The Contribution of the Satras

The Satras are the living centres of Sankarite heritage and culture. For centuries, certain Satras have preserved the cultural traditions of the Sankaradeva Movement in their pristine purity. They have relentlessly encouraged the arts and crafts, like dance, drama, music, book-illustration and the making of decorative objects for the beautification of the Satra interiors - the Satriyā Architecture.

The Fountainheads of Culture

The cultural history of Assam in respect of fine arts and crafts, of education and learning, and of literature and fine arts since the beginning of the 16thcentury till the advent of the British developed centering around the Vaisnava movement which in turn found expressions through the Satra institution.

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.

A centre of Learning The Satras worked both as seats of religious learning and as residential schools. The bhakats, monks, lived here under the guardianship of the Satrādhikār, who was responsible for their temporal and spiritual welfare and progress. The monks received education not only in Vaisnavite texts but also in Vedic and Puranic lore. Besides the Satrādhikār, other teachers and functionaries of the Satras, namely the Bhāgavati and Pāthak, also imparted instruction to the monks through discussions and occasional debates. Further, the monks were given written exercises not only in copying out manuscripts and illuminating them with relevant pictures, but also in translating Sanskrit scriptures and composing original works in Assamese. After years of education and rigorous training in Vaisnava faith and discipline, these monks were deputed to various parts of the province for the purpose of preaching and propagating their faith. In course of time, many of these monks established new Satras at different places, and this network of institutions helped the diffusion of education, learning and culture in the entire country. In this way, the Satras produced successful teachers and missionaries as well as eminent philosophers, scholars and poets.

The role of a Satra in the propagation of religious and moral education and organizing religious-cultural activities is confined not just to the physical boundaries of a Satra, it goes far beyond into the villages lying far and wide. Villagers or members of the laity come to Satras to attend religious functions and also to listen to religious and moral deliberations organized in Satra Nāmghars. Not just the bhakats or the functionaries, others also can take part in the activities of a Satra under the over-all guidance of the Satrādhikār. The Satrādhikār or his representative, accompanied by some of the Satra functionaries, pay periodical visits to the villages where followers or sisyas of the Satra live. He stays either in a Nāmghar or in a temporary camp made for the purpose, give sarana to new entrants to the faith and bhajana to senior disciples.

Great Integrators

The two great maestros were followed by a succession of preceptors, including Dāmodaradeva, Vamsigopāladeva, Harideva and Gopāladeva who, despite certain differences which propped up in later years, were one in propagating the message of bhakti among all sections of the people in this part of the country. Gopāladeva of Bhavānipur Satra in Lower Assam who received initiation from Madhavadeva and who considered Sankaradeva as his guru's guru, made all-out efforts to reach to the people of diverse ethnic groups living in the Upper Assam region ruled by the Ahom Kings. He entrusted twelve of his learned disciples, both Brahmins and non-Brahmins, with the task of programming the Vaishnava faith based on equality and brotherhood throughout the length and breadth of Assam. His message was propagated among almost all sections of the Assamese people by his disciples who tried to remove the evils of caste distinctions by embracing people from all tribes and ethnic groups into the fold of the faith enunciated by Sankaradeva and Madhavadeva.

Thus, people belonging to various tribes and communities in Upper Assam - the Misings, the Sonowals, the Barahis, the Marans, the Deuris - flocked to the new faith. Satras like Gajalā, Cecā, Budbāri, Dihing etc. have large number of Misings, Sonowāls and Deuris as their laity.

One of Gopāladeva's principal apostles, Aniruddhadeva, initiated among others, the Marāns and Mataks of Upper Assam into the faith who later fought even the Ahom kings for their attempts to humiliate their gurus of the Kāla Samhati sub-sect, the most liberal of the sects or samhatis into which the Satras were later divided.

Aniruddhadeva also preached among the Barāhis and the Chutiyas and brought into fold one Muslim tailor named Dheli who was renamed as Dhyānpati Ātoi. The descendants of this devotee belonging to the Dheli Gāon are still among the prominent disciples of the Māyāmarā Dinjay Satra of Chābua. The Nikāmul Satra of the Purusa-Samhati and the Ghārmarā Satra of the Brahma-Samhati sub-sects also proselytised among the Akas, Dāflās and the Hill Miris of the Arunachal territory.

Another of Gopāladeva's distinguished followers, Srirāmadeva (1665-1740), satradhikar of Chalihā Bareghar Satra, then situated on the bank of the Dihing river near Nāharkatiyā and presently at Nāzirā in Sivasāgar district, accepted even the Nocktes of NEFA (Arunachal Pradesh) as his disciples. He initiated the Nockte chief, Lothakhunbao, and gave him the well-known name of Narottama. Even now Srirāma Āta's followers, who hail from nearly all sections of the Assamese society, believe in the myth of 'Naga (Nockte) Narottama Gosāi Srirām lage Vaikunthalai jāi' (Naga Narottama and Gosāi Srirāma go to heaven together).

Another Satra, Mairāmarā, also near Nāzirā, brought into the fold of the bhakti faith even Nāgās of the nearby hills whose descendents are now living in a village of their own close to the Satra. Besides these, there are many other Satras of Gopāla Āta lineage who have freely mixed with people from the so-called lower strata of the society in an attempt to make them equal partners of the universal brotherhood enunciated by Sankaradeva's bhakti faith.

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