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Sattras of Majuli Island: Unfolding of Relations between the Bhakti Movement, Architecture, and Ephemeral Landscape of the River Brahmaputra’s Floodplains

Minal Sagare
Srishti Manipal Institute of Design, Art and Technology, Bengaluru, India

Keywords: culture, craft, spirituality, architecture, landscape, ritual, Sattra

Figure 1: Interiors of the Namghar of Sri Sri Dakhinpath Sattra, Majuli Island, Assam (Source: Minal Sagare)

The Bhakti movement (a spiritual movement in Hinduism) started in South India in the seventh-eighth century.1 Bhakti means ‘love and devotion to one’s personal God’.2 As per the Bhagavad Gita, Bhakti Marg (the path of devotion) is one of the four ways of attaining moksha (liberation/enlightenment). Within Hinduism, the Bhakti movement appeared as a rebel against the exclusive and elaborate Brahmanical rituals and customs, its hierarchical chaturvarna—the Hindu caste system and associated discrimination. The Bhakti movement included lower classes as well as women providing them equal access to spirituality and liberation that was earlier prohibited by the Brahmanical tradition. This socio-spiritual movement spread all over India from the eighth to eighteenth centuries giving rise to a diverse yet rich saint-poet tradition.3

By the fifteenth century, the Bhakti movement reached Assam in North-east India.4 Sattriya (Sankari) culture founded by the saint-poet Srimant Sankaradeva (1449-1568 CE) marked the most influential thread of the Bhakti movement in the Brahmaputra Valley of Assam. Srimant Sankaradeva’s Sattriya culture is anchored to the principles of the Bhagavad Gita.5 Apart from Kirtan—congregational singing of the name and deeds of Lord Krishna, the devotional practices of this Neo-Vaishnavite tradition gave rise to diverse performing arts such as bhaona (theatre), Sattriya nritya (a classical Assamese dance form), borgeet (devotional songs), ankiya (dramas composed by Sankaradeva and his disciple Madhavadeva), and raas-leela (musical performance based on the life of Lord Krishna).6 For the propagation of his Eka Saran Hari Naam Dharma, Shankaradeva established Than7a place in the open/under the shade of trees—for daily congregation with his disciples and monks which later came to be known as Sattra institution.8 By the seventeenth century proliferation of Sattriya culture in the Brahmaputra Valley led to the practice of physical construction of the Sattra institution with kirtan-mandap—also known as namghar (place for chanting)—as its nucleus and houses of devotees and monks around9. The Majuli Island located amidst the ephemeral landscape of the River Brahmaputra’s active floodplains in upper Assam, with the concentration of the largest number of Sattras, came to be known as the nerve centre of Sattriya culture.10 Over the period Majuli’s solitary and serene environment has enriched and preserved the practices of Sattriya culture.11

Unfolding the relations between the Neo-Vaishnavite tradition of the Bhakti Movement in Assam, the architecture of Sattra, and the ephemeral landscape of the River Brahmaputra’s floodplains characterised by flooding and erosion, this paper discusses three thematic revelations from the architectural study of Sri Sri Auniati Sattra and Sri Sri Dakhinpath Sattra–two of the oldest Sattras (established in the seventeenth century) of the Majuli Island. First, the conception of the space of namghar mirrored the newly imagined informal relation between deity and devotee in the Bhakti Movement that was deeply rooted in the idea of love and devotion as against their formal, ritualistic, and symbolic relation as imagined and manifested in the Indian classical temple architecture. Second, the inclusion of temporality of the floodplains of the River Brahmaputra in the planning, design, and construction practices of Sattra dissolving divisive notions of time as past, present, and future. The quadrupedal layout of these Sattras with centrally located namghar and hathis (raised earth mounds) with dormitories of bhakats (disciples) built on them all along the four sides of the namghar separated by phukhuris (manmade ponds) is the most befitting response to the annual flooding of the island. Third, the intricate interweaving of devotional practices of performing arts of the Sattras with local craft traditions of mask making, pottery, silk and cotton weaving, and bamboo craft. Sheltering all these crafts together is the tradition of timber construction. The structure of namghar intended to accommodate large congregations is necessarily a long-span timber structure built by using timber log columns of the trees drifted by floods from the highland forests of Arunachal Pradesh.

Similar to the other Sattras of the island, these two Sattras also have a history of the erosion of their lands, relocation, and reconstruction. Despite this, these Sattras have provided emotional, cultural, and spiritual anchorage to the shifting communities of Majuli and continuity to their craft traditions amidst the hostile and ephemeral landscape of the River Brahmaputra’s floodplains.

1 Karen Penchilis-Prentiss, The Embodiment of Bhakti (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

2 Pranami Bora, “A study of the elements of mass communication in the Bhakti movement of Sankaradeva.” PhD thesis, Mahapurusha Srimanta Sankaradeva Viswavidyalaya, Nagaon, 2018.

3 Mohua Dutta, “Bhakti Movement: A Socio-Religious Struggle of The Marginalised Society,” Indian Journal of Applied Research, 4 (2011): 685-687, DOI: 10.15373/2249555X/August2014/196; U.N. Goswami, Vaishnav Bhakti – Dhara Aur Santa Katha (Guwahati: Mani Manik Prakash, 2012).

4 Bora, “A study of the elements of mass communication in the Bhakti movement of Sankaradeva.” 64.

5 Sanjib Kumar Borkakoti, Mahapurush Srimanta Sankaradeva (New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishing House, 2022).

6 D. Nath, The Majuli Island: Society, Economy and Culture (Delhi: Anshah Publishing House, 2009).

7 Sanjib Kumar Borkakoti, ed. Majuli: Resources and Challenges. (New Delhi: Authors Press, 2017), 17.

8 Nath, The Majuli Island, 166.

9 Nath, The Majuli Island, 166.

10 Borkakoti, ed. Majuli, 17.

11 Borkakoti, ed. Majuli, 17.

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