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Explained: At PM Modi’s venue Jerenga Pothar, recalling an Assam icon

PM Narendra Modi addressed an event at Sivasagar's Jerenga Pothar, where the legendary Joymati sacrificed her life for her husband in the 17th century. Sivasagar — and Upper Assam — is also seen as representing the Assamese, and was marked by strong opposition to CAA.

Written by Tora Agarwala , Edited by Explained Desk | Guwahati |
January 22, 2021 5:26:16 pm
Jerenga Pothar in Sivasagar, venue of Modi's rally. The legendary Joymoti was tortured to death on this ground. (PTI)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to visit Assam on Saturday, January 23 — his first in the run-up to the Assembly elections likely in April. The venue for Modi’s programme — where he will launch an Assam government initiative to distribute over one lakh land pattas (documents) to indigenous communities of the state — is the historic Jerenga Pothar in Upper Assam’s Sivasagar district.

Formerly known as Rangpur, Sivasagar was the seat of the powerful Ahom dynasty, who ruled Assam for six centuries (1228-1826). It is part of Upper Assam, which saw strong opposition to the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) last year.

What is the historical significance of Jerenga Pothar?

Jerenga Pothar, an open field in Sivasagar town, is popularly connected to the valour of 17th century Ahom princess Joymoti. While the courage of Ahom kings is well-documented, Joymoti’s story — little-known until the latter part of the 19th century — is today celebrated and invoked as a symbol of inspiration.

A still from the 1935 Assamese film, Joymati, made by Jyoti Prasad Agarwala.

“From 1671 to 1681, the Ahom kingdom was undergoing a period of tumult under ‘ministerial superiority’, meaning the nobles and prime ministers were more important than the king, who were often puppets,” said Dr Jahnabi Gogoi, a Dibrugarh University professor who specialises in the medieval history of Assam.

It was at this time that Sulikhpaa— also known as ‘Lora Raja’ or the boy prince — and his prime minister Laluksala Borphukan were tracking down, and killing, possible heirs, to ensure a clear passage to the throne. Prince Godapani, Joymoti’s husband, was next in line, but he escaped to the Naga Hills before Lora Raja and his men could capture him. “It was then that Lora Raja sought out Godapani’s wife Joymoti, hoping she would tell him about his whereabouts,” said Dr Gogoi, “However, despite being tortured for days, tied to a thorny plant, in an open field, Joymoti refused to divulge any information.” She died, sacrificing her life for her husband, who ultimately became the king, ushering in an era of stability and peace in Assam.

The place Joymoti was tortured to death was Jerenga Pothar.

How did Joymoti become a nationalist icon?

According to historians, the Jerenga Pothar episode is not officially recorded in any buranji, or Ahom-era chronicle. “These were mostly written by men, or on the king’s orders,” said Dr Gogoi, “So it is possible that this episode wasn’t considered important enough to record. However, the story was passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth.”

Dr Gogoi said that the turn of the 20th century saw a number of publications record the episode, beginning with one in Jonaki magazine by Ratneshwar Mahanta. In 1935, cultural icon Jyoti Prasad Agarwala made the first Assamese feature film, Joymati, based on Lakshminath Bezbaroa’s drama Joymoti Konwari (1915). “That is when the public became aware of her sacrifice and strength,” said Dr Gogoi.

Cultural historian Ankur Tamuli Phukan said this paved the way for Joymoti to become a nationalist icon. “Joymoti’s story signified not just the strength and loyalty of the Assamese woman, but her resistance and courage represented the relationship between familial/domestic life and national life,” he said.

What is the significance of Jerenga Pothar today?

While the Jerenga Pothar itself is not a protected archaeological site, its vicinity includes a number of protected sites, including the Na Pukhuri tank to its east and the Pohu Garh, a natural zoo built during the Ahom era, to its west. Close by is the large Joysagar tank, built by Ahom king Swargadeo Rudra Singha in 1697, and the Vishnu Dol temple.

According to Jiten Borpatra Gohain, a retired professor of history in Namrup College, the Jerenga Pothar was initially called Jerenga Haabi or Jerenga forest. “In Orunodoi, the first Assamese journal, there would be references to wild buffalos killing people in Jerenga Pothar,” he said.

He said it was only 1707 when Rangpur (erstwhile Svasagar) was established as the capital of the Ahom kingdom, and many monuments came up in the vicinity (Rang Ghar, Talatal Ghar, Kareng Ghar), that the area developed.

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Sivasagar-based Sonaram Baruah, a retired principal of Sibsagar Girls’ College, said Jerenga Pothar is situated in a low-lying area, and remains flooded during the monsoon even today. “Jerenga Pothar is an open field, flanked by villages on all sides. On rare occasions it is used for important events,” he said. In 2017, the field was used for the centenary celebrations of the apex and influential literary body, the Asam Sahitya Sabha.

Preparations are in full swing for PM Modi’s land patta distribution event on Saturday, which is in line with the BJP’s 2016 poll plank to protect the Jaati, Maati and Bheti (community, land and hearth). According to Tamuli Phukan, the choice of venue is interesting because Upper Assam is where the strongest opposition to the BJP-led government’s CAA came from. “Not just Jerenga Pothar, but Sivasagar is historically important, and represents the Assamese ‘nation’,” he said.

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