During 2016 I visited Barpeta several times. Every time I visit the sleepy little town I feel that the place has not changed in last twenty years. Barpeta was in the news on two occasions during the year. The Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi came to Barpeta in December 2015 to woo the party’s traditional vote bank which has shifted its loyalty in recent times. As per reports by the local media he could not visit the Vaishnavite monastery, the Barpeta Satra during day time. But he had gone inside the Satra along with the Chief of the Satra , the Satradhikar in the evening and the local media covered and televised the story . Quite surprisingly on his return to Delhi, Rahul Gandhi made a statement before the press that he was stopped from entering the temple (Satra) in Barpeta by members of the RSS. In turn RSS filed a defamation case against Rahul Gandhi and the matter is now sub judice.
The above news item drew attention of the media even outside Assam. The other issue which was restricted to people concerned about Barpeta was regarding entry of women inside the Satra. I saw debates in the local news channel following the Supreme Court intervention on ban on women entry into places of worship. It was reported that the devotees of the Satra along with the women followers unanimously opposed entry of women inside Barpeta Satra citing it as a traditional practice in a meeting chaired by the Satradhikar.
During our childhood we saw the ban being imposed in the most distasteful manner with a notice which declared “ no entry for shoes and women”. Glad to see in my recent visits that the notice is modified as “no entry for women”. While going through an article by Assamese scholar Dr. Dayananda Pathak , I learnt that the Satra was looked after by a lady called Sumati (wife of Barpeta satra’s first Satradhikar Mathura Das Burha Ata) for a brief period. It was in the sixteenth century. We are unaware on how the ban on entry of women started in subsequent times.
History confirms that Barpeta had a vibrant society ready to embrace new ideas even during the sixteenth century. Sankardev and Madhavdev , the great religious and cultural leaders who did not get royal patronage in most part of their lives could set up bases in and around Barpeta to propagate their teachings. The first Satradhikar of Barpeta, Mathuradas Burha Ata can be called an unsung hero of Assam history. He was a spiritual leader, a skilled weaver, an organiser, a town planner and even a banker.
Vrindavani Vastra currently preserved in the British Museum, London was made in Barpeta, under the leadership of Mathuradas Burha Ata. The Burha Ata initiated democratic style of functioning in Satra affairs of Barpeta which was perhaps quite unthinkable in his times. He was also ahead of time in setting up cooperative banking which continues till date in some form in the Satra.
Unfortunately, Barpeta lags behind today .The glimmer of hope it had carried immediately after independence by producing intellectuals and leaders of caliber is extinguished by now. We can only hope that Barpeta will realize its potential some day.