The Nāmghar or Name-House
The Nāmghar (literally Name-House) is a prayer-house where the devotees, present as the congregation, sing the Names of God. In the Satras, the main feature is the Nāmghar. It is in fact the permanent feature of every village, town and city of Assam. This has made Sankaradeva's religion a living religion.
This main prayer-house was variously named in medieval times:
- Kirtana mandira
- prasangar ghar
- mani-kut or bhāj-ghar
The Nāmghar is a large open hall for the purpose of offering mass prayer. Originally constructed with bamboo, reeds and thatch, the Nāmghar is even now a humble structure without any outward show or ostentation.
It has gabled roofs, the western facade being apsidal. A Nāmghar of the ancient type (the modern Nāmghar is simply an open rectangular hall) consists of a nave and side aisles with rows of wooden pillars separating the nave from the aisles. The size of the Nāmghar may vary according to the number of bhakats or disciples it has to accommodate.
The actual shrine where the sacred scripture is kept is called manikut. It is a smaller structure than the Nāmghar and is generally attached to the latter adjoining the eastern end. In addition to the sacred scripture, all the precious things dedicated to the Deity are kept in the manikut. It is the sanctum -sanctorum of the entire establishment and as the sacred scripture and all the valuables of the Satra are kept here, it is called manikut, literally the house of jewels.
The Guru Āsana
The sacred scripture is placed on the Guru Āsana. The Guru Āsana, literally the Seat of the Guru is a seven-tiered, triangular, wooden throne adorned by the tortoise-elephant-lion motif and other decorative woodwork.
Idol worship is absent in a Nāmghar and no idol is worshipped, even that of Krishna, in any form. The only object of veneration being the sacred text placed on the top-most tier of the Guru Āsana. The scripture is the vāngmay image of the Lord; it represents Bhagavanta, the Supreme Being or Mahāpurusa who manifests Himself as Visnu or Krishna; it also represents the Guru, his message as well as the highest truth propounded by him.
In this ordered set-up, the devotees perform Nām Kirttana or the prayer-services, on a regular basis. The service itself is referred to as Nām-Prasanga or simply, Nām, and the leader of the chant is called nām lagowā. The seating arrangement in the Nāmghar, with the congregation in two facing rows in front of the Guru Āsana, is such that when the congregation bow down in worship to God, they are at the same time bowing down in worship to one another.
The verses sung during the service consist of strings of the many names of God. First, verses from Madhavadeva's Nām Ghosā are recited, followed by Kirttanas from Sankaradeva's Kirttana Ghosā.
The offering or prasād is looked on as devotion objectified. In the preparation of the offering, the ingredients are offered in fours or multiples of four - four handfuls of (uncooked) rice, four handfuls of pulse, four or eight slices of coconut, etc - and the following words uttered for each: Guru, Deva, Nāma, Bhakata.
Contribution to Society
The Nāmghar is a living institution and for over 500 years, its impact on Assamese society and culture has been tremendous. It diffused a high degree of enlightenment among the masses of the people. It should be noted that Vaisnavism in Assam is a religion as well as an institution, and even today, it exercises a very great and good influence on the social and communal life of the Assamese people. The doors of the Nāmghar are open to all, no matter what caste or gender one belongs to.
The Nāmghar is a common feature of every Assamese village. In the villages, in addition to serving as the common prayer hall, it also serves as the village stage and the meeting place of the village panchāyat. It has continued to be the centre of social and religious activities.
The influence of the Namghar can well be imagined from the fact that even in villages where the inhabitants are entirely Saktas, it has become a permanent feature.
Here, not only sāstras and literary masterpieces are recited, but great problems of life, philosophy and religion are discussed and debated; and the village people learn here what they did not know before and receive new ideas and experiences. The Nāmghars served and are serving still now, as a panchayat-hall, where the villagers gather also to discuss many current problems of the village and community life and political as well as economic and social subjects. This institution helps to impart unity to Assamese village life.
Great Cultural Centres
Furthermore, both the Satras and the Namghars led to the creation and development of drama, music and the stage. These three are the most powerful instruments for popularising culture as they appeal to nearly everyone. The Ankiyā Nāts, which are full of music and dance, are acted even today in the Nāmghars, and the entire village assembles to see on the stage stories from the great works like the Bhāgavata, the Rāmāyana and the Mahābhārata, which dealt with the deepest problems of human life and religion.
The Vaisnavas introduced many new festivals and saints' days in their calendar, and these doubtless, widened the scope for dramatic performances and recreations for the mind and spirit of the worry-ridden common man.