April 1, 2021

Aspects of Vaishnava Music and Culture of Assam

Indigenous Art & Culture

Dr. Bhaswati Sarma


Mahapurush Srimanta Sankardeva whose literary and artistic contributions are living traditions in Assam today was an Assamese polymath, a saint scholar, a poet, a play writer, a socio-religious reformer, founder of Neo-Vaishnavism and a magnificent figure in the history of culture of Assam who was born in Bordowa in Nagaon district in Assam  1449.

    He is credited with building on past cultural relics and devising new forms of music which is widely known as ‘Borgeet’, theatrical performance known as ‘Ankia Naat or Bhaona), Dance known as ‘Sattriya’, literary language ‘Brajavali’. He has created some extensive literary oeuvre of trans-created scriptures which is known as ‘Bhagavat’ which is a repertoire of poetry and theological works written in Sanskrit, Assamese, Brajavali language. The Bhagavatic religious movement he started is known as ‘Ek Sharana Dharma’(one god) and also called Neo-Vaishnavite movement which immensely influence two medieval kingdoms- Koch and the Ahom kingdoms and the congregation of devotees he initiated evolved over time into monastic centres called ‘Sattras’ which are socio-religious institutions in Assam and to a lesser extend in North-Bengal in Kochbihar. The way of living, the religion he preached is practised by a large population in ‘Sattras’( monasteries) that he and his followers established continue to flourish and sustain his legacy.

    Sankardeva inspired the Bhakti movement in Assam just as Guru Nanak, Ramananda, Namdev, Kabir, Basava, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu inspired it elsewhere in the Indian sub-continent.

Image of Mahapurush Srimanta Sankardeva

Poetic works of Srimanta Sankardeva (kavya):

  1. Kirtana-Ghosha
  2. Harichandra-Upakhyana
  3. Rukmini-Harana
  4. Ajamilopakhyana
  5. Bali-Chalana
  6. Kurukshetra – yatra
  7. Gopi-uddhava-samvada
  8. Amrita-Manthana
  9. Krishna-prayana-pandava-niryana
  10. Kamajaya

Bhakti Theory of Srimanta Sankardeva:

  1. Bhakti-pradipa
  2. Anadi-pradipa
  3. Nimi-navasidha-samvada
  4. Bhakti Ratnakar(in Sanskrit)
  5. Gunamala

Drama or Ankia Naat by Srimanta Sankardeva:

  1. Cihna- Yatra(lost)
  2. Ptna-prasada
  3. Kalia-damana
  4. Keli-gopala
  5. Rukmini-harana
  6. Parijat-harana
  7. Srirama-vijaya

Transliteration by Srimanta Sankardeva:

  1. Bhagavat
  2. Ramayana (uttarakanda)

Bhatima by Srimanta Sankardeva:

  1. Deva bhatima-panegyrics to god
  2. Naat bhatima- for use in dramas
  3. Raja bhatima-panegyrics to king Nara Narayana

Visual Art by Srimanta Sankardeva:

  1. Sapta Vaikuntha
  2. Vrindavani Vastra (part of this work is preserved in London)

So these were some notable creation of The Mahapurush which has an massive impact in the Assamese society.


The first Borgeet, composed by Srimanta Sankardeva was ‘Mana meri rama charanahi lagu’ during his first pilgrimage at Badarikashram in 1488 which is contemporaneous to the birth of Dhrupad in the court of Man Singh Tomar (1486-1518) of Gwalior. And these religious tour has an important impact over his creation, that may be the singing style of Borgeet or the Brajavali dialect which is a language native to the Braj region of Uttar Pradesh.

   Sankardeva wrote around 240 Borgeets and put them all together in a book but unfortunately the book burnt in some wildfire. He was in so much pain and asked his disciple Madhabdeva “ this treasured possession, the result of much strenuous labour is at last consumed by fire. I am no longer in a mood to undertake the task, please do some songs. And we hardly found some 34 songs only which was recovered luckily. And his truely capable disciple Srimanta Madhabdeva was no less scholar and he took the trend of Borgeet forward and wrote around 157 songs. He added 34 Borgeets of Sankardeva in a new book called Borgeet which are till alive in Assamese society.

    The Borgeets portray the ‘Leelas’ of Lord Krishna. The lyrics don’t have an insight to the love –romance activities of Bhagwan Shree Krishna, instead the songs are fully devoted to the religious and spiritual aspects of Shree Krishna. Apart from the simple spiritual lyrics, the Borgeet are bound to very melodious classical music which are close to Hindustani classical music but it has it’s own signature. Borgeet follows various Ragas like any other Indian classical music. Use of instruments like Flute, Khol, Taal are necessary in Borgeet. Although Borgeet differs from Ankia gits that is sung in Dramas, in matter of subject and purpose.The same ragas and talas are applied in both Borgeet and Ankia git , and some differences may occur due to mode of execution rather than a musical style. Such differences may happen in the performance of one and in the same Borgeet. The connotation of the word Borgeet is wide enough to embrace all these variations. The ragas used in Borgeets are Ahir, Gunjari, Gondagiri, Dhanashree, Naga, Nata, Patamanjari, Baradi, Bhatiyali, Pahadi, Bhairav,Vasanta etc.

    Borgeets should perhaps be appropriately called a group of songs  sung in a set style rather than a class of music or form of poetry by itself. But this applies only so far as the literary aspect is concerned. It is very difficult to ascertain definitely since when the term Borgeet was applied. May be this term was used by the disciple and preceptor of Sankardeva and Madhabdeva.

     According to Pabitra Pran Goswami the technique of Borgeet follows the Prabandha Gana tradition. Dr Goswami, who has researched Borgeet, says, “In fact, there is no musical tradition either contemporary or prior to Borgit alive today anywhere in India. Even Dhrupada and Kirttana evolved at a later stage. The differences between the Ragas of Borgit with their modern counterparts in Hindustani and Carnatic music may be understood in that context”. Similarly in respect to tala, he says, “Borgit exhibits its speciality through the uniqueness of its Talas too. There are Talas from eight matras to thirty-two matras, all comprising three parts of proportionate length, viz., Ga-man, Ghat and Chok. These talas are different in structure, rhythmic pattern as well as playing style from the talas now played with Hindustani and Carnatic music. A few like Rupaka, Ektali, Yati, Bisam, etc. are mentioned not only in the Sangita Sastras like Sangit Ratnakara but also in Jaydeva’sGita- Govinda”. The tala-pattern definitely also brings in the percussion instrument used in Sattriya dance and music, the Khol this instrument has also not received its classical status. It is very important to understand that if a dance style is considered classical then automatically the percussion is also a classical instrument. The two are complementary”.

    Borgeet are written in Pada form of verse. The Pada mark as Dhrum work as a refrain and its reapeted over the course of singing of the succeeding verses. The Borgeet has mainly few Ragas like: Dhanasree, Kedara, Sri, Gauri, Vasant, Mallar.

    Thus, the seeds that were sown by Sankaradev long time back, has today grown into a magnificently huge tree, under whose shadow we have achieved recognition of our culture. During its long and eventful journey, Sattriya culture has gone through quite a lot of changes in its form, its significance and its position in the society. But one thing that has remained unaltered and will remain so for the centuries to come is its infinite contribution to the Assamese culture and, at a larger perspective, to the Indian culture. This culture explicitly talks about equality and indiscernibility of life. It patronises a culture of dignity to the mankind as a whole. In its present state, it has even crossed the boundaries of India, thus travelling far and wide. Presently, it has defined a forte for itself on the world platform, thereby earning a lot of adoration, praise and recognition globally.

Image of old scripture of Borgeet
Image of a Borgeet

Ankia Naat (Drama):

Sankardeva first pioneered the concept of drama in Assamese language. He created his first drama ‘Cinhajatra’ in1468.This incident is regarded as the milestone in Assamese culture as it was written in Indian regional language. Ankia Naat can be termed as musical dramas which contain the elements of Bhaktirasa.The Ankia Naats at the beginning not only served as the medium of religious propaganda but also came to be a source of pleasure and recreation. It is a simple drama which shows the victory of truth at the climax, generally using fictitious or mythological kings, queens, demons, Gods, soldiers etc. Ankiya’ means one act and ‘Naat’ means drama. Therefore, ‘Ankiya naat’ simply means one act play. These plays are composed of an orchestra who are called ‘Gaayan’ (singers) and ‘Baayans'(instrumentalists) and actors.  There is one Sutradhar who begins the play by narrating the story of the play who acts as the chorus of the English plays. Khol, Taal, Doba and Nagara are some musical instruments used in the play.

    The tradition was later followed by Sri Madhabdeva in Barpeta Sattra where he wrote several dramas and staged them too. He and his followers later on performed many more creation and from that point onward, Barpeta Sattra is maintaining the tradition of performing various Ankia Naats and ‘Jhumura Naats’. In Bohag Bihu and in Doul Utsav they specially showcase those dramas.

Image of Ankiya Naat (drama): Ram Bijoy


Jaya guru sankara, sarba gunakara

Jakeri nahike upama

Tohari saranaku, renu satakouti

Baareko karoham pranamo

Bhatima is a song sung by roving ministrals in praise of God or the Guru. Bhatima is a form of poetry innovated by Sankardeva. The etymological meaning of the word is worship or glorification. It is primarily the song of the bhata (wandering ministral). In Sankari Assamese literature there is a difference between nat (dancer) and bhata. A special kind of penegyrics, which are sung by these bhatas are called Bhatima.

Sattriya Nritya:

The Sattriya nritya or Sattriya dance was created and introduced by Sri Sankardeva in 15th century. The dance form evolved and expanded as a distinctive style of dance later on. This Neo- Vaishnava treasure of Assamese dance and drama has been for centuries, nurtured and preserved  with great commitment by the Sattras or the vaishnav monasteries. Because of its religious character and association with Sattras, this dance style has been aptly named Sattriya. As repertoire, Sattriya encompasses all the basic attributes of a classical dance form. The Sattriya repertoire (marg) includes nritta (pure form of dance, solo), nritya (expressive dance, solo), and natya (dramatic play, group). Like all major classical Indian dance forms.

    The Nritya performance is abstract, fast and rhythmic aspect of the dance. The Nritya is slower and expressive aspect of the dance that attempts to communicate feelings, storyline particularly with spiritual themes.The Natya is a play, typically a team performance, but can be acted out by a solo performer where the dancer uses certain standardized body movements to indicate a new character in the underlying story.The hand gestures (mudras), footwork (padas), postures, rhythms, training of artists and other aspects of the Sattriya dance drama closely follow those described in Natya Shastra and other classical Hindu dance texts. Sattriya Dance is a genre of dance drama that tells mythical and religious stories through hand and face expressions. The basic dance unit and exercise of a Sattriya is called a Mati Akhara, equal 64 just like in Natya Shastra, are the foundational sets dancers learn during their training. The Akharas are subdivided into Ora, Saata, Jhalak, Sitika, Pak, Jap, Lon and Khar. A performance integrates two styles, one masculine (Paurashik Bhangi, energetic and with jumps), and feminine (Stri Bhangi, Lasya or delicate).

     Traditionally, Sattriya was performed only by Keuliyabhokots (male unmarried monks) in monasteries as a part of their daily rituals or to mark special festivals. Today, in addition to this practice, Sattriya is also performed on stage by men and women who are not members of the sattras, on themes not merely mythological. The plays choreographed in a Sattriya are those found in Hindu texts such as the Bhagavata Purana, the Epics, and the compositions by Assamese scholars. The stories related to the love between Radha and Krishna are particularly common.
The costume of Sattriya dance is primarily of two types: the male costume comprising the dhoti and chadar and the paguri (turban) and the female costume comprising the ghuri, chadar and kanchi (waist cloth). Traditionally the costumes were of white or raw silk color with use of red, blue and yellow for specific dance numbers. In earlier times velvet and satin materials were mostly used for the costumes. With change of time, as this dance form evolved from the sattras onto stage, the design and materials of the dance costumes changed. Pat (also spelled paat) – a silk produced in Assam which is derived from the mulberry plant and muga ( golden silk of Assam) is also used in preparing the dance costume. Other brilliant colours are also used in the female costumes. These hand-woven materials normally have intricate local motifs like Kingkhap, Miri Motif, Kolka etc. Uses of play-specific costumes are also seen in Sattriya dance. The dress of Krishna Nritya and Nadubhangi Nritya is of yellow and blue keeping in line with the attire of Lord Krishna.

     Sankardeva introduced this dance form by incorporating different elements from various treatises, local folk dances with his own rare outlook. There were two dance forms prevalent in Assam before the Neo-vaishnava movement such as ‘Ojhapali’ and ‘Devadasi’ with many classical elements. ‘Ojhapali’ which we can call folk theatre where dance and drama both are applicable are two types. ‘Sukanani’ and ‘Vyah Gowa’. Sukanani Ojha deal with Shakti cult and Vyah Gowa Ojha are of Vaishnav cult. Sankardeva included Vyah Gowa Ojhapali in to  his daily rituals in Sattra. Till now Vyah Gowa Ojha is a part of rituals in Assam. The dancers in a Ojhapali chorus not only sing and dance but also explain the narration by gestures and stylized movement.

     As far as Devadasi dance is concerned, resemblance of a good number of rhythmic syllables and dance postures along with footwork with Sattriya dance is a clear indication of the influence of the former on the later.

Images of Sattriya Dance
Images of Sattriya Dance
Image of Ojhapali (Assamese Folk Theatre)

Sri Sankardeva and his Philosophy:

Sankardeva’s philosophy is that of intrinsic equality in which the very doing of pure devotion is predicted on the existence of a transcendental society in which all members are essentially of one kind. His Bhaktic philosophy envisages a kind of society which is modelled on Vaikuntha, the transcendental society, in which the governing ideal is one of equality. His humanism has an universal appeal.

     There are three primary entities or tattvas. In the philosophical view of Sankardeva those are : 1) primal matter or prakriti, 2) Pure personality or Purush, 3) The supreme pure personality or Parama Purusha. The supreme entity (param purusha) referred to in his immanent capacity as Krishna. He is supremely conscious ( caitanya purna). He is termed as the supreme truth (satya). The living beings (jiva) are also in truth, pure personalities (purusas). So thus is the discussion in the Sanakardeva-ite philosophical literature on the nature of reality- specifically, on what constitutes the essential nature  of entities (tattva). The difference between the material (jada) and spiritual (caitanya) is critical in Sankardeva ; it determines worship in the Eka Sarana school or philosophy.

     Sankardeva  translated the Bhagavat and composed a unique book called ‘Kirtan ghosa’ to be read and chanted by the devotees of all classes. The Kirtan Ghosa contains the quintessence of his creed. Sankardeva relied almost solely upon the puranas and the Bhagavad -Gita and the tenets of his faith are firmly based on the Bhagavata and Bhagavad- Gita. The religious preaching and activities of Sankaradeva contributed significantly in shaping the Assamese culture and literature. 

     Srimanta Sankardeva had spent twelve years in different holy places like Vrindavana, Mathura, Kurukshetra, Haridwar, Prayag, Jagannatha Puri etc which were all centres of Vaishnavism (connected to the lives of Rama & Krishna)  and Vedic studies. It was at Jagannath Puri , that he received enlightenment  and learnt  jnana-bhakti from people of different  religious opinion.  Sankaradeva composed his first Bargeeta (devotional song) near the bank of Ganges.

     The Neo Vaishnavism is still a very prominent religion in Assam and it has shaped the Assamese culture into a progressive, welcoming and inclusive culture.  No wonder, the state is cosmopolitan and is not known for caste based clashes or religious turmoil.

Assam’s cultural landscape can be looked at as pre and post  Srimanta Sankardeva.

   Image of Sattra or Vaishnav monastery  


Image of Naamghar


  1. Maheswar Neog, Rhythm in The Vaishnava Music Of Assam,Publication Board Assam,2008
  2. Maheswar Neog, Swararekhat Borgeet, Axom Prakashan Parishad, 2008.
  3. Debojit Borah, Uttar-Purbanchalor Jonogosthiyo Loka-Sanskrit,M.R Publication, 2018