An Ode to Silapathar-The town of Contrasts
Disclaimer: This is neither a travel blog nor a touristic piece desperately written to attract ‘domestic or foreign visitors’. In fact, seeing this in that light would not be justified. It is an article written by a child about the town where he has grown up, about his immense love for the place. I am sure that after reading this one might find more reasons not to visit the place.
As I drive past the road leading to Silapathar, I see a small green board installed by the town corporation reading “Welcome to Silapathar; Keep your town clean”. The board was not around when I visited last time. I am based in Delhi now, so I can only visit my town once a year. Silapathar, my home town, is about 35 kilometers away from Dhemaji-the district headquarters. As soon as I enter it, I sense that same usual vibrancy which has defined the town since long. The streets were filled with activity and everyone seem to be busy. But amidst that busy life too, they notice that I have arrived and immediately come to ask about my well being. This particular trait of Silapathar always amazes me. No matter how busy they are, they are never busy enough to ignore you. for instance, as soon they see me, they leave all their activities aside and come and start talking to me. While on the other hand, my friend who is now running a small shop gets busy and calls for a rickshaw for me. But visiting silapathar is not an easy task. If you try reaching it, it is a high probability that you might not be able to for more than six months during a year. Every year without fail, the roads break, bridges collapse due to perennial floods, adding to the agonies of the people. While many have many fortunes out of the contracts from the floods, travelers always have had to complain about it.
Silapathar incidentally means ‘field of stones’ with ‘Sila’ meaning small stones (Pebbles) and ‘Pathar’ signifying the field. The field of stones have long gone away and are only found in the broken roads adding on the bumps. Perhaps they still remain to remind its locals about its history-as a fading testimony. Many a times the roads are filled with muddy water, potholes etc. Life has been rough on the people of silapathar but they have never bowed down to their problems. In fact, the people have devised their own innovative strategies to lead a happy life there. Almost everyone has a smile in their face. Everyone knows each other and makes it a point to enquire about each other’s well-being. If such friendly is their nature then how does the myth of the Silapathar people ‘Linglang (Cunning/crook)’ gets propagated, I always wonder. Then, I find an explanation of sorts. It is perhaps because of the fact that the people of Silapathar are forced to adapt to the changing world, which sometimes might seem like they have lost their innocence. But that actually is not the case. It is a mere consequence of the existing society which has demanded that the otherwise simple society today gets no other way but to be constantly on the run in the rat race of survival. One of the other consequences has also been the invention of the phrase ‘Free Nao, Miri Nao’. It is claimed; though I have never experienced it myself, my friends choose to insist; that while they take the boat (Nao) on the other bank shout out Free Nao, free Nao. But after crossing over, they claim that they had called out Miri Nao (Mising/Miri Boat: The term miri, considered derogatory, is used by other communities to address the Mising people) and not Free Nao and charge exorbitant rates. But I justify it by a mere fact that the people of Sonarighat (the locality where incidentally the ‘cheating’ takes place) is always ravaged by floods and have no other means of survival but to use the flood waters to earn their livelihood.
Nothing is so significant enough that it might force you to visit Silapathar, except for the hills of Arunachal which are less than 7 kms away from this town. On one of those small hills rests the Malini-thaan (thaan signifies a small temple) which amazingly finds its place in the folk tales centering around the great Mahabharata. It is said that a local lady, Malini gave hostage to Lord Sri Krishna and his wife Rukmini while they were eloping from Shishupala. Rukmini, daughter of King Bhismaka was supposed to be married off to Lord Krishna. But under the influence of her brother Rukmin, who was a very ambitious prince, her father later backed off. Rukmin wanted his sister Rukmini to marry Shishupala, the crown prince of Chedi. On being informed about this conspiracy, Rukmini quickly wrote a letter to her beloved Lord Krishna, who immediately took action and came to Vidharbha and made arrangements to elope with Rukmini. While they were being followed by Rukmin and Shishupala, Malini gave hostage to them in a top of a hill-which is now known as Rukmini Thaan. In a sense of gratitude, Lord Krishna blessed the lady and said, ‘From now on, you shall be worshipped by the coming generation”. Since then, people worship Malini and it has attained its own place of significance in Assam. In fact, though the place is very small, it is considered one of the major spiritual centers by the people of the North-east. The view from the top of the hill is heart-touching. A place nearby also once had a hanging bridge, which still lies in shatters enough to interest a history enthusiast like me. Every time, I visit home, I make it a point to visit the Thaan and watch the sunset. Standing at the top of the hill and watching the sun disappear behind the hills is a heavenly feeling.
At night, the stars come out. I sit with my niece in our lawn and try to count stars. I tell her that the biggest star we see in the sky is the ‘Dhruba Tara’ and tell her the folk tales about it, which says that the star is the guardian angel of the Moon. The night is always peaceful and comes down silently and let me know that it actually can be an astronomer’s paradise. It has been long since, I have seen such a beautiful night.
Economics and Education play a vital role in Silapathar. The town also forms the major shopping center of the region-thanks to the imports from Dimapur (Nagaland) and China. You are sure to catch a good bargain and gain value of your money. While the local communities are the owners of the shops, almost 99 percent of it is leased out to the Marwari and Bengali communities who run their stores. It is also one of the first revenue towns in entire Assam. The people of Likabali (The nearest locality in Arunachal) has no choice but to come down to Silapathar, adding to its revenue. The proximity of Dibrugarh also adds to the economic viability of the town. The Bogibeel Bridge over river Brahmaputra joining Silapathar and Dibrugarh, if completed will increase the economic importance of the town manifold. The foundation stone of project was laid way back in 1997 by then Prime Minister H.D. Devegowda. Today, work continues at a snail’s pace and the only thing it serves is to attract a few visitors, who love clicking pictures of it. Education, which forms a very important component, is well regarded by the locals of Silapathar. The literacy rate of Silapathar is almost 70 percent and is higher than the national average. It houses a few of the best schools and colleges in the entire district. But again the colleges are criticized to be very lenient against cheating during exams which has a direct impact on the increased literacy rate and percentage of success.
Thus, it can be well established that every feat or positive aspect about the town is accompanied by a hitherto criticism. But one cannot help but fall in love with the town. In fact, no one shies away from expressing their liking for it. Such is Silapathar…!!!.
For me, its heaven not only because I was born and brought in this town but because it is the only place I know;
where tradition and modernity blends together;
where culture comes alive and
where people have learned to co-exist peacefully and continue living with their heads held high.
I decide to attend a puja (prayer) in one of the many durga puja pandals in the town. The one I decided to see was designed to resemble the Eiffel Tower in France. The Pujari chant the mantras, the visitors sing the bahjan along and seeks the blessing from Goddess Durga. All my friends are dressed in kurtas and pyjamas adding to the festive look. My brother holds his daughter so that the pujari can touch her forehead and bless her. I, a self proclaimed non-believer suddenly find myself bowing my head and silently saying a prayer for the well being of my town and my love-SILAPATHAR.