Satras in Assam

Satras of Assam were in news after Congress Vice-president Rahul Gandhi complained that he was initially prevented from visiting the Barpeta Satra.

What are Satras?

Satras in Assam are the Vaishnavite monasteries which were established to propagate neo-Vaishnavism. They were started in the first part of the 16th century when the Assam society was witnessing political instability and religious disequilibrium.

The Vaishnava religio-cultural movement started by Srimanta Sankaradeva evolved the institution of Satras. The institution of Satras brought a radical change in the Assam society by creating a new community irrespective of caste and tribe and gradually it was assimilated in the Assamese society.

Where the Satras are located?

The first Satra was opened by Sankaradeva in 1494 in Bardowa, his birth place. During his extensive travels across the Assam, Sankaradeva opened many Satras in the Brahmaputra Valley and in Coochbehar in West Bengal, which was once part of Assam. These institutions were gradually expanded and they become centres of cultural activity. Now there are nearly 900 Satras spreading across Assam and are central to the Assamese culture, including music, dance, drama, and the fine arts. Most important Satras are located at Majuli Island in the Brahmaputra, and in Barpeta, Nagaon and Dhubri.

What were the different stages in Satras development?

In the first phase of development, the Satras established by Sankaradeva were at a nascent stage. The present system of economic production and authority structure were not found. In the next phase of development, from the mid of 16th century to second half of the 17th century, the Satra had improved in structural and organisational aspects due to the efforts of Madhabdeva and Damodardeva, who were followers of Sankaradeva. In the third phase, Satras started receiving increased royal patronage. This had brought them on a sound economic footing. Because of the organisational modification brought in by the Satra management, it had acquired some elements of bureaucratic organisation. The modern stage began with annexation of Assam by the British. During the British rule, they faced some minor troubles in propagation of religion due to acts of the Christian missionaries. After independence, the institution of satra had faced the problem of adjustment. The modern values make them as a rural institution by curtailing it’s a number of functions.

What are the existing divisions in Satras?

After the death of Sankaradeva, Damodardeva separated from the Mahapurusia sect and started a new sub-sect called ‘Damodariya Pantha’. Later three more sub-sects were emerged from the original one. These four divisions are known as sanhati (Brahma, Purusa, Kala and Nika). The Brahma-sanhati Satras are headed only by Satradhikars from Brahmin families.

What is the structure and hierarchy system in Satras?

Satras include the members – Adhikar (the head of the Satra), Deka-Adhikar (the deputy Adhikar), Bhakat (devotees staying inside the Satra premises) and Sisya (lay disciples). Satradhikar is the religious head and spiritual guide. During his absence, Deka-Adhikar looks after the duties. Bhakat is any devotee but it is popularly applied to those who lead of life of celibate within the Satra premises. Lay disciples are called sisyas.

Being centres of learning and cultural activities, the Satras have a naam-ghar or kirtan-ghar (prayer house) and the manikut (sanctum sanctorum).Satradhikar lives in the main house and the bhakats live in rows of huts. In the naam-ghar, a person from any caste can preside, lead the prayers and distribute prasad. Young people learn Satriya music, dances, painting, carpeting and handicrafts at Satra.  Presently, the Satras are tourist complexes. Satras have set up schools and colleges across the state. Bhakats have won Sangeet Natak Akademi awards for Satriya dance and music.

What is the role of Satras in present-day Assam?

Most of the Assamese families are affiliated to any one of the Satras. According to the custom, every young man of the Vaishnava families must have his initiation before he gets himself married. The naam-ghar is a place of community festivals, public theatre, women’s club, and a seat of justice. Few bigger Satras also own land, including tea estates. Many Satras get annual grants from the state and central governments.