BARECHAHARIA BHOWNA- a cultural asset

- Shri. Pabtra Kr. Nath


Jamugurihat has immensely been contributing to the wide-ranging spectrum of vast Assamese culture with its glorious institution of Barechaharia Bhowna. Barechaharia Bhowna Mahotsava is an institution of Shankari culture which has a chequered history of more than two centuries. Barechaharia Bhowna has already gone beyond the extent of the state and has been reckoned with national importance. It is the largest socio-cultural extravaganza of the north east India.

Barechaharia Bhowna, in brief, can be said to be the simultaneous performance of Bhownas by different village-troupes at a particular place. Bhownas are generally performed on or 3 nights. The style of presentation of quite a number of Bhownas under the same mandap (top-cover) is really unique. The exuberance of the people to participate in it and purity of form are two other striking features of this Mahotsava.

The fifteenth century saw the emergence of neo-Vaishnavism, inculcated by Shankardeva. The artist, poet, social reformer of transcendental genius had a wide social outlook based on principle of human equality. He had initiated a socio-cultural and religious movement bringing about drastic changes in all walks of life of the contemporary society, the influence of which is still being felt. His establishment of Namghars (hall for congregational prayer) and Satras as social-cultural and religious centres is a rare instance in the world.

He wrote Ankia Nats to be staged in Satras and Namghars and accordingly performances of the same flourished in the Satras and Namghars. In is a period of efflorescence in drama, dance, music, literature. His approach was all encompassing and his contribution in building a unified social order is stupendous. Srimanta Shankardeva aimed to spread the message of neo-Vaisnavism to the masses and he used the occasions such as Bhownas with a view to gathering people together. What we call today Assamese culture actually stands on the foundation of Vaishnavite culture of which Akia Bhowna is a colossus.

Shankardeva was inspired by the India classical tradition of drama associated with religion. He had a thorough understanding of Sanskrit dramaturgy as envisaged in the Natyasastra. A poet, an artist, actor, director, singer and a producer Shankardev had proficiency in Sankskrit rehetoric and prosody. He gave Assamese culture a new aesthetic taste along with moral and spiritual values. During his extensive pilgrimage he is expected to study some of the theatre forms prevailing in some of the regions he had come across. Shankardeva took up Bhowna as a medium of attaining great virtue and an institution of popular entertainment. The elements of folk culture are so fused with it making their synthesis a difficult task.

In an apparent view Barechaharia Bhowna is said to be a production of Vaisnavite culture. But, a minute observation enables us to identify many elements of agrarian culture dissolved in it. This post-harvest festival is actually a blend of Shankari and agrarian culture. Let us trace it back and throw light on the path of its evolution for clear understanding. However, we refrain from detailed discussion in this write-up to paucity of space.

In 1769 AD Mowamoriya revolt broke out and in the early part of 19th century the Burmese invasion took place. In such political and social upheavals myriads of persons had to shift their place to north bank of the Brahmaputra from Nagaon and upper Assam districts. In search of a safe and fertile land a portion of them arrived and settled in present day Barbhogia, Chilabandha and Murhadol Mouza of Jamugurihat. The area was being inhabitated by people belonging to various communities, such as Koch, Rabha, Kachari, Mising and Kaibarta. The new group of people settled down at different villages. Cultivation was the main source of income of the populace.

It is worthwhile to mention here that density of population in the bank of Jia-Bhoroli, a tributary of the Brahmaputra, ie western part of Jamugurihat was comparatively more during that period. Fertility of land and importance of waterways were in all probability the reasons. (The trend has been reversed due to erosion of Jia-Bhoroli, growing importance of road transport etc). There was peaceful coexistence among the people belonging various castes and communities and thereby socio-cultural activities were initiated. The village life nestled in such scenic spells of nature was an ideal one for any socio-cultural initiative. The population was divided into many tribes and groups with diverse ritualistic and cultural discipline difference from each other. But they rose to the necessity of living together with certain common interest. The people hailing from south bank were under influence of Satra and naturally had interest in Sankari culture. As a result, a process of assimilation of culture between new group of people coming from south and that of early dwellers began. Barechaharia Bhowna owes its birth to the prolonged and collective thoughts and efforts of devout farmers who were trying to make the quest to find new way of cultural life.

Barechaharia Bhowna Mahotsava has come down a long way to reach the present state. Its antiquity is not conclusively known. Available evidences suffice to establish that it began to be celebrate since 1797 in systematic manner. In the initial stages its celebration was naturally not of high magnitude.

Traditionally, Barechaharia Bhowna Mahotsava is held at an interval of 5-7 years. From 20 to 30 village-troupes or ‘khels’ organize this gala festival. A ‘khel’ may be said to be an aggregate of people confined to one village. On ‘khala’ (stage) is assigned to one ‘khel’. Every ‘khel’ has a Namghar and all the Namghars are joined one by one to make a circle. There is holy throne at the centre and the Bhagavat is placed on it. The ‘mandap’ is constructed in the shape of a lotus and the number of petals of the lotus is equal to that ‘Khalar’. One ‘nat’ is staged in one ‘khala’. The lotus shape of the pandal may be constructed as to symbolize the devotion to lotus feet of lord Krishna. Though its rituals pertain to religious faith the festival has equal significance as a socio– cultural institution. This louts– shaped pandal has fascinating beauty and exhibits the splendor of our folk architecture. The pandal is constructed with thatch. Village youths go out in groups and collect thatch and bamboos required for construction of respective ‘Khala’ (stage).

The music along with rhythmic feats on ‘Khols’ (drums) and tals’ (cymbals) is echoed in the air giving sancity to the area during celebration of the festival. The lyricism of its music and narration in Brajawali is worth–listening. The audience is enchanted by the poetic flow of the stories extracted from the epics. There is strong ground to believe that Barechaharia once used to be observed annually. In course of time, celebration of this Mahotsava was made quadrennial. Huge expenses involved and some other socio– economic reasons may be held responsible for the same.

Ankia Bhowna written and devised by Shankardeva and Madhavedeva is a dramatic representation. Ankia Bhowna also referred to as a ‘rtitual play’ is a combination of dance, music and drama. Shankardev made beautiful use of ‘Khol’ and ‘tal’ in Bhowna performances. The play begins with removal of curtain and the drummers and cymbalists start concert. The dances also called ‘dhemalis’ follow. After brilliant display of ‘purvaranga’ or ‘dhemalis’ the ‘Sutradhar’ enters the stage and here begins the actual performance. Introduction of ‘Sutradhar in Ankia Nat by Shankardeva is unique. A large variety of dance numbers sprinkle over the dramatic performance. Ankia– Bhowna there by contributes to healthy growth of the exquisite dance from know as Satriya dance. However, apart from the dances related with the performance of Ankia Bhowna, Madhavadeva and later apostles added a few numbers to the repertoire of the Satriya dances.

Dances performed in the Ankia Nats and other dramatic representations are :

  • the dance movements during the preliminaries called dhemalis,

  • the dance of Sutradhar,

  • the dance of Krishna popularly called Gosain Nach,

  • the dance of the cowherdesses (Gopis) known as Gopi Nach,

  • the dance of Krishna and Gopis during Ras–lila,

  • dancing rhythms for all other characters of the Nat to enter and exit,

  • Jhumura, Behar Nach and Nadu Bhangi (in Kamalabari Satra)

Satriya dance as practiced in Satras includes the dances cited over and Chali nach and Ojapali. Satriya dance has, in the recent times, drawn attention of the people of the country and abroad.

Necessary arrangements including construction of pandal, volunteering, costumes, cosmetics, masks, effigies and other accessories are made by villagers. Village youths are entrusted with different works. The mask craft of Assam is of ancient practice. The Mangoloid people originated and developed this form of craft. This craft, today has developed with performances of Bhowna. Masks of different characters for Bhowna are made in different sizes depending upon their needs. Fabrication of bamboo strips for making mask are used and hengul and haital (herbal colour) are used in decorating the mask. Simhasana (pedasral) where the holly book is kept and enshrined is traditionally made of wood. The sculpture, ural, gosa etc are some of the wooden works found in Bhowna. In making of craft kuhila, bamboo and cane are commonly used. Making of mukut (headgear) for Bhowna is also an example of Mangoloid culture. So Barechaharia Bhowna has been promoting indigenous craft, sculpture and architecture.

Needless to say that Jamugurihat is a fertile ground for both folk and Shankari culture. One Namghar in each village is a special feature of Jamugurihat. Ankia Nats are performed in the Namghars. The boundless enthusiasm of the respective villagers in observance of Bhowna adds to the gaiety of the occasion. People from adjacent villages too pour in to enjoy the show. The spectators feel a sense of solace. Very specialty of Jamugurihat is that majority of the society have the skill in playing khol, tal in acting the role of Bhowna characters. Some are exponent in dance of Sutradhar. Young boys undergo training of various forms of Vaishnavite culture. Shankari culture is practiced in the Namghars of Jamugurihat and thus Jamugurians are making sincere and relentless efforts so as to promote the culture.

Many ethnic groups and tribes have made the mosaic of Aassamese culture. Assamese culture is composite one. The very infrastructure of the composite Assamese culture is totally indebted to Shankardeva’s utopian synthesis of socio-cultural philosophy. Barechaharia Bhowna always attempts to capture and convey the essence of it. It is encouraging exchange of ideas of performing arts between different ethnic groups of the north east region.

Culture is born of a society and also grows with it. Unity and integration among different races., castes, communities directly help in formation and development of culture. The population of Assam can broadly be divided into three branches : the Austroloids and Mangoloids and Aryans. Majority of the tribes of Assam are Mangoloid origin. But some have certain Australoid ethnic traits. They came to Assam in different times. Australoid culture is basically an agrarian one. Mangoloids in Assam were expert weavers. Some of them had got admixtured with non-Mongoloid populations to varying degree. The tremendous sense of belongingness and surge of group-spirit–two features that we experience during Barechaharia Mahotsava are attributed to the Mangoloids. The Australoids and Mongolids had laid the foundation of a culture, which in later period was enriched by the Aryans. Assam is the homeland of several races, communities and tribes. They migrated to Assam in long past from different places. They had their own culture and language. Admixture of different racial elements works a great deal in socio-cultural integration of the society. It contributes enormously towards establishing a spirit of harmony, cooperation and cohesion among the diverse ethnic groups of Assam. The process of assimilation and admixture is still going on. Assamsese culture does not belong to some race or tribe and is therefore, rightly called a composite culture and the very feature is reflected in Barechaharia Mahotsava too.

Barechaharia Bhowna is a grand exposition of Shankari culture. This contribution of Jamugurians of Assamese culture weighs its worth in gold. Barechaharia is vivid portrait of Bhowna culture nurtured against the backdrop of serene village life. In 1969 the Mahotsava assumed a new dimension and received nation-wide publicity. The erstwhile Secretary of NSD and other distinguished personalities with scholarly pursuit of national and international repute came over here and watched Bhowna performances. The highly appreciated its cultural values in the leading national dailies.

Social scientist Linton said, ‘Culture of a society is the way of life of its members, the collection of ideas and habits which they earn, share and transmit from generation to generation’. A culture however rich it may be fades in the long run unless practiced an promoted by the members of the society. It is an imperative necessity for a culture to grow with society. It should be passed on to next generation with higher value. Vaisnavite culture is the pearl of Assamese culture of which Bhowna culture is in the key position. Barechaharia is an ideal platform for excellence of Vaisnavite culture. It has been promoting the elements, such as music, dance, literature and art of Bhowna culture. Barechaharia is an institution with abundant materials for study of Assamese culture. It deserves a place in the global cultural map. Apart from being rich in indigenous art, craft, culture etc this glorious tradition is giving momentum to cultural movement of the state.

Barechaharia Bhowna over the years has been preserving and promoting the Bhowna culture. At a time when cost of various commodities is increasing by leaps and bounds celebration of this festival has become and expensive arrangement. It is incumbent upon the government and all other sundry concerned to patronize this festival and to chalk out scheme for presenting this rich cultural heritage to the unacquainted eyes of the people of Indian subcontinent and abroad as well. At the same time one cannot deny of the necessity of improvement of certain areas of Bhowna performances. Moreover, performance of Bhownas by all villages of greater Jamugurihat under the umbrella of Barechaharia needs to ensured.

Barechaharia Bhowna is a campaign for spreading cultural among the masses. It is an attempt to exchange cultural ideas and their promotion. Barechaharia Bhowna promotes social and cultural unity among the people of different races, religions, communities and linguistics. This festival broadens our social and cultural horizon and is therefore heartily accepted by all. To gain warm response from the people of all walks of life is not an ordinary matter. This happens in Barechaharia as because it is a people – based institution. The tea tribal and Nepali–speaking Assamese are also performing Bhownas with equal skill. Thus the work of expansion of assamese culture is accomplished. It offer us a precious opportunity for social and cultural unity. Many of the problems arisen out of present– day situation may be remedied culturally.

It cannot be denied that majority of new generation, specially in urban areas have a tendency to shrug our own culture off in the recent years. Elements of cheap western culture have made inroads to our society. New generation is seen to be obsessed with popular and modern western cultural. If this culture onslaught continues danger of our society and culture is imminent. In this situation it is important to harness the potential of Barechaharia. Promotion of Bhowna culture is must for our cultural identity and it has assumed more every significance with every passing day. Modernity does not speak for discarding our own culture. Ours is a rich culture and culture is the identity with which the members of the society are known. New generation should imbibe the cultural and social values of Barechaharia Bhowna.


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