Religious Institutions
Life & Time
Religious institutions
The curtain comes down


Naam Ghar or Kirtana Ghar:



Naam ghar or Kirtana ghar is Sankaradeva’s single most outstanding legacy for the Assamese people. The focal point of his religion, its influence on Assamese life is all-pervading. An epitome of simplicity, Naam ghar has been the cornerstone of Assam’s socio-religious structure for over half a millennium.


Basic in design, naam ghar is a large prayer hall, built in the traditional style and generally placed in an east-west direction. Its open sides are symbolic of its acceptance of people of every caste and creed. It has an adjunct, the ‘sanctum sanctorum’ known as the ‘monikut’ where valuables and scriptures are kept. In place of idol, the Bhagawata or its concise version Gunamala is placed in the Monikut. Sometimes, other scared texts-the Kirtana Ghosa or Dasham-Adi (the first part of the tenth chapter of the Bhagawata), both by Sankaradeva; the Naam Ghosa or Bhakti Ratnavali by Madhavadeva, are also placed in the monikut. Today, many kirtana ghars, including Barpeta, allow idols of Lord Vishnu or one of his avatars in addition to the sacred books.


The eminent artist and filmmaker Jyoti Prasad Agarwala (1903-51), while on a visit to Berlin in 1930, saw there a few newly constructed community centres. He was struck by the uncanny similarities in their design and concept to Sankaradeva’s prayer hall, the naam ghar, conceived four centuries earlier. Upon his return to Assam in 1931, he closely examined the sculptures and paintings at Bardowa xatra. He  found further echoes, this time of the ‘revolutionary’ modern sculptures of Jacob Epstein (1880-1959) he had just seen in London. Even the altar, the multi-stepped throne for the ‘sacred book’ reminded him of Cubism, an art form of the early 20th century.


Inside a naam ghar, equality is preached as well as practiced. During ceremonies, everybody sits cross-legged on the floor with bare feet, and partakes of the same Prasad. The devotees, irrespective of caste, creed or speech, chant the name of Lord Krishna during three broad sessions of naam  prasanga a day, marketing the morning, afternoon, and evening prayers. Madhavadeva later increased this to fourteen; a practice followed to this day at Bardowa and Barpeta kirtana ghars. Worship involves the burning of incense, lighting of earthen lamps, and other rites. An akshaya banti, the eternal lamp symbolic of the light of faith, is kept alive by a continuous supply of oil.


Naam ghar is, however, more than a mere congregational hall of prayer. It brings about a degree of bonding within the community through people praying together and participating in its various activities. It is a confluence where various social issues, including disputes and developmental activities affecting the community, are discussed. Here, all sections of society assemble and arrive at decisions through a democratic process. Nobody is barred from expressing his views on matters under discussion. In many respects, naam ghar assumes the role of a village parliament albeit without legal or judicial sanction. It provides a platform for grass-root democracy, and can be termed the precursor of Panchayati Raj now being actively espoused.


For more than 500 years, Sankaradeva’s naam ghar has been the focus of his teachings and dots every nook and corner of Assam.




Inspired by Sankaradeva’s naam ghar, his devotees later expanded its infrastructure to establish xatras. The word xatra finds mention in scriptures since Vedic times. It has been used to denote various things or places never straying far from its root, xat, meaning good or true. In Assamese Vaishnavism, xatra has over the years evolved to mean a monastery or a habitat where vaishnavites reside or gather to recite and listen to prayers to the Lord, and participate in religious and cultural activities. Somewhat similar in concept to Benedictine monasteries, Buddha Vihars, and Maths of other monastic communities in India, xatras place great emphasis on development of art and culture through religious practices.


The xatra institution is envisaged as centre of society focus, fundamental to the preservation of diverse traditions of religious learning. Monks train in all aspects of xatriya life in addition to receiving a general education. Studying the scriptures in both Sanskrit and Assamese helps them to serve as responsible functionaries of the xatras. Need for contemporary education has not been lost on the xatra managements either. Recent initiative by Phoolbari xatra in noni in Nowgong for imparting modern technical education is a case in point.


The primary functions of a xatra are to: propagate Vaishnavism based on the tenet of monotheism; initiate disciples; provide rules of conduct for neophytes; and hold religious festivals pooja (worshipping), naam prasanga (reading of religious books), nritya (dance), geet (song), art and sculpture.


The hub of all activities in xatra is the kirtana ghar. The pre-eminence of the kirtana ghar in the xatra set-up is underscored by the fact that both Bardowa and Barpeta began with a kirtana ghar. Sankaradeva’s followers later expanded them into xatras for disciplined propagation of the various facets of the Vaishnava faith including dance, drama and music.


The xatra, with its own organizational structure, is run in a democratic manner. The Xatradhikar is the principle spiritual guide and preceptor; he initiates disciples and conducts key religious functions. The monks or bhakats carry out their assigned tasks, and lead a life of devotion. Both celibate and married monks are allowed within the campus; celibate devotees are called kevaliya, keval meaning single. Sisyas or the lay devotees live in the surrounding villages, leading the life of a householder.



Xatras derive their income from three main sources: i) land originally granted by the Kings in pre-colonial days and later ratified by the British, ii) tithes from disciples, and iii) donations by well-wishers. Xatras also act as repositories of ancient texts-scrolls on bark and silk-and documents in original which survive to this day. The Auniati xatra in Majuli maintains a fine museum for its collection.


Majuli, the largest inhabited river-island in the world, is at the centre of the Vaishnavite culture in Assam. The xatriya movement that began in the early 16th century had its golden period around mid-17th century. The large xatras of Majuli are of this period: Bengenaati (1626), Garmur (1650), Auniati (1653), Dakshinpat (1662) and Uttar Kamalabari (1673). Erosion by the river Brahmaputra has reduced Majuli’s area from 1250 sqkm to 650 sqkm. Of its 65 xatras, only 31 remain.


Gradually, the apostles of the new faith began building xatras for themselves and their families, and the idea of community service dwindled. Only a handful to begin with, the Asom Xatra Mahasabha puts the present number of xatras at more than nine hundred. However, this numerical upsurge has not translated into greater proliferation of Vaishnava values on the ground. Through mismanagement and an emphasis on form rather than substance, the influence of xatras has gradually declined. The institution of xatra, in true sense of the term, survives only in a few of them, mainly in Majuli xatras.


Barpeta xatra, one of the pioneering centres of Sankaradeva’s religion, nurtured by Madhavadeva, and reputed to have the largest kirtana ghar in Assam, today does not allow women and Muslims inside its kirtana-ghar, and barred entry to harijans until a court ruled against the xatra. However, recent times have seen considerable resurgence in efforts to revive and conserve the essence of the xatriya traditions. In a historic moment, on the morning of Sunday, April 4th  2010, under an initiative by Sri Janaki Ballav Patnaik, Governor of Assam, Pat-bausi xatra, near Barpeta, where Sankaradeva had spent his most fruitful years, opened the doors of its kirtana ghar to women, ending centuries of gender discrimination.


Sankaradeva’s Bardowa xatra, too, has had a chequered history.



Bardowa Xatra:


After the Bhuyas left in 1516, the site where Bardowa xatra stood was abandoned, and for all purposes, lost to the world. Sankaradeva and Madhavdeva after him never made any attempt to resurrect it during their lifetime; memories of the trauma Sankaradeva went through in his last days there perhaps a determinant. Sankaradeva’s kirtana ghar in Bardowa, where he had spent the first 67 years of his life, perished with time and lay covered in thick jungle for nearly 150 years.


Finally around 1658, Kanaklata the principal among the three wives of Sankardeva’s grandson Chaturbhuja, sought the blessing of the Ahom king Jayadhvaja Singha (1648-1663), to restore the xatra. Permission was granted. Kanaklata came and set up camp at Ai Bheti, about 5 miles from Bardowa. She was accompanied by Damodara, Chaturbhuja’s nominated heir and the son of his sister. Kanaklata was a woman of much ability and great personality. She was responsible for the considerable furtherance of the faith of her grandfather-in-law. For the first time in the history of (Assamese) Vaishnavism, a woman acted as a religious head and appointed other persons as Superiors.


Kanaklata had the area cleared and re-established the kirtana ghar at the original site. Said to have been directed by the wife of an Ahom official to whom Sankardeva had appeared in a dream, Kanaklata retrieved a stone, buried near a hilikha or haritaki tree, where Sankardeva is believed to have done his writings. The stone bearing Sankardeva’s footprints was placed in a separate house open for public viewing.


There was further disruption in 1662-63, when Mir Jumla invaded Assam; Kanaklata and Damodara had to leave Bardowa. During this period of disturbance, they both managed to secure the patronage of the Ahom king, Chakradhvaja Singha (1663-69), to establish new xatra in other places. Around 1668, Kanaklata made an attempt to come back to Bardowa but died on the way at Kaliabar, near Nowgong. Their descendants continued to look after Bardowa xatra through several generations.


By the time the Ahom king Gadadhara Singha (1681-95), came to power, the neo-Vaishnavite sects, founded on the teaching of Sankardeva, had attained remarkable dimensions. The country was full of religious preceptors and their follower claimed exemption from the universal liability to fight and assist in the construction of roads and tanks and other public works.This gave the Brahmans an opportunity to turn the king’s mind against Sankardeva’s religion and its followers. The king ordered the demolition of all Xatras and an indiscriminate persecution of the followers of the religion, “to break their power for good and all.”


Bardowa xatra was also not spared. The descendants of Kanaklata and Damodara eventually managed to rescue it by playing a hefty penalty. They continued to administer it jointly for more than a hundred years until 1799 when an internal feud regarding ownership arose between the descendants of the two families. The Ahom ruler, King Kamaleswara Singha (1795-1810), intervened and resolved the issue by dividing the xatra into two halves, one called Barphal (senior side) going to Damodara’s descendents, and the other called Saruphal (junior side) going to Kanaklata’s, each with its own Kirtana ghar.


Divided thus, Bardowa xatra continued with its two adjacent Kirtana ghars more than 150 years till another ruler intervened. After India gained independence, a group of prominent citizens, led by Sri Motiram Borah of Nowgong, a minister in the Assam Cabinet, brought the two warring factions together and, on 2nd October, 1958, established once more the single Kirtana ghar as it stands today.






While on his first pilgrimage, Sankardeva was enthralled when he heard devotees sing the songs of poets. He saw how a soulful lyric sung melodiously takes a message straight to the devotee’s heart. Deeply inspired, he composed his first hymn. He later urged his chief disciple Madhavdeva to follow suit. The devotional songs composed by Sankardeva and Madhavdeva are called bargeet, songs of Higher Praise.


Sankardeva has believed to have composed about 240 hymns. Of these only 35 survived, the rest destroyed in a fire. Sankardeva was distraught at the loss and did not write any more songs. Madhavdeva retrieved his guru’s songs from whatever was retained in the memory of the disciples, and composed new ones himself. In all, they come to 191 and only these, specifically, are known as bargeet. Both fine singers of bargeet,  Madhavdeva was considered superior to Sankardeva.


Like most saint-composers of the day, Sankardeva and Madhavdeva used classical pan-Indian ragas in their compositions. Together, they worked with more than thirty ragas, the more popular ones being Dhaneshri, Asowari, Kalyan, Gauri and Basanta. A specific raga is mentioned at the top of each song. In 25 of his compositions, Madhavdeva had used raga Bhatiyali, not usually found amongst the prevalent ragas. Bargeets are primarily prayer songs sung during various services of the xatras, and are grouped together for singing at different hours of the day. Their huge popularity among the masses stems from their simple poetry and soulful melody.


Bargeet is convergence of philosophical reflections, secular and ethical broodings, agonies of the spirit, and saintly humility. Each bargeet invariably concludes with a passionate cry for refuge at the feet of Lord Govinda, and deliverance from the sufferings of the world. These characteristics, much in evidence in his composition at school, find expression in his very first hymn, composed during his first pilgrimage:


           “Rest, my mind, rest on the feet of Rama;

Seest thou not the great end approaching?

Oh mind, every moment life is shortening,

Just heed, any moment it might fleet off.

Oh mind, the serpent of time is swallowing:

Knowest thou death is creeping on by inches,

Oh mind, surely this body would drop down,

So break through illusion and resort to Rama.

Oh mind, thou art blind;

Thou seest this vanity of things, yet thou seest not.”


It ends with the lament


“Why art thou, O mind, slumbering at ease?

Awake and think of Govinda,

O mind, Sankara knows it and says,

Except through Rama, there is no hope.


For Sankaradeva, God is his rock; all else, unstable.


“I fall at thy feet, O Hari, and offer Thee humble prayers to save my soul.

Languishing with the poison of the serpent of the world,

My life is threatened every moment.

Unstable are men and wealth, unstable is youth and the world:

Wife and son, they are unstable.

Whom should I turn to as eternal and lasting?

My heart is fickle like water on the lotus leaf;

It does not settle for a moment,

Owns no fear in the enjoyment of the world of senses.

Thou art my destiny,

Thou art my spiritual guide.

Saith Sankara, steer me across the vale of sorrows.”


Reams of learning and mindless rites and rituals lead not to salvation.


“The scholar does not see the straight path,

Nor does the performer of a million sacrifices attain Hari.

Both fall down to earth and anon,

All rites and rituals,

All pilgrimages to Gaya and Kashi

Made round the years,

All yogas done and rhetoric learnt,

Only cloud the vision

Forget therefore the vanity of learning and rites,

And worship the feet of Hari,

In your innermost soul.”


In this world of illusion, only faith, adoration and devotion to Krishna or Rama can release human beings from death, destruction and utter ruin.


“O animal in man’s dress,

In the snare of cravings,

You are a prisoner now,

From this prison-world none can rescue you,

Save your own devotion to the Lord.

Devoutly I serve you Lord Rama;

Let his reside in my heart.

Rama is my most precious treasure.

O Lord, leave me not in the grip of death,

Prays the servants of Krishna.”


The religious poems of the English poet Robert Herrick (1591-1674) are called ‘Noble Numbers’; Bargeets have been variously described as Noble Numbers, great Songs Celestial, and also as Holy Songs.


Ankiya Nat or Bhaona


The history of Assamese drama begins with the plays Sankardeva wrote in early sixteenth century, Chihna Yatra being the first spark of his imagination. These plays are popularly known as ankiya nat while their staging is known as Bhaona. ‘Ankiya’ means ‘one act’ and ‘nat’ means drama; it is also described as Ek Anka, or a ‘continuous act in one sitting’.  Sankaradeva has to his credit six plays written between 1518 and 1568. The inspiration for the dramatic narrative is the Bagawata, with the exception of one which draws upon the Ramayana. Working with the ageless elements of the ancient scriptures and the epics, Sankaradeva gave them an idiomatic agency that places them dramatically and firmly amongst the people.


Indigenous theatrical elements like the Dhuliya (drummer) and Oja Pali (band of singers) predate Sankaradeva. Sankardeva blended the existing elements with classical Sanskrit ideals in creating his ankiya nats, his bhaonas. As in the case of bargeet, only the plays written by Sankaradeva and Madhavadeva are termed ankiya nat proper; while the presentation of such drama in situ is called ankiya bhaona. Plays by other, written in the same format and presented in an identical manner, inhabit the general category of bhaona.


The main objective of the play is to evoke a sense of devotional fervour in the audience. The plot is so woven as to glorify the Lord, Krishna or Rama. The dramatist aims neither for originality of narration nor realistic portrayals. While the language used in the ankiya nat is Brajabuli, newer plays continue to be written in standard Assamese, and so the tradition is living one.


The one-act plays are characterized by shimmering white costumes for the orchestra and rather fanciful effigies for the actors. The performers enact their roles wearing masks of gods, goddesses, demons, and animals. These masks are enormous, often extending as far down as the waist of the performer, some as big as 15 feet in height. Through a combination of movements and gestures appropriate to the mask he inhabits, the performer brings to life its mythical concomitant. The governing idea is the creation of a grand spectacle that readily appeals to the masses. The orchestra providing musical accompaniment to these dramatic presentations is called, simply, Gayan (singer) and Bayan (instrumentalist).


The pivotal role in a bhaona is that of the Sutradhar or the narrator. The principal objective being to propagate Vaishnavism, songs and dialogues in the vernacular are interspersed with slokas and other pieces in Sanskrit. The characters and events are allowed a certain fluidity and openness to extemporize during the play, as with performance of Indian classical music. But there is no break in the narrative flow itself. The Sutradhar strings together all the components: he proclaims the theme, announces the entrance and exit of each character, elaborates the different situations, and leads the benedictory singing. Patently, this position requires the most varied qualifications: an ability to sing, dance, recite slokas, and above all, a clear understanding of and close engagement with the entire play. Sankaradeva’s Sutradhar has his prototype in the Oja of Oja Pali (band of singers); the Oja Pali chorus is the precursor of Sankaradeva’s gayan-bayan.


The usual venue for a bhaona is the naam ghar. However,it is now customary to stage bhaonas on platforms away from the xatra and the naam ghar. The last decades have seen great resurgence in the staging of ankiya nat, evoking greater appreciation of Sankaradeva’s plays both at home and abroad. Bhaona samaroh, performance of a large number of bhaonas at one venue over a period of days, has become popular. The one in Majuli, held annually, draws a large number of visitors from all parts of India and abroad.


Prof. K. D. Tripathi, Sanskrit scholar and an authority on Natya Sashtra, traces the origin of Ankiya Nat to Sangitaka form of theatre dating back to 1st-2nd century B.C. He describes Sankaradeva’s ankiya nath as remarkable in terms of its philosophy, aesthetic and innovative techniques, besides being the oldest and the most important of the North Indian temple theatre forms.


Xatriya Dance


Xatriya dance or xatriya is one of the eight principal classical Indian dance traditions. As the form grew within the xatra, it came to be known as xatriya dance. While some of the other dance traditions have been revivals of recent times, xatriya dance has remained a living tradition since its creation by Sankaradeva in 15th century Assam.


Xatriya dance began primarily as an accompaniment to Sankaradeva’s ankiya nat. Sankaradeva drew elements from various folk and ethnic traditions around him, and refined them to create his dance form. Like Kuchipudi and Kathakali, xatriya dance is born of the dramatic tradition, the characters use dance movements to illustrate various bhavas (sentiment) and rasas (flavour).The abhinaya (acting) is indispensable but bhakti is the object or goal of the entire performance. The xatriya dance tradition also has a separate stream of dance movements independent of the central dramatic narrative.


The core of xatriya dance is to present mythological teachings to the people in an immediate and enjoyable manner. Traditionally, it used to be performed by male bhakats (monks) in xatras as part of their daily rituals and during special festivals. Now-a days, it is performed by both men and women and also outside xatra precincts. The dance is accompanied by bargeet, and the instruments played are khol (drum), taal (cymbal) and the flute. Other instruments like violin and harmonium are recent additions.



Costumes are made of paat, a traditional Assamese silk, woven with intricate local motifs. Ornaments are of traditional Assamese design, such as Gaamkharu, a large bangle with a clasp, Doogdoogi, heart-shaped locket made of gold and studded with pearls, Lokaparo, two sets of twin pigeons placed back to back in gold, Satsori and Golpota, necklaces made in gold and many more.


The xatras had maintained certain rigid disciplines within their walls, and the dance was performed in a highly ritualistic manner by male dancer’s alone. This classical rigidity, adherence to certain principles, and lack of organized research on the dance form all contributed to its delayed recognition as one of the classical dance traditions of India. Finally, on 15 November 2000, the Sangeet Natak Akademi accorded it its current status. The other seven traditions are: Bharatanatyan, Kathakali, Kuchipudi, Manipuri, Odissi, Mohiniyattam and Kathak. Among the eight, xatriya dance is the only one that can be traced back directly to an individual.


The musical component of xatriya dance is rich in its tonal quality. Circumstantial evidence points to the culture of dance and music before Sankaradeva's time. That both Sankaradeva and Madhavadeva sat their compositions to classical ragas is in itself indicative of a living tradition. But there is no specimen of raga music composed in Assam, at a date earlier to Sankaradeva. It is also likely that music was studied among the Bhuyas; Sankaradeva in one of his self-introductory verses praises his father Kusumavara as a gandharva (a musician in ancient texts) incarnate.


By late 19th century, xatriya dance had emerged from the confines of Assam's xatras , from monasteries it moved to the metropolitan stage. Xatriya is now performed by both men and women, not affiliated to xatras on themes other than mythological. Its fame and popularity have spread beyond the boundaries of the country. A workshop on xatriya dance, organized in Paris from 31st  May to 8th June 2010 attracted artistes from as far as Mexico, Brazil, Colombia and Iran besides France. In July 2010, a Japanese lady with a three-year-old daughter arrived in Assam to learn xatriya and has since performed on stage in Guwahati.


This brings to focus the need for setting out the training methods of xatriya outside the xatra tradition. As in other classical Indian dance traditions, xatriya dance too possesses a strictly circumscribed curriculum of training although interestingly, the form is without any written text. It has been handed down orally through the gurukul system prevalent in the xatra. Teaching, too, is through oral transmission. It’s now important to document the present units of dance grammar so that a benchmark is available for reference. And while doing so, care must be taken to maintain the essence and philosophy which form the soul of the dance form. This is the challenge before xatriya today.



Vrindavani Vastra


Vrindavani Vastra brings into focus the range of Sankaradeva's creative genius. Katha Guru Charita,a chronicle of events during the saint's lifetime, gives the genesis of Vrindavani Vastra: During his visits to the Koch Behar royal court, Sankaradeva often regaled Chilarai with descriptions of the fun-filled childhood days of the young Krishna in Vrindavan. The prince was enthralled, and wished he could partake of the experience by sniffing Sankaradeva's lisps he spoke. Sankaradeva replied that, for the prince's enjoyment, he would have the narrative inscribed on cloth in a graphic form.


He engaged the weavers of Tantikuchi, near Barpeta, to weave a forty-yard-long panel of tapestry depicting Krishna's early life in Vrindavan. Sankaradeva provided the designs to be woven, chose the various colours of the threads to be used, and personally supervised the weaving. It took about a year to complete and, deriving its name from its theme, came to be known as the Vrindavani Vastra. When first unveiled for viewing, people were astounded to see the true-to-life depictions of Krishna’s activities in Vrindavana, the exuberant colours, in woven captions, and exclaimed that the cloth has come from the heavens and its makers is not a human. A little before Sankardeva’s death in 1568, he is said to have presented it to Chilarai and Naranarayana who were both overwhelmed with the result. How and when it disappeared from Koch Behar is not known and with that, a valuable piece of history was lost. It would be another 400 years before one hears of Vrindavani Vastra 1904, Francis Younghusband, a British Army Officer serving in India, led an expedition to Tibet. Among the artifacts he took back to Britain were a few exquisitely woven “figured silk textiles’ from Tibetan monasteries. These silk tapestries were donated to museum in Britain in 1905 and for the next 85 years remained catalogued as ‘Tibetan Silk Lampas’, as Tibet was their last known place of origin. This despite the iconography on the textiles being clearly Hindu Indian far removed from the Buddhism practiced in Tibet. Only in 1992, a British scholar would identify the ‘Tibetan Silk Lampas’ as Vrindavani Vastra.


Krishna Riboud was born Krishna Roy in 1927, in Dhaka, her mother Ena Tagore being a niece of Rabindra Nath Tagore. She went to America on a Scholarship to study in Wellesley College. There she met and married Jean Riboud, a French aristocrat and wealthy businessman. Together they traveled the world and amassed a vast collection of paintings and objects d’art, Krishna Riboud’s special interest being in Oriental Textile. In 1979, she founded the ‘Association for the Study and Documentation of Asian Textiles’ (AEDTA), in Paris, to catalogue her collection. It had some 1600 items of Indian textiles, dating from the end of the 15th century to the present era. Among the Kashmiri Shwals, saries from Benaras and Bengal, hand painted cloths, and religious hangings, are few very rare in Assam half-damasks. In 1990, she offered 148 items out of her collection to Musee Guimet in Paris. They are housed in a special gallery in the museum as the Jean and Krishna Riboud collection. Two of the exhibits of figured silk depict various avatars of Vishnu, and Krishna’s activities in his childhood. Scholars have now determined them to be Vrindavani Vastra.


As the images of the Reboud collection gained currently in the art circles, it alerted Rosemary Crill, Curator of the Indian Department of London’s Victoria & Albert (V & A) Museum, to two exhibits of ‘Tibetan Silk Lampas’ in the possession of the V& A. By 1992, altogether 15 different specimens of tapestries of the same type, described as ‘strikingly beautiful figured silk textiles’, had been located in museums around the world: in the U.K., the U.S.A, France, Italy, and in India’s Calico Museum in Ahmedabad. The term Vrindavani Vastra, cloth of Vrindavan, is loosely used to describe this group of tapestries.


The Vaishnavite iconography, quality of silk, stylization of the drawing, dye analysis, and the blocks of curious in woven script in the tapestries, first led Rosemary Crill to Bishnupur in West Bengal, a known centre for weaving. She had to discount this theory when the designs appeared far removed from those on known Bengali silk weavings. She then looked further east although it was traditionally believed that there has never been any complex, high-quality textile produced in the north-east except simple tribal weavings or unadorned silk lengths.


Further research on art of medieval Assam revealed that during the 1560s. Sankaradeva had offered Prince Chilarai to oversee the weaving of a great silk scroll, depicting the early life of Krishna. A cloth named Vrindavani Vastra is described there as woven with a large variety of coloured threads like red, white, black, yellow, green etc.with in woven captions; this description matched the design in the exhibits of ‘Tibetan Silk Lampas’ in V & A Museum. Rosemary Crill surmised that these ‘figured silk textile’ must represent a direct continuation of designs, and some may even be part of the original vastra itself. Another piece housed in the museum of Mankind, British Museum, London, revealed a song from Sankaradeva’s drama Kaliya Daman, beginning with the words ‘geet raga asowari, awata kal kali bariara’, in Assamese, an irrefutable evidence of its origin.


Interestingly, almost all the tapestries have a Tibetan background. How they all got into Tibet from Assam and why not a single specimen is now available in its place of origin remain a mystery, as also how such a strong tradition disappeared without a trace. The Tibetan connection is explained by the existence of a centuries old and still thriving trade route through Bhutan, just north Barpeta in Assam, Where the Vrindavani Vastra was woven. The practice of barter between the merchants of Assam, Bhutan and Tibet was common. Assamese merchant exchange silk, rice, skins and horns for silver and salt from Lahasa. At the recent British Museum exhibition “Between Tibet and Assam” affirmed, to this day, to have their cymbals and their other religious paraphernalia made exclusively by Assamese bell-metal craft man based in Sarthebari near Barpeta.


The 15 tapestries differ in quality and design, and are surely not fragments from a single larger piece. They may have been woven at different times and places other than Barpeta but scholars agree that they all belong to the same school and genre as that of Sankaradeva’s weavings. The use of complex weaving technique such as Lampas indicates great technical skill on part of weavers, and is strongly suggestive of an enduring tradition of long standing. The evidence also dispels the nation that northeast India has never been a centre for complex, high quality textile production. Furthermore, it lends credence to the suggestion made by some scholars that there once existed a thriving trade in silk between Assam and China.


History of medieval Assam records that nearly every household had knowledge of weaving and produced fine clothes of cotton and silk. Professional weavers called Tantits were settled at certain locations such as Tantikuchi, where the Vrindavani Vastra was woven and the Barpeta Kirtana ghar now stands. Sankaradeva, on return from his first pilgrimage (circa 1493), is said to have organized a group of weavers to try new ideas and innovations. Further, a mammoth task as the Vrindavani Vastra would not be undertaken without trained weavers already at hand. As is the practice with Assamese Vaishnavism, sacred texts are placed on the altar in place of idols. These cloths are used to cover the altar and also to wrap the text itself. Evidence suggests that over a period of time, the elaborate and complex designs gave way to simplified, large scale, repetitive motifs of today.


Of the 15 tapestries identified so far, as 14 appear to have been woven in mid 17th to early 18th century. While indicative of the tradition persisting long after Sankardeva’s death, these 14 are ruled out from being a part of the original Vrindavani Vastra. The only likely contender for this distinction is a piece measuring 2 feet 8 inches by 7 feet 8 inches, now on display in Musee Guimet in Paris. Intended as a ‘Gokhain Kapor’ an altar cloth, it depicts various avatars of Vishnu, the man-eagle Garuda, and Krishna playing the flute in the branches of a tree. It is the finest and earliest of this group and the date of around 1565-1569 is compatible with the style of drawing of the period. However, lack of comparable physical evidence in its place of origin, leaves the mystery unresolved.


Popular belief in Assam has it that the tapestry now housed in the British Museum, Museum of Mankind, London, is the or at least a part of the original Vrindavani Vastra presented by Sankardeva to Chilarai in 1567-68. This belief has been reinforced by it being so depicted in a recent (2010) Assamese film on the saint. By far the largest of the fifteen known specimens, this vast hanging consist of twelve silk lamps panels stitched together. Over nine meters wide and nearly two meters long, this magnificent specimen was taken from a monastery near Gyantse in Tibet by a member of the 1904 Younghusband expedition. The British Museum after detailed study and technical analysis has dated it as of mid to late 17th century, nearly a hundred years after the saint’s death. This was confirmed in a public address by Richard Blurton, Curator of British Museum, during his visit to Assam in late 2009. Furthermore, while Lampas weaves were developed as 1000 A.D., its production began in earnest only in late 17th century in Lyon, France. However, public sentiment still holds sway over scientific evidence.


The innate quality of these tapestries is evident as on 25 March 2004, Christie’s of New York, the auctioneers, put on sale a piece of ‘figured silk from Assam’ at a reserve price of 1,20,000 US Dollars. More than four hundred years after it was created, Vrindavani Vastra continues to weave its magic on a timeless warp.