Than & Sattra institution : a living heritage of Sankaradeva legacy  

 

The Thân or Sattra institution is a living heritage bequeathed to the posterity by Srimanta Sankaradeva (1449 AD – 1568 AD). Unlike most heritages, which are long dead, the Thân or Sattra institution continues to be a vibrant one. Earlier, it was known only as Thân. Later on the name Sattra also came to be used. The religious order Eka Sarana Nâma Dharma of Srimanta Sankaradeva sustained itself for more than five centuries on the strength of the Thân or Sattra. An egalitarian community life was promoted by Thân or Sattra, which is subject matter of socialist philosophy. People of all castes had entry to it, which was a revolutionary step in medieval India. Other such community organisations across the world like Commune of China, Kibbutz of Israel came up much later, in fact centuries later. So the Thân or Sattra institution is a global pioneer as a social institution.1 Its founder, Srimanta Sankaradeva can be credited with the status of an innovator in this regard.

The first Thân of Eka Sarana Nâma Dharma was set up by Srimanta Sankaradeva at Bardowa in 1468 AD. It started only with the central component, the prayer house. 2 This prayer house was initially called Devagriha, Harimandir etc, but it came to be known as Kirtanghar over time. It is in fact a community prayer hall. It is open to all people. There is no prohibition on basis of caste or sex. It is unique in its architectural design and totally different from other types of prayer houses. Srimanta Sankaradeva enacted his maiden play as well as the maiden religious activity Chihna-Yâtrâ, which happened to be the first play in all modern Indian languages, at that place in 1468 AD. In fact the Chihna-Yâtrâ was the genesis of the both Kirtanghar and Thân. However the Thân in full form came into being only in 1509 AD with all the components added around the Kirtanghar. 3

Srimanta Sankaradeva devised the model of Thân or Sattra in such a manner that the residents of that complex did not have to depend on the outside world for their requirements. Thân and Sattra saw regular production activities as Srimanta Sankaradeva encouraged disciples to eke out their own living. The food requirements of the residents in Thân and Sattra were grown in the land owned by the devotees. Thân and Sattra were developed as ideal model for community living. 4 Thân or Sattra is a unique institution. All activities other than military one take place within it. Religious function, craft, legal matter, social issues, cultural performance, education, agriculture – all are carried out by the entire community in the Thân or Sattra. Thus it can be called a social enterprise. Involvement of the community in this institution took place in such a manner that can be termed as pathfinder for the later day socialism. We can even say that Thân and Sattra were democratic institutions as they were and are run by the devotees in democratic manner. For example, the head of the Barpeta Thân is elected by the public of the Barpeta town.

The devotees of Thân or Sattra live in quarters known as Hâtis. These Hâtis are the residential quarters of the devotees living in the Thân or Sattra campus. This component of Hâti was included by Srimanta Sankaradeva in 1509 AD in the Bardowa Thân. He added four lines of Hâtis around the Kirtanghar. The tradition of such Hâti is still there. Every such Hâti has several devotees living under the guidance of a senior devotee, who trains them in the multi-faceted tradition of the Eka Sarana Nâma Dharma. Moreover every Hâti is modeled in a self-sustained structure. The devotees living in a Hâti are required to do agricultural works in the land allotted to them by the head of the Thân or Sattra.

There was stress on those activities in Thân and Sattra which were eco-friendly and which could be pursued without impairing the productive capacity for the future generations. The  Kirtanghar was constructed with bamboo poles and thatched roof. Kirtanghar outside Sattra is known as Nâmghar. No rock or brick was used in the construction of Kirtanghar or the Thân as a whole, unlike other religious institutions of India. As a result the hills were not damaged by rock extraction, nor earth damaged by brick making. Another benefit of this was that the people at large could build up a Thân and Sattra without any royal patronage. It ensured that Srimanta Sankaradeva’s movement remained a people’s movement. People’s participation has made it a democratic movement. The Mowamariya uprising against the Ahom regime was based on the support from the followers of Eka Sarana Nâma Dharma.5 This public involvement with Thân and Sattra continues till today. As said before, the famous Barpeta Thân elects the head, known as Sattriyâ by public election, where almost the entire populace of the Barpeta town take part.

Cultural activities flourished to a great extent in Thân and Sattra. Painting was a full scale occupation in the Thân and Sattra. Srimanta Sankaradeva gave birth to a new form of art known as Sankari art with his paintings. Thân and Sattras have sponsored this art form and kept it alive over the centuries. Srimanta Sankaradeva launched his new art form with his scroll paintings used in the play Chihna Yâtrâ. An illustrated manuscript of Bhagavata was prepared during that period. This Chitra Bhâgavata is the earliest available piece of Sankari art form. It is preserved at Balisatra of Nagaon. Chitra Bhâgavata, drawn at Dhuwahata Than in 1536 is the best example of Sankari art form. The stylized presentation of the objects, side profile of the characters, their dynamism etc are some important features of this art form. Preparing Sânci leaves from wood for making manuscripts is a respected vocation in Assam. Thân and Sattra have promoted this art sincerely. The dyes used in these paintings are also produced indigenously. 6

Bamboo and cane are used profusely for the handicraft items in the Thân and Sattra. Ornaments for the characters of Srimanta Sankaradeva’s Ankiyâ plays (popularly known as Ankiyâ Nât) were also prepared in the Thân and Sattra itself. This craft continues till date and now practised  outside too. Mask was introduced by Srimanta Sankaradeva in the play Chihna Yâtrâ in 1468 AD. He introduced mask in Ankiya plays to make the plays interesting to lay people. These are prepared by artisans of Thân and Sattra. Many wooden structures are constructed by the carpenter devotees. They are known as Bârhoi. Designs are made on the panels of the doors. The altar, Guru Asana is a 7-layer wooden structure, kept in Manikut or Sanctum Sanctorum of the Kirtanghar. It is sculpted by artisans of Thân or Sattra. The holy Bhagavata or Gunamala is kept thereon. Weaving is a traditional expertise of Assamese men and women. Srimanta Sankaradeva used to guide the families of weavers in making designs on clothes. The saint depicted the life of lord Krishna in a textile art known as Vrindavani Bastra, sponsored by Naranarayana, the then king of Koch kingdom. The work took a long time and completed in the later part of 1554 AD. 7 It was woven at Tantikuchi, where Barpeta Thân was later set up. Srimanta Sankaradeva designed this cloth himself.

Some tiny industries in the Thâns and Sattras are

  1. Manufacturing of Khol, a type of musical instrument (drum) innovated by Srimanta Sankaradeva in 15th century
  2. Production of herbal medicines
  3. Production of organic dyes
  4. Cane and bamboo products
  5. Wooden furniture and sculptures
  6. Making costumes for actors
  7. Production of mat for devotees to sit on
  8. Production of manuscripts and miniature painting therein

 

In spite of being a place of religious activities, life is never insipid or uni-dimensional in Thân or Sattra. There are numerous festivals round the year. Cultural activities like Sattriyâ dance, Bargeet, Ankiyâ plays evolved and flourished in the precinct of the Thân and Sattra. The saint introduced the Holi festival in the Brahmaputra valley. It is popularly known as Doul in the In the Thâns or Sattras. In the Barpeta Thân, a Meji is burnt during this Doul festival after Gosâin or idol of lord Krishna is taken in round.

The Thân or Sattra was the place of birth of Ankiyâ play as the first Ankiyâ play Chihna Yâtrâ was enacted in the Bardowa Thân in 1468 AD. They have sustained that tradition till now. All the heads of Thân or Sattra have to compose a new play when taking charge of the Thân or Sattra. The Ankiyâ plays by Srimanta Sankaradeva are enacted regularly in all Thân and Sattra. Plays authored by Srimanta Sankaradeva enlighten people about ethical way of life, and philosophical truths. Devotees of Sattra are now spreading the legacy. Dr Bhabananda Barbayan and other artists of Uttar Kamalabari Sattra in Majuli take regular classes on Sattriyâ Nritya in France and other European countries.

The institution of Thân and Sattra has survived over five centuries. Almost every village in the Brahmaputra valley is affiliated to some Thân or Sattra. Even the people, who do not subscribe to the religious ideology of Srimanta Sankaradeva patronize the Thân or Sattra for their socio-cultural role. Enactment of Ankiya plays continue till today with full flourish. The custodians of the Thân or Sattra have proliferated it, considering it their sacred duty. When a Sattrâdhikâr has more than one son, there tends to be new Sattra. There are more than 800 Thân and Sattra now in different places. At one time this number was even higher, 1280.8

The institution of Thân or Sattra has covered in its ambit people of all hues irrespective of caste or nationality. Sattras of the Majuli island attract people from across the world. Every Thân or Sattra is embedded with the universal values that confer the status of World Heritage on any old legacy. It represents a masterpiece of human creative genius, who happened to be Srimanta Sankaradeva. It exhibits an important interchange of human values, its structure are unique in architecture design. It bears a unique cultural tradition, popularly known as Sattriyâ culture, which is living and vibrant. The Thân or Sattra is an outstanding example of human settlement characterized by a sustainable living pattern. It contains artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance. Thus this institution fulfils several criteria set by UNESCO for declaration as a world heritage status.9 It is truly a common heritage of the entire mankind.

References and Notes :

  1. Analysis of the Thân or Sattra institution from the perspective of Economics and Political Science, Dr Sanjib Kr Borkakoti, https://drsanjib.net/2019/10/25/analysis-of-the-than-or-sattra-institution-from-the-perspective-of-economics-and-political-science/, accessed on 5th November, 2019 at 4.53 pm.
  2. Mahapurusha Srimanta Sankaradeva, Dr Sanjib Kr Borkakoti, First edition, Guwahati 2005, p. 16
  3. Ibid, pp. 17-19, 27; Purnanga Katha Gurucharit, Dr Sanjib Kumar Borkakoti, 1st edition, Guwahati, 2007 AD, pp 75-77
  4. Analysis of the Thân or Sattra institution from the perspective of Economics and Political Science, Dr Sanjib Kr Borkakoti, https://drsanjib.net/2019/10/25/analysis-of-the-than-or-sattra-institution-from-the-perspective-of-economics-and-political-science/, accessed on 5th November, 2019 at 5.43 pm.
  5. Srimanta Sankaradeva : a multi-faceted genius, Dr Sanjib Kumar Borkakoti, 1st edition, Guwahati, 2015 AD, p 92
  6. Sankari Sanskriti aru Darshan, Dr Sanjib Kumar Borkakoti, 1st edition, Guwahati, 2017 AD, pp 90-100
  7. Purnanga Katha Gurucharit, Dr Sanjib Kumar Borkakoti, 1st edition, Guwahati, 2007 AD, p 588
  8. Auniati sattrar buranji, Tirthanath Sarma, Auniati Sattra, 1976, p.151.
  9. The criteria for selection to be included on the World Heritage List, https://whc.unesco.org/en/criteria/ accessed on 8th January, 2020 at 8.54 am.

 

Bibliography :

  1. Srimanta Sankaradeva : a multi-faceted genius, Dr Sanjib Kumar Borkakoti, 1st edition, Guwahati, 2015 AD
  2. Mahapurusha Srimanta Sankaradeva, Dr Sanjib Kumar Borkakoti, 1st edition, Guwahati, 2005 AD
  3. Purnanga Katha Gurucharit, Dr Sanjib Kumar Borkakoti, 1st edition, Guwahati, 2007 AD
  4. Sankari Sanskriti aru Darshan, Dr Sanjib Kumar Borkakoti, 1st edition, Guwahati, 2017 AD
  5. Analysis of the Thân or Sattra institution from the perspective of Economics and Political Science, Dr Sanjib Kr Borkakoti, https://drsanjib.net/2019/10/25/analysis-of-the-than-or-sattra-institution-from-the-perspective-of-economics-and-political-science/
  6. Auniati sattrar buranji, Tirthanath Sarma, Auniati Sattra, Majuli, 1976 AD
  7. The criteria for selection to be included on the World Heritage List, https://whc.unesco.org/en/criteria/ accessed on 8th January, 2020 at 8.54 am.

 

[Edited version of the paper presented in the International Conference on Heritage organised by the Centre for Heritage Studies, University of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka on December 26-27, 2019]

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