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Barpeta Sattra


 Barpeta Sattra

                                                Firm footing of a hallowed legacy

          After wandering for years Srimanta Sankardeva settled sometime in 1549 AD at the present day Barpeta for a period of eighteen years. This was a fairly stable period for the great saint and his apostles and the Mahapursushia ideology spread far and wide during this period. The organizational structure of the newly enunciated ideology began to take strong   footing around this period when many gifted, devoted and organizationally skillful devotees got together around the great saint.   This period also witnessed intense transliteration and creative composition of songs, dances and dramas. This is also the period when Sankardeva streamlined the new humanist bhakti faith through a systematic exposition and propagation of it.

          Madhavdeva, who settled at Ganak-kuci after his mentor left for his heavenly abode, came back to Patbaushi for a year, where the widow of Sankardeva with her two grand children were living in hardship. Later he stayed at Sundaridiya for fourteen years. Though the ‘Kathaguru Carit’ indicates that he left Sundaridiya for ill-treatment meted-out to one of the fellow disciples by some local people, yet it is understood that his mission of furthering the faith in a more organized manner in a pristine environment appears to have been the real reason for his departure for Barpeta. As per ‘Bardowa Gurucarit’ the immortal verse and song (bargeet) Alo Bhai, Calo aisho jao Vrindabane ……..’(Come one, come all – we move to Vrindaban) ---  thus equating Barpeta with Vrindaban – the abode of Lord Krishna, his deity, was composed by the saint on way to Barpeta.

          It was in Barpeta where the talented disciples like Narain Das Thakur Ata, Mathura Das bura Ata, Gopal Ata under the guidance of the ‘chosen one’, Madhavdeva set up slowly all the essential aspects of the sattra institution and thus came into being the Barpeta Sattra in the year 1583 AD. He succeeded in attracting a large no of people towards the new faith. He first envisaged the ‘Hari Mandir’ to be designed in a manner so as to be the epicenter of godliness beyond desire (‘Niskam Bhakti’)as well as for the pursuit of aesthetics in its music, literature and cultural performances, acceptable to both the slowly growing connoisseurs and the masses.
          During a visit to the sattra, the bura sattirya, (the nomen-clature in vogue in Barpeta Sattra for Sattradhikar) flanked by the newly elected Deka sattriya and other sattra officials showed us around the campus of the sattra. The intimidating power of the sheer structure resplendent with rich legacy can make anyone swim back on the history as detailed in the Guru Carit. Sattriya BasisthaDeva Sarma arranged our sitting and we engaged in an intimate conversation on the history and evolution of the sattra.
         ‘The old Ramcandra, better known as Ram Ladua bura owned a large area of unused jungle. The Guru had asked him if he could donate the land for construction of the abode of God (Harigriha) as the old man had no issue to inherit his property. The old man hesitated. The Guru then composed and sang a verse.
bura bhai, Harir gun gai nasa – kundina dholi sharir paraya, aar ki baat sai asa?”
(Old man dear, sing odes to  Hari and dance- why wait   till the body falls and lies prostrate). Arjun Das, a senior citizen and a scholar, added that as the whole verse was recited, realization of inner self dawned on the old man and he not only donated the land, but also became a disciple. He hastened to add that the authority had constructed a welcome arch to commemorate the donor disciple. We went on to discuss the known facts mentioned in Carit puthi.   The Carit puthis give vivid description of the large scale preparation for construction of the same. Despite the resource-crunch, hardship and adversities faced, the small army of disciples, inspired by the new awakening, toiled hard to make the dream a reality. The rich metaphor found in the ‘holy geets’ and other verses of the saints are found to have been drawn from their experiences of hardships and positive experiences gathered during this period also. In the process also were discovered many masons, sculptors and such other skilled artisans among the ilk of the disciples. This is where also the eternal lamp called Akshai Banti was also installed. After completion of the structure there was a grand inauguration. They organized the performance of ‘Bhojan Byobahar’ (The feast) in the day time and Dodhi Mothon (Churning of milk) at night. The boys, trained for a long time in dance, music and acting, performed. They also did the female roles. People from all over thronged the sattra as they had never seen anything like that before. The mission of attracting the masses to the faith through these methods appeared to be a huge success. The new structure of the prayer house also suited variety of purposes including its use as the practice arena for music and dance for which enthusiastic monks decorated the walls of the house. This part of the kirttanghar came to be commonly known as the Rangial griha or entertainment complex.  
          Bahut badha bujishe (Too many hindrances you see)-lamented Deva Sarma referring to the many oppositions the apostolate encountered. He then went on to narrate the one he remembered at that moment. Once a pundit having visited the Rangial griha (entertainment complex)reported to king Raghudev (1581-1603) of Bijaypur that the fellow called Madhav from ‘Baushi’ constructed a house of gold and silver. He would make young girls dance and embrace them openly. That he would not follow the worshipping of various idols and the Vedic path was insulted and that the king would face the consequences of such great decadence during his regime (Kathaguru Carit). The king banished Madhavdeva and his soldiers vandalized the sattra. “The well decorated structure with simplest of materials was thought to be of gold and silver”, guffawed Rajani Talukdar, the unassuming official. ‘Where would the Guru get women to dance? The simple bhakats in female dress practicing dance numbers were taken to be actual women’, the assembly roared in laughter at the way of saying by the bura sattriya.    
          Some years later when the structure was burnt down by fire, it was the women like the wives of Mathura Das bura Ata, Kajola Maji, Gobinda Atoi and others who saved the eternal lamp (Akshai banti). Further in the absence of the men folk, they also continued with the daily rituals including kirttana (Singing of hymns)
          After Mathuradas bura Ata was installed as the Adhikar or bura sattriya (Chief) of the sattra by Madhavdeva in the year 1594 AD, he undertook to re-construct the prayer hall. Instead of the earlier north – south arrangement, the new structure had been constructed in East-West manner keeping the foundation of the earlier Rangial griha’. The sacrosanct arrangements like the places for the Guru, the place for reading of the holy Bhagawat , the eternal lamp etc. were not changed.
              ‘Do you know that our sattra still has the two coins given by Madhavdev guru as the kar (tax) to the first bura sattriya-Mathuradas bura Ata?’ Stated Dev Sarma eagerly. The tradition is still alive and the sattra is sustained by regular donations by the disciples. We spoke and marveled at the rare sattra artifacts, the three guru asanas’(the lion thrones representing three kingdoms of the faith),the huge store and unending supply points of mustard oil to keep the ordinary and the eternal lamps aflame. The bhithis(memorial structures),the doul and other landmarks are apparently being touched up.

 The Lay out of the premise
The baat chora (the entrance/canopy):- Ever since its inception, the baat chora of the sattra has been on the western side of the kirttan ghar. While this is the main entrance, there are two other entrances on the northern and southern side. Three more baat chora are also there in the three hatis outside the campus of the sattra. The present concrete baat chora was constructed in the year 1931.

The kirttan ghar: - The kirttan ghar is in the middle of the sattra campus. The construction of the building was inspired by the Vrindabani Vastra - the yarn weaved by the weavers of Tatikuchi under the direct supervision of Sanakardeva. The Vrindabani Vastra is said to be 180 feet long (nearly 56 meter) and 90 feet in its width. There are 13 parts in the famed fabric depicting 12 numbers of illustrations of forests. The kirttan ghar was constructed to be able to accommodate the entire length and breadth of the Vrindabani Vastra. There are thirteen compartments inside the kirttan ghar twelve of which are named after different forests of Vrindaban. There are three verandahs around the kirttan ghar. On the southern verandah, the ladiesposition themselves while singing hymns. The eastern side of the kirttan ghar houses the monikut or bhaj Ghar (sanctum sanctorum). The monikut houses the Akshay Banti (eternal lamp). The deities of Kolia Thakur and Vasudeva are kept there. About five litres of mustard oil is required daily to keep the lamps aflame. The design of the monikut is shaped like a bow. Perhaps Madhavdeva ensured it to prevent extinguishing of the eternal lamp by wind or natural disaster.

Other landmarks :- A memorial building in the shape of a cone was constructed in the Barpeta Sattraon the north side of the kirttan ghar during 1745 AD as per the desire of the then Ahom King. The Doul is situated at the north western corner of the kirttan ghar which is extensively used during the Dol Utsav. Among the other memorials are the memorial structures called the bhitis of the first bura sattriya, Mathuradas bura Ata. A great theologist and an organizer par excellence, he was the fore-runner of the great tradition of the Barpeta Sattra. The memorial of Padma Bodula Ata in the south eastern corner of the kirttan ghar reminds the devotees of the great precursor of the sattriya culture. A very dear disciple of   Madhavdeva, Bodula Ata internalized the nuances of the sattriya dance and music and had shaped its grammar to perpetuate the great tradition. He then practiced the same through a group of young monks in the Kamalabari Sattra, which he had set up at Majuli. The ladies of the sattra had taken an initiative to repair the decaying structure in the year 1961. Amongst the other landmarks is the historic khotkhotir ghat, a jetty used for marine transport in the earlier days. This belt has recently undergone total transformation with the construction of embankments. The wall of the baat chora is decorated with motifsof crocodile, lion, tiger, Hanuman and Krishna. The ten incarnations of Vishnu are sculpted esthetically on the western side of the kirttan ghar. Besides, there are many paintings centering on the pantheon illustrated in different locations of the sattra.
The hatis (Dormitories)
         In order to ensure a composite community living, the sattra campus was divided into several minor compartments. These locations are termed as hatis. Each hati is named as per its direction from the epicenter, or occupation of the people living there and the speciality of the location. Thus kewolia hati denotes the location of the celibate disciples, while ‘pathak hati accommodates the readers of the verses. Similarly, the gayan-bayan (the musicians) stay at gayan hati and the potters stay at kumar hati. Besides there are also hatis like the dakshin hati, uttar hati and na-hati   which are named to the direction in which they are situated. Together a total of 22 haties are there in the entire Barpeta town area.
In order to supervise   the arrangements in the hatis, a management committee functions from haiter ghar. In addition to collection of revenue from each of the hatis, the committee also addresses the issues of inter hati / intra hati disputes. The public treasury set up with the revenue earned from the hatis provided fund for the running of the sattra and also banking services for the needy.
 Rituals and festivals

          The kirttanas: While kirttana refers to singing of glory of god as per laid down procedures, the practice at Barpeta Sattra has been to highlight this aspect of ‘bhakti’ through the annual commemoration rituals for Srimanta Sankardeva, Sri Madhavdeva and Sri Mathuradas bura Ata – the first bura-sattriya – as krittanas. There are three main kirttanas and four minor ones commemorating four subsequent gurus who have enriched the tradition.
           The ‘Gurutithi’ – the kirttana for Srimanta Sankardeva goes on for seven days of community singing in different periods of the days and night with or without instruments – with or without rhythm – with or without  accompanying  dance , drama, meditation , introspection or loud orchestration. In fact in all the ‘kirttanas’, the communion with the god is attempted by the collective immersion of selves into the realm of bhakti through its aesthetically designed package of music, dance and drama. 
During the birth anniversary of both the gurus the festivals begin with ‘prabhat pheri’ (The prayer-procession at dawn) and seminars on theology are held. Cultural programme on sattriya dance, music and drama are the other important attractions.

Bohagor Domahi (New year eve) : This is celebrated for seven days beginning from the last day of the Assamese year to the end of the 1st week of the new year . This celebration witnesses an interesting blend of the sacred and the folk. On the 1st day of the month, the ‘bihu’ is celebrated with the morning session of ‘krittana’. The practice of the year’s prediction by numerologist is an important event on this day. On this day traditional games like stick- fight, wrestling, tug-of-war etc are arranged inside the sattra campus. On each evening of this festival, different ‘hatis’ put up one act dramas which go on for almost the entire night . ‘bornaam’ is a special kind of community singing of hymns sung with ‘nagra’ (small drums) and cymbals which is very popular
Maghor Domahi ( Advent of the month of Magh – January 2nd week) is celebrated for five days to usher in the month of ‘Magh’. Like in Bohagor Domahi, special singing of the hymns is organized as per laid down rules. The souls of the kings having shown benevolence to the sattra are given community blessings on the last day of the festival. The past practice of community feasting by all the ‘hatis’ on the night of ‘uruka’(the bihu eve) is no more in vogue.
Doulutsav : ( The festival of colour)  Commonly called doul or deul , it is celebrated on the full moon day of the month of fagun (Mid-February) and called ‘deka doul’. Sometimes the location of the moon is found favorable in the subsequent month and the festival is celebrated then.
The first day of the doul is called ‘gandha’ or ‘ bohnostar’. After the community singing of hymns, the deities of ‘Salegram and Doul Gobinda are brought out with due reverence and taken around the pyre prepared in the courtyard of the sattra. The deities take total seven rounds around the fire and at the declared auspicious moment, the deities are entered into the ‘doul-griha’. Around this time, there is a big display of fireworks by the local artisans of Barpeta. The burnt remains of the meji (pyre) are considered pious. The next two days are celebrated as the ‘bhordoul’. People throng in front of the deities and reverentially exchange colour. There is a performance by the sattriya musicians. Dhulia Bhaona, a form of comedy circus is held in the sattra premises in addition to many fun-games. In the evenings, dramas are performed by various groups.
          The last day of the doul is ‘shueri’ when relevant verses and compositions of the gurus on ‘falgutsav’ are sung with great passion. From the morning itself people in Barpeta play colour. Various groups sing the ‘holi geets’, composed and set to tunes by local talents which have become part of the tradition over the years. The best part of the festivity is perhaps the colourful procession wherein the deity is carried on a palanquin and taken to “the abode of Ghunusa” at Kolanibari, about a kilometer away from Barpeta Sattra. The procession is a moving sea of humanity singing songs of colour and gaiety, playing assorted instruments and applying colourful “phagu” on each other. On return of the deity from “Ghunusabari” to the abode of Laxmi at the sattra premises a practice called “bole-bolon” is exercised. During this Gobinda, the deity is prevented from entering into the abode of Laxmi as he had hurt the feelings of his loving wife Laxmi by going to Ghunusa, the daughter of King Indradyumna. Sarcastic verses are showered on the accompanying party of the deity of Gobinda. Finally, Gobinda is allowed entry after fining Him Rs. 300, that too for a period of seven days only.

         Nandutsav is celebrated wherein the devotees play with mud and water to celebrate the birth of Krishna. . On that day, the new born is christened by the astrologer. This festival is essentially limited to women. Posoti is a kind of folk-theatre, wherein the girls decked up as gopis dance and make merry through theatrical performance. Ladies play the roles of even the male characters and act out various rituals after the birth and some events like killing of the she demon Putona by the new born Krishna.

Landed Property of theBarpeta Sattra
           It is believed that there were five copper plates which record the royal endowment to the sattra by several kings. But only one copper plate exists which records the donation of land to the sattra by king Shiva Singha. According to a research conducted by Dr. Bhupendra Roy Choudhury, the sattra owns a total of 3087 bighas of land including the entire town of Barpeta.
         There was a dispute during the time of sattriya Bikramdev Mishra on the mode of running the sattra when a case was filed in Calcutta High Court. Subsequently another case on the issue of positions to be held was filed in the year 1912 which was finally settled in 1935 AD at the behest of Justice K.C. Chunder, District Judge, Assam Valley on 30th December, 1935 AD. A scheme submitted as per instruction of the District Judge on 19th August, 1935 by Jagadish Medhi, Ramesh Das and Mohendra Nath Mahanta on management of the Barpeta Sattra was accepted. The scheme envisaged a democratic set-up with voting rights for men and women of and above 18 years of age. All the members of the sattra living within the municipality area of Barpeta can cast their votes through secret ballot. There is a voters list and as per the same the Chief of the sattra (bura Sattriya) is elected in the General Assembly meeting.

The  issue of entry of women. Women, even today are not allowed entry into the kirttanghar –they pray and conduct their sessions at a designated place on the veranda of the kirttanghar.This is an isolated case in respect of  Barpeta Sattra  only; even the sattras of the celibate order elsewhere do not have a system like this. This is ironical because, as mentioned, womenfolk had played a major role   in crisis during the formation of the sattra . There has been several attempts by social groups to put pressure on the sattra authority to end this questionable practice.
      Broaching the subject itself was an awkward exercise. After all, a participant observer like me is expected to tow the established line and not question “the tradition”. “But is there a thinking to break the tradition perhaps to keep pace with time?” said I. The assembly appeared accustomed to such questions perhaps from visitors who are getting increasingly probing in respect of the issue of the ban on entry of woman into the kirttanghar.
          ‘What can we do? Our ladies themselves are vehemently against any discussion on breaking of the tradition’. Nobody appeared too keen to pursue the topic any further. But one did sense a baggage of guilt carried by the august assembly on the issue. Perhaps they realize that time has come to reverse the decision.




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