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Bardowa Sattra (The Batadraba Thaan)


Bardowa Sattra (The Batadraba Thaan)
The birthplace of the Guru and the institutions

          In different writings of the yore Bardowa has been called a village or a Jana pada (a large geographical administered unit). Srimanta Sankardeva is said to have been born at Bardowa on the midnight of a new moon on the Kartika Sankranti day in the Saka 1371 (1449 AD).He grew up here among the admiring relatives and the subjects of the Shiromoni Bhuyans (Chief of the Bhuyan clan), got educated under the tutelage of the Brahmin pundit Mahendra Kandali, demonstrated streaks of innate genius in him by display of exemplary feats including writing skills, got married and took the mantle of leadership of the community. After the demise and marriage of his daughter he left for his famed pilgrimage—a sojourn destined to have a determining impact in the subsequent history of Assam.

Origin of the Bardowa Sattra
On his return to Bardowa from the pilgrimage, a very important event was the arrival of a Brahmin pundit called Jagadish Mishra from Puri who is said to have been divinely ordained to chant the Bhagawata to Sankardeva. Thus, the insights developed through the pilgrimage and the Bhagawata had kindled the spirit of Krishna, the principal character in the Bhagawata as the human manifestation of the supreme deity.This he propagated through art, culture and literature and most interestingly a well laid out plan of brilliant social engineering and organizational structure in his scheme of things. Focus was the common man and the simple lot and their path to salvation was not to be some complex, inhuman and magical totems but through a system of aesthetic diasporas on the basis of age old scripts made easy to comprehend by adroit transliteration and updated to accommodate the indigenous socio cultural milieu .

          In Bardowa, Sankardeva constructed the first community prayer hall called by nomenclatures like devogriha, harigriha, kittrtanghar and most popularly naamghar which had later become the model of nucleus of the sattra institution. Gradually the numbers of followers of the Guru began to swell and the newly constructed community prayer hall had become the epicentre for the lives and pursuit of the devotees. He is also said to have constructed the Doul mandir and laid the foundation of the dormitories(hatis) around the kirttanghar during his years at Bardowa. The seeds of the Assamese renaissance were sown here itself when the great master had conceptualized and performed the magnum-opus, Cinha Yatra-the musical which started the tradition of painting, dance, music and theatre. The role assigned to the sattras of guardianship over the disciples was started by the great master himself in Bardowa when he donned the multiple roles of an administrator, preacher, preceptor, writer, composer, artist and performer. He also steadfastly promoted the egalitarian practices of equal treatment to all classes of people and a position of respect to the women. The legend of Radhika, the blessed woman belonging to the depressed caste, which is very popular in Assam, is a pointer to this. When the Bhuyans of Bardowa failed to cut off the flow of water from the mighty Brahmaputra to the river Tembuwani, Sankardeva advised construction of a dam there. The legend has it that a woman called Yogomaya belonging to so-called depressed caste, was travelling in a boat with her fisherman husband, when the Guru called for her to start the tough task of pouring soil into the turbulent river. The great master held the view that the task would entail the inauguration by the most pious and despite being a member of the so called lower strata, she rose to the occasion and she was rechristened as Radhika as the dam was successfully constructed. With this it was established that all have equal potential in the eyes of the God.
Rediscovery of the site

         Nothing much is heard about Bardowa following the exit of the great master for a long time. It was only after three generations, when Kanaklata, wife of Sankara's youngest grandson set-out eastward along with her adopted son Damodora with a mission to re-discover the holy arena, where the spiritual and cultural renaissance was brought about by the great master. They camped at the south bank of Brahmaputra and continued with the practice of Vaishnavite monastic order. This place, where some disciples were also settled came to be known as the Bali Sattra. Damodora then moved to the south and impressed the chieftain of a local tribe who had facilitated Damodora's hunt for the place of the Guru. The tribal king Cetuwa later was initiated into the faith. Damodora was also summoned by the Ahom king Jayadhvaja Singha to his court and also was granted a plot of land for establishing a new sattra. This place is known as Vasudeva Thaan Narowa Sattra situated on the bank of the river Kadha, near Dhakuakhana. Later, with the help of two royal officers, Tangshu Phukan and Mohidhar Buragohain, Damodora succeeded in his mission of locating the holy place, Bardowa. As the new sattra at Bardowa began to take shape, Damodora established another sattra at Bardowa known as the Kuji Sattra.
           After Damodora’s demise, his son Ramakanta began looking after the development of the Bardowa Thaan. Cakrarapani Bairagi was deputed by Ramakanta to visit all the sattras of Assam and collect details about the life and times of the great master Sankardeva and also the successors of the path. Bairagi, true to the heritage of intellectual pursuit, took notes during his interactions in different places with many Sattradhikars and came back to Bardowa, where the Katha Guru Carita (Biography of the Guru in prose) saw the light of the day. In the mean time, Ramakanta, like his father, was managing the affairs of all the neighboring sattras, including Bardowa. There had been a quiet dispute on the right of running of the Bardowa Sattra between the descendents of Kanaklata and those of Ramakanta. Ananta Raya, grandson of Kanaklata through her daughter Subhadra had earlier established his sattra at Kowamara near the present day Sivasagar. His sons established a sattra at Kalugaon Salaguri and had earned royal patronage of the KingKamaleswar Singha who became a disciple of the Salaguri Sattra. The King, through copper plate inscriptions gave ownership of a small part of the Bardowa Sattra away to Salaguri Sattra. Since then Bardowais managed by both Narowa and Salaguri groups. The dual ownership of the premises had its ramifications in bifurcation of ritualistic practices and also literary and cultural pursuits. After independence of India a section of enlightened devotees worked hard to unify both the groups. This has resulted in reconstruction of the kirttanghar  in the year 1958 to be used by both the groups. To conduct and manage the affairs of the sattra, a management committee was formed. Harinarayan Dutta Baruah, Haladhar Bhuyan, Motiram Borah, Bishnuram Medhi, Tirtha Nath Dev Goswami and Mitradev Mahanta were some of the leading citizens of the state who had worked towards ensuring a democratic management of the Bardowa as it exists today. Thus Bardowa is now a Thaan - a holy shrine under the auspices of two sattras, managed by a committee as per a constitution. As of today, Bardowa is flanked and managed by two household sattras bearing the names Narowa and Salaguri on its north and south respectively.
          Keeping the rich tradition alive, the groups in and around Bardowa encouraged writing of plays and poetry. In addition, the art of mask making, manuscript writing and painting along with woodcarving, sculpture making became respectable vocation actively encouraged by the succession of pontiffs. Among such talented preceptors the name of Lakshmideva would figure prominently. He was requested by the king Chandrakanta Singha to compose and enact Kumoro Harana  a famous episode of kidnapping of Aniruddha, grand son of Krishna to Kamrupa, the ancient Assam and the resultant battle of Lord Shiva and Lord Krishna. The play was performed in the royal capital. The scholar himself illustrated the original manuscript of Kumoro Harana. Another scholar Sasadhar of Aibheti Na-Sattra (Salaguri) commissioned illustration of manuscript of Parijat Harana, another play detailing snatching of the heavenly flower. Kesakanta (Charaikhola), Khagendra and Vamsidhar of Aibheti were famous for mask-making and wood works. Vamsidhar's son Chandrakanta lifted the ban of entry of the schedule castes to the naamghar and administered initiation to that community for which, he was excommunicated by the then Mahanta Society of Bardowa group of sattras. Equally expert in mask-making was Padma of Bhogbari. His forefather Mohanchandra wrote few dramas.

Aai Kanaklata and Bardowa
          Kanaklata was the wife of Chaturbhuj Thakur, son of Haricharan Thakur, the third son of Sankardeva from his second wife Kalindi. She along with Damodora, a close relative of her husband and an adopted son are the forerunners who re-discovered Bardowa. While staying at Bishnupur Sattra in Goalpara, Kanaklata was kept enthralled by the tales of life and times at Bardowa as narrated by Kalindi Aai, wife of Srimanta Sankardeva. Later Kanaklata herself was moving about preaching the tenets of the faith among various people. As desired by her late husband and beckoned by sheer calling to re-discover the glory of the great preceptor, Kanaklata, a courageous missionary, way back in the 17th century Assam, set-out in an era of inhospitable terrain and communication. Damodora played the stellar role in organizing the great re-discovery. After months of journey, the party led by Kanaklatahad arrived at a high feature. This location is commemorated as Aaibheti (abode of the mother). This is the place from where Kanaklata surveyed nearby areas and got to discover the landmarks she heard so much about from Kalindi, her grandmother in law. Thus the foundation of the Doul, the kirttanghar, the four hatis were found. In addition, a stream called shantijan and another called akashiganga along with the silikha tree were rediscovered. This finding, which dates back to the time of the preceptor Sankardeva, led to the recreation of the premise which existed during the time of Srimanta Sankardeva. Aai Kanaklata decided to stay on the eastern part of the newly discovered Thaan and Damodor stayed at Bali Sattra of the northern side. She declined the royal offer of allotment of additional land and suggested for allotting the same to Damodor. Aai Kanaklata left for Kamrup after settling the issue at Bardowa. It is said that she stayed at a place called Cinatoli in Lakhimpur district for four years and stayed at Kaliabor later for some time. She could not advance any further as the war of Saraighat took place between the Ahoms and the Mughals. Aai Kanaklata left for her heavenly abode in the year 1680 AD.
Bardowa and Wooden Artistry
          There is a mini- museum in the present day in Bardowa Thaan under the aegis of the Directorate of State Museum. The collection  of wooden structures kept in the museum are perhaps mere remnants of a wonderful treasure that must have got destroyed over centuries because of ravages of time and unthinking human intervention. Some connoisseurs like Dr. Naren Kalita of Bardowa had played an important role in surveying and retrieving the ones kept in the museum. The ancient artwork of Bardowa may be divided into the doors/arches, the pillar mounted wooden statues and the panels.
          Two doors, coated with molded brass sheets having a number of figures greet the guests at the Thaan. They are said to be unique because the brass sheets covering the surface make a canvas for the images and the metal shines emitting a glow in the gateways. There exists three such works of art at Bardowa. The Kalidomono panel, which had once decorated the prayer hall of Bardowa Thaan, is considered a masterpiece of wood curving. The form in a frame 120 cm x 28 cm shows a wonderful harmony of the structure of the pictorial forms. Here the carver defines his subject by placing the Kadamba tree at the bottom left of the Serpent’s (Kali) tail, which suggests the bank of the lake. Bardowa Thaan has nine images of the seven incarnations of Lord Vishnu. The wood carvers are found to be very adroit in their treatment of space and composition in the limited picture frame for pictorial delineations. There are very interesting secular subjects also, found to be adorning the walls of the Bardowa Thaan. The elephant fights, buffalo fights and scenes of animal hunting are also found to part of temple decoration. Dr. K.K. Dasgupta draws a parallel of these carvings with those of Babylonian and Assyrian repertories of the remote past. Dr. Dasgupta is also very impressed with the four panels illustrating the act of slaying of Bali by Rama. The carver obviously was inspired by the painting techniques of the sattriya school of Assam in organizing his pictorial forms of two distinct planes directly at the eye-level vision of the beholder. Like the manuscript paintings, the figures are found in linear progression.
          Among many pillar carvings, the important ones are life size carvings of Vishnu, Brahma, and Shiva etc. Influences of the folk and tribal ethos in some of the poles resembling tribal totems are noticed. Among the other significant statues are those of Garuda and Hanuman. Here also, the Bardowa artists accentuated the prominent body parts like eyes and facial muscles to make the characters display an expression of bhakti – the hallmark of the culture. It is obvious that the carvers practiced quite a primitive way of carpentry with the usage of tools like axe, knives and chisels of various sizes and shapes while carving. The sattriya artists did incisions inside the wooden panels and by these, they could keep the uncut portions of the wood raised, later to give patterns of their desired figures. Dr. Naren Klalita calls this method Scorai Khuliya – like a woodpecker’s way of digging holes in a tree. The act of carving were done in two phases, first the Kondhuwa, wherein surface is sliced off in flakes and then objects are given finish after giving patterns. Thereafter the sculptures are painted with colour.
Rituals and Festivals
            Like the other sattras, Bardowa Sattra also follows rituals and festivals of many kinds. True to the heritage of special emphasis on Naam (congregational singing of hymns) given by the Purusa samhati, the sattriya of Bardowa take pride in their daily ritual of Naam Prasanga – a system of devotional singing session, for fourteen times a day. The first session begins with a group of devotees going around singing with cymbals early in the morning all around the four hatis. This is followed by subsequent sessions including the prayer session of ladies at 8 ’O clock in the morning and later in the afternoon. The evening sessions include ritualistic playing of khols (drums) and end with reciting of scriptures.
            Among the important festivals, the birth and death anniversaries of Sankardeva and Madhavdeva, Doul utsav or the festival of colour and the death anniversaries of the important Sattradhikars are held with participation of large number of disciples. The Pasati ,in the form of a folk theatre is observed by the ladies.Various units of the two sattras also perform Ankiya-bhaona in the important festivals.

Management of the Thaan
             Situated at a distance of about 15 kilometer from the central Assam district headquarters of Nagaon, Bardowa had witnessed a major demographic changes during last several decades. A total of about 167 bighas of landed property is in the name of the Batadraba Thaan which is shown in possession of the either sattra—Narowa and Salaguri. Important landmarks like the shantijan,akashiganga,kirttanghar,the tembuoni jaan, Doul mandir etc exist on that property. Another property of 130 bighas  are also in possession of the sattra though officially shown in the name of Social Forestry division.
            Despite being the most celebrated of locations of the Assamese in general and the Vaishnavite sect in particular because of its unique heritage of being the birth place of Srimanta Sankardeva, Bardowa seems to be not receiving its due. However, there has been certain changes in recent times in running of the affairs of the sattra which is discernable from the marked improvement in its maintenance, renovations for public conveniences and the beautification drives undertaken.. The roads are tiled and neat with recent addition of aesthetic lighting arrangements. Water logging, lack of proper amenities for the hundreds of pilgrims who throng the Thaan everyday, littered campus with cows and picnickers having a free run------are gradually becoming things of the past. In addition to some major works undertaken by the government, certain developmental works are undertaken also by the management committee. The focus appears to be on substantive issues like proper drainage, hygienic toilets, landscaping and horticultural work, preservation of rare manuscripts by turning a part of the Damodar Ata Bhavan into a library etc. The committee also has started a school on Sattriya culture in memory of Aai Khersuti, the grandmother of Srimanta Sankardeva. Pranjal Hazarika, the youngest of all the committee members and a lecturer in a college at Nagaon, insisted that people expect Bardowa to play a leadership role in preservation of the great heritage of dance and music and that through a proper academic system only, young generations can be motivated to internalize and perpetuate the great heritage. The recent act of placing a prototype of the sculptural masterpiece of the doorframe at the entrance of the kirttanghar definitely adds an aura of specialty which, however, is not the case in respect of the expensive looking Doulghar with its architectural designs not having any affinity to the local heritage or ethos. When pointed out, all the committee members including Sri Paramananda Mahanta, the President of the committee and also the Sattradhikar of Salaguri Sattra generally agreed with the observation.Dr Pradip Kumar Deva  Mahanta, a young medical practitioner of repute in the capital city of Guwahati, is presently the General Secretary of the management committee which consists of 71 number of executive members from all over the Northeast region of the country. Out of them 16 members are from the local Narowa and Salaguri Sattra .Four sattriyas ,skillful in dance and music, each from both the sattras are nominated by the respective Sattradhikars ,while a total number of eight members are nominated by an assembly of lifelong members of both the sattras .There are also a seven co-opted members from the local bodies with no voting right.
             The structure of the present committee is significant from the point of view of relatively younger age profile of the important office bearers as well as their educational qualification and exposure level. There seems to be a resolve in the minds of the members to bring back the glory of the birth place of the Mahapurusha  of Assam, despite the challenges.




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