GUWAHATI, Nov 10 � It may sound incredible, but there was a time when women used to set up sattra institutions in the State and run them as their sattradhikars (sattra heads), contrary to the present-day situation, where women are debarred even from entering the sattra and naamghar (prayer hall) premises in some cases. Sattras and naamghars are the products of the Neo-Vaishnavite movement in the State initiated by Srimanta Sankaradeva to democratise the Assamese society.
The legends of Kanaklata Ai and Bhubaneswari are worth mentioning in this context. Kanaklata Ai was authorised by Chaturbhuj Thakur, the grandson of Srimanta Sankaradeva, to run the religious activities of the Vishnupur Sattra at Tamranga Beel (presently in Bongaigaon district).
Kanaklata Ai later established the Vaikunthapur Sattra to the south of Tamranga and when she was disturbed by the Muslim invaders, she shifted to Nagaon. She searched out the original Bordowa Sattra overcoming a number of difficulties, and later got it renovated.
Bhubaneswari was one of the daughters of Haridev. She was made sattradhikar of Maneri Sattra. She remained a spinster and discharged her duties as sattradhikar efficiently.
Nowadays women fully use and manage a few naamghars in the State, said Prof Archana Sarma of the Gauhati University (GU), who led a UNICEF-sponsored study on �Women�s Participation in Decision Making in the Village Institution of Naamghar� as the chief investigator in 1999-2000. She was then the Director (in-charge) of the GU Women�s Studies Research Centre. She said a majority of the naamghars surveyed in Dhubri district under the study project are in this category.
Prof Sarma asserted that the religious aspect connected with the naamghars was excluded from the purview of the above project. In all, 72 naamghars were covered in the five districts of Barpeta, Dhubri, Kamrup, Morigaon and Nalbari during June-July 1999 under the project, she informed.
There were six naamghars in Morigaon, five in Kamrup, three in Nalbari, eleven in Barpeta and seven in Dhubri, which reported to have restrictions on the entry of women in their premises. The restriction is generally applicable to naamghars following the Mahapurushia sect, although it has been reported that restrictions are there also in the cases of a few naamghars of Sankarsangha and Damodaria sect.
The general restriction is with regard to the entry in the sanctum sanctorum and the main hall of the naamghar. The woman devotees are allowed to sit only in the verandah outside the main hall. The prohibition imposed on women is very strictly followed.
Decisions regarding membership, women�s entry etc., are taken either by the managing body or the general members. A few naamghars reported to have the practice of forming separate bodies for deciding such issues. Such bodies generally do not have woman members.
Prof Sarma said that after completing the study, the study team had conducted five workshops in the five districts covered by the study. During the workshops, many more aspects of women�s exclusion from the village institutions came to light. It was assured by some participants that they would look into the issue, some had even promised to re-constitute the managing bodies. But there is no report so far of any such development, she said.