The Satras: Introduction

The Vaisnavite Satra institution of Assam has been playing a vital role in shaping the religious and cultural history of the Assamese people from the 16thcentury. Sankaradeva is said to have established his first Satra at Bardowā, his birth place, and then at different centers as he had to move from one place to another on account of internecine conflicts and hostility from royal quarters. Today, the number of Satras in Assam is well over five hundred with numerous Vaisnava householders affiliated to one or the other Satra. The most unique aspect of the arts that are nurtured at the Satras is that they are part of a living cultural tradition. The preservation of the Satras is a matter of great importance, more so in the light of the fact that they contain manuscripts, artifacts and antiques of immense historical value as well.

Defining a Satra

A Satra has been defined as:-

ekanta vaisnava yot nibasa karai |
jibako saran diye, tak Satra kai ||

Where the single-minded Vaisnavas reside,
where they offer sarana (shelter) to the souls, that (place) is called a Satra

The Origins of the Satra

The Satra, or Vaisnavite Monastery The origin of the Satra institution can be traced to the time when the Neo Vaisnavite Movement initiated by Srimanta Sankaradeva was still at a nascent stage. Sankaradeva is said to have established his first Satra at Bardowa, his birth place, and then at different centers, during the course of his long and extensive travels across the length and breadth of Assam. He founded prayer - houses (Hari - Grihas) at almost all the places he preached the new religion. These institutions, which gradually expanded to also become centres of cultural activity, were known at the beginning, as Thān (Sanskrit Sthāna). During the Mahapurusha's lifetime, many Thāns were established all over Assam.

The Satra, or Vaisnavite Monastery The Thān established by the saint's foremost disciple Madhavadeva at Barpeta was the biggest of all the Thāns. His apostolate consisting of his twelve chief disciples, who were entrusted with the duty of spreading the message of the Eka Sarana Hari Nama Dharma, also founded several important ones which, in course of time, spread all over the Brahmaputra Valley gradually growing into hundreds in number. The embryonic institution, Than, of Sankaradeva's time, thus developed into a full - fledged Vaisnavite Monastery and eventually came to have a new nomenclature - Satra.

Different Names

The embryonic prayer - hall from which the Satra came into being is variously named in the caritas:

On the Origin of the Term

The word Satra is first used in the Satapatha Brāhmana in the sense of a sacrifice. In the Bhāgavata also, it is used in numerous places. But in Assam Vaisnavism, the term acquired a different and distinctive meaning. A Satra is more than a Buddhist vihāra or a Hindu math. The Satras in Assam are a unique type of institution. The place where Sankaradeva stayed and preached through congregational prayer and religious discourses came to be known as Satra. Bardowā or Batadrava is the first Satra of Assam, where the Guru constructed a prayer house and held, besides prayer services, discussions on matters religious. The concept of this particular institution might have been taken from the Bhāgavata.

Satra and Thān

The abode of the two Gurus (Sankaradeva and Madhavadeva) are also known as Thān (Skt. Sthāna). There is a difference however between Satra and Thān. In the post-Sankaradeva period, the holy places where some saints passed came to be called Thān. Sometimes a prayer-hall is erected at such a place and this is called thā-ghar (sthāna-grha). The places where Sankaradeva stayed - even for a few months - are also called Thān, eg. Bardowā thān, Belaguri thān, Barpetā thān, etc. instead of Bardowā Satra etc. In early Assamese literature, Bardowā is referred to as a Thān. Certain biographers however use the term Satra synonymously for Thān.

The Hierarchy in a Satra

The administration of a sattra is run by the satradhikar assisted by his deputy and a number of other office-bearers.

A Satra includes the following members:

The head of a Satra is known as the Adhikar or Satriya. He is the religious head and spiritual guide of the flock under his care. The formal initiation ceremony, Sarana and the confirmatory Bhajana are conducted under his direct supervision.

Next to the Adhikar in power and prestige is the Deka- Adhikar who usually becomes the head after the death of the Adhikar. When the Adhikar is absent or goes out on a tour, the Deka -Adhikar performs the duties of the head.

Though the term 'bhakat' means any devotee, yet it is popularly applied to mean those devotees who either hold ecclesiastical office of the Satra or lead the life of a celibate within the Satra campus. Such unmarried devotees are called kevaliya bhakats.

Lay disciples/ devotees of a Satra are called sisyas. Numerous Vaisnava families in Assam are affiliated to the Satras. According to custom, every Assamese young man of the Vaisnava families must have his initiation before he gets himself married.

Some of the other important functionaries of a Satra are the Bhagawati, the reciter and expounder of the Bhagawata, also known as Namlogowa in some Satras of Upper Assam, Deori or Biloniya, the distributor of sacred offering known as mah-prasad, Bharali, the store-keeper. The musicians trained to organize devotional music and plays are known as gayan, the singers, and bayan, players of instruments like drums and cymbals.

Over the centuries Satras have multiplied into some hundreds, and socio-political and other changes have affected this religious-cultural organization also. There have also been differences among the Satras as evident from the emergence of the four samhatis or sects. But the differences are peripheral, and the hard-rock of Sankaradeva's democratic faith of bhakti remains unshaken. No matter to what denomination a Sattra belongs, its ultimate allegiance is always to Sankaradeva and Madhavadeva, the great cementing forces which have homogenized Assamese society.

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