Majuli Cultural Landscape Management Authority
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'Paalnaam' is a compound word, pal and nam. Pal (Sanskrit paryaya for one after another) means by turn and nam means congregational prayer, chanting the name of God. And so, paalnaam means holding of incessant congregational prayer or chanting of the name of God by the inmates of the Sattra in group and in rotation. This is celebrated on a large scale in the Auniati Sattra during the last five days of the Kati month (October-November). A lot of people from all over Assam come to take part in this programme. It is a congregational prayer which continues for few days. Palnam is organized by other Sattras too, but they have options to select the dates and duration for holding it. For example, in the Garamur Sattra it is celebrated for one day only which starts on the closing day of the Paalnaam at Auniati.
The origin of Palnam is to be traced to the mid-16th century. It is recorded that when Madhavdeva was kept in confinement by the men of the Ahom King Suhungmung allas Dihingiya Raja (1497-1539) on charges of his failure to capture elephants on his behalf with threats of dire consequences, all devotees at the advice of Shankaradeva then started a kind of unending prayer for his life and release. It is further recorded that it was during a session of such congregation that Madhavdeva came back safe and delighted the chanting inmates by offering his salutation and with whatever amount of rice and salt he had with him. It is from this legend that Paalnaam, meaning continuous chanting of the nama of God or prayer by groups of devotees came into practice among the Vaishnava circle; and making gift of salt and rice became a custom in the agenda of the Paalnaam.
A boat with the Bhagawata is placed in east -west direction at the center of the namghar where the boat symbolizes the agency for salvation (bhavatarana) of the soul, the sanctum sanctorum, Manikut of namghar is thereby imagined as Vaikuntha on earth for those days and the Bhagawata itself as Krishna. The inmates then take their seat on both sides of the boat and begin to chant nama in group. There are three turns (pal) in a day : early turn (ag pal), middle turn (maj pal) and the last turn (sesh pal). At the end of a pal (turn) it is the custom that the Satradhikara and his juniors, the Deka Adhikara and the (third) Govindapuriya prostrate before the Vaishnavas and offer salutation (sewa). During the pause between the pals assembled devotees and other believers offer naivedya and obtain blessings. Their offer includes among other items, salt (lon) as in the medieval context, gift of salt is considered as equal to the gift of gold. On the fifth day at the end of paal naam, the sattradhikar enters the manikut and makes pradakshina around namghar and takes ashirwad from the Vaishnavas. Following this, the Satradhikara and the others enter the manikut and reinstate the Bhagavata in the proper place.