The Institution of Satra is a unique feature of Vaishnavism in Assam, founded by Sankardeva, the father of Assamese culture.
The satras are not just monasteries, but centres of traditional performing arts. The songs and dances initiated by Shri. Sankaradeva , such as Borgeet, Bhatima, Jumora, Chali, Paalnaam, Noyua, Apsara, Satriya Krshna, etc. are taught and promoted here apart from numerous other crafts, of which makmaking is particularly significant.
In 15th century the first Satra was founded in Majuli. Since then sixty five Satras have come up for the propagation of ethics and socio-cultural ideals. However, at present there are only twenty two Satras in Majuli. The others had to be shifted to safer places due to the devastation of flood and erosion.
The satras consist of a large prayer hall facing a simple shrine, surrounded by dormitories and bathing tanks for monks. Here, Govenda is worshipped through dance, drama, music and poetry.
The main existing Satras in Majuli are:
Auniati Satra: Founded by Niranjan Pathakdeva, the Satra is famous for "Paalnaam" and Apsara dances. Also remarkable is it's extensive assortment of ancient artefacts, Assamese old utensils, jewellery and handicrafts.
Dakhinpat Satra: Founded by Banamalidev, an exponent of Raasleela, which is now observed as one of the main festivals of Assam. During Rasotsava several thousand devotees visit these holy Satras every year.
Garamurh Satra: Founded by Lakshmikantadeva. During the end of Autumn, traditional Raasleela (co-acting) is shown with great enthusiasm. Some ancient weapons called "Bortop" (canons) are preserved here.
Kamalabari Satra: Founded by Bedulapadma Ata, it is a centre of art, culture, literature and classical studies. The finest boats on the island are made here. It's branch, Uttar Kamalabari Satra, has showcased the Satria Art in several states of India and abroad.
Bengenaati Satra: It is a storehouse of antiques of cultural importance and an advanced centre of performing art. Muraridev, the grand son of Sankardeva's step mother founded this Satra.
The royal robes belonging to the Ahom king Swargadeo Gadadhar Singha, is preserved here. Also on display is the royal gold umbrella.
Shamaguri Satra: The satra is famous worldwide for it's Mask-making tradition.
Mahapurushiya Dharma: The neo-Vaishnavite Philosophy of Srimanta Sankardeva
Sankardeva (1449-1568), revered as the father of Assamese culture, belonged to the Baro-Bhuyan class of non-Brahmin Hindu landlords in Assam. The death of his wife at a young age plunged Sankardeva deep into religion and spirituality. At the age of 32, he went on a pilgrimage to the major Vaishnavite centres in north and northeast India. He studied the Bhagavata Purana which introduced him to Vaishnavism.
For the next twelve years, he researched, meditated and reflected deeply on all that he had seen, read, learnt and experienced. A new religion was taking shape in his conscious mind-a faith that soon brought him into conflict with the brahmins and the ruling Ahom and Koch kings.
Disturbed but undaunted, Sankardeva then moved to Dhuwahat, the present Majuli. here he met his spiritual successor, Madhabdeva, along with whom he laid the foundation of Manikanchan Sanjog, the first satra or monastery in Majuli.
The satras propagated a modified form of Vaishnavism which gradually shaped the cultural landscape of not just Majuli but the entire Assam. The new faith cam to be known as Mahapurushiya Dharma, Eka Sarana Hari Naam Dharma, neo-Vaishnavism or Assam Vaishnavism. Its followers are often referred to as Mahapurushiya, Sankari or Sarania.
Mahapurushiya Dharma rejected the discriminatory varna system of Brahminical Hinduism and emphasised on egalitarianism. Monotheism, the uttering of the name of God as the only form of worship, rejection of animal sacrifice and idolatory, are the other hallmarks of the sect. One of its most important religious texts id the Bhagavata, translated from the original Sanskrit Bhagavata Purana to Assamese, by Sankaradeva.
An integral insitution of worship in Assamese Vaishnavite culture is the namghar. Introduced by Sankaradeva, the namghar, literally the House of Names, is a simple congregation hall where Vaishnavite Hindus recite the name of Lord Govinda.
Usually laid on an east-west axis, a namghar is primarily divided into the monikut (the sanctuary) and te mandap (assembly space). The monikut houses the singhasan or the altar. Devotees sit facing the singhasan in the mandap.
A unique architectural element of the namghars is the ghaai khuta or lai khuta, usually an oversized column in the mandap. It is usually identified by a gamosa tied around it. No one is allowed to sit near this pillar as it is considered the seat of the burha dangoriya (the holy spirit). When the moha prasad (offerings) are distributed after a service, it is first offered to the pillar.
There are namghars in most Hindu villages in Assam. Unlike temples, namghars are not for everyday use. They are places of assembly for special religious events and memorial services. Private, family nanghars, although rare, are known to exist, patronised by the landed aristocracy.