Dreams, Miracles and Institutional Authority: Narratives of the Contested Birth Place of Saint Mādhavadeva in Assam

Contesting Authority - Vernacular Knowledge and Alternative Beliefs - Marion Bowman

Ülo Valk [+-]
University of Tartu
Ülo Valk is Professor of Estonian and Comparative Folklore at the University of Tartu. During 2000 and 2001 he taught folkloristics at the University of California, Berkeley; from 2005 until 2009 he was the president of the International Society for Folk Narrative Research (ISFNR). His publications include the monograph “The Black Gentleman: Manifestations of the Devil in Estonian Folk Religion” (Academia Scientiarum Fennica, Helsinki, 2001), “Vernacular Religion in Everyday Life: Expressions of Belief” (co-edited with Marion Bowman, Equinox, 2012) and other works on folk belief, vernacular religion, demonology and history of folkloristics and religious studies.


Assam is an ethnically diverse state in North Eastern India with dynamic religious scenery. The cultural identity of the Assamese people, who have dominated the region, is closely connected with the neo-vaishnava saint and writer Shankaradeva (1449-1568) who initiated the bhakti movement, challenged the caste system and Tantric goddess worship. His most famous disciple was saint Mādhavadeva (1489-1596), the author of the popular devotional song book (Nam-ghosh). Shankaradeva’s birth place in Ali-Pukhuri near Bordowa has become a major pilgrimage centre; however, there is no exact historical evidence about Mādhavadeva’s childhood home. In ancient sources the place has vaguely been identified as Letekupukhuri near the town of Nārāyanpur. Soon after India gained independence in 1947, claims were made by local people in Nārāyanpur area that they have discovered the birth place of Mādhavadeva, as it had been revealed to them through dreams and other miraculous evidence. This happened a few decades after the Assamese followers of neo-vaishnava movement had again settled in the region that had been abandoned in wars and covered by forests. As a consequence of these revelations two competing shrines emerged at the distance of one kilometre from each other, both known as the historical birth places of Mādhavadeva. The two centres are run by different neo-vaishnava institutions whose doctrines and rituals contradict each other. The article discusses vernacular and institutional strategies of the adherents of the two shrines in making arguments of faith. Without making attempts to find out the historical truth the article analyses traditional narratives and oral histories as verifications of belief and disbelief. It is based on fieldwork interviews, conducted in the area in 2009, 2011 and 2014.

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Valk, Ülo. Dreams, Miracles and Institutional Authority: Narratives of the Contested Birth Place of Saint Mādhavadeva in Assam. Contesting Authority - Vernacular Knowledge and Alternative Beliefs. Equinox eBooks Publishing, United Kingdom. Oct 2022. ISBN 9781781792377. https://www.equinoxpub.com/home/view-chapter/?id=29215. Date accessed: 15 Apr 2021 doi: 10.1558/equinox.29215. Oct 2022

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