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Thursday, September 23, 2021

Explained: The political significance of Assam’s Sattras

It is common to see politicians often going to different Sattras to seek blessings or extolling the virtues of Sankardeva, especially in the run-up to Assam Assembly elections.

Written by Tora Agarwala , Edited by Explained Desk | Guwahati |
Updated: March 9, 2021 2:37:22 pm
Sattras are monastic institutions created as part of the 16th century Neo-Vaishnavite reformist movement started by Vaishnavite saint-reformer Srimanta Sankaradeva (Photo credit:

In poll-bound Assam, the campaigns of both the BJP and the Congress could not be more different. Yet, one place figures prominently in the campaign trails of both parties — the Bartadrava Than/Sattra (monastery) in Nagaon, which is the birthplace of renowned Vaishnavite saint-reformer Srimanta Sankardeva.

Last month, Home Minister Amit Shah launched a beautification project there, earmarking Rs 188 crore for its development. Just a few weeks before that, the Congress launched a bus yatra — as part of their Assam Basaon Ahok (Come Let’s Save Assam) campaign — from the same place. That is not all.

It is common to see politicians often going to different Sattras to seek blessings or extolling the virtues of Sankardeva, especially in the run-up to elections. In fact, part of Congress leader Priyanka Gandhi’s Assam itinerary last week included a visit to Letekupukhuri Than in Lakhimpur, the birthplace of Srimanta Madhavdev, the most trusted disciple of Sankardeva.

So, what are Sattras, how are they electorally important and why do they invariably become a poll plank every election?

What are Sattras?

Sattras are monastic institutions created as part of the 16th century Neo-Vaishnavite reformist movement started by Vaishnavite saint-reformer Srimanta Sankaradeva (1449-1596). As the saint travelled across Assam, spreading his teachings and propagating an egalitarian society, these Sattras/Thans were established as centres of religious, social and cultural reforms in the 16th century. Today, Sattras are spread across the state, promulgating Sankardeva’s unique “worship through art” approach with music (borgeet), dance (xattriya) and theatre (bhauna).

Each Sattra has a naamghar (worship hall) as its nucleus and is headed by an influential “Sattradhikar”. Monks, known as bhakats, are inducted into Sattras at a young age. They may or may not be celibate, depending on the kind of Sattra they are inducted into.

“There are about 900 Sattras across Assam, but the main centres are Bordowa (Nagaon), Majuli and Barpeta,” said Biman Hazarika, Principal, Dhing College and a Sattriya scholar, “These institutions are of paramount importance and lie at the heart of Assamese culture.”

What is Sankardeva’s philosophy?

Sankardeva propagated a form of Bhakti called eka-sharana-naam-dhrama, and espoused a society based on equality and fraternity, free from caste differences, orthodox Brahmanical rituals and sacrifices. His teaching focused on prayer and chanting (naam) instead of idol worship. His dharma was based on the four components of deva (god), naam (prayers), bhakats (devotees), and guru (teacher).

Scholars, however, argue that post the demise of Sankardeva, the nature of the Vaishnavite movement has changed significantly. “After his demise, due to ideological differences among his disciples, the Sattras got divided into four independent sectarian divisions,” said Preeti Salila Rajkhowa, Assistant Professor of History at Krishna Kanta Handiqui State Open University, adding, “As a result, the institution also deviated from its basic goal, and lost the original reformative thrust.”

What is the relationship between the Sattra and the State?

During the Ahom reign, the Sattras received a lot of donations in the form of land or money from the kings.

A professor from a government-affiliated college in Nagaon, who did not wish to be named, said that despite that, during the time, Sattras were kept out of political control.

“Unlike temples, Sattras did not require patronage because they were self-sufficient, grew their own food and could sustain themselves,” he said, adding, “So they never sought patronage, it was given to them. However, today, it is different. Annual grants from the state and central government are doled out to Sattras, in the hope for political support.”

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Do Sattras matter electorally?

While Sattra votes may not decide the outcome of an election, it is undeniable that the Sattras and Sattradhikars have a lot of influence, especially in Sattra-based constituencies like Nagaon, Kaliabor, Majuli, Barpeta, Bartadadrva etc. Assamese families usually have ties with one Sattra, or the other.

That is why politicians — regardless of party, whether BJP or Congress — are often seen visiting Sattra. “It is a symbolic statement of sorts. A Sattradhikar’s support [to a party] indicates that the party is seen as fighting to safeguard the shrine of Sankardeva and Assamese nationality,” said the Nagaon-based professor.

How has the Sattra emerged as a poll plank in recent years?

Sattras emerged as a major poll plank by the BJP, which highlighted the issue of encroachment and land grabbing of Sattras by suspected immigrant population in surrounding areas.

In Assam, politics — and elections — are shaped by identity, and over the years, there have been varying claims of Sattra land being encroached by “illegal” settlers. In the run-up to 2016 elections, and the Lok Sabha elections of 2019, when BJP had made Assamese identity an issue, especially in 2016, Sattras and encroachment became a focus area.

Kusum Mahanta, Secretary of Assam Sattra Mahasabha, an umbrella organisation of all Sattras, alleged that “over 7,000 bighas of Sattra land have been encroached — this is much more than what was stated in an Assam Assembly session a few years ago.”

After coming to power in 2016, the BJP has carried out several measures to protect the Sattra land — they introduced a bill in the assembly in 2019 that empowers the state to remove encroachments from the land belonging to Sattras, launched several projects for its development as well as schemes. In August 2020, as part of Assam Darshan scheme, the party said they will provide 2.5 lakh each to 8,000 Naamghars.

However, according to Rajkhowa, encroachment of Sattras is a “politicised issue”. “The nature of the settling is more economic than religious. Often it is by people who are displaced by floods, or spurred on by other economic factors,” she said.

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