Shrimant Shankardev (1449-1569), the fountainhead of the Bhakti movement in Assam, was a great genius, prophet and seer. With his encyclopedic knowledge, magnetic personality and brilliant power of exposition, he re-worked in his long life of 120 years all that was good in the known past. Even after four centuries of his passing away the essentials of his preaching are ever on the increase.
He preached a faith of supreme surrender to the One and, therefore, his creed is known as?Eka-sarana nama-dharma. It knows no caste, creed or colour, and a universal spirit is the main principle of this faith. Its most notable characteristic was the sattra institution. Sattra means where the pious are safe. Headed by the satradhikar and assisted by bhaktas (devotees) the sattras carry out nine-fold devotions known as Nabadha Bhakti. Apart from spiritual and moral uplift it is a socio-cultural nerve-centre covering education, music, sculpture, drama and fine arts.
Each sattra consists of a monikut (sanctum), a namghar (prayer hall), a gurugriha (residence of sattradhikar), a bhakatar hatti (residence of devotees), a bharal ghar (store house), an atithishala (guest house) and a karapat (gateway). There are four different types of sattras?monastic, semi-monastic, house-holder or family-holder and sattras run by the management body constituted by the disciples.
In order to propagate this ideology Shrimant Shankardev and his disciples created Bhaona (plays based on the Puranas), Ankiya Nat (short plays), Sattriya Nritya (now recognised as a classical dance form), Oza Pali (devotional song) and Borgeet (devotional classical songs written by Shankardev and his disciple Madhabdev). They also transcripted many of the scriptures such as the Bhagawat Purana, the Upanishads, etc. into Assamese language. Equally great was their contribution in the field of agriculture, weaving, painting, crafts, mask-making, literature, cane and bamboo work.
Shri Shankardev also established the institution of namghars as central religious institutions in the village that function even today as a village parliament, court, school and temple. Therefore, the sattra tradition illustrates an ideal social order that of integral humanism.