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The sattras of Kalsamhati

The sattras of Kalsamhati

                          Taking the mantle for the oppressed and the depressed
            Srimanta Sankardeva’s egalitarian precepts are steadfastly followed by the sattras of Kalsamhati sect. While they strictly follow the monotheist ideology of Vaishnavism, their overriding focus is the preceptor—the Guru—while the other three cornerstones like Deva, Naam and Bhakat are kept at their usual divine pedestals. Within this sect, the sattras are mostly found to embrace the depressed classes and the tribes in their apostolate. Their ritualistic practices are found to have influences of the social practices of the concerned ethnic groups. Besides, certain historical events like the Moamoria rebellion against the Ahom monarchy, with the sattras set up by Aniruddhadev as its epicenter, has brought about quite a number of far reaching changes in the sattras having allegiance to Anirudhadev in particular. We dwell separately upon these two sets of Kalsamhati sattras—those claiming their originto Gopaldeva, and the others with allegiance to Aniruddhadeva.
Gopaldeva—Life and Contributions
            Gopaldeva, with the strength of his personality and organizational capability, achieved great success in propagatingthefaith, specially in the eastern part of Assam. Since he belonged to Bhabanipur, he was known as Bhabanipuria Gopal Ata. There were several apostles of the great saints Sankardeva and Madhavdeva by the name of Gopaldeva. Aside from references to Gopaldeva in the Carit-Puthis (The biographies of 17th century) of Sankardeva and Madhabdeva, at least five Carit-Puthis on Gopaldev are found. They are attributed to composer- apostles like Purnanandadev, Ramgopaldev, Ramanandadev, Hariballav Krishna, and Bhabananda Atoi.
              Gopaldev is said to have been born is the year 1540 AD at Nazira in the present day Sivasagar district to father Kameswar and mother Bajrangi. After conquering the Ahom capital Gargaon, King Naranarayanaof the Koc Kingdom arranged for transfer of some families and settled them in various parts of Kamrup. Kameswar’s weaver family was settled at Bhabanipur. This is where Gopaldeva’s early education started under a Brahmin scholar.  He got attracted to Sankardeva’s teachings as a child after he saw the great saint during one of his discourses. Though he missed the opportunity to take initiation from Sankardeva, he carried on with his pursuit of divinity as per the saint’s teachings. He later grabbed the opportunity to take initiation from Madhavdeva and came in close contact with him. Impressed with Gopal’s sincere inclination and talent, Madhavdeva entrusted him with the responsibility of carrying forward the mission before his demise.
             Gopaldeva set up a sattra at Kaljhar in the present day Barpeta district of lower Assam and initiated thousands into the fold. With the help of 360 disciples at Kaljhar, he organized a systematic study, practice and propagation of the faith. This is where he also chose six Brahmin and six Kayastha scholars, trained them methodically and dispatched them to different places for proselytizing work. While his son and disciple Kamaldev was retained at Bhabanipur, his other disciples set up sattras in various parts of Assam.
            Gopaldev was an important poet and dramatist of the Vaishnavite literary heritage. Janmajatra, Nandutsav and Uddhabjan or Gopi-Uddhab Sambad are the important plays he composed. All the three plays sing the glory of Lord Krishna and revel in the playfulness, yet creative and destructive omnipotence of the cowherd deity. The plays, unlike those of Sankardeva, were not written in Brajawali but in old Assamese language that was even easier for the laity to understand. This poetry is inspired by his illustrious preceptors—beautifully worded expression of unflinching devotion.
Aai Padmapriya—the first Assamese poetess
Aai Padmapriya, an accomplished poetess of the 16th century, was the daughter of Gopaldeva. Primarily associated with the functioning of the Apostle Training Centre at Kaljhar Sattra, Padmapriya is credited with helping her father in forwarding the saint’s literary mission. She herself composed many verses which are rich in language, use of metaphor and spiritual ideology. A sample of a verse of the first Assamese poetess:
                   Anadi ananta prabhu bhagawanta
                   Ananta tumar Lila
                   Sankar, Madhab, Gopal swarupe
                   Nijo Jasho Pracasila
                   Moi Hinomoti naamey Padmapriya
                   Najunu bhakti tumar
                   Kayo bakye mone tumar Sarane
                   Sarane karilu Saar
          (“O Lord who has no beginning and no end, Thy miracles are also unending. Incarnated as Sankar, Madhab and Gopal, thee had spread thy own fame; I, Padmapriya, the lowly one, do not understand devotion, but with my body and soul, I surrender my essence of being at your feet”).
The mother’s verses are sung in the sattras of Kalsamhati. Padmapriya was to be married to Jadumonidev, an ardent disciple of Gopaldeva, but as the daughter of the Guru, she was treated as ‘mother’ by Jadumonidev and the liaison did not take place. She had written certain geets on the theme of disenchantments with worldly attachments.

Norottam: The one better than mere mortals
     Caliha Bereghar Sattrasituated near Juktuli in Sivsagar district’s Nazira  is a historic institution of Kalsamhati sect. A visit to the sattra makes one feel the historicity of it as one traverses through Gargaon, the Ahom capital and many landmarks of  the yore. This sattra was actually established near Kenduguri in the present day Dibrugarh district during the early 17th century. Its first Sattradhikar was Sudarshandev. The next Sattradhikar, Sriramdev, born in 1665 AD as per Carit-Puthi of Basudev Dwij, was a gifted scholar and an egalitarian to the core, true to the spirit of Sankardeva and Gopaldeva’s teachings. Among the depressed classes like the Koc, Kalita, Ahom, Cutia, Mishing, Kaibartta and most interestingly, the Noctes of Arunachal Pradesh got initiated into the spiritual fold during and after the time of Sriramdev.
              The Noctes lived and still inhabit the areas of Borduria, Namsang, Laptang, Khunsa and Wangsu in Tirap district of Arunachal Pradesh. They resent the plainsmen’s habit of calling them Nagas as they still retain their independent tribal identity. Lothakhun Bao, the chieftain of the Noctes, is said have received an instruction in dreams and physically verified a miracle of two bamboo caskets of riches coming on their own towards Sriramdev who was having his bath in the Dihing river. The chieftain insisted on being initiated by the Sattradhikar and accordingly it was done after he was christened as Norottam, meaning best among the mortals. Thus was born another apostle, totally committed to the Eka Sarana Naam Dharma and he did his bit in propagating the faith among his ilk. He also got a road constructed which is known as Caiyangar Ali as this route was taken to pay tax to the Guru. Cai in Nocte means tax. This road still exists on the north-east of Dihing river, near Kenduguri Bali Sattra in Dibrugarh.
           The Carit-puthis are vivid in their description of the simultaneous death of both the preceptor and the laity. The Nocte chieftain, Norottam, chose not to live any further once he came to know about the demise of Sri Ram Ata. The Sattriyas of Bareghar Sattra experience immense difficulty in still continuing with the rituals at the prayer halls in the Nocte belts of Arunachal Pradesh. Munindra Nath Mahanta of Bareghar Sattra is one of the very few sattriyas, still continuing with the sattra interface with the people living in those areas despite problems like inner-line permit regulations.
The Mayamora sattra & Anirudhadev
      It is already mentioned that Anirudhadev was one of the twelve apostles Gopaldeva had trained and deputed for proselytizing work in different parts. The sattras which were born and had grown as per the precepts of Anirudhadev are known as Mooamoria, Mayamoria or Mayamora sattras,and the communities having allegiance towards these sattras are known as Mayamora community.
The Dinjoy Sattra is one of the most visible sattras of this sect. Jugadananda Goswami, the bespectacled Sattradhikar, does not look his 70 years. He and his deputy, Monoj Goswami, were all too eager to discuss various facets of the Mayamora tradition as we sat in the hallowed namghar of the DinjoySattra. Sattradhikar Goswami explained to us the interesting tales of the construction of the namghar in the late 30s by Muslim masons.
        We discussed the commonly known legend behind the popularity of the term Mayamora and its other derivatives. That Ahom king Sukhampha (1552-1603) found himself in a spot when saint Aniruddhadev turned a piece of cloth into a snakewhen the king wanted to play a trick on him. The act of creation and later removal of the illusion (maya)is said to have led to the famous coinage. There are other interpretations of the origin of the terminology also; the most credible being the overriding concern of this sect on the spiritual pursuits of overcoming worldly illusion.
Anirudhadev’s Life

           Born in the year 1553 to father Gondagiri, a royal trader of Narayanpur of present day Lakhimpur district and mother Ajoli who was the daughter of Sankardeva’s uncle, Aniruddhadev was inclined towards learning of Sanskrit since childhood. He grew up to appreciate the ways of Gopaldeva, whose fame of scholarship and liberal teachings were spreading far and wide. He spent three years at Kaljhar Sattra and internalized various aspects of the Bhagwati philosophy and set out for the job entrusted by Gopaldeva. He came back to Bishnubalikunchi and initiated his parents into the faith after setting up a prayer house. Hordes of people of different communities then came forward to take initiation from the saint. In 1606 AD, he shifted the sattra from Bishnubalikunchi to the bank of Mornoi river at Narainpur. He landscaped the area very aesthetically and called it Nahar-ati Sattra. This is where the saint also breathed his last and the place is still considered a pilgrimage site by the Mayamora community.
        Among his literary contributions, the most notable are the translation of the fifth canto of the Bhagawata, Puranjan Upakhyan, Bhakaitmanjal Ghasa, Nij Sashtra and the geets. The literary works are definitely a continuum of the great Vaishnavite renaissance. However, the Nij Sashtra of Aniruddhadev evokes a lot of curiosity, especially because of the obsessive reverence and mystery attached to this great work of Mayamora community. This scripture is read and shared among a very few select disciples and it is so done only at night. Written in both prose and poetry, the scripture is said to dwell on the basics of the Vaishnavite philosophy, in addition to procedures of rituals, knowledge and illusions, the do’s and don’ts by devotees etc. Aniruddhadev did not evolve any separate philosophy. He carried forward the Sankardeva Movement as entailed by his Guru, Gopaldeva, with his individual brilliance thrown in ample measure.

The other Mayamora Sattras
          Krishnadev, after five years at Nahar-ati set up another sattra at Khutiputa which remained the main sattra of the Mayamora community for a long time. As per the Carit-puthi, during the time of Ashtabhujdev, the ninth Sattradhikar, the number of disciples touched 800,000. During this time, only the Tipuk-Mulan Sattranear Doomdooma, in Tinsukia district, was established. The present day Mayamora Dinjoy Sattra was set up at Chabua near Dinjan river after the sattra was shifted from Rangagara in the then Matak kingdom. Cidanandadev, the sixteenth Sattradhikar, had established the Madarkhat Sattrain 1724 AD. The Tipuk Sattraexpanded into twelve branches of which Dirak, Ubon, and Barali Kapahtoli are important and have been functioning as the prime mover of the Moran community since ages. The present Sattradhikar of Kopahtoli Sattra displays no pretension of an Aryan saint. The Sattradhikar with distinct Mongoloid looks, unlike most of his Vaishnavite compatriots, mingles at ease with the simple village folks as well as with the high and mighty who throng his sattra in remote Kakopathar in Tinsukia district.
Practices and Way of Life
         Like other Kal-Samhati sattras, the sattras of Mayamora communities are also not of celibate order – both the Gurus and the disciples lead a life of domestic and spiritual pursuits. The prayer house, the Naamghar, in Mayamora tradition is generally without the Manikut, i.e. the sanctum sanctorum. On the floor of the Naamghar, a raised platform, referred to as ‘Sadua’ is maintained for placing the holy book Bhagawata. Tamulishaal – an earmarked location in the middle of the Naamghar is used to put the offerings. Another small structure before reaching the main Naamghar is maintained for regular rituals like Kirttana – the congregational signing of hymns. The villages also have a Naamghar like those in the sattras. The Gaonburas or the village headmen manage all religious functions in the villages. The village Naamghar committee works under the guidance and supervision of the sattra of its adherence. The Sattradhikar is generally hereditary in this Samhati – though in case of failure to nominate a successor, a Sattradhikar  is sometimes chosen democratically. Sarana and Bhajana (the rituals of initiation) play a very important role in the Mayamora life. A person is not accepted in the social fold and growth of life is not considered proper if he is not officially initiated. Such persons called ‘Ewa’are condemned very severally in all walks of life. Initiation ceremonies are generally held collectively and rituals are very detailed.
      Gayon-Bayon – the holy sessions of singing with instruments is practiced in the villages and sponsored by the sattras. Mridanga, an oval shaped percussion instrument, different from Khol, are used by the devotees wearing a typical costume of long skirt and headgear. The holy geets composed by Aniruddhadev, Nityanandadev and Hariramdev are generally sung. There is well determined grammar in musical orchestration and the rules of presentation are fairly detailed.
The devotees, both males and females, of the Mayamora Sattra and the community organize a special midnight service where the Nij Sashtra,mentioned above, is read and recited.
The Mayamora Rebellion
     The Mayamora rebellion in the 18th century was a determined bid by an obstinate collectivity of the Mayamora community against the repressive regimes of the monarchial administration. The sattra was the rallying point of the dissenting collectivity. The rebellion which spanned for a period of twenty five years, is interpreted by some scholars as the most important ‘people’s uprising’ against the exploiting feudal class. Many thought it was essentially led and nurtured by the Mayamoria community with a motivation of resistance to religious and cultural bigotry. The  ‘suffering millions’ played a major role in challenging the repressive Ahom monarchy of the day. Notwithstanding various interpretations, the Mayamora Sattra of the day cannot be studied without dwelling on this very interesting part of its history.
        The first major point of conflict between the monarchy and the Mayamora community appears to be the incident of beheading of Nityanandadev by soldiers of king Surampha, and that, too, after a cordial meeting with the king. Nityanandadev was the fourth Sattradhikar of the Mayamora Sattraand his killing was considered as an act of betrayal and conspiracy by his disciples. The seat of the head of the sattra remained vacant for four years since the year 1494 AD owing to the indecision caused by royal disapproval. This was considered by the disciples a very bad omen. They wanted to challenge the royals.
       The Sattradhikar of Khutiaputa Sattra, Baikunthanathdev and his brother Raghunandandev were killed during the reign of Ahom king Godadhar Singha. Madhabananda and his brother Sadananda of another Mayamora sattra called Puranimati were also killed. Caturbhujdev, the designate Sattradhikar could not openly take the mantle and for five years the post of Sattradhikar remained vacant. He was one of the Mayamora guests who were forced by Phuleswari Kuwari, wife of king Shivasingha, to accept the offerings of animal sacrifices made to Goddess, an act of ultimate dishonour to a monotheist Sattradhikar .This episode had in fact fueled the fire.
       Kirttichandra Borbaruah, (1586AD) became a very powerful royal official and could also choose the successor to the throne. He is known to have initiated the infamous incident of burning of buranjis (history) which did not mention his lineage to his liking. His repressive activities to further his own interests of consolidating of power reached its nadir when the Mayamora disciples began thinking of doing something drastic. Raghav Neog and Nahor Khora Saikia, two royal officials having allegiance to Mayamora Sattra, were targeted for special ill treatment. Ashtabhujdev, the head of Mayamora Sattra, was insulted when he had helped the queens of king Rajeswarsingha who were ill treated and banished by Kirttichanda. Kirttichanda put Lakshmisingha on the throne after the death of his brother Rajeswarsingha. Sattradhikar Ashtabhujdev gave the silent go ahead to his disciples for a final show-down after this episode.
      Several royal princes and officials, who were not Mayamoria, were also rallying around the Mayamorias to avenge years of exploitation and injustices. The disciples who detested the royal patronage of the Brahminical precepts and forceful imposition on the sattras also came around. The sattras which received royal patronage towed the line of the monarchy and this brought about divisions among sattras of various Samhatis.
       In October, 1769, the disciples formally declared freedom from Ahom monarchy. They attacked and killed nearly 2,000 soldiers who were dispatched under Beztekela Bora to quell the rebellion in Hatisungi, near Moran. Bhaluki and Bhebeli, wives of Nahar Khora of the Mayamora, led this war by adopting the pseudonyms of Radha and Rukmini. Gagini Deka, son of Ashtabhujdev, declared himself the Namrup king and enlisted the support of Mohanmala, the son of king Rudradharsingha, who was deprived of the throne as also Caru Singha and Ratneswar – sons of king Rajeswar Singha. King Laxmishinga‘s massive force was defeated by the rebels who took general Haranath Phukan as prisoner and later killed Dihingiya Phukan in another skirmish.
       The rebels advanced towards Rongpur and took both the king and the Barboruah as prisoners. They made Ramakanta, son of Nahar Khora, the king and killed the potential challengers like Mohanmala, Caru Singha and Ratneswar. They also killed Kirttichandra and other royal officials. Raghav Neog became very powerful and after sometime in the high seat, began acting like another Kirttichandra Barboruah. Gagini Deka,also called Saptabhujdev, despite leading the rebellion, kept away from interfering in the administration. But he also discovered that the replacement of his disciple was no better and organized to overthrow Raghav’s regime.
         Finally Raghav was also killed in April 1770. King Lakshmi Singha was again installed in the throne. Immediately, the new regime killed Ashtabhujdev and Saptabhujdev and others suspected of involvement in the rebellion. Ten years later, during the regime of Gaurinath Singha, in 1783, the rebels again tried to capture Rongpur which was unsuccessful. Following this, a sustained operation to annihilate the Mayamoras was launched for more than a month. While the Mayamora Sattra accounts indicate killing of not less than 700,000 Mayamoras, Maniram Dewan in his Buranji-Bibek - Ratna says that the population of the kingdom got drastically reduced after that.
      Even that had not quelled the Mayamorias and they begun preparing for another showdown. The war in 1786 saw the killing of the Ahom generals Morongikhowa Gohain and Dihingia Phukan. In the November 1786 war, both the parties used guns for the first time. The rebels again advanced up to Majuli where the sattras with royal patronage like Garmur and Dakshinpat faced the ire of the rebels. The advances of the rebels unnerved the king and he fled along with his royal courtiers. In January 1788, the Mayamoria rebels again captured the capital. Bhorothi, a successor to Mayamoria Sattra, was christened as Bharat Singha and had become the king. A last ditch effort by Purnananda Borgohain, the Prime Minister, with the help of Dihingia Borboruah, in stopping the rebels resulted only in killing of thousands of royal soldiers, including the Borboruah, in two skirmishes.
       Gaurinath Singha tried to muster forces from neighboring Cachar, Jayantia hills and Manipur, as well as from the British, but could not make any headway. On the 17 September 1792, the then Governor General was approached by the Collector of Rongpur, Lumsden, to send British troops to Assam. In November 1792, six companies of British force under Captain Wales had arrived at Goalpara in western Assam. He deputed Lieutenant McGregor with some additional forces that attacked the Mayamoria rebels. Several skirmishes later, the Mayamoria rebellion was finally crushed.
        The fierce loyalty to the Guru by the disciples of this sect of Kal Samhati thus, has been so obsessive that the adage, Mori jao, mari jao, Guru wrin suji jao (‘Even if I have to kill or die, I surely will pay my debt to my preceptor…’) came to be associated with the Mayamorias whose parallels are drawn only with the martial race of the Sikhs with fierce allegiance to the Gurus.

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