a set of mantras meant to get a person infatuated with someone. All through my research period, there was almost unanimous agreement among whoever I talked to that Mayong was not a place for a young girl to go to. A prominent Assamese gentleman, a man of few words, one day accosted my uncle and asked him to prevent me from going to Mayong. Our family priest told my mother in no uncertain terms that a young girl like me should not be allowed to go to Mayong. They can make her into a goat, he said. Finally one day, he brought a person to our house – someone who was trained in Mayong, he said, to give me all the information I wanted without having to go to that dreaded place.
When I finally did go to Mayong, with my brother and husband as escorts, I really did not find much. Just a sleepy little town, with no signs of the disrepute that went with its name. A ninety year old gentleman I talked to laughed when I asked him about Mayong’s negative reputation. He attributed it to isolation creating an aura of mystery. He did not deny that the people of Mayong knew many esoteric mantras, some dangerous. This knowledge, coupled with the reality that the area was surrounded by the mighty and often flooded Brahmaputra and by dense forests made it inaccessible for large parts of the year. Hence there was dire speculations about the place and what it represented.
Anecdotes abounded about people of Mayong using mantras to do mischievous tricks to scare and impress strangers. The most common story was about piras (a low stool used to sit on) getting stuck to people when they try to get up, hands getting stuck to the mouth when eating, making food ingredients such as chillies dance in front of guests eating a meal. Tales of amazing feat were also common — bej could stop moving objects such as a charging bull or even a car driven at a hundred miles an hour, just by raising their hand, making them come to an absolute halt. They could immobilize tigers who came to get villagers’ cattle through pain causing mantras (bikhali-baan). Along with these were other tales — tales of ku (bad) mantras, also called baans (arrows) which when recited in a specific person’s name even from a distance could cause problems for the person. An example of this was the agni baan (fire arrow), which causes intense burning sensations in the victim’s body. Mantras are chanted on uncooked grains of rice, which are then heated in the sun until they become dry, puffed and light. Even one grain of that rice, if sneaked into a person’s food could give that person the agni baan.
A lot of these mantras are rooted in two major sources —- the Atharvaveda and various Tantric texts. The Atharvaveda, unlike the three other Vedas, consists predominantly of spells and incantations concerned with ordinary everyday problems. Benjamin Walker, in his book Hindu World: An Encyclopedic Survey of Hinduism (1968), describes two major classes of mantras in the Atharvaveda. One is bheshajani or peaceful mantras, for healing and medicinal purposes as well as love spells, mantras for safe childbirth, mantras to beget a son and so on. The other class of mantras, called abhichara, are malevolent in nature; these include spells for producing disease, bringing ill luck, preventing a woman from getting married, destroying a man’s virility, among others. The Tantric texts too have a similar set of mantras, called the Tantrik Satkarmas, consisting of mantras for Maron (killing), Mohan (attraction), Vasikaran (subjugation), Stambhan (immobilisation), Uccahton (tormentation), Vidvesana (dissension). I was told repeatedly that these ‘bad’ mantras were meant to be used only at particular times — destruction of enemies, demons and so on. Though some unscrupulous bej use these mantras for nefarious purposes, the nature of these mantras are such that they will ultimately harm the practitioner who uses them to hurt others.
Besides the pan-Indian Vedic and Tantric texts, various local level texts exist, with mantras mostly in regional languages, though sometimes mixed with Sanskrit words. This is the kind of texts that the bej use. I have seen numerous such texts, broadly called bejali puthi or simply mantra puthi. These are unbound manuscripts, made of bark or paper, handwritten in an archaic form of Assamese. These are usually individual or family possessions; these are the texts used by a practitioner, which he then passes on to his disciple or successor before he dies. Very few of these puthis have been published, as there is a belief that the mantras will lose their inherent power with publication and its ensuing commercialization. The mantras are also said to be ineffective without a guru to teach the exact nuances and inflections that would give it its efficacy. A lot of these texts, I was told, are now lost forever because it is believed that if a person died without teaching his esoteric knowledge to a successor, then his puthis of potential power need to be drowned in a river.
A validation of the knowledge contained in Mayong came from the Governor of Assam during that time period, Mr. Loknath Mishra. Mr. Mishra too used mantras to heal — there were regular sessions at the Raj Bhavan where people thronged to get their aliments cured. Several bej from Mayong had been invited to the Raj Bhavan and Mr. Mishra told me in an interview that there had been very good exchange of ideas during those meetings. Talking to people who had come to the Raj Bahvan to be healed, it was obvious that these people were not there just for the opportunity to see the inside of the Raj Bhavan. They were there because there was a core of belief in these practices and the Governor, because of his position, was seen as a person who could be trusted, who was not a quack.
The word quack was and still used in the context of the bej. This, more than anything else is a reminder of the ambivalence regarding the bej and their practice. As I was told by more than one practitioner however, a mantra could be seen as good or bad depending on its ultimate purpose. The same Mohini mantra, if used to forcefully get someone attracted could be bad, while if used as a boost to get two people happily married, or stop the members of a family from quarreling could be perceived as good. There were unscrupulous practitioners in all fields, including western medicine, hence labeling all bej as quacks was unfair.
Throughout my research period as well as later, even now, I am asked whether there is any scientific basis to the practice. As an anthropologist, my job was not to see whether bejali was ‘scientific’ or not. My job was to look at an indigenous cultural system and examine its role in everyday life. And what I found was that Mayong as a place was a part of the Assamese belief system. Most people I talked to have never been to Mayong, but its influence was there in many of their thoughts and actions. The Assamese world view incorporates the power of mantras in both its worship oriented religious context of pujas as well as in the almost secular, distress oriented clinical context that can be seen in bejali. Many a time, the same practitioner would do both. The line between the two contexts is very thin. For example, a common feature of any religious ritual is water, seen to be made sacred and potent with mantras, sprinkled on the person (shanti pani) as well as ingested (as pod jol) so as to transfer the deity’s blessings on to the person. The same concept is seen in the context of bejali. The power inherent in the mantras is used to potentize water or other objects for a specific purpose. Just as the power of the deity is taken into the body through the water, or any other item such as a flower made potent by mantras, similarly, the power generated by the mantra in the name of some kind of supernatural being is taken into the body to solve specific problems of the person.
Trailer : Utpal Barpujari's film Mayong : Myth and Reality
To me, these practitioners form a part of Assamese indigenous counseling systems similar to other practices such as astrology. Clients come to a practitioner in times of distress to get advice and remedy. The kind of problems people saw as afflictions to be counseled by a traditional practitioner also opened a window into the Assamese mind. I saw the areas of socio-cultural life that mattered enough for someone to seek redress — a daughter not getting married, a child not studying enough, illnesses, family quarrels, gold getting lost, property disputes, men suddenly deciding to stop earning (a very common problem that I saw over and over), snake bites, in-law problems, and so on and so forth.
In these sort of culture specific afflictions, Mayongor bej has a reputation. Mayong is like a stamp of expertise. ‘He has trained in Mayong ‘(Mayongot siki ahise) is often spoken in awe. Perhaps the people of Mayong specialized in particular mantras, and therefore, the entire area gained prominence. Unfortunately, the prominence was also marred with notoriety. I had been told by several people that perhaps the people of Mayong had themselves been responsible in some ways in creating this aura of fear. And as the human mind remembers the bad things more than the good, the malevolence got focused and the good got downplayed. The fear of course could have been cultivated, but in some ways it perhaps advertised Mayong and kept it alive in people’s minds which allowed it to survive the onslaught of western medicine and science.
In the present times howerver, Mayong seems to have turned full circle. Today, when I Google Mayong a number of items pop up, though the word bej still does not reveal anything. A documentary on Mayong is now available. It was brought to me by a family who had visited Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary last year. There was also a three day Mayong-Pobitora Festival, marked by a gathering of 101 bej, some of whom claim to be still practicing their art. The legend of Mayong seems to have reinvented itself under the banner of tourism. Contrary to my experience twenty years ago, the fear seems to have dissipated now and Mayong is getting a new lease of life.
What existed in Mayong is a part of Assamese cultural heritage, which has been getting lost due to a lack of trust. I had been told that the art was dying as young people do not want to be associated with it any more. I have seen mantra puthis in moth eaten and moldy condition due to disuse. The Historical and Antiquarian Studies of Assam Library in Guwahati had numerous mantra puthis retrieved from families who do not want them. There is a museum in Mayong now which hopefully would be able to preserve more of these artifacts before they disappear completely from sight and memory. As for the practice of Mayongiya bejali, it is an area that has not been researched enough. There are many other places in the world where such practices exist. Mayong too deserves a place among them. Once the shadow of fear is gone from the name, perhaps Mayong will be able to get back the fame and recognition as a healing center that it deserves. But most of all, this important piece of Assamese culture needs be preserved for future generations, in the interest of cultural history, if nothing else.