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Bachelor party's over
For the last 10 years, Ram Kumar Jha has been trying to get married without much success. He blames his mother and elder brother who, he says, "always quoted a high price" (read dowry). But early this month, the 40-year-old bachelor travelled 150 km from his native Rosra to the Sabha Gachchi (congregation orchard) at Saurath village, six km from Madhubani in North Bihar, to try his luck once again.
Jha was one of the few Brahmin bridegrooms who turned up to be "chosen" by the parents and family members of marriageable girls in Mithilanchal. "If I fail to get a bride even at the Sabha Gachchi, I will commit jal samadhi (drown) in the Ganga, " he says despondently even as a group of panjikars (registrars ) and several local Brahmins sympathise with him.
Jha's desperation is matched only by the near-desolation of the Saurath Sabha, the place where, till a few years ago, thousands of Maithil Brahmins would converge annually during the Hindu calendar month of Jyestha-Aashad to arrange marriages between eligible Brahmin boys and girls. The Sabha, part of the over-500-year-old culture of Mithila, is held on a space comprising 22 orchards dotted with dozens of ancient peepal, banyan and mango trees, a ramshackle Shiva temple, some largely abandoned dharamshalas (guesthouses) and two ponds.
Gifted in the 15th century by one of the kings of the erstwhile princely state of Darbhanga, the land today has been encroached upon. And the oncevibrant custom of the Sabha is in its death throes.
Dayanath Jha, 28, has come all the way from Bhagalpur to find a bride at Sabha Gachchi, accompanied by his relatives and brother-in-law Basant Kumar Thakur. "There used to be over a lakh Brahmins at Saurath Sabha till the 1990s. When the number crossed 1. 25 lakh, the leaves of an ancient peepal tree miraculously wilted. That signalled the grand success of the Sabha, " recalls Thakur whose marriage was arranged here in 1969. That legendary tree is long dead. And the crowd now doesn't cross even a hundred.
So, what caused the decline of this once vibrant tradition ? The foremost factor, insists C S Jha Azad, a professor of English at Madhubani, was the negative image painted by the media of the Sabha. "The media sensationalised it as a Brahmin dulha bazaar (marriage mart) where bridegrooms were brought and sold like cattle. So respectable Brahmin families stopped coming here, " he says.
Everybody at Saurath knows it, but few admit openly that the "kidnapping" culture of the 1990s too dealt a blow the congregation at Saurath. When many professionals like engineers, doctors and civil servants sat among some poor prospective grooms and the dowry negotiations reached a dead end, many girls' relatives took a dangerous route: they hired goons to kidnap the "prized" boys. The boys were forcibly married to girls, often from lower gotras and below their socio-economic status. Before that, the Bihar government's Anti-Dowry Act of 1980 saw some bridegrooms and their parents being put behind bars for demanding dowry. "Although there were very few such incidents, they were publicised a lot. The professionals stopped coming here, " says Damankant Jha, one of the few local Brahmins to take a keen interest in organising the Sabha today.
Many also blame the loss of state patronage once the upper castes, especially Brahmins, lost power in the 1990s. Former Union railway minister L N Mishra, a Maithil Brahmin, had helped construct the guesthouses at Sabha Gachchi, and during his brother Jagannath Mishra's tenure as Bihar's chief minister in the 1980s senior government officials, including Madhubani's district magistrate, would ensure supply of electricity, drinking water and police bandobast during the Sabha. This patronage dried up once Lalu Prasad became CM in 1990.
"For Lalu, Maithil Brahmins were pariahs as they were not his votebank. His administration ignored this annual congregation of Brahmins, " says Samir Kumar Thakur, a local BJP worker who equally blames the Brahmin politicians of Mithilanchal, including from his own party, for doing precious little to arrest the decline of the Saurath Sabha. Maithil Brahmins, Thakur rues, have little say in the corridors of power in Patna today.
Ex-MP from Madhubani Dr Shakeel Ahmed, who was communications minister in the UPA government, issued a memorial postage stamp in 2005 on the Saurath Sabha and promised to get the panjis (registration records) computerised. Like so many other promises of Bihari politicians, this too remains unfulfilled.
Meanwhile, bachelor boy Ram Kumar Jha has postponed his jal samadhi and, last heard of, will give the Saurath Sabha one more shot next year. Perhaps because of die-hard faithfuls like him, this unique component of Mithila's culture will survive a few more years before the curtain finally comes down on it.
The system of panjikaran or registration was introduced in Mithila by its king Hari Singh Dev (1310-1324 ). Panjikaran comprises an elaborate system of preparing and keeping genealogical records. Some panjikars even visit homes to jot down births and deaths in Brahmin families to update their records. When a Brahmin boy or girl approaches a panjikar, the latter looks for his/her gotra. The panjikars go back a few generations, and every year at least half a dozen of them pitch their tents at the Sabha Gachchi to match horoscopes and record the matches made at the Sabha Gachchi.
"Once it's verified that there is no blood relationship between the prospective couples till the prohibited degree (five generations from mother's side and seven generations from father's side), we give a certificate on palm leaves. Subsequently, the parents go ahead with marriage preparations, " says 60-year-old panjikar Vishwa Mohan Chandra Mishra who has been in the "profession" ever since he was 18. The panjikars receive a few hundred rupees for their services.
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