Historical Accounts of the Sankaradeva Movement

Ralph Fitch, the 16th century English traveler , visiting Assam (the kingdom of Koch) during the time of Madhavadeva

“I went from Bengala into the country of Couch or Quichen which lies twenty-five days' journey northwards from Tanda. The king is a Gentile, his name is Suckel Counse;[...] There they be all Gentiles and they will kill nothing. They have hospitals for sheep, goat, dogs, cats, birds and for all living creatures. When they are old and lame, they keep them until they die. If a man catch or buy any quick thing in other places and bring it thither, they will give him money for it, or other victuals, and keep it in their hospitals or let it go. They will give meat to the ants...”

An Account of Assam First compiled in 1807-1814 by Francis Hamilton, MD, FRS

“The persons who instruct the worshipers of Vishnu, that is most of those who have adopted the Hindu religion, are called Mahajons, and live in Chhatras... they are however more powerful, several of them having from ten to fifteen thousand men devoted entirely to their service. Their office is hereditary in certain families. The king, on a vacancy, appoints any person of the family that he pleases.

The chief chhatras, or religious instructors, are as follows:

in the province of Kamrup:

In the province of Asam proper:

Major John Butler, Travels and Adventures in the Province of Assam, 1855.

“They (the Satras) demand from the Ryutts on a variety of pleas Bagee khurcha...to defray present necessities; Burgonee, a general tax; Maganee, or free gift of dhan (paddy), surso (mustard) oil and rice; Morecha, or fees on marriage; and Sulamee or presents on appointing their servants to conduct the fiscal duties of the shustro land.”

Accounts of the Missionaries

“The Assamese themselves have just as strong an attachment to their mother tongue as any other people.....In further illustration of this , let me refer you to the shasters most popular among the Assamese-the Kirton, the Gita, the Rotnowoli, and such-like books, all productions of the reformer, Shri Hungkor Purah . What is the secret of these books being so popular as to be found in almost every house, and on every tongue? Simply this, that Shri Hungkor struck for the masses. He came down to the level of the people, and translated from the Sanscrit these portions of the Hindu sacred books, and presented them to the people in their own familiar dialect. Relieved of a foreign tongue, and from difficult and abstruse terms, the people could now chant the praises of their gods in the familiar language of childhood. They took among them like wild-fire, and are to this day increasingly popular. Let me ask, are not such facts as these worthy of consideration in deciding so important a question as the best medium of education?”
[Rev Miles Bronson; Letter to the Editor, Friend of India, 1855.]

The First Translation

Brahm first I hail, incarnate Sonatan,
The all-avatar-causing Narayan,
Sprung from Thy navel, Brahma saw the day;
Thou countless figures dost assume for aye.
[Translation of the opening lines of the holy Kirttana. Baptist Mission Magazine of 1874.]

“There is a great attempt to show an increasing effort to obtain for it a celebrity, as a holy place, like that of Benaras and other places... Even the local magistrate lent support to it by requiring the witnesses to swear at the Manikut of the Than to speak the truth.” [Bronson on the Bordua Than, Norua-Salaguri;1843.]

“Some of the Bhakats were so precise in their sense of cleanliness that they would wash all the wood they used in cooking rice and all the money they received so that they may not be polluted. On the same core they will not touch our books nor sit with our shadow falling upon them.” [ Nathan Brown.]

“The Norua division obtained by a decree of the deputy special commissioner, dated 9th July, 1841, four thousand seven hundred and nine poorahs of land. It has also one hundred and seventeen families of bhakats. The mahant acknowledges that he has two thousand disciples.The Hologuri division, besides a large amount of land, has one hundred and one bhakats, granted by Raja Komol Eswar Sing. The mahant acknowledges about eight hundred disciples only.” [Journal of Bronson, Baptist Mission Magazine, June 1864.]

“Whenever the high priest of Auniati moves, it is in a great state with drums and trumpets sounding and a numerous retinue attending him.“ [Nathan Brown, 1842.]

“There are between three and four hundred of these hostras in this district. Some of them seem to be flourishing and influential, but by far, the greatest number bear all the marks of speedy dissolution [...] their buildings are in the last stage of decay...Were it not for the public lands ceded to the priesthood, of which there are 16000 acres in this district...” [Danforth to Bright, 1851.]

“With the change in government, their (the Satras') influence and income are decreasing [...] May God help us to do something to hasten their downfall!” [Bronson]

Capt. Edward Tuite Dalton; Journal of the Asiatic Society, Calcutta, xx no vi, 1851

“ Amongst the various tribes of Vaisnavas in Assam, I know of none that for the general respectability and intelligence of the disciples, their number and their success in making proselytes, are more deserving of attention than the Mahapurushyas or votaries of the Borpetah Shostro [...] this religious community is widely spread throughout lower Asam, and extending into Cooch-Behar and NE Rungpore.”

“ By a census made in 1847-48, that portion of it considered as belonging exclusively to the Shostro and comprising an area of 175 acres, contained 7,368 souls, all of them Bhakats or attaches of the Shostro.”

“ the footprint of Madhab is revered as a most sacred relic, and when cholera or other epidemic rages, this stone is placed on the altar beside the Bhagavat in the Namghar.”

“There are in the Kamrup district one hundred and ninety-five Shostros subordinate to that of Borpetah. I know of two villages each containing two or three thousand inhabitants, the one a village of weavers, the other a village of oil-pressers, all of whom are disciples of Borpetah; and they are numerous in all parts of the district. They also muster strong in Gowalparah and Cooch-Behar , and are found, I believe, even in the Dacca district. Wherever they reside, they appear to regard Borpetah with as much reverence as the Mohammadans pay to Mecca, though their great saints and founders, Sankar and Madhab, neither died nor were born there.”

“Hindus of all castes are admitted into the fraternity, and once admitted are... associated with on equal terms by all the brethren, and there is nothing more remarkable about this sect than the firmness with which this bond of fraternity is maintained, supporting each other through evil report and good report, bravely and generously. One of the most highly respected of the Udasins is by caste a distiller of spirit...As a Mahapurushya and a Udasin of acknowledged holiness, his origin is considered no disgrace to him.”

“ At the conclusion of each of these services, the name of Krishna is slowly repeated three or four times by the Bhakat who officiates, in a deep, solemn-and-impressive tone of voice. The whole congregation repeat it after him with equal solemnity, all with their heads reverently bent down till the forehead touches the ground; it is echoed by those in the verandah and taken up by such as may be within hearing outside, who all prostrate themselves as they repeat it, and thus it is continued till it is heard but as a faint moan and dies away in the distance. None that have been present could fail to be struck with this very impressive mode of concluding the service.”

JP Mills, Assam Research Society, Journal Vol 1, 1933, Introductory

“...there are the great Gossains of the Majuli. Their disciples number thousands, but nowhere have we a picture of their mode of life, the beliefs they hold, the buildings they inhabit, or the ceremonial connected with them. Offerings have poured in for countless years and one's mouth waters at the thought of the relics of the past ages they must have brought. Could not some keen, skilled researchers portray and describe the precious things in their possession? It is no good enough to say, 'It will do later'. Ceremonial changes, and antiques are destroyed or lost. Now is the time for study.”

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