The Satras of Mājuli

Mājuli was one of the nerve-centres of the Neo-Vaisnavite Movement during its heydays. It was at Mājuli (then known as Dhuwāhāt, Āhom territory) that Mahapurusha Srimanta Sankaradeva met his foremost disciple and apostolic successor, Madhavadeva for the very first time, in the 16th century. This event, referred to as Manikānchan Sanyog is the single most epoch-making event in the history of the Neo-Vaisnavite Movement. After this meeting, the Neo-Vaisnavite Movement gained momentum and the medieval caritas (the hagiographies) are full of references to Mājuli.

The first Satra

It is said that Sankaradeva established the first Satra here by planting a Bilva tree and naming the place Belguri. Here it was again that Sankaradeva’s son-in-law Hari, was executed under royal orders. Sankaradeva stayed at Dhuwāhāt for 14 years before proceeding to Western Assam.

In the post Sankara-Madhava period (17th century onwards), Mājuli once again became one of the main centres of propagation of Neo-Vaisnavism due primarily to the pioneering efforts of Saint Vamsigopaladeva and his successors.

The Satras of Eastern Assam

The most influential and affluent Satras of eastern Assam are Āuniāti, Dakhinpāt, Garmur and Kuruwābāhi, popularly known as cāri-satras, and Kamalābāri. The first three as also the last, are situated in Mājuli. Each of the principal Satras mentioned above have several branches at different parts of Mājuli and indeed at different parts of Eastern and Western Assam.

Āuniāti, Dakhinpāt and Garmur trace their genealogy to Vamsigopaladeva, one of the leading apostles of Neo-Vaisnavism in Eastern Assam.

The Brahma-Samhati Satras

The history of the re-birth and the growth of the Satras in Mājuli and indeed, in Eastern (Upper) Assam in the post-Sankaradeva period, is inextricably bound up with the relentless struggle waged against heavy odds by one remarkable individual – Saint Vamsigopaladeva. He was deputed both by Madhavadeva and Damodaradeva to preach in Eastern Assam. For nearly a decade, he had to remain underground to save himself from the oppression of the Āhom king. He had to fight against the so-called bauddhas (pseudo-Buddhists) who even tried to poison him to death. Yet Vamsigopaladeva did not give up his preaching activities. Fighting successfully against the hostile elements, he made Eastern Assam almost safe for the Vaisnavas. The contemporary biographer Ramananda Dvija has narrated the details pertaining to the life of Vamsigopaladeva in his Vamsigopaladevar Carita.

As many as 45 medhis were placed by Vamsigopala at different places. Vamsigopaladeva also had constructed a huge Satra at Kuruwābāhi on the Brahmaputra, off the estuary of the Dhansiri in 1600-1625 AD, which accommodated several hundred devotees.

After the Passing of this remarkable saint in 1668 AD, Bhagavata Misra, better known as Misradeva, who was brought up and trained by him since boyhood, became the head of the Kuruwābāhi Satra. Some allegations of conspiracy were brought to the Ahom king against him. The king, without even a proper enquiry into the truth of the report, ordered the demolition of the Kuruwābāhi Satra. The Satra was set on fire and Misradeva was taken to the capital as a prisoner. He passed away in prison.

In the meantime, the old king Pratap Simha also died and was succeeded by Surampha (1641-44) who took a kind view of the Vaisnavas. He ordered the reconstruction of the Kuruwābāhi Satra and placed Jayaharideva, grandson of Vamsigopaladeva's uncle, as its head. But Jayaharideva passed away very soon leaving Ramakrishna, son of Misradeva, and Lakshminarayana, his own nephew in minority. Niranjanadeva, the ablest and senior-most devotee of the Satra was placed in charge of the Satra. King Surampha was deposed after 3 or 4 years of his reign and he was followed by two kings in quick succession. The last of these two kings, Jayadhvaj Simha (1684-1663), desired to make certain amends. He expressed his willingness to be initiated by the son of Misradeva. The latter, still a minor, could not venture to do so, and therefore, Niranjanadeva had to come forward to initiate the king. After the initiation, Niranjanadeva was formally installed as the head of a newly built Satra (1654 AD) which came to be known as Āuniāti. For the maintenance of the Satra, some thousand acres of land and a few hundred pāiks were placed at the disposal of the Satra.

After this installation, Ramakrishna and Lakshminarayana appealed to the king for the return of the idol of Visnu (Govinda-murtti) and a few other things taken by Niranjanadeva from the Kuruwābāhi Satra for installation at Āuniāti. The king, however, did not grant their appeal. He, instead, patronised Lakshminarayana by placing him as the head of a newly built Satra which came to be known as the Garmur Satra in which a new idol known as Vamsigopala or Vamsivadana was installed. According to the account submitted by the head of the Garmur Satra to the government of Assam, 1904, however, Jayaramadeva, a nephew of Lakshminarayana was the founder of this Satra.

The Dakhinpāt Satra was established by Vanamalideva, one of Vamsigopala's early disciples. According to the Vanamalidevar Carita by Ramakanta, he was born in 1576 AD in the present district of Darrang and was trained by Vamsigopaladeva from the age of six. He could explain and interpret the Bhāgavata Purāna even from his boyhood. He lived with Vamsigopaladeva till the saint's Passing. King Jayadhvajsimha was a great admirer of Vanamalideva. In 1653 AD, a new Satra was constructed under royal supervision to the south of the river Lohit within the present-day Mājuli. Here, Vanamalideva was duly installed as the head. The prestige and affluence of this Satra further increased during the reign of Chakradhvaja Simha, Udayaditya Simha and Ratnadhvaja Simha who, according to the biographers, were disciples of Vanamalideva.

Vanamalideva established several other Satras in Central and Eastern Assam installing therein idols of Visnu. He initiated a period of close contact between the Satra institution and the royal court. He is also said to have introduced the system of Tāntric or Purānic diksā in addition to the regular system of sarana. This diksā has no relationship whatsoever with the system of sarana in the pure creed of Sankaradeva and Madhavadeva.

The difference, in religious practice at least, between the Satras affiliated to the Brahma-Samhati and those of the other samhatis is so sharp and pronounced that the former group cannot be said to be correctly observing the true practices or abiding by the pure tenets of the religion preached by Sankaradeva. Indeed, there have been great deviations from Sankaradeva's pure creed. Certain practices like idol-worship, showing special reverence towards the priestly class, etc were originally introduced as a matter of compulsion rather than by choice in order to escape the wrath of the Āhom kings. But, with the passage of time, these practices became more and more the established rule rather than the exception in these Satras.

the Brahma-Samhati

The term Brahma-Samhati was originally applied to the Satras constituted by the followers of Damodaradeva - the Damodariyās and was later extended to also refer to the followers of Harideva – the Haridevis. This samhati (sub-sect) adopted Brahmanical rites very liberally alongside the general devotional practices and took a rigid view of caste-distinction. Some of the Damodariyā Satras like Dakhinpāt went so far as to administer tāntric diksā. They also do not seek to call themselves Mahapurushiyās, a general name by which the Assam Vaisnavas are known. The Āuniāti, Dakhinpāt and Garmur Satras of Mājuli and the Kuruwābāhi Satra all belong to the Brahma-Samhati. They are the richest and the most influential institutions of this community and generally enjoyed the munificent patronage of the Āhom monarchs from their inception. They on their part maintained close ties with the royal court and the Adhikārs of these Satras were treated with so much of respect that they were allowed to sit in the front row of the king's assembly. For this reason, they were also known as the rajāghariyā (royalist) Satras.

‘The degree of Brāhmanization is greatest among the Satras of Brahma-samhati which contain the largest proportion of Brahmin disciples. The adhikārs are, also, with a few exceptions, Brāhman. Caste distinctions between disciples in respect of seating and commensality are carefully maintained in the Satra Name Houses. The worship of images is permitted and the richer satras employ a Brahman priest for the daily worship of the Satra image with Vedic rites. There is little interdiction on the worship of other gods and disciples are not usually discouraged from attending the Durga Puja and similar festivals.’

[This does not quite conform to the teachings of Sankaradeva-ed]

The Kamalābāri Satra

Alongwith Vamsigopaldeva, another outstanding figure of the Neo-Vaisnavite Movement in Eastern Assam was his (junior) contemporary, Padma Ātā. Kamalābāri was established by Padma Ātā in 1595-1625 AD in the orange-garden of a devotee (kamalā=orange; bāri=garden).

Padma Ātā is also known as Badalā Ātā, as he was sent to eastern Assam by Madhavadeva on his behalf (badal=exchange, on behalf). Initially a swordsman in the army, he exhibited a supreme distrust in worldly affairs after witnessing the large-scale massacre of men and animals during the expedition against the Dāflās, and became a disciple of Madhavadeva at Koch-Behār. He is considered the juniormost of the apostles of Madhavadeva. He was posted by Madhavadeva in the eastern country, that is, the Āhom kingdom. He stayed at a place called Kalānibheti and started preaching but due to persecution from the royal quarters, he shifted from place to place till at last he built the Kamalābāri Satra in Mājuli in the orange grove of an officer, Purusottama Baruwa.

Padma Ātā nominated his Brahman disciple, Srirāma to the Adhikārship of the Kamalābāri Satra and passed away in that monastery.

The Satras following the leadership of Kamalābāri call themselves Madhupuriyā Sampradāy, being intimately connected with the Madhupur Satra of Koch-Behār. These are: Mudaibheti, Badulā, Haripukhuri, Bar-jahā, Jarābāri, Pānbāri, Dumdumiyā, Bhātaukuchi, Tipām and Cinātali.

Cultural Contributions

The Satras of Mājuli were, and still are, a religious centre, a school and a library. Not only the existing books were preserved with utmost care, but books were also brought from other parts of India. Every Satra possesses a library consisting of manuscripts to the extent of a few thousand copies. Big Satras like Āuniāti and Daksinpāt once contained more than a thousand manuscripts, some of which are being preserved in different antiquarian institutions like the Kamarupa Anusandhana Samiti (Assam Research Society) and the Department of Antiquarian and Historical Studies (DHAS). One of these Satras is believed to contain the Bhāgavata of Sankaradeva, written by the Saint himself, in his own handwriting, which he had presented to Damodaradeva.

It is not that only religious scriptures are preserved, but books on music, dance, literature, philosophy, painting and even medicine were carefully preserved. Some rare Sanskrit manuscripts like the Srihasta-muktāvali of Subhankara, a treatise on the hand-gestures employed in the Satriyā Dance), Sātvata-tantra and the Hastividyārnava (a treatise on elephants) by Sukumār Barkāth, in which is also depicted the Āhom royal court through excellent contemporary paintings, have been recovered from the Satra libraries of Mājuli.

The books that were preserved were not left to lie fallow. They were industriously and assiduously copied and worn-out ones were replaced by new copies. The preparation of the manuscripts was entrusted to a special set of persons (likhak, khanikar, patuā) by the Satras and it was considered to be a meritorious deed. The Satras also patronized the field of hagiography and genealogy. The total number of manuscripts in Mājuli is estimated to be around 4000.

Mājuli is also a great centre of music and performing arts, of Ankiyā Nāt and Satriyā Dance. The Kamalābāri Satra is the home of legendary musicians and performing artists like the Late Maniram Dutta Muktiyār Bāyan (who was the Chief Director of dances of Kamalābāri Satra) and Raseswar Saikia Barbāyan, who contributed greatly towards the conferment of the Classical status upon Satriyā Dance.

Mājuli is also the place where visionary modern-day Satrādhikārs like the Late Pitambardeva Goswami of Garmur (who actively participated in the Indian Freedom Struggle) launched the program of widespread religious-reform and social uplift.

There are a total of about 30 Satras in Mājuli, many of which are in the mainland, (a few of them are in Chāpori areas) with a distinct spiritual influence on the region. These are located primarily towards the middle of the island. Each Satra, represents, within its region, a centre for cultural activities and even acts as a democratic institution to settle local disputes. Most of the villages associate with their respective Satras, and the villagers take part in the activities of their own Satras during festivals and occasions. These Satra Villages house the Nāmghar (council house) where all the activities related to the Satra are carried out. Many of these Satra villages are also important centers for the Mājuli Island. For instance Kamalābāri, Garmur and Dakhinpāt are the semi-urban places, juxtaposed with Natun Kamalābāri Satra, Garmur Satra and Dakhinpāt Satra, which are the main centres of trade and commerce.

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