Sree Shankardev and Assamese Culture

- Sonit konwar Gojen Barua


Assam is a land of dance, a land of music, a land of literature and philosophy.

In this period of cultural re-organisation of India, if a scholar turns over his eye to the forlorn pages of Assamese cultural history, he will find there his aspirations in concrete shape and form, practiced and merged with life existence itself.

During the period of Saint Chaitanya Dev in Bengal, Namdev in Maharashtra, Ramananda in Allahabad, Ballabhacharja and Kabir in South India, Sree Shankardev appeared in Assam. He was born at Alipukhuri in the district of Nowgaon in 1449, at the moment when corruption was rampant and grew to such and extent which could have annihilated the entire social fabric of the land.

Shree Shankardev remodelled the society by removing untouchability, ignorance, inequalities between man and man and other corruptions. He gave to the people religion, literature, poetry, music, dance drama. On the whole a new culture, which has been a source of life energy to the nation uptill now. Sree Shankardev the far-sighted saint sowed the seed of democracy, removed untouchability, introduced village Panchayat , co-operative efforts etc. etc. before five hundred years. Once Mahatma Gandhi remarked "Assam is beyond my dream. My services are not required here".

Sree Shankardev was given to the school of Mahendra Kandali. He became a Sanskrit scholar and a genius at the age of twelve. The people were struck with wonder to learn about his unique imaginative power and extra-ordinary intellect during his schooling time, Shankardev wrote several poems and Kavyas which had drawn the attention of the learned Pundits of the time. Shankardev finished his studies at the age of twenty and had to confine himself at his own residence for some years.

In the year 1481 A.D. Shankar left home for an extensive pilgrimage along with his Guru Mahendra Kandali and seventeen other companions. During his pilgrimage he visited places like- Mathura, Brindaban, Gaya, Kashi, Puri, Prayag, Dwaraka, Ajodhya, Sitakunda, Brahma Kunda, Badrikashram and all other temples and sacred places of Northern and Southern India. So, naturally he got the opportunity to come into contact of many Vaishnava Scholars and Saints with whom he had many learned and authentic discussions which helped him in taking a definite shape of his mission of life.

He returned home after an extensive tour of a decade.

After coming back he started a Satra (Monastry) and built one Namghar (a congregational prayer house) where hundreds of devout-disciples assembled around him for congregational prayer and community singing. This ‘Namghar’ is the main institution of Assamese villages which is run under democratic style uptill today. From this Shankardev started religious movement with great vigour and enthusiasm, with these disciples.

Shankardev accepted as his faith the system of qualified ‘Monism’ or ‘Visistadwaitabad’ alike the South Indian reformer Ramanuja Swami. It was neo-Vaishnahism with its allegiance to one Supreme God. In this system ‘Dualism’ was rejected which presents the finite-self as something different from the divine self. The relation between master and servant was the idea adopted by Sree Shankardev (Dasya Bhaba). Shankardev described himself as the servant of Sree Krishna. Shankar made known the attributes of Sree Krishna who is attributeless. Sree Krishna assured in Gita that "Sarba Dharman  Parityajya Mamekom Saranam Braja". Be dependent on me and worship me only. And therefore, Shankar’s neo-Vaishnavism was based on Gita and Bhagawata.

Shankardev was a prolific writer. Besides Kirtan and Dashama Shankara wrote innumberable Borgeets (noble songs), many kavyas, poems and several dramas. Over and above this Shankardev was an artist, musician, (Singer and instrument player), dancer and actor. He stressed upon these mediums as the ‘Margo’ (Paths) as these mediums are ‘Yogas’.

Banking upon these mediums of art (Yoga) Sree Shankardev showed the path of ‘Vakti Margo’ which can lead one to supreme God.

For congregational prayer Shankardev not only composed ‘Bargeets’ but also turned and sang them. Due to his magic touch these songs become very much popular within a very short time throughout the State. Besides Bargeet, Shankardev wrote innumberable songs for prayer and for Ankia Nat (one act drama) which were turned and sung by himself. It is interesting to not that all the tunes have a special type which can be called a special setwal. His Kavyas were written in ‘Brajabuli’- a Mixed Maithili and Assamese language as quoted below:-

Mana Meri Rama Charanehi lagu

Tai dekha na Ontaka agu

Mana ayu Ksane Ksane tute

Dekha Prana Kon din Chute-...

(Rest my mind rest on the feet to Rama

See thou not the great and approaching?

My mind, every moment is leeting

Beware any moment it might flee away.)

As mentioned above Shankardev broke the seal of classical learning and made literature easy for illiterate mass. He wrote Kavyas, Akhyans and ‘Ankia nats’ in order to make it easy for the people. Because of these reasons even unlettered People of Assamese villages can sing classical tunes as wel as can dance classical forms of dances of Natyasastra style. Shankardev linked up Assam with other parts of India linguistically, culturally besides his religious teachings.

He employed an artificial dialect to make it easy for all people of Northern India. He received healthy suggestions from Kabir, Vidyapati and some other poet-saints of India.

Besides this Shankardev collected the Sastras and the best books and scriptures written on religion and philosophy, as for example, there were much controversy as to the authorship and date of the work known as "DIPIKA CHAND". The author is said to have been a king called Purusottama Gajapati. Several Assamese writers and scholars have attempted to locate the said writer somewhere in Assam. But all have failed and later on it was brought to the notice that Purusottam Gajapati was a well known and powerful king of Orissa (1476-1497), whose empire extended form Hoogli District of Bengal as far as the Guntur District of Madars Presiden- cy . He was the son of Kapilendra Gajapati and the father of Pratap Rudra (1497-1541) A.D, the last powerful and celebrated Gajapati and Orissa. He was contemporary to Sree Chaitanya Dev. Purusottam Gajapati was a devout Vaishnava and he might have writting this book known as "Dipika Chanda" in order to ridicule the post Buddhist cult and the Tantrik system.

There was close connection in between Kamrup and Orissa in the sixteenth centuy on account of the existence of famous temple ‘Jagannath’, It is known that an Assamese Vaishnatya Saint translated this book into Assamese language.

Again it is learnt that the Orissa King Purusottam Gajapati was the author of another work known as ‘Nam Malika’ in Sanskrit. Shankardev brought a copy of this book which later on Sree Madhabdev translated into Asssamese (Descriptive catalogue of Assamese Manuscript, pp59.51).

In case of painting since time immemorable yet it is difficult to stress out the technique.

In seventh century the king Bhaskar Varma sent valuble gifts to King Harshabardhana along with various beautiful coloured paintings. At the time of Bhaskar Varma and pal dynasty Buddha culture influenced Kamrup.

so, it can be belived that the various paintings and Terracottas were made during that time . On the other hand the time of Naranaryana, Akbar engaged his own painter Abdul Samaddak and Md. Nashir of Samarkand to teach the Hindu and Muslim painters. After great extent in various places. Besides this, it is evidently proved that the people of Assam were artistically luxurious.

Though it is out of place to discuss the requisites of the technigue of painting yet it should be pointed out that the Moghul painting were based on living things not on spirtual or philosophical back–ground.

In my opinion Shankardev after studying all the paintings of the time such as Moghul , Rajput, Buddha and Kangra paintings, revolted and created a new technique of this own wich can be called Kamrupian technique or Shankari technique.

Paintings of Chihnayatra, Brindabani cloth, illustrations of old Bhagawata on Sachipata dharmapurana, Kirtan Ghosa, Sankhasura badh and the famous "Srihastivdyarnaba" are the examples of Kamrupi school of painting where some exceptions were marked, such as composition of colour, feeling method and expressions. Shankardev’s selection of colour was simple. He used mainly red (Indian red ) blue (navy blue ) and yellow. These colours were popular with the rural and tribal people of Assam. Probably this was the reason of using these colours for embellishing Baishnavite Text like Bhagawat where he kept the relationship with folk art.

Of course, a research work and a detailed study of this method of this painting is essential.

After along travelled experience Sankardev took the medium of most natural expression through dramatic art. Sree Shankar gathered experience not only from the local traditional dances like Oza Pail, Deodhani, Nati and etc. but also from Yatra Ramleela, Yaksagana, Nautanki, Ramnattam, Bhagawattam, Devdashi and Odissi.

Keeping all these experiences and social conditions in view (Shankardev wrote a new type of drama known called "Ankia Nat". It once act drama in classical concept which was a new genre in Assamese literature.

Sree Shankardev painted scenes of seven classical abodes of Narayana. It is probably done with a view to emphasis the effect and to create an atmosphere of the dramatic scenes. Perhaps this was quite a new style adopted in 15th Century.

The "Ankia Nat" is a dramatic composition in one act, and is generally based on the belief of Vaishnavite faith. In this Ankia Nat certain theories of Sanskrit drama were applied such as use of Sanskrit verses, Nandi. The role of Sutradhara in Ankia Nat is different. In Ankia Nat the role of Sutradhara is most important in absence of which the drama cannot move at all, whereas in Sanskrit drama the Sutradhar disappears from the stage after invocation is over.

As there were no more scenes in the play the announcement for change of scenes were made by Sutradhar or by Orchestra with singing. As the majority of audience were illiterate the explanation was required at every succeeding stage of the drama. So, the Sutradhar has to attend to the various sides mainly the production, direction and commentation of the entire drama upto the end and as such Sutradhar must be an expert in dance, music, acting and painting.

As mentioned above Sree Sankardev was expert in all respects. It is mentioned in Guru Charitra by Ramcharan Thakur–

Hingula Haitela, Jetikhyane Anilata Yatna Kari Pate Baikuntha Likhipanta. (Immediately Shankar brought Hingul and haitel (colours) and painted the picture of Baikuntha.

Ahimote Pote Jebe Nat Likhilanta

Natua Sikhaiya Tebe Sanga Karilanta.

( Like this he wrote the drama and taught dance for Natuas.)

Baradhemali Sarudhemalika Baila

Nat Dhemali bai lokaka Tushila

( He entertained the people by playing all ‘Talls’ (Khol Nritya and Singing)

Pache dharilanta Dev dhemalita Goi

Ashe Pashe Nogota Khol Asha loi

( Then he started invocation Khol Nritya by playing nine Khols together (nine khols were kept in all sides)

Ram Ram Guru Pache Sutra Siyailanta

Angi Bhangi kari Shankar Nachanta

(Then Shankardev started Sutradhara Nritya with beautiful movements)

Ahita Shankara dekhe Tahita Shankara

Dekhanta Shankara Gayamora Maje Nai

Pat Baikunthara Maje Dekhila Dunai.

(People saw Shankardev in all side here and there sometimes among the Gayan and Bayan and sometime in the Baikuntha pat.)

From this description of his biography one can understand how extraordinarily talented and genious he was.

Songs of Ankia Nat are also of a special type which are called "Ankar Geet" and Bhatima Borgeets are also used in some plays. The Ankar Geet bears a Dhuwa or refrain, as it bears Raga with Tala and Mana. There are various tunes in Bhowna Geets, such as : Aswari, Ahir, Bhupali, Dhamsiri, Belwar, Gandhar, Dev Gandhar, Kou Kalyan, Syam, Ramgiri Mahura, Suhai, Borari, Sindhura, Gouri, Bhairabi, etc.

From Ramayana or Bhagawat Purana mainly the subject matter of these dramas were selected. The "Ankia Nats" were written mainly to create devotional sentiment of the audience, the mass people.

The specialty which can be observed in Assamese Bhowna is the coordination and harmony of songs, rhythmic dances, instrumental melodies and dialogue. All the actors enter the stage and move with dances with appropriate "Padacharai" or gaits from the beginning to end with gestures and postures. The dialogue is also delivered in dancing postures. Geets such as ‘Madhyawali, Muktawali and other songs (descriptive emotional and pathetic songs) are also sung in dancing postures.

The actors are called Bhawria who produces Bhaba or emotion. The dancers are called " Natua or Nata". The singers are called "Gayana" and instrumental players are called "Bayana". The jokers are called "Bahua".

The skilled village artists are called ‘Khanikar’ who are experts in making wooden and earthen images of God. They also prepare ‘Cho’ (effigies) and masks (mukha) life size of grotesque type masks such as Ravana, Yama, Kumbhakarna, Hanumana, Kali Nag, Garuda Pakhsi are amde by Khanikar which are essential in Bhowna.

Actors are to paint for their makeup which be fits their roles. For the makeup Hingul (cinnabar) and Haitel (yellow orripment) are used with some necessary colours such as blue and red. But colours were used according to their characters viz. Bhima in black, Krishna in blue, Brahmins in white, brutal characters in red and tamashik in black.

Thus the Bhowna is performed in Assam. This Bhowna performance is generally continued all through night.

At the end of drama Sutradhara begs forgiveness to God for the omissions and commissions of the play and prays for the audience to attain the path of righteousness by singing ‘Mukti Mangal Bhatima.’

In Sanskrit dramas the ignorant and illiterate mass failed to enjoy like the critical and educated audience.

But the Bhowna of Assam was the most powerful agency to carry the religious and ethical ideas to the illiterate mass which broke the social barriers and served all the purposes mentioned above.

It is most interesting to note that ‘Barakhelia’ or "Bara Chaharor Bhowna" (which I mentioned in my article on classical and folk dance of Assam) is performed by 20–30 villages together under the same pandal made for the purpose. The pandal is made so huge that a number of 30– 35 thousand people can sit together and enjoy several numbers.


  1. The holy Throne with the Bhagawata placed on it (Sinhasana).

  2. Where the Goswamis and the Mahantas sit.

  3. Annular space for the movement of the dramatic personae from one stage to another.

  4. The main stage (Rangabhumi).

  5. Space for the spectators with a short fencing.

  6. Green Room.

  7. Gate for entrance and exit.

  8. Space for free movement of the spectators.

The broken line with arrow–mark indicates the direction through wich dramatic personae revolve around the stages.

of Bhownas. This was one of the unique contributions of Sree Shankardev. Perhaps nobody could imagine to perform such a huge performance in India where two to three thousand actors and Gayan Bayan (musicians) took part.

The village people construct the pandal by collecting subscriptions of bamboo, thatch ,cane and other materials. There was no bar of caste and creed. Probably this was the policy of Sree Shankardev to make the people march towards democracy and co– operative efforts, Arrangement of this Bhowna is made as a period of two to three months. A Managing Committee is formed under democratic style to manage the entire affairs.

The reharsals are of course arranged seperately in every village.

On the day of the performance a "Nam Prasanga" is sung by all people in day time. After  that "Mahaprasad’’ is distributed.

The actual activities of Bhowna is started from the evening. Thousands of audience start coming to the pandal in due time. The sitting arrangements of audiences are made on mats and dharies. After the congregational prayer of evening is over the Khanikars start painting the actors. Before starting the performance all audiences are entertained with ‘Dahichira’ or ; Chowal dahi’ (tiffin) and betal nut. Probably this custom of entertaining audience with tiffin is nowhere in India.

After the tiffin is over the ‘Barmedhi’ the main man of the committee announces to get the actors and Bayan Gayan ready (Of course now a days the microphone and other modern facilities are taken).

After a few minutes the Barmedhi orders to beat the drum. As soon as the drum is beaten all the thirty– forty drums are beaten together. The other instruments such as Negera, Conch, Borkanh are also played together and then gradually the Bayans and Gayans enter into their respective stages with similar Khol playing and dances. When these 1000– 1200 Bayans and Gayans with Khol playing and dances, move toghether in Bordhemali (quick tempo) on the border lines of petals of lotus (as shown in the diagram) it looks like a dreamland. The high sounds of Khols and Talas, drums and other instruments roar to such an extent which can be heard from a distance of 10–15 miles.

After that all the sutradharas appear in their respective stages with their dances and move towards the right hand stage (shown in the diagram) and after completing a round all through they come to their own stages for dramatic activities.The actors also follow the same style.

this Bhowna is performed 2/3 nights continuously. Of course it is not performed every year as it is very much expensive and as such it is performed at an interval of 5–7 years.

This was one of the greatest plans of Sree Shankardev to unite the people together, to make them work together, to eat together, to enjoy together and to worship together. This was the foundation of the Assamese culture laid by Shankardev.


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