The river island of Majuli left us spellbound in so many ways. I have already written an elaborate post on the scenic natural beauty of Majuli. My description of Majuli would remain utterly incomplete if I do not write about the Satras. The scenic beauty of Majuli is intricately interwoven with its art and culture, a large part of which is contributed by the Satras.
Satras are religious and cultural institutions or monasteries dedicated to Lord Krishna. Satras date back to the 15th century when the first Satra was established by Srimanta Shankardev, the great Assamese saint and Neo-Vaishnavite reformer. Subsequently, 64 more Satras were established. Though only 22 Satras exist today. The rest were washed away by floods and erosion. Some of these have been rebuilt in other locations in Assam. The Satras are much more than just religious centers. They have shaped the culture of the island and continue to have a huge influence on the social lives of local people.
TRIVIA A friend of mine, well versed with the culture of Majuli on account of her husband being posted there as a high govt. official, had recommended that I visit the Satras strictly in a Sari. Consequently, I landed up being in a Sari all through my Majuli trip. Something I did for the first time while on travel. And, I must say that it felt amazing!
Majuli owes much of its rich cultural heritage to the Satras. They are the hub of traditional art and folk culture, which naturally ripples all across the state of Assam. Each Satra has a distinct identity and caters to a specific art form. Over the centuries, these institutions have had significant contributions to Assamese art and culture. The classical dance form, ‘Sattriya’, and the theatre form, ‘Bhaona’, along with their associated music have been developed and preserved through these Satras over the past five centuries.
Each Satra has its own set of residing monks who preserve its distinctive cultural significance. Their lives are dedicated to the devotion of Lord Krishna. The religious and the administrative head of a Sattra is known as ‘Sattradhikar’ and rest are known as ‘Bhakats’. The Bhaktas are responsible for various administrative, maintenance, religious, and cultural activities of the Satra. The Bhaktas are brilliant artisans too and make several items like masks, musical instruments, hand-fans, door frames, etc. The monks are quite friendly and open to having conversations with visitors.
Each Satra typically consist of a large prayer hall facing the shrine, known as ‘Naamghar’ surrounding which are dormitories or huts for the monks. Each Satra also has one or more ponds or tanks. Some Satras also offer guest accommodation, where devotees and visitors can participate in the daily worships and also watch traditional Bhaona performances.
We visited five Satras, few of the most important ones. It’s a boon that such places still exist, which not only value our culture and heritage but are working towards preserving the same. Especially in today’s era that has engulfed most of us in endless rat race and mindless consumerism.
Sri Sri Dakhinpat Satra
One of the oldest Satra, Dakhinpat was established in 1584, which is evident from some of the old structures we saw here. The ‘Naamghar’ supported by huge wooden pillars was under renovation and there was cement and sand all over. Even then, it emanated an old-world charm that was difficult to miss. Hundreds of diyas were lit on the floor making the festive season all the more prominent.
This Satra is known for preserving various types of dance forms that are performed during the festival of Raasleela, which depict the life of Lord Krishna. It is also said to house treasures and artefacts from the Ahom kings, which are not in display for public. Though they are constructing a museum where they may display some of the items. This was the first Satra we visited and consequently spent quite a bit of time. A monk even invited us for a cup of tea and provided some valuable insights about this Satra.
Sri Sri Samaguri
Majuli has a unique tradition and legacy of mask-making, which is preserved and propagated by Samaguri Satra. That makes Samaguri the most fascinating of all the Satras. The masks or ‘mukhas’ represent various mythological and religious characters and are integral to ‘Bhaona’ performances. The masks are completely organic made of cane, cloth, mud, dung and are mostly used during the festival of Raasleela.
The Sattradhikar, Dr. Hem Chandra Goswami, has been instrumental in not only reviving the tradition of mask-making but bringing in many innovations, such as moveable jaws and eyes. Dr. Goswami has been acclaimed nationally and internationally for his endeavor and unique craftsmanship. He is also a recipient of the prestigious Padma Shri, India’s fourth-highest civilian award, for the year 2023. We were extremely fortunate and truly honoured to be able to meet him as he happened to be at the Satra at that time. His passion and dedication was clearly evident when he took time out to enthusiastically explain to us the intricacies of Sattriya dance and the importance of masks in Bhaona. He also demonstrated the functioning of a couple of masks and encouraged us to try them out. He went on to share about all the accolades he received, including that British Museum displayed five of his masks during an exhibition called ‘Krishna in the Garden of Assam’. All that with no hint of pride or arrogance but in complete humility, leaving us even more astonished.
Sri Sri Uttar Kamalabari Satra
This Satra has a major contribution to the Mati Akhora and the Gayan Bayan forms of the clasical Sattriya dance. This Satra is also famous for crafting some of the finest boats of the island. Personally, I thought this was the most aesthetically designed Satra. The ornate doorways and the beautiful paintings on the life of Lord Krishna that adorned the walls of the Naamghar were captivating.
Sri Sri Garamur
This is one of the four royal Satras of the island and hence used to be quite affluent back in the days. It houses a museum that preserves ancient canons, known as ‘bortop’. The museum was closed when we visited. The inmates of this Satra are householders and not monks that have renounced the world. The same is true for Samaguri Satra as well.
Sri Sri Auniati
We arrived at this Satra early morning while it was still opening up. We walked around soaking in the early morning air through the peaceful ambience. Lord Krishna is refereed to as Govinda in this Satrra and all festivals and activities are centered around Govinda. This Satra also houses a museum that preserves ancient artefacts like old utensils, jewellery and handicrafts. The museum was however closed at that time. Auniati Satra is famous for traditional Mishing tribal dances and a congregational prayer, known as Paalnaam.