Assam was once upon a
time the original home of Tantricism in India. The Shakti temples such as
Kamakhya in Guwahati and Kechaikhati near Sadiya are proof to this. While
veneration to Shiva largely prevailed in the early period, the other
goddess cult gained ground subsequently.
In fact, at one time, Assam came to be identified with Tantrik Shaktism, especially centering around the Kamakhya temple. Even today, Shiva and the Mother Goddess are venerated in various forms at the folk level in large sections of the Assamese society, both tribal and non-tribal.
Vishnu worship was established in Assam by the 7th century, and by the middle of the 15th century it was already eclipsing Shaivism and Tantric Shakti-worship. Its distinctive Assamese form was developed by Srimanta Sankardeva, a poet, playwright, musician, composer, and theologian, who opposed ritual and image worship, and rejected all other Hindu gods in favour of simple devotion to Vishnu, whom he saw as all-encompassing and formless.
The Bhakti Movement
Sankardeva's neo-Vaishnavite Bhakti movement was harbinger of a renaissance with many-sided ramifications-spiritual, social, humanistic, artistic and literary. Until now religion had meant worshiping the Aryan gods, like the Mother Goddess for instance, who was more dreaded than loved. Priest craft, magic and morbid rituals like animal and human sacrifices dominated the scene.
The Bhakti Movement brought a healthy change - with prayer, praise and simple worship. In Assam, Vishnu or his incarnation Krishna took the altar position as the God of Love and the Vaishnava Renaissance followed. Shankara Deva wrote a host devotional songs and translations from the Sanskrit canon.
In the 18th century, followers of a mainly low-caste offshoot, the 'Moamarias', led a rebellion against the 'Ahoms' and carved out a state covering the island of Majuli and a large chunk of upper Assam.
The main institution of Assamese Vaishnavism is the 'Sattra', the first founded by Sankardeva at his birthplace, Bardowa, 15-km northwest of Nargaon, although this has now been destroyed by the ever-changing course of the Brahmaputra. The Sattra is not only a temple, but also a monastery, school and centre for the arts, including poetry, folk music, literature, sculpture and dance, often in combination.
Sattras consist of a prayer hall open on all sides and supported by pillars, surrounded by living quarters for devotees, and ghats for bathing. The 'Namghar' has three parts: a roofed gate, the main body of the hall, and a closed shrine, which may be a separate building, in which case it is called the "Manikot". Although "idol worship" is avoided, Vaishnavites are not as strict about this as, say Muslims: images of Vishnu' s avatars often decorate the Sattra, though they are never prayed to.
The entry of Islam as a religion to Assam came through neighbouring Bengal, which already had Muslim rulers a few decades after the Mughal dynasty was established in India and today it's an important religion over here. Islamic shrines of the State include Poa-Mecca of Hajo (Poa-meaning one- fourth) and the Ajan Pir Dargah near Sibsagar among others.
Buddhism on the other hand first came down from Bhutan in the north and then from Myanmar in the east. In fact, the Haygriba Madhav temple of Hajo is simultaneously a place of worship for both Hindus and Buddhists alike.