Mystics of Majuli

Living tradition

Mystics of Majuli

Serene A ‘sattra’  in Majuli.Situated in the bosom of the mighty River Brahmaputra in Assam, Majuli has a rich historic past to cherish. Once the largest river island, Majuli was the heartland of socio-religious reforms in early 15th century. The great Assamese scholar, social reformer and saint Mahapurush Srimanta Sankardeva along with his disciple Madhabdeva made it the centre of neo-vaishnavite culture.

History says that the great saint and his disciple took refuge in Beloguri of Majuli for some months. Sankardeva made it the centre of art and culture. The place became famous as the ‘Monikanchan Sanjog’ (or the meeting of great minds) between Sankardeva and Madhabdeva and is considered to be the first sattra in Majuli.
A sattra is a religious and cultural centre for meditation and prayer. It is very similar to a Buddhist monastery.

As many as 65 sattras were set up later. However, floods and erosion made most of them shift to other locations outside Majuli. Currently, there are only 22 sattras of the original that exists. Dakhinpat sattra, Garmurh sattra, Auniati sattra, Kamalabari sattra, Bengenaati sattra and Samaguri sattra are the most noteworthy sattras in Majuli today.
It was during the Bhakti movement that reigned all over India did Sankardeva popularise this Bhagawati Vaishnava Dharma. This line of religion did not approve of shakti puja or idol worship where animal sacrifice was rampant and the whole puja was conducted by a priest belonging to the Brahmin community. Sankardeva wanted to do away with this caste dominance in religious practices and all forms of idol worship.

Sankardeva wanted to bring out religion from the confines of temples. So, he established sattras in every nook and corner of the state. His concept was that religion was for all and should be practised in such a way that it can be understood by all.

Every sattra is headed by a sattradhikar or guru who acts as a guide and is looked up to in matters concerning the community. The sattradhikar lives in the sattra, takes vegetarian food cooked by himself and does not indulge in family life. The sattras have younger members (boys) who stay in the sattra itself and get trained in art, literature, handicrafts and work for the social and cultural upliftment of society. They are known as bhokots.

Along with bhokots, the sattras also train gayans (singers) and bayans (the musicians) who perform the art forms taught by Srimanta Sankardeva.
Bhagawati Vaishanava Dharma preaches the teachings of Lord Krishna about practical life, as preached in the Bhagavad Gita. So, in every sattra there is a recitation of the Bhagavad Gita and explanation of the same by a sattradhikar or bhokot in the most simple form. Music and dance form an integral part of this practice.

The sattradhikar would place the Bhagavad Gita with reverence on a sarai (bell metal plate with an elongated stand) and then recite the shlokas in a musical way. The same is also depicted in a dance form known as satriya (the name is satriya, as it is a part of the sattra), which was earlier performed by men only but is now practiced by women too. Satriya today is recognised as one of the classical dance forms of India and depicts Lord Krishna’s lila or activities throughout the Mahabharata.

Bhaona, a dramatic representation of the stories of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, is another interesting way of explaining the epics to common people. According to Sankardeva, through this approach, common people would understand the knowledge imparted by our great literary works better.

At regular intervals of time, the sattras organise bhaonas where people are trained by the professionals at sattras to act out mythological scenes with dialogues, music and dance. The costumes, make-up and musical instruments are also provided by sattras. This is very popular among the local people, particularly children, and the whole community gathers to watch these plays.

The annual festival of sattras is the Raas, celebrated with grandeur on a full moon night known as raas poornima. A celebration of Lord Krishna’s raaslila through dance and music, it is a community festival where everybody is welcome to participate in it. Raas and bhaona are an integral part of the socio-cultural life of Majuli even today. People from all across the globe visit Majuli every year to see this unique festival of music, dance and drama.

These sattras gained much patronage of the then Ahom Kings of Assam. Sattras are today centres of artistic pursuits, literature, classical studies, and a treasure house of historical artefacts of the Ahom rulers. Sattras have become a part and parcel of Majuli today where people flock to for advice from the sattradhikar. Heavily guarded by the local people of Majuli, sattras are places of reverence and would remain the same for generations to follow, thanks to the tradition-bound people of the region.

 

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