Assam the Land of Devotion

  • By Rajiv Malik
  • October 26, 2017
Mother and daughter worship at the Tilinga (bell) Temple in Tinsukia, Assam

Assam continues to amaze in this second part of our report as we explore the religious centers, called satras, founded by the 16th-century Vaishnava saint Sankardev, the great temples of the Ahom kings and the educational projects of a wide range of Hindu institutions striving to meet the state’s modern challenges.

Last issue we explored Guwahati and environs in western Assam, which include both Kamakhya, the state’s most famous Goddess temple, and the birthplace in Nagaon of Srimant Sankardev (1449-1568), Assam’s most influential saint. Along the way, photographer Thomas Kelly and I met with the Bodo tribal community, visited both a Brahma Samaj and a Bathou temple and spoke with leaders of several organizations engaged in education and social upliftment. The state’s immense diversity was immediately evident.


The second part of our adventure, reported here, takes us east and up the mighty Brahmaputra River to Dibrugarh, center of the tea country, and from there to Majuli Island, where Sankardev established the great satra centers of Ekasarana Dharma. As around Guwahati, we visited famed places of worship, including Tilinga (the “bell temple”) and the 18th-century Sivadol Temple built by the Ahom kings at Shiv Sagar. We met with the tea garden workers whose ancestors were brought by the British from different parts of India as indentured laborers, and with the native Assamese people and tribes, some of whom arrived thousands of years ago. We learned of modern issues, such as the large-scale migration of Bangladeshis into the state, which is impacting its demography with possibly disastrous consequences in the future. Finally, we were impressed with the serious work of a number of Hindu organizations who are developing basic educational institutions in the most remote villages as well as elite schools in the city which challenge even those of the Christian missionaries.


Majuli Island

Everyone we consulted about our trip urged us to go to Majuli Island, telling us we would never understand Assam without a visit to this storehouse of art and culture that was once a center of Assamese civilization. Majuli is where Sankardev met Madhavdeva, who became his chief disciple and was instrumental in the spread of Ekanatha Dharma. It is now rather out of the way, requiring ferry service to reach it, across the Brahmaputra river and having minimalist accommodations for visitors.

When Sankardev established the many satras (religious/cultural centers) here in the 16th century, the area was not an island. It was a peninsula between the Brahmaputra and another river. In a catastrophic flood lasting 15 days in 1750 - one still mentioned prominently in local folklore - the Brahmaputra broke its banks and captured the adjacent river channel, turning the peninsula into an island. Majuli has been eroding at an increasing rate ever since, going from 483 square miles in 1900 to just 136 in 2014.

One travels there today by ferryboats that regularly depart from Nemati Ghat, 170 kms downstream from Dibrugarh. Everything gets to the island by ferry, a fact of life reflected in the tariff posted by our ferry’s wheelhouse. With occasionally creative spelling, it lists toll rates for all manner of creatures and cargo from people (US$0.23) and “ducks by the basket” ($0.05), to a heavy truck ($14.72), and an elephant with mahout ($13.94).


Uttar Kamalabari

After an hour-and-a-half ride across the turbulent river, Thomas, guide Ramesh Limbo and I are back in our cab and headed for Uttar Kamalabari Satra, one of the island’s most famous religious centers of the Ekanatha Dharma, and first of three we will visit. Lush green farms and beautiful stands of bamboo line both sides of the road. Peace and spirituality permeate the unpolluted environment. As we approach the satra’s grand entrance, we see a huge billboard announcing the popular Raas Leela programs scheduled for November. Pilgrims and tourists flock here for the celebration from Assam itself, the rest of India and even overseas.


Uttar Kamalabari Satra is a center for art, with artists trained here in classical sattriya music and dance developed by Sankardev himself. A brahmachari we meet on our way in (whom we take to be a kitchen worker, as he is spreading out rice to dry) is himself an accomplished dancer who has performed in many parts of the world. This satra has some 400,000 devotees across Assam and in other parts of India.

The satra’s head, Satradhikari Janardan Goswami, grants us a long interview. It was here, Janardan explains, that Sankardev started the tradition of naam ghar (“prayer house”), such as the one we visited earlier at Batadrava, Sankardev’s birthplace. As mentioned in the last issue, naam ghars are temples with no enshrined Deity in which devotees chant the names of Krishna before a seven-tiered throne which holds only the Bhagavat Purana. This is a central practice of the Ekasarana Dharma (“shelter-in-one religion”) founded by Sankardev. Each satra includes a naam ghar as well as other facilities.

The satras founded by Sankardev, a householder, are run by family men. The six begun by Madhavdeva, a bachelor, are run by brahmacharis; these are called udasin satras. Of the island’s original 64 satras, only 37 remain active. In the whole of Assam, there are 23 udasin satras (including this one), staffed by 800 brahmacharis, and 900 satras run by householders. “The householder satras are more in number because the households give birth to children who start their own,” Janardan explains. There are, we are told, ten thousand naam ghar temples in Assam.

We worship only Krishna; in other places they worship both Radha and Krishna.” SATRADHIKARI JANARDAN

A small child joins us during the interview, playing with Janardan’s mobile phone and being handled with a lot of love and affection. We learn that a householder attached to the satra offered this child, his son, to the satra as he saw him as a future monk. Once brought to the satra, the boy refused to return with his parents; and even now has no interest in seeing them.

Of the satra’s 100 bramachari, most were given by the parents around the age of six. “It is not compulsory they remain brahmacharis; they can later opt for the householder life at an appropriate stage and time and serve the satra in that way,” Janardan explained. The children attend both the satra’s gurukulam and government school. “We place a lot of emphasis on good quality education.”

Janardan explained at length about the activities of Sankardev; and as he lived 120 years, the saint’s story is long indeed! Sankardev worked among the many castes and tribes of Assam and initiated saints from all communities in an effort to bring them all under the umbrella of Vaishnava Hinduism. “The main difference between Majuli and other centers of Vaishnavism is that we worship only Lord Krishna, while they worship both Radha and Krishna,” Janardan told us.

“Earlier,” he said, “the satras focused mainly on religious activities and the promotion of art and culture. Now they are taking up social work, including education and medicine.” He himself travels regularly to visit the naam ghars in various villages. His brahmacharis, one hundred in number, perform kirtan and bhajan but do not perform priestly functions such as puja, yagna, samskaras or marriage ceremonies.

Janardan said he is pleased with the work of Ekal Vidyalaya, which has 210 schools on Majuli, some in remote areas lacking even government schools. Ekal has been effective, he told us, in countering the influence of the Christian missionaries among the tribals.

He advised, “If we want our youth to become spiritual, then the parents must follow the path of spirituality as well. Today the problem is that the parents do not, and therefore are not at peace with themselves. Once they connect to the spiritual lifestyle, they will become blissful and peaceful, and the youth will be inspired to follow. Then there will be real change in society.”

Like all satras, Uttar Kamalabari has a large hall where its monks perform their daily prayers, bhajan, kirtans and rituals. The hall here is full of spiritual vibrations though no activity is taking place there when we visit. On all the four sides of the naam ghar are rows of rooms, about twelve feet on a side, sleeping quarters for the monks, including the monastery head. This is a common pattern for the satras.

A Mising Voice

Departing Majuli on the ferryboat, we meet Mising tribe member Raju Gam, 28. Numbering one million in Assam - Misings are the second largest tribal group in the northeast, after the Bodos, also of Assam. Raju is a graduate in agricultural studies who works for Amar Majuli, an NGO engaged in the empowerment of women and focusing on organic agriculture and youth leadership.


THERE ARE FIVE opeems, OR CLANS, among the Mising: Mayang, Bagra, Delu, Ayong and Sayung. Their traditional practices are the same, and they are equal to each other, with no caste hierarchy. I consider myself a Hindu, as do many others in the Mising tribe. We worship Lord Krishna as our chief Deity.

We marry outside our own clan, that is, into one of the other four groups. If the marriage is arranged, 101 betel nuts are presented to the bride’s father and her family by the groom’s side. This offering is symbolic and considered equivalent to a gift of 100,000 rupees. After this, the bride and her family are brought to the groom’s house, where they are offered rice wine, apong, as part of the marriage ceremony. Having wine is part of our rituals, but drinking to extreme is rare among our people. Earlier, marriage took place around 17; now, with education and better employment, the age is going up. Previously the focus was on the number of children; now it is on their education. Literacy is today 50 percent among the Mising. Love marriages, such as my own, which my family has accepted, are becoming common.

The positive thing about the satras is that they help educate the poor children through supporting the Ekal movement. They also contribute to the local economy and its development by attracting tourists and pilgrims. However, when it comes to the people of the Mising community, we are not so welcome in the satras because we are taken as meat eaters and consume liquor. Because of this attitude of the satras toward the community, some of our people are attracted to Christianity, as they do not discriminate against us for the reasons the satras do. The missionaries help us in our education and do it without insisting we convert or interfering in our religious practices. Those who do convert do so out of their own willingness

Most boys living in the satras are from a low economic background. At the satras they get a good education, and when they grow up they are free to become householders. However, the children of the Mising community are not given the same opportunity, despite our aspiration to do so. Consider my own case. Though I am a vegetarian, no satra will allow me to stay with them and be educated utilizing their facilities inside their campus. The same is true for all other children from the Mising community. The satras will also not entertain people who in any way question their authority.

It is unfortunate that people dump garbage in the Brahmaputra River. We Mising tribals would never pollute the river, whom we call Brahmaputra Baba and treat as a God. Now the river is shrinking, and we are quite worried about it.

Auniati Satra

We arrive at Majuli’s second-largest satra, Auniati, to find the head, Dr. Pitambar Dev Goswami, deeply engaged in arranging their next raas leela dance and drama performance. But when he learns we are from HINDUISM TODAY—which he has been reading for years—he is delighted to meet us. He compliments our work, saying, “I am happy that the magazine is run by a group of Saivite saints, and that it gives coverage to other Hindu communities, including Vaishnavites.”

This is another brahmachari satra, with four hundred in residence. As at Uttar Kamalabari, the boys are trained here from a young age and can opt later to enter householder life if they choose. The focus is on music, drama, dance, bhajan and kirtan, as promoted by Sankardev to foster harmonious coexistence. The residents specialize in several forms of service, including leading kirtan and bhajan, playing musical instruments, such as the dholak drum, and teaching.

A satra, according to Dr. Pitambar Goswami, is a place where resides Guru, Dev (God), Naam (chanting of God’s name) and Bhagat (devotee). “At other holy places, these four things come together only at particular times, but in our satras they are continuously present.”

This satra’s main following are the tribal people of Majuli—500,000 from the Sonwal Kachari tribe alone, as well as a large number from the Mising and Deori tribes. Many Mising tribals, Dr. Pitambar reports, have converted to Christianity. The satra’s efforts have succeeded so far only in reconverting two or three percent, but he feels their work is gaining momentum. He praises pollution-free Majuli Island as a “very pure and spiritual place” and urges us to return for at least a month on our next visit.

The Mask Makers

Our third stop, Chamguri Satra, is famous for its mask making and the home of the nationally recognized artist, Koshakanta Dev Goswami. His big drawing room is full of masks of varied sizes and different historical characters, mainly belonging to the Mahabharata and Ramayana. Students are regularly sent here by Sangeet Natak Akademi—India’s renowned National Academy for Music, Dance and Drama in Delhi—to learn the intricacies of this unique and colorful art.

Koshakanta is not only an ardent follower of Sankardev, who popularized mask making in Assam, but a direct descendent. He says he is optimistic about the future of the art of mask making, though he wishes the artists were better paid for their work. As he bluntly puts it, “I have received a lot of recognition in my life for my work, but not enough money.” He is happy with the way his four sons are carrying forward his lineage and tradition. One, Pradip, tells us mask making is quite a tedious process, with a single creation sometimes taking weeks to make.

After a night in modest accommodations, we depart Majuli by the morning ferry and return to the river’s eastern side to explore the area’s major temples, starting with the Tilinga.

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