A Tale of Sacrifice and Fortitude

The history of India is full to the brim with sagas of sacrifice, selflessness, the bravery of thousands of women. Sadly, only the names of a few women are commemorated while the rest have essentially faded into obscurity. Much ignored is the Northeastern part of India when it comes to history writing, where women’s narratives get further pushed into the darkest corners of libraries. Unveiling one such narrative, today I bring you the story of Assam’s Joymoti Konwari!
Screenshot from Joymoti (actress : Aideu Handique); Source : Wikimedia commons

Screenshot from Joymoti (actress : Aideu Handique); Source : Wikimedia commons

The Northeastern part of India is filled with amazing tales of the heroism of women. And when we talk about strong women, no one can deny the significance and contribution of Joymoti Konwari whose sacrifice, to date, remains to be an inspiration for the people of Assam. She was a great exponent of courage and endurance, whose story still awaits to be heard by the rest of India and receive proper recognition at the national level.

Between 1671 and 1681, the state of Assam, which was ruled by the Ahoms, went through a turbulent period under the rule of puppet king Sulikpha or Lora Raja (Boy king). Under the influence of his minister Laluksala Borphukan, Sulikpha ordered the mutilation of all the Ahom dynasty's princes, a period known as the Purge of the Princes. During his reign, 27 eligible princes and princesses, as well as two kings, were slain.

Sensing trouble from Lora Roja, Gadapani, who was the most obvious heir to the throne, on the advice of his wife Joymati, escaped to the Naga Hills (present-day Nagaland). His escape generated a major uproar in the court, and troops were dispatched to track him down. When the king’s soldiers failed to find Gadapani’s whereabouts, his wife, Joymoti was summoned to the court and was asked to reveal her husband’s lair. But on her refusal to do so, Joymoti was subjected to agonizing torture. She was taken to ‘Jarenga Pather’ in Sivsagar, tied to a Kotkora Plant (a thorny plant), and was continuously subjected to inhumane physical afflictions.

When Gadapani came to know about his wife’s sufferings, he came to visit her in disguise and pleaded with her to reveal the truth. But she was firm in her decision and refused to budge and, instead, asked him to leave because if he gets caught, he would be imprisoned and ultimately killed. A mother of two boys, Lai (14 years) and Lechai (12), Joymoti was pregnant at the time. The intensity of torture increased with each passing day and after 14 days of incessant torture, she died on 27 March 1680 in Jarenga Pather.

Joymoti, the remarkable woman that she was, did not divulge Gadapani’s hideout till her last breath, remaining silent throughout the period of her horrendous afflictions. She was awarded the title of ‘Sati’ because of her devotion to her husband. The self-sacrifice was made not only to protect her husband's life but also to defend a patriotic ruler capable of restoring peace and tranquility to society and saving the people from the atrocities of Sulikpha. Joymoti's selfless devotion for her state brought about a ‘renaissance’ in the history of Assam.

In 1681, her dream finally turned into reality when Gadapani came into power and gained full control over Assam. He assumed the title of Gadadhar Singha and became one of the greatest kings of the Ahom period. And when stories of his valor and victories are celebrated, one must not forget that his ascension to the throne would not have been possible without Joymoti Konwari’s selfless renunciation.

Gadapani and Joymoti's son Rudra Singha, in memory of his mother, built the Joysagar Tank in 1697 at  Sibsagar, Assam, on the spot where Joymoti was tortured. It is believed to be the biggest man-made lake in India. He also constructed a Fakuwa Dol, or Joy Dol, in 1703–04, a pyramid-shaped temple on the banks of the Joysagar Tank and placed a golden idol of her within it. It was actually a moidam (grave) of Joymoti. Thus, the story of Sati Joymoti is kept alive through these walls of temples and pillars that are still found among the Ahom ruins in Assam today.

Sati Joymoti Divas is observed annually in Assam on 27 March as a commemoration day of Joymoti. In addition, the State Government of Assam has instituted the Joymati Award, which is given to women in appreciation of their achievements in their chosen fields of work.

Joymoti, the first Assamese film, directed by Rupkonwar Jyoti Prasad Agarwal was a biopic of Joymoti Konwari which was released in March 1935. Aideu Handique, a young girl from Golaghat, played the role of Joymoti. A parallel can be drawn between the lives of Joymoti and Handique since the latter was shunned by her own people and lived a life of solitude for having violated a ‘cultural taboo’ by calling another man ‘Bongohordeo’ meaning husband in the film. She was later given a monthly pension of fifteen hundred rupees a month. After living a lonely, ordinary life and never receiving proper acknowledgement for starting a new trend in the history of Assamese cinema, this first Assamese actress died on December 17, 2002. The state government forgot the very lady who brought Joymoti to life on screen, much like the rest of India who has remained ignorant about the Northeastern queen and princesses from their curriculum and media.

Joymoti Konwari’s greatness lies in the manifestation of selfless and sincere truthfulness, courage, and pride making her an icon of bravery. Like her, many women across space and time have displayed determination and fearlessness since time immemorial.Joymoti Konwari’s greatness lies in the manifestation of selfless and sincere truthfulness, courage, and pride making her an icon of bravery. Like her, many women across space and time have displayed determination and fearlessness since time immemorial. Yet women even in the 21st century have to fight for basic rights and are considered subordinate to men. It is high time we start recording and rediscovering the history and achievements of these women and honouring them appropriately. As Gerda Lerner in her book The Creation of Patriarchy said “The unawareness of their own history of struggle and achievement has been one of the major means of keeping women subordinate”.

 Joydol, source : wikimedia commons

Joydol, source : wikimedia commons


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