Bhakti, Art and Communication in Pre-Modern Assam

in Article
Published on: 16 July 2018

Radha Das

Radha Das teaches History at Guwahati University. She graduated in History from Indraprastha College, University of Delhi and followed it up with a Masters, MPhil and PhD degrees from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. Her doctoral research was on the social and institutional basis of Vaishnava bhakti faith in pre-modern Assam. She is currently based in Guwahati and apart from teaching works to promote local history and is active with students and groups promoting film screenings and performances based on oral and literary traditions across cultures.


The ekasharaṇa-nama-dharma may be seen as the Assam variant of the pan-Indian phenomenon of bhakti that swept through different parts of the country at different points of time ranging broadly between the 6th and the 17th centuries CE. Faiths based on bhakti in India were either Vaishnava or Shaiva in orientation. In Assam, this faith based on bhakti espoused devotion to a single god Krishna (who in the Brahmanical Hindu religion is seen as an incarnation of the Lord Vishnu, hence Vaishnava) expressed and experienced through the chanting, singing and listening of the names and visualising the forms of the divine entity. Beginning in the early 16th century CE, it was able to establish itself as the dominant faith in the Brahmaputra valley within a hundred years or so. The simplicity of bhakti as a mode of worship based on collective participation enabled this process. This paper seeks to elaborate and emphasise this collective and participatory character of the nama-dharma which is clearly reflected in the modes adopted to popularise the faith.


Shankaradeva (1449-1568), the initiator and foremost propagator of the faith in Assam belonged to a family of Bhuyan chieftains who wielded considerable power at the local level. Around the 16th century the Bhuyans were a dominant politico-economic group, occupying pockets of land in the core agricultural areas on both banks of the Brahmaputra. Theirs was a caste stratified society composed of Brahmanas, Daivajnas (astrologers), Kayasthas and Kalitas. Shankaradeva was a Kayastha Bhuyan who formed the landed elements or chiefs of the community and he inherited from his ancestors the position of the Shiromani or leader of his group of Bhuyans (which he later relinquished). It was within this group of Bhuyans that bhakti first struck its roots and developed its initial form.


At that time, the area of Assam comprised the three kingdoms of Kamata (later Koch Behar), Kamarupa and Asama which far exceeded the boundaries of the present day state. The population included people following a variety of social and religious practices, both Brahmanical and those outside its influence. These ranged from those following a caste stratified social order and a number of local ethnic communities having their distinct beliefs and practices.


The nama-dharma aimed at garnering a wide support base comprising a cross-section of the people inhabiting the region apart from the Bhuyans. The saint Shankaradeva set out the religious tenets of the faith through literary compositions and formulated effective devices for their propagation. He was learned in both the Kayastha scribal procedures as well as in Sanskrit religious and philosophical works.[i] More importantly, he was able to understand the complexities of the existing socio-economic and political-cultural situation and adapt his faith to the needs of the society. He also adopted a language for propagation which was comprehensible to the common people and enabled communication with a broad spectrum of the populace. The popularity of bhakti in Assam owed much to the effective means of communication adopted by the Vaishnava preachers led by Shankaradeva and his principal disciples Madhavadeva and Damodaradeva and generations of bhakti preachers who followed them. These were rooted in the existing folk and cultural traditions prevalent in the society and hence appealed directly to the people.


The bulk of the followers of the nama-dharma were peasants, craftspeople, petty traders or those belonging to the various local ethnic communities who were often also illiterate. Shankaradeva declared that nama did not discriminate between jati and ajati. In other words he emphasised that people of all castes and communities had a right to it – Brahmanas and Candalas alike.[ii] Thus, by rejecting caste within the community of bhaktas, the nama-dharma opened up the possibility of recruiting devotees from all sections of the society and the process effected a great social change. While on the one hand, it allowed the socially degraded castes access to worship, it also considerably loosened the rigours of the Brahmanical system.


Artistic expression flourished in the wake of the nama-dharma as Shankaradeva devised songs, dances and drama to carry the message of bhakti and reach out to the people. Among these were the borgeets or devotional songs and the ankiya natas or yatras which were the popular plays, the themes of which were derived from the epics and the Puranas. In the post-Shankaradeva period, the narration of guru-charitas or the life-stories of saints such as Shankaradeva, Madhavadeva and others as part of kirtana sessions and within the sattras or Vaishnava monastic institutions also contributed in popularising the faith. Initially circulated as an oral tradition, a large number of charitas were compiled in the written form during the 17th and 18th centuries.[iii] These texts are also important sources for an understanding of the processes of the spread of the nama-dharma in Assam.


The charitas contain many descriptions relating to the performances and the impact that the carriers of the Vaishnava bhakti message, such as, the borgeets, kirtanas and natas had on the people.  One such charita, the Guru Charita Katha refers to 240 lyrical compositions of Shankaradeva which were destroyed in a fire. Only 34 of these have survived.[iv] These songs, meant for the popularisation of the faith, seemed to have had wide appeal.


These apart, the dramatic compositions of Shankaradeva known as natakas, natas or yatras were also performed to attract the people. Seven dramatic compositions are attributed to him, six of which are extant. The Cihna-yatra attributed to him has not survived in manuscript form but descriptive sections in certain charitas elaborate the details of its performance during Shankaradeva’s time.[v] Moreover, the descriptions attribute to it a unique feature amongst the plays of Shankaradeva; its use of a background in the form of a painted scenery. Usually, since the plays were performed on open stages, no fixed background could be used, except the aar-kapor or white curtain used at certain stages during the course of the performance. It is interesting therefore that a few of the charitas state that for his very first performance Shankaradeva had used a painted background scenery depicting the ‘seven Vaikunthas’ or celestial abodes of the gods on sheets of paper-like tulapat which he had himself painted. According to the descriptions in the Baradawa Guru Charita the performance continued for seven consecutive days and nights but the people felt that it was just a single day and night.


Though perhaps this was an exaggeration by the devout compiler of the charita this story underlines the sense of enjoyment and the collective participation which no doubt had an impact on the minds of the people. Again, this narration accords a special place to the painted background scenery which was employed by Shankaradeva to attract the people. It is stated that Shankaradeva had told an old woman who wished to see the painted scenes after the conclusion of the event that the rule/practice was of putting on a display only when people converged together.[vi] Thus, once again the social role of this medium is highlighted here.


The descriptions of the preparations leading up to the performance of the Cihna-yatra clearly demonstrate this. The performance was preceded by several days of preparatory activities, involving different categories of people designated to produce, collect materials and resources or to set up the arena. Shankaradeva used the services of artisans from the neighbouring villages of Baradawa—potters from Kapilimukh and leatherworkers from Salmara were assigned the task of making the khols or drums to be used for the performance while some metalworkers were asked to make a variety of cymbals or talas. Even Candari, the woman slave who served the household of Sankaradeva participated—showing him the spot where he should paint the Kalpataru tree in the scenery that he was painting. The participatory element thus dominates the performance which underline its ‘popular’ character transcending the barriers of caste, community and in a more limited way even that of gender.


The charitas were compiled into the written form after Shankaradeva’s lifetime and belong to the category of hagiographical literature. Many later elements thus found their way into the texts in the course of their compilation. Whatever be the authenticity of the Cihna-yatra story, its adds a new dimension to the use of paintings within the Vaishnava bhakti tradition in Assam, which was primarily confined to illustrations in manuscripts. The particular style of manuscript illustration which developed in association with the nama-dharma has been termed as the Satriya School of painting by scholars.[vii] Drawing from various early and contemporary styles of painting prevalent in India, such as the Buddhist Pala and Jaina styles, it developed its own idiom when these intermingled with local features. The stylistic and aesthetic aspects and characteristics of the Satriya style have been discussed by scholars such as Maheshwar Neog and others.[viii]


Satriya dance was another medium through which Vaishnava bhakti ideals were communicated to the people. Both songs and dances formed an important component of the plays of Shankaradeva and these had considerable appeal for the illiterate common folk who were attracted and influenced by the visual imageries and the ideas these communicated. As M. Neog elaborates, ‘Songs and dances occupy the largest part in a performance, leaving but a secondary place to the essential requisites of a well-developed drama- the story and the dialogue.’


Moreover, since the art forms employed for the propagation of bhakti were interlinked, given their common purpose, one form often borrowed elements from the other. For example, it has been pointed out that certain painted human figures found in manuscripts were depicted in poses borrowed from the dance poses of the Satriya style.[ix] Thus, it may be noted that the study of art forms in the context of the nama-dharma has to take into account their social existence and function. This would further enhance our understanding of the styles and techniques utilised in these forms and the conditions that shaped these. In fact, in many ways, the Vaishnava art forms may be seen ‘as the creation of the people, as their collective artistry’ as A. Gurevich points out while discussing what constitutes the ‘popular’ in another context.[x]


The cumulative impact of all these mechanisms and devices adopted for the spread of bhakti by the Vaishnava preachers ensured that the nama-dharma came to be deeply embedded in the society in the course of the 17th- 18th centuries as a dominant faith of the people. In fact, in Assam, even today bhakti continues to be the most common way of expressing ones relationship to the divine.



[i] H.K. Barpujari (ed.), The Comprehensive History of Assam, Vol.3, Publication Board, Assam, Guwahati, 1994, pp. 303-305.

[ii] D. Borkotoki (ed.), Shri Shri Shankaradeva by Bhushana Dvija, Satyam Shivam, Jorhat (Assam), 1986, p.70; B.K. Bhattacharya (ed.), Guru Carita by Ramacharana Thakura, Published by R. Sharma, Nalbari (Assam), 1985, p. 493.

[iii] M.Neog, Sankaradeva and His Times:Early History of theVaisnava Faith and Movement in Assam, Department of Publication, Gauhati University, Gauhati, 1965, p.2.

[iv] M. Neog (ed.), Guru Charita Katha, Gauhati University, Gauhati, 1987, pp. 177-178.

[v] M. Neog, Sankaradeva and His Times, p. 109; M. Neog (ed.), Baradawa Guru Charita, Gauhati Book Stall, Gauhati, 1980, pp.62-66.

[vi] M. Neog (ed.), Baradawa Guru Charita, pp.62-66.

[vii] H.K. Barpujari (ed.), The Comprehensive History of Assam, Vol.3, p.380.

[viii] M. Neog, Snnkaradeva and His Times, pp.301-304; M. Neog, The Art of Painting in Assam,1959; H.K. Barpujari (ed.), The Comprehensive History of Assam, Vol.3, pp. 380-393.

[ix] H.K. Barpujari (ed.), The Comprehensive History of Assam, Vol.3, p.385.

[x] See, A. Gurevich, Medieval Popular Culture: Problems of Belief and Perception, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1990.


Select Bibliography


M. Neog, Sankaradeva and His Times: Early History of the Vaisnava Faith and Movement in Assam, Department of Publication, Gauhati University, Gauhati, 1965.


S.N. Sharma, The Neo-Vaisnavite Movement and the Satra Institutions of Assam, Department of Publication, Gauhati University, Gauhati, 1966.


H.K. Barpujari (ed.), The Comprehensive History of Assam, Vol.3, Publication Board, Assam, 1994.


K. Dev Goswami, Post-Sankaradeva Vaisnava Faith and Culture of Assam, Sri Satguru Publications, Delhi, 1988.


R. Farley, “The Vaisnava Drama of Assam”, Educational Theatre Journal,Vol.26, No.2,1974.


M. Neog, The Art of Painting in Assam, Bani Prokash, Guwahati, 1990.


D. Neog, Satriya Dances and their Rhythms, Gauhati, 1973.