Sankardeva's Ideals through Barechaharia Bhowna

- Shri. Sumanta Rajbangshi


The name uttering which every Asomiya feels pride and ecstasy ifs that of Srimanta Shankardeva (1449 AD-1568 AD), who not only propagated the neo-vaishnavism in Asom, but also consolidated the foundation of Asomiya art, culture and literature and unified the people of diverse castes and communities living in the region. When the religious life of the people of Asom was at a very low ebb and they believed in existence of various gods and goddesses and took much pain for offering sacrifices to them Shankardeva preached the message that there is only one Lord and He is Vishnu. Hence it is meaningless to offer worships to other gods or goddesses and thus showed the people true way to Divinity, which was till then unknown to them . But unlike many of the religious leaders of the past and of the contemporary time he did not confine himself to the business of preaching religious sermons to the poor people for propounding the new cult of vaishnavism. He reformed their religious life giving them only one god amongst host of gods and goddesses, showed them a way of life, gave them new art and literature and varied forms of recreation and tried to abolish the age old system of casteism and unify the people founding the society on the principle of peace, harmony, equality and fraternity.

The unique and glorious tradition of the Barechaharia Bhowna Mahotsav at Jamugurihat, situated in the eastern bank of the river Jiya Bharali upholds the enduring ideals of this saint preacher that have been fondly and carefully nourished by the people of the state over the years. It is a great collective festival with spectacular and splendid performance of a good number of Ankiya Nats simultaneously on different stages or kholas by the people of the locality. This magnificent achievement of the Jamugurians epitomises enduring values like truth, beauty and goodness, and manifests the profound artistic sensibility of the agrarian area. The most significant aspect of this celebration is that it is indeed a tremendous effort on the part of the humble villagers of the locality to preserve the lofty ideals of Shankardeva and transmit the same to the new generations and thereby consolidate the foundation of our art, culture and religion, and strengthen the fabric of the society. We notice close association of this collective celebration with the cult of Vaishnavism and realise its immense power in carrying the religious and ethical message of Shankardeva to the masses. Besides, this celebration is a giant step towards achievement of the socialistic and reformative objectives of the saint.

Shankardeva was a literary genius and a great artiste with innovative ideas who heralded the message of a new down in the socio-cultural life of this poor and backward state. He dreamt of illuminating the heart of the society with the new light of Vaishnavism and cause socio-cultural upliftment of the people. With a view to materialise this dream and to win the hearts of the illiterate masses towards the new cult of Vaishnavism he searched for potential and effective instruments and finally thought that art and culture could serve this purpose. He initiated a great cultural movement and sublimated the life of the Asomiya people and their culture with dance, drama and music of higher excellence.

The Barechaharia Bhowna, which is a grand enactment of a number of Ankiya Nats based on the stories from the Mahabharata or the Ramayana is an offspring of this movement which still retains the efficacy to inspire people to assemble under one roof and sing and dance, and in a mood of ecstasy feel one with God almighty. We cannot separate the essence of Vaishnavism from this unique festival. Even the architecture and bear the marks of the Vaishnavite tradition.

The lotus shaped design of the Monikoot and the stages which are demarcated as the petals of the lotus have inherent religious significance. As the researchers point out the shape of lotus in the architecture of the Bhowna Mandap symbolises the mythical lotus of Bhagawanta or Lord Vishnu. The petals are added to the lotus in accordance with the number of kholas or participant villages.

At the centre of the pandal lies the Singhasana or the holy throne and the Bhagavata, the "which was rendered into verse and prose by Sankardeva and his followers, is placed on it and people worship the holy book during the days of the festival with traditional Namkirtanas. The stupendous dramatic creations of Shankardeva, which are known as Ankiya Nats opened up a new source of immense bliss and joy to the rustic viewers and it was a novel experience for them to assemble in the Namghars and see from very close the divine characters singing and dancing just before them.

With this novel genre of dramatic art he unfolded before the eyes of the enthralled rustic viewers new avenues leading to Divinity. The Barechaharia Bhowna, in imitation of the dramatic achievement of the saint has also proved to be a very potential media for furthering the cause of Vaishnavism and creating devotional sentiments in the hearts of the viewers, besides providing ample opportunities to the rural artistes for exhibition of their talent and creativity.

A very striking feature of this festival is the non-religious character of the large congregation at the venue of the celebration that accommodates people from diverse religious communities. Shankardeva established the Namghars as unique institution, that cannot be called merely places of worship for Vaishnavite devotees, but social institution, that have since long been playing a vital role in remoulding and consolidating the fabric of Asomiya society. He started here his reformative and revolutionary programmes and kept the floor of the Namghars open to people from diverse communities. The stages of the Barechaharia Bhowna can be called the replicas of this great socio-religious institution.

Shankardeva preached on the floor of the Namghar his revolutionary and democratic ideals that the so called lower castes within the Hindu fold like the Kiratas, the Kacharis, the Khasis, the Garos and many others become pure in the company of Lord Krishna. Again he held that it is the duty of the wise and the religious to work for elimination of the distinction of caste and community among the creations of the God. He wrote

"Brahmanar Chandalar nivichari kul
Datat chorat yena dristi ek tul
Nichat pandit yar bhaila eka jnan
Tahakehe pandit Vuliya sarvajan."

In the kirtan-ghosha Shankardeva boldly asserts the need of giving every one equal status and dignity. In his view religion is not for partition among the children of the god, but for unity and solidarity among them. He tried to translate such democratic ideals into action by means of religion and culture and thereby destroy the barriers set by casteism or untouchability and negate the feeling of hatred fostered by various communities towards each other. Being inspired by lofty ideals of the saint-preacher the people of Jamugurihat conceived about two hundred years back the idea of holding such a colourful festival of drama that would embody the efficacy of humanity to abolish casteism and communalism and prove the victory of love and compassion over hatred and prejudice. The festival not only helps in propagating the message of the Vaishnavism, that frees religion from all ritualistic complexities, excessive rigour and banal formalities, but helps in binding heart to heart. The collective effort of the Jamugurians, irrespective of their caste and creed is behind successful celebration of this grand festival for about two hundred years at the gap of every 5 or 7 years.

The celebration of the Barechaharia Bhowna in imitation of the principles of equality, brotherhood, love and compassion preached by Shankardeva would ever inspire the people of the region to keep faith in the strength of unity and maintain the same in their social life and withstand the sinister designs of the communal forces to shatter it. It is hope that celebration of such collective festivals in a blood-stained state like Asom, where peace has become elusive in the recent years will create among the people a new zest for life and mark the ushering in of new hopes and promises for the people of the state besides showcasing the cultural richness of this region.


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