A Vaishnav satradhikar has quit celibacy. Samudra Gupta Kashyap describes this Assam institution.
What is a Satra?
It is the institution that is central to the religio-cultural resurgence initiated in Assam by Vaishnavite saint-reformer Sankaradeva (1449-1596). The entire gamut of religious, social and cultural activism emanating from the 15th-17th century Bhakti movment was centered on the Satra, with the naam-ghar or kirtan-ghar as its nucleus.
Where are the Satras located?
The first Satra was set up Sankaradeva in 1494 in his native village Bardowa in today’s Nagaon district. As he travelled to preach, Satras were established all over the Brahmaputra Valley and in Coochbehar, which was once part of Assam. The most important Satras are at Majuli island in the Brahmaputra. Over 890 Satras are part of the Asom Satra Mahasabha.
Are all Satras similar?
No. There are four major samhati (denominations): Brahma-samhati, Kal-samhati, Nika-samhati and Purush-samhati. Brahma-samhati Satras are headed by Satradhikars from Brahmin families. Satras of other samhatis are not headed by Brahmin Satradhikars. Some Satras like Auni-ati, Dakhinpat, Uttar Kamalabari, Natun Kamalabari and Bhogpur are udasin Satras, whose Satradhikar and bhakats practise celibacy. But Satradhikaris of most other Satras have families and pass the baton on from father to son; bhakats may or may not be celibate.
Who are the celibates?
They are men who are given away to Satras by devotees at a very young age. Pitambardeva Goswami, Satradhikar of Auni-ati Satra in Majuli, for instance, joined the Satra when he was 10; Duttadeva Goswami, who headed the same Satra from 1859 to 1894, joined at the age of two. Members of Brahmin or Kayastha families have better education, and better chances of rising to become Satradhikars, while others continue as bhakats (monks).
What is the structure of a Satra?
It is a centre of religion, learning and cultural activities with a naam-ghar or kirtan-ghar (prayer house) next to a manikut (sanctum sanctorum). Bhakats live in huts (boha or hati); Satradhikar lives in the main house. Officials like the bhagavati, pathak, gayan, bayan, sutradhar, medhi, satola, pujari, bharali, deuri, khanikar, likhak, pashoni, majumdar and muktiyar have specific functions.
What do the bhakats do?
Besides taking part in religious discourses, they may make musical instruments, paint, carve wood, sculpt, dance, and take part in drama, music, handicrafts and boatmaking. Bhakats have won Sangeet Natak Akademi awards. In 2000, the Akademi recognised Satriya dance as an Indian classical dance form.
Where are the Satras placed in society?
Nearly every Assamese family is affiliated to a Satra. The naam-ghar is also the village parliament, public theatre, women’s club, seat of justice and site of community festivals. Satras run schools, have helped set up colleges, give scholarships and awards.
What is the source of Satra revenue?
Annual contributions from followers. The bigger Satras own land, including tea estates. The older ones get grants from the state and central governments. With Majuli emerging as a tourist hotspot, Satras on the island also earn revenue from tourism.