The Layout of a Satra

The basic layout of a Satra is a quadrangle surrounded by walls. A full-fledged Satra usually consists of a well laid out arrangement of the essential areas.

The Nāmghar

The centre of the main activities of a Satra is the Nāmghar (prayer hall) which faces the east. It is a large open hall with gabled roof having an apsidal facade in the western side and over which is a tope or the dome on the roof. The apsidal roof has an elaborate structure in wood which is very typical of Namghar construction. The interior is a simple nave and two aisles with pillars. These pillars are in the number of 5, 7 and 7 pillars (khutās) usually, which divide the area loosely into chambers. They are erected with wooden beams supporting an architrave over which rests the roof. These wooden beams are known as the chati and are either carved with motifs or painted. The false ceiling which is made by joining the chatis are used for stocking the large bamboo masks and accessories of the drama performances.

The Layout of a SatraThe compelling purity of the proportion and the effect of lightness which invests the low structure is achieved by the spaced rhythm of the vertical and horizontal surfaces. From the level of the architecture, a nave is extended all around the pavillion to widen the shade. These form the verandah and devotees sit here.

The walls are usually left with jālis or perforated wood carvings of devotional imagery, which embellish and allow light and air at the same time. Here form and function are adeptly utilized. The door towards the tope is the main entrance, mukhduār - the ones at the side are the petduār. Doors with carvings of lion motifs are called simhaduār and those with floral patterns - phuljālikatā-duār. Sometimes brass doors with floral and figurative motifs are also used.

The areas in a Namghar is systematically arranged for its numerous functions. Space is determined by a host of ceremonial requirements - places for offering, place for the āsana (wooden pedestal with the sacred scripture), the large wood-carvings of Garuda, Hanumana, Jaya-Vijaya are clearly chalked out. At festival time the area for performance of the dramas is also marked out. Even the seat for the Satrādhikar, who sits against the lāikhutā or main pillar of the hall, the dekā-adhikar, the bhakatas, the musicians and lay devotees are all predetermined. The use of space is a formal one and highly ordered.

This orderliness was specially helpful since the large Namghars were used not only as prayer halls, but also as a place for meetings, discussions, festivals etc. So there was enough space to accomodate thousands of disciples who flock there annually.

The Manikut

The most sacred space is the Manikut, attached to the east of the Namghar. It is the sacred room where the Guru Asana (sacred throne) is located. Manikut literally means 'house of jewels'. It is also here that the other-Satra valuables, wood carvings, metal works, ancient manuscripts etc. are housed. It is a sacred area and beyond a certain limit lay devotees are not allowed in.

Around the Namghar

The Manikut and Namghar form one central complex around which are the large water tanks used either for sacred or utilitarian purposes. Each tank or pukhuri is allotted for a specific purpose such as caul-dhowā (rice washing), gā-dhowā (bathing) etc. These large tanks of water impart an atmosphere of serenity. The environment around has a number of flowering and fruit bearing trees, which provide ample shade. The height of the structures do not exceed those of the trees around them. All the areas thus form a harmonious whole.

The hātis

The Layout of a Satra In such an ordered set-up, the resident monks move about performing their duties and pursuing the arts and crafts. They work and live in the hātis. Here each bhakta is allotted his own space -bahā, which are either large or small according to his status in the Satra hierarchy. Most of the huts are of equal size, having a common verandah joining the length from one end to the other, except the ones on the eastern side which are much larger being the quarters of the Satradhikar. The different Satra stores such as the dhanbharāl, cāul bharāl etc. which house Satra property, foodgrains etc. are generally situated close to the quarters.

The construction of hātis are simple and made for convenient living. The roof is the common sloping type of thatch and bamboo roof - a prototype of the Assamese village house. The plinth is raised as protection against dampness. Materials used are usually those locally found such as earth, chalk, bamboo, wood, ekorā reed (for the walls) straw for roofing etc.

front view of a satra When a devotees enters the Satra premises through the bātcorā (entrance gate), he is received by the bhakats who make arrangements accordingly for the devotees to be guided inside. From the gateway itself the ordered simplicity is visible and as one is led into the Namghar, the painted reliefs, wood carvings, rich textile banners that hang from the ceiling, unfolds like an intricately woven tapestry and in such an atmosphere one loses the sense of time of the outside world to get absorbed in the pace of its own rhythm that a Satra is able to generate, even today.

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