A desperate cry for help, recounting the past glory and the present crisis facing Panchabati Ashram in Guwahati, with the hope that someone reading this will come for- ward to help, and together we shall be able to rescue and revive the precious ashram.
Today Panchabati Ashram is a pale shadow of its glorious past. The only visible remains are the still impressive gate and a stately temple. Located along one of the busiest thorough- fares of the city, between Guwahati Club and Silpukhuri, it is hard to imagine today how it must have been a hundred years ago.
The ashram was established by my father’s moha – Jogeswar Kataki, who had come to work at the Deputy Commissioner’s office at Guwahati, in the 1880s. He was married to Hirabati Devi, daughter of Padmavati Devi Phukanani, and granddaughter of the renowned Ananda Ram Dhekial Phukan of Nagaon. Though he was diligent in his work and rose to become the head clerk, Kataki’s growing religious fervour forced him to take premature retirement and establish an ashram.
Kataki became a full-time sanyasi, calling himself Swami Sureshananda. As his fame as a mystic spread, so did his disciples. Swamiji attracted a large number of Bengali devotees, some very affluent and high-ranking government officials from Calcutta, present-day Bangladesh and Assam. Such was the standing of Panchabati Siddhashram then that on Swamiji’s death in 1925, Assam’s first Chief Minister, Gopinath Bordoloi and other eminent persons such as Kamakhya Ram Barua and Tarun Ram Phukan established a Trust to keep the ashram going.
Swamiji’s wife, Hirabati Devi, also known as Mataji, kept the ashram going as best as she could with the help of a handful of disciples that still remained. By the time Mataji died in the 1960s, the ashram had shrunk – she had sold some parts of the ashram, other parts she had allowed disciples to build small homes to live in. My father, Munin Barkotoki, came to live in the ashram when he was doing his IA, in 1935. He continued to live in the ashram for most part of his life, but when he got married, Mataji gave him a plot of land where they built the Assam-type house where I spent my childhood.
Baba took over the responsibility of the maintenance of the ashram in the 1970s. He was still formally a Trustee, but it is not clear whether the Trust was still functional then. The ashramhouse was rented out to some offices for short periods but the mandir remained largely unused. Over time, the mandir became the meeting point for a motley crowd – tantriks, drug addicts or plain drunkards. To stop that, sometime in the 1980s, it was decided to instal a Shiva linga in the mandir, and the Shiva temple is functional till today.
My mother, Renuka Devi Barkataki, who was instrumental in setting up the Shiva temple, would bathe the linga every morning she was in town, for the rest of her life. She took over the maintenance of the ashram after Baba passed away in 1993. By then the ashram land that remained unoc- cupied had shrunk even more – from more than six bighas to less than half of that size. More people had settled down there. The original Trust had become defunct by then. The land was still in the name of Hirabati Devi, so there was no one who had the legal authority to stop further encroachment. Nor was there anyone to pay rent to. Also, there wasn’t anyone who could renew the leases that had long expired.
My mother continued to pay the land tax and to oversee the day-to- day maintenance of the ashram property. She often spoke of converting the vacant plot at the back into a public park for senior citizens, and the ashram house into a centre where older people could come together to meditate or hold philosophical and religious discussions. But every move of hers was met with resistance.
Once, last year, unable to stop one of the residents from cutting down a tree – the last of the original five trees left in the ashram – she went to meet the DC. She tried to explain her fears to him. Before he could take any action, she passed away.
I have grown up in the ashram, and I have no other wish but to ensure that the ashram not only continues to exist, but flourishes for all time to come. But how does one ensure that?
Talks with all the other ashram residents to try to find a way forward have been futile. Efforts have been made to form a committee to over- see the everyday running of the ashram – without much headway.
Today, besides the Shiva temple and the ashram house, there is only a square plot in one corner with a pond in the middle. The physical skeleton of the ashram is still there, but the soul has long been eaten away by termites that feed on greed, jealousy, fear and mistrust. Is this what an ashram is supposed to mean? Panchabati Siddhashram, established more than a century ago, is an important part of the cultural and religious heritage of our city and of our State. We should do something in the ashram that will carry forward Swamiji’s legacy in a meaningful and constructive manner, for the wider good of the people, for all time to come.
All suggestions and offers to help are welcome in order to realize some of the many dreams at least, so that the ashram lives on forever, and what is more, that it regains some of its earlier dignity and serenity, where people come to find peace and quiet and a whiff of Nature, if nothing else, in the middle of this loud, crowded and frenetic city.