Satra is a religious center belonging to the Vaishnava sect, which believes in the supremacy of Lord Vishnu
. The word ‘satra’ literally means a place of religious gathering. It is similar to the Buddhist monasteries in its functioning. It is usually established in a remote area, away from the general population. It functions both as a seat of religious learning and residential school.
Satra contains various departments and structures. The main building consists of four ‘karaput’ (gateways). A main prayer hall, called ‘namghar’ or ‘kiranghar,’ is located in the center. Adjacent to the hall is a ‘manikut,’ a small building containing a wooden throne with four carved lions serving as its base. Near the throne, there is an altar containing an object of worship, which is usually an ancient manuscript like the ‘Bhagavata Purana.’ Sometimes an idol or image of God is also placed near the altar serving more as a decorative purpose to attract the newly converted people of the religion. The throne is surrounded by many sacred objects, earthen lamps and burning incense. A group of huts called ‘hati,’ meant for the monks’ residence, is located on the corners of the campus.
The entire ‘satra’ is administered by a person of a highest rank called ‘satradhikar.’ He may also be called as ‘mahanta’ or ‘gosain.’ He is bound by a religious vow of chastity. Apart from him, there are various other persons in the institution having a specific duty to perform.
Young people are recruited to be trained as ‘bhakat’ or monks. They are given religious education and trained to lead a monastic life. They are also taught to handle the administration of the various establishments run by the ‘satra.’
The ‘satra’ system is responsible for introducing a system of worshipping saints and the relics of gods like ‘pada-silas’ or foot marks of a deity. It also gave rise to a new class of priest, appointed from the ‘sudra’ caste, with equal status to the Brahmins. It also introduced various conventions and ideas, a fixed order of congregational worship and a methodical set of beliefs.
Most of the satras are concentrated on the Majuli Island in Jorhat District of Assam.