Updated: March 20, 2021 11:14:21 am
As the polling date draws closer, decorative jaapis (field hats), hand-woven gamosas and bell-metal xorais are making frequent appearances in Assam.
Primarily used to felicitate important people and guests, these important symbols of Assamese identity and culture are abundantly seen in political campaigns across the state.
The jaapi is a conical hat made of bamboo and covered with dried tokou (a palm tree found in rainforests of Upper Assam) leaves. While it is most often used in official functions to felicitate guests, the landscape of rural Assam features a more utilitarian version, which farmers wear to protect themselves from the harsh weather, both sun and rain, while working in the fields.
“The decorated ones, on the other hand, are used to felicitate people who visit Assam — VIPs, politicians etc,” said Sunil Pawan Baruah, a retired history professor and writer based in Guwahati, “It is basically a memento that represents the state.”
The first possible recorded use of jaapi dates back to the Ahom-era buranjis, or chronicles. “Kings and ministers would wear them then,” said Baruah. Later, the jaapi was also seen and popularised in the first Assamese film, Joymati (1935) made by cultural icon Jyotiprasad Agarwala.
Today, the bulk of Assam’s jaapis are made by artisans based in a cluster of villages in Nalbari district.
The Gamosa, which literally translates to a cloth to wipe one’s body, is omnipresent in Assam, with wide-ranging uses. It can be used at home as a towel (uka gamosa) or in public functions (phulam/floral gamosa) to felicitate dignitaries or celebrities.
The popularity of the gamosa has now traveled beyond Assam and is often used by a number of public figures including Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
According to Baruah, the gamosa is a “symbol of the Assamese nation” and its use in that context can be traced back to 1916 and 1917, when the Asom Chatra Sanmillan (first student organisation) and Asom Sahitya Sabha (premier literary organisation) were founded. “Both were Assam’s first non-political organisations, and it was from them that the initial strains of Assamese jatiyotabaad (nationalism) grew, and so did the use of the gamosa,” he said.
However, it was only during the anti-foreigner Assam Agitation of the early 1980s, when Assamese nationalism reached its crescendo, that the gamosa assumed a new role. “It developed alongside the Agitation. We had a jatiyo sangeet (national anthem), we needed a jatiyo pataka (national flag) too. So, that is what the gamosa became,” said Ankur Tamuli Phukan, a cultural historian from Assam.
Today, no public function can commence without the guest first being felicitated with the gamosa.
Made of bell-metal, the xorai — essentially a tray with a stand at the bottom, with or without a cover — can be found in every Assamese household. While it is primarily used as an offering tray during prayers, or to serve tamale-paan (betel-nut) to guests, a xorai is also presented along with the jaapi and gamosa while felicitating someone.The bulk of xorais in Assam are made in the state’s bell metal hub Sarthebari in Bajali district.
According to Baruah, the xorai has a long history. “It was used during the time of Vaishnavite reformer Sankardeva too,” he said.
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