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Art and Craft of Sattra Institutes

Art and Craft of Sattra Institute:                                                        

It is only with modern day specialization and development of professional skills that we tend to see closely related fields such as art architecture music, dance and drama etc. as separate professional distinctions…In earlier centuries there was no such professional distinctions In Indian tradition a complete artist was one who knew the 64 arts according to the sastras, and Vatsyayana's Kamasutra. Examples of such integration can be seen from ancient times in temple architecture which formed the nucleus or art practice in all corners on Indian where performance and disciplines of art were conceive as a total expression in these large centres of culture. One art from complemented the other and where one stopped, the other began from it.

Similarly in the Brahmaputra valley the sattra institution upholds the same ideals. All art and crafts practised by the Assamese society centrred around the activities of the sattra institutions, an upshot of the Vaisnava resurgence initiated by Sri Sankaradeva in the last decade of the 15th century. Remarkable for its many sided contributions, literature, a vigorous school of painting to illuminate the texts, wood carving, dance, drama and architecture to house, it all seemed to be the result of a need for a common expression,a result of this new renaissance which influenced the Assamese society from the 16th century onwards.

The sattra monuments are not gigantic in scale but the dignity of their own stature. Stone and masonary were the privileges of the royalty, so the large and rich sattras like Kamalabari, Garamur, Auniati and Dakhinpat in Majuli were almost wholly built of wood and embellished lavishly with carvings paintings and other objects.

The new bhakti movement inspired its adherents and was also the guiding force behind the numerous manuscripts which began to be written and illustrated with great zeal. Thus, the manuscript paintings of Assam are one of the offshoots of this cultural upsurge. Few, even amongst scholars, are aware of these valuable relics though they belong to the pre-Mughal stream of miniature painting in India. Coloured

by the similar religious fervour of the bhakti cult, it has developed distinct features of its own.However, the painting of a later date gradually becomes more detailed and descriptive where an attempt an narrations is obvious. Although the composition is still linear, there is greater complexity within the frame, sometimes continued narration is obvious. Although the composition is still linear, there is greater complexity within the frame, sometimes continued narration is also attempted. The area of the painting surface also gets larger at times covering the full page. The artist's eye for detail and small anecdotes are obvious in the representation of different birds and beaststhat inhabit are the foils from the Gita-Gobinda etc.


Here the themes itself provided the artist the scope to ex-aggerate, elaborate and provide a romantic backdrop for the eternal lovers. The costumes are local - the two-pieces garment worn by Assamese women-the mekhala-chadar, while men wear the short dhoti, tangali (waist band) and alwan (scarf) .

There are passing reference to the local costumecs and environment but Krishna is the universal godhead. The identification of the figures by labelling them is also common to many of the manuscripts where the idea is to grasp the narrative quickly and easily. In this way paintings are an extension of the story in pictorial form to be literally read in sequence of events that take place. This format is also followed in the wood reliefs and painting of other are objects.

Another special development in the sattra was the architecture which has evolved over the years, pictorial depicition of which are seen in painting sometimes. The sattra monuments are not gigantic in scale but they have the dignity of their own stature. The basic layout of a sattra is a quadrangle surrounded by walls. A full-fledged sattra usually consists of a well laid out plan arrangement of the essential areas. The namghar (prayer hall), place of the residing monks (bhakats) within which each area is marked out for a definiate function.

The centre of the main activities of a sattra is the namghar which faces the east. It is a large open hall with gabled roof having an apsidal façade in the western and over which is a 'top' or the dome on the roof. The apsidal roof has an elaborate structure in wood which is very typical of namghar construction. The interior is a simple nave and two aisles with pillars. These pillars are in the number of 5, 7 and 7 pillars.(khutas) usually, which divide the area loosely into chambers. Erected with wooden beams supportingan architrave over which rests the roof. These wooden beams are known as the chati and are either carved with motifs or painted. The false ceiling which is made by joining the chatis are used for stocking the large bamboo masks and accessories of the drama performance . The compelling purity of the proportion and the effect of lightness which invests the low structure is achieved by the spaced rhythm of the vertical and horizontal surfaces. From the level of the architecture a nave is

extended all around the pavillion to widen the shade. These form the verandah and devotees sit here. When the festivals are held on to facilitate and allow them to take part in the function inside, as the walls are usually, left with jails or perforated wood carvings of devotional imagery, which embellish and allow light and air at the same time. Here form and function are adeptly utilized. The door towards the tup is the main entrance, mukhduar -the ones at the side are the , petduar, Doors with carvings of lion motifs are called simhaduar and those with floral patterns -phuljalikataduar Sometimes brass doors with floral and figurative motifs are also used.

The areas in a namghar is systematically arranged for its numerous functions and also in reverence to the various deities that preside over the site space is determined by a host of ceremonial requirements -places for offering, place for the asana (wooden pedestal with the sacred scripture ), the large wood carvings of Garuda , Hanuman, Jaya-Vijaya are clearly chalked out. At festival time the area for performance of bhaonas are also marked out. Even the seat for the sattradhikara who sits against the laikhuta or main pillar of the hall, the deka-adhikara, the bhaktas, the musicians and lay devotees are all predetermined . The use of space is a formal one and highly ordered.


This orderliness was specially helpful since the large namghars were used not only as prayer halls, but also as a place for meetings, discussions, festivals etc. So there was enough space to accomodate thousands of disciples who folk there annually.

The most sacred space is the manikut, attached to the east of the namghar. It is the garbha-griha, sacred sanctum of the sattra , the actual shrine. Manikut literally means 'house of jewels', it is here that the image, other-sattra valuables , wood carvings, metal works, ancient manuscripts etc. are housed. It is a sacred area and beyond a certain limit lay devotees are not allowed in.


The manikut and namghar form one central complex around which are the large water tanks used either for sacred or utilitarian purpose. Each tank or pukhuri is alloted for a specific purpose such as caul-dhowa (rice washing), ga-dhowa(bathing) etc. These large tanks of water impart an atmosphere of serenity. The environment around has a number of flowering and fruit bearing trees, which provide ample shade. The height of the structures do not exceed those of the trees around, is imposing but all areas form a harmonious whole.


In such an ordered set up the resident monks move about performing their duties and practising, their duties, art and crafts. They work and live in the hatis. Here each bhakta is allotted his own space -boha, which are either large or small according to his status in the sattra hierarchy . Most of the huts are of equal size and they have common verandah joining the length from one end to other, except the ones on the eastern side which are much larger being the quarters of the sattradhikar's . The different sattra stores such as the dhanbharal, caul bharal etc. which house sattra property foodgrains etc. are generally situated close to the quarters.


The construction of hatis are simple and made for convenient living. The roof is the common slopping type of thatch and bamboo, roof a prototype of the Assamese village house. The plinth is raised as protection against dampness. Materials used are usually those locally found such as earth, chalk, bamboo, wood, ekora reed (for the walls) straw for roofing etc.


When a devotees enters the sattra premises through the batcora (entrance gate) , he is received by the bhakatis who make arrangements accordingly for the devotees to be guided inside. From the gateway only its ordered simplicity is visible but as they are led into the namghar the painted reliefs , wood carvings, rich textile banners that hang from the ceiling unfolds like an intricately woven tapestry and in such an atmosphere one looses the sense of time of the outside words, to get absorbed in the pace of its own rhythm that a sattra is able to generate, even today.


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