Majuli An island, some monks, and dance...
Created in the 16th century by Sankaradeva, the Satras are Assam’s monasteries with a cultural and artistic vocation. They are the only monasteries that exist in Hinduism. There are approximately 665 spread throughout the Brahmaputra Valley. Together, they harbour about 2000 members of religious orders of which 1000 are on Majuli Island.
The children are adopted as of 5 or 6 years old, sometimes even younger. Their destiny is to remain celibate monks. The monk-child integrates the monastery’s family unit, comprised of 2 to 4 monks or different generations, for life. When he will reach about 20 years old he will in turn welcome a child, while watching over those who raised him and who have become elderly. Most of the groups of dancing monks of Majuli are thus taking care of a child. Each one of these monastic families occupies a house in the heart of the satra, similar to traditional families except that it is composed only of males. The monks (or bhakats) do not exchange vows, but remain free to leave the monastery if they wish. Departures however are rare. These are irrevocable, but do not take anything away from the fraternal link that exists among these men.
The religious practices of the bhakti (devotional love) and their total absence of a proselyte spirit, makes these men tolerant and respectful for one another. Free to move around, these monks maintain regular relations with their original families.
The tough conditions of the rural life of these monk-artists of Majuli contrasts with the subtlety of their art. In addition to their daily prayers, they practice their artistic disciplines at sunrise and at sunset, and undertake their domestic, rural and traditional tasks in between. They do not live on charity and some of them have employment outside the monastery.
Sankaradeva (1449-1568), founder of the Satras
Spiritual master above all, Sankardeva was also a social reformer, a humanist and an influential visionary. He was notably one of the first to dare to break some of the barriers between the men of different casts and religions, and to fight against the barbaric customs of human and animal sacrifices.
But it was also for his talents as a poet, writer, musician and playwright, that Assam owes its artistic heritage. He understood very early that living art forms serve as the best tools to allow progressive ideas to evolve out of the wisdom of ancient India.
He thus created monasteries for men who would apply to their daily lives a philosophical ideal of their existence. They worked the fields to earn their livelihood. But also, and above all, they were artists! A concept that remains unparalleled!
In order to democratise this culture, he translated texts from Sanskrit to Assamese, the regional language that he illustrated in a universal style, accessible to illiterates.
Having become an emblematic Assamese figure, Sankardeva is today an integral part of the history of Indian thought.