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Costumes and Ornaments of Ankiya Bhaona from Admin's blog

by Dr Sanjib Kumar Borkakoti 

             Enactment of the Ankiya plays authored by Srimanta Sankaradeva and Madhavadeva is calledBhaona. Many plays have been written since then by different Assamese playwrights in the style of theAnkiya plays composed by these two doyens of Assamese literature and culture. But these later compositions are not called Ankiya play. So Ankiya Bhaona indicates the enactment of only the Ankiya plays authored by Srimanta Sankaradeva and Madhavadeva. There are many special characteristics of Ankiya Bhaona. These are evident in the content of the play, dialogues, costumes, ornaments, entry and foot-steps of the characters. These characteristics not ony differentiate Ankiya Bhaona from other plays, but also help the audience of Ankiya Bhaona to differentiate the characters of the play from one another. I will discuss the characteristics and origin of the costumes and ornaments worn by the characters of Ankiya Bhaona in this paper. The costumes and the ornaments constitute the Alankara of the play. But it is not possible to discuss all costumes and ornaments in a single paper, which is a subject of full-scale research. I will discuss only a few important costumes and ornaments here.

Costumes of Sutradhara and Gayan-Bayan

            An important costume in the Ankiya Bhaona is the headgear which is called Pag or Paguri in Assamese. Different types of headgears are worn by different characters. The most important character and compere, Sutradhara wears a Sutradhara Pag popularly known as Moglai Pag though it is a wrong name. Actually it should be called Koshapatiya Pag as the Pag is prepared by tying the cloth in a Kosha. As per the legend, the Kosha is a vessel for washing the feet of Ishwara. The Kamalabari Satra has preserved a 356 year-old wooden Kosha. Thus the Sutradhara Pag symbolizes the blessing of Ishwara on theSutradhara. Interestingly the character of Indra also used to wear Koshapatiya Pag in the Kamalabari Satrain the earlier days.

            The Sutradhara Pag varies from one place to another in Assam due to local influences and innovations by the concerned Satras. This may have also happened as Srimanta Sankaradeva and Madhavadeva had to migrate and live in different places of Brahmaputra valley due to royal persecutions in different periods of their lives, consequent upon which different changes were probably incorporated in the costumes in those places. The Sutradhara Pag is known as Thukura Pag in the Kaliabor area of middle Assam. They too have a wooden frame to construct the Pag. It is also known as Koldiliya Pag in many places due to the fact that its shape resembles that of Koldil (the flower of banana tree). Sometimes theSutradhara Pag is embellished by adding laces on the borders. This lace is similar to that of Cheleng.

            The headgear of Sutradhara is different from that of Gayan-Bayan (singers & instrumentalists). The Gayan-Bayan wear Khekerupatiya Pag or Gosai-Pag as headgear. The Sutradhara Pag covers most of the forehead, while the headgear of Gayan-Bayan does not. However Krishna and the royal characters do not wear headgears. They wear crowns made of bamboo sticks and cane fibre. But over time, the crowns started to be made of paper pulp covered by cloth, which is embellished by Chumki and lace. Earlier,Kingkhap was used in the crowns, but now velvet is used. The crown is of two types, Mukut and Kiriti. TheMukut is large and is worn by the kings. The Kiriti is small and is worn by the queens too. The Kiriti of Krishna is embellished by the feather of peacock. However this feathered crown is used only during the childhood of Krishna. The grown-up Krishna does not wear feathered crown as the feather happens to be a part of his childhood frolick only.

            The Sutradhara wears a loose jacketed vest on the upper part of body. This jacketed vest is popularly known as Jalikota Chola as there is a netting added and sewn above the open-chest cloth vest. Other characters also wear jackets in Ankiya Bhaona. In their case, the jacket is separate and not sewn onto the Chapkon. Moreover their jackets happen to be coloured.

            The Ghuri or Lahanga worn by the Sutradhara is a type of petticoat that reaches upto the ankles. A waist-band called Karadhani used to be put on by the Sutradhara around the waist. This kept his Jalikota Chola and Ghuri or Lahanga together. But it has become almost extinct. Moreover it is costly. So alternatively a cloth waist-band called Tangali is used. This is necessarily white, while the Tangali used by the folk Bihu-dancers is red. The Karadhani or Tangali is interspersed by flowery designs. These may be coloured in the case of Tangali, generally red. Over and above all these, the Sutradhara hangs two long pieces of clothes from his two shoulders down to knee, taken through under the Karadhani or Tangali. The entire attire of Sutradhara is made of natural silk. But cost consideration has compelled people to go for artificial silk. Some people go for cotton cloth also. The colour is necessarily white.

            The Gayan-Bayan (singers & instrumentalists) do not wear dresses like the Sutradhara. They wearChapkon reaching upto knees, a Cheleng over that, simple Dhuti and a Khekerupatiya Pag or Gosai-Pag as headgear. Earlier their attire used to be made of natural silk. But now-a-days it is made of cotton. Every thing they wear is pure white, which signifies spiritualism and the pure individual self. The entire recital by the Gayan-Bayan is a prayer by the individual self to the universal self. So there is no colour, no embellishment. The headgear is decorated by a garland of Bakul flower or Tulsi rosary. It is given by theSatradhikar as blessing. The head Bayan who is known as Borbayan wears a rosary of beads in his neck. The entire performance of Gayan-Bayan is a spiritual service. Earlier they used to wear Gam Kharu, Monietc like Sutradhara. But that practice has been stopped. Of course sandalwood Tilak is a must for every one on the forehead.

Costumes of Krishna and the kings

            The costume of lord Krishna in Ankiya Bhaona is noteworthy. Krishna wears yellow Dhuti which is called Bhuni in Satriya jergon. The Gopa boys also wear yellow Bhuni. Additionally, Krishna wears aBanamala in his neck. It is indicative of the five elements, which are his creations.

            The royal characters wear Chapkon and hang a decorated piece called Nimai from the neck in both front and back. The Chapkon is full-armed and coloured. The Nimai over it is made of velvet and decorated with lace etc. They wear coloured Dhuti.

            Some of the characters wear a flowing cloth on their back. It is called Pithiya. The actors playing the characters of Krishna and the kings wear Pithiya. Now-a-days the Pithiya of Krishna is sought to be differentiated from other Pithiyas by writing an Om on it.

            The characters of Seers like Vishwamitra, and Parashurama wear ochre coloured clothes inAnkiya Bhaona. All of them wears simple Dhuti and Cheleng. This costume of the ascetics is different from the rest of India where the characters of Seers or Sanyasins wear either flowing robes in Persian style or mere Kaupin as their formal dress. Vishwamitra and Parashurama wear a small Dhuti in the style of Kaupinin Ankiya Bhaona. Their Kaupin extend upto the knees, unlike in the rest of India where the thighs of the characters remain exposed. The Cheleng also is unique for Ankiya Bhaona. The Vaishnavite seer Narada wears white Dhuti and Cheleng. He carries a Veena in his hand and wears a garland. Vishwamitra carries a Kamandalu (water-pot) and a Yogadanda (arm-rest) in his hands and wears matted hairs. Parashurama carries a Kamandalu and an axe in his hands and wears matted hairs. Both of them wear garlands ofRudraksha beads around neck as well as the wrists.

Costumes of the female characters

            The female characters wear Mekhela and Riha if they are royal characters. Otherwise they wearGhuri, Chadar and Kurmani or Kacholi if they are general characters or dancing damsels. Their Ghuri has two inch broad lace borders made of golden thread called Guna. They drape the Kurmani or Kacholi by theChadar which is put across the chest. Two long clothes are additionally hung from two shoulders like that of Sutradhara. All these apparels are decorated by flowery designs. But that is optional. The married characters cover their heads with veil called Orani. But the queens do not take veil. Actually all female characters should take veils according to Natyashashtra. So it is a clear deviation of Srimanta Sankaradeva from the Natyashashtra tradition. He had departed from Natyashashtra in many places of his Ankiya plays and developed his own characteristics. This is one such example. Some female characters hang Nimai-type decorated piece from their waist-lines. The hair is tied to a knot called Khopa. In earlier days the female roles were played by males. So they needed extra hair, which was prepared from jute. The artificial breasts were made of wood.


            Regarding ornaments, the Sutradhara wears earings known as Kanphuli or Lokapara in his ears. He hangs Motamoni, Dugdugi etc from his neck. He wears bracelets called Mota Gam Kharu in his wrists. Some bracelets have the motif of Magar. He also wears Nupur that makes rattling sound on his legs. In the earlier days he used to wear a silver waist-band called Karadhani around the waist. The kings and deities wear Chandrahar around the waist. The female characters wear Baju in the arms, gold bracelets in the wrists, earings in the ears, necklace like Golpota in neck, gold rings in the fingers, and gold tapering calledJethi on the forehead, etc.


            There were indigenous techniques for make-up too. In the past the Sutradhara used to redden his lips with a herb named Barhamthuri. But modernization has driven such practices away. Lipsticks have taken its place. Regarding facial make-up, it has to be Gaura or pale red colour for the Sutradhara. A Tilakof white sandalwood paste is put on his forehead. Different characters are given make-up in keeping with the nature of the characters. For instance, cruel persons like Jarasandha, Shishupala, Taraka etc are given black make-up. Angry characters like Vishwamitra, Parashurama are given reddish make-up. Innocent characters like the Gopis, the Gopa boys etc are given white make-up. Spiritual characters like Krishna, Rama etc are given Shyama or greeenish black make-up.

            As many as twenty one ingredients were used for the make-up of the actors in Ankiya Bhaona. The most important among these were vermillion, indigo, lime and yellow ochre. The minor ingredients included mollases, soap-nut, yolk of the egg, the seed of the Ou fruit, the gum of the Bael (Aegle Marmelos Corr) fruit and Tamarind seeds, the juice of earthworm, charcoal of dry gourd, lamp black, sand etc. However these raw materials have been dispensed with in the modern times as different face-paints are now readily available.

Ethnic sources of costumes

            Srimanta Sankaradeva and his followers incorporated ethnic elements of Assam in the Aharya of Ankiya Bhaona. This incorporation was a process of sanskritization of the ethnic groups of Brahmaputra valley. Srimanta Sankaradeva led that sanskritization process. It may be mentioned that Assam was known for different ethnic conflicts when Srimanta Sankaradeva was born here in the fifteenth century. The main ethnic groups are Karbi, Ahom, Kachari, Chutiya, Koch, Mising, Barahi, Moran, Matak, Deuri, Rabha, Tiwa, Kalita, Kayastha, Bodo, Hajang, Garo, Dimasa, Brahmin, Kaivarta, Daivajnya, Kumar, Bonia, Mech, etc. The saint felt the necessitry of bringing these ethnic groups together. Culture was the fittest medium for that. This thinking of Srimanta Sankaradeva is reflected in the incorporation of ethnic ingredients in costumes and ornaments of Ankiya Bhaona. He did this in such a perfect manner that the folk ingredients gave rise to a classical asset. He was a great textile designer as reflected by his creation of the famous Vrindavanicloth depicting the life of lord Krishna, which is presently preserved in London and Paris.

            I have already said categorically that the costumes of Ankiya Bhaona were mostly derived from indigenous origin. They certainly reflect local traditions. For instance, the Sonowal tribe has a tradition similar to that of Gayan-Bayan. So it may be surmised that the costume of Gayan-Bayan was influenced by the costumes of Sonowal tribe. But it does not include the Pag. The Pag of Gayan-Bayan was not influenced by the Sonowal tribe.

            The jacket of Sutradhara is styled after the jacket worn by the tribal groups of Assam. Tribes like Tiwa, Mising etc wear a colourful jacket as a festive clothing. The jacket worn by the Sutradhara is not colourful, but the basic design is like the ethnic jacket popular in the Brahmaputra valley. There is difference in the jackets of other characters too from the ethnic jackets. The differences in the jacket ofAnkiya Bhaona from the ethnic jacket is that of difference of classical from folk element. Every thing has been refined here.

            The tradition of wearing Ghuri or Lahanga worn by the Sutradhara was probably derived from the indigenous Ojapali. The Naganya Ojapali mainatained it till the other day. I had the priviledge of witnessing the recital of late Maheswar Ojha of Nagaon. His costume had uncanny resemblance with that ofSutradhara. It is however difficult to determine the direction of influence, whether it was from Sutradharato Oja or from Oja to Sutradhara.

            The Rabhas also wear dresses resembling the Pag, Jalikota Chola, Ghuri, and Tangali, of theSutradhara in their Baikhu dance. The Jalikota Chola worn by Sutradhara is also similar to theKhangaliphaga of the Tiwa tribe. The Tangali used by the Sutradhara and other characters was a tradition of the Bhuyans themselves. It is significant because both Srimanta Sankaradeva and Madhavadeva were Bhuyans. They thus retained a heritage of their own community. Tangali became very popular all over the valley and hence it was adopted by the Bihu dancers too. Even the Ahom kings, well-known for their aesthatic sense adopted it.

            The Sutradhara Pag is actually an indigenous style that was refined by Srimanta Sankaradeva. Some people have wrongly termed it as Moglai Paguri and opined that it had been derived from Northern Indian source. Actually it was an innovation by Srimanta Sankaradeva, based on ingredients from ancient traditions and the costumes of the Jaintia and Dimasa tribe. It is erroneous to call the Sutradhara Pag asMoglai Paguri. The nomenclature Moglai is confusing. It so became as some people mistakenly thought it to be an import from the Mughal culture. Actually it is an indigenous tradition. A somewhat similar headgear is found in an ancient Assamese sculpture of the Mahisha demon recovered from Tinsukia. This sculpture belongs to either twelveth or thirteenth century. So the Sutradhara Pag of Ankiya Bhaona is an indigenous tradition.

            The Khekerupatiya Pag or Gosai-Pag of Gayan-Bayan too is also seen among the indigenous people. The headgears used by the artists in Srimanta Sankaradeva’s plays was an ancient heritage of Assam. Moreover the very practice of wearing headgears was a heritage of the Eastern India, from where it spread to other parts of India. The concept of headgear itself had been imported by the Mughals from eastern India. So I would rather say that Mughal emperors adopted the style of headgear worn by theSutradhar in the Ankiya plays of Srimanta Sankaradeva. This cultural exchange took place via the Koch kingdom. A direct and close relationship was established between the Mughal kingdom and the Koch kingdom during the period of king Akbar.

Ethnic sources of ornaments

            Almost all the ornaments of Ankiya Bhaona except the Nupur and the Chandrahar, which are all-India heritages, have been derived from folk culture of Assam. All these ornaments are popular among the ethnic groups of Assam. The motif of Magar in bracelet is a Thai tradition probably brought by the Ahoms. The Gam Kharu is a local tradition. The Mising tribe ad the Chingphow tribe call their headmen Gam. That is how the traditions came to the common Assamese culture. The Gam Kharu is very common in Assam and a variation of it is worn by the Bihu dancers too. However the Gam Kharu worn by the Sutradhara is different from the Kharu worn by the Bihu dancers. The Kharu worn by the Bihu dancers is broader than the Gam Kharu worn by the Sutradhara. The Kharu worn by the Bihu dancers is called Potiya Kharu, notGam Kharu. Some of the Satradhikars also used to wear Gam Kharu in earlier days.


            The costumes of Ankiya Bhaona are quite distinctive. These have some unique characteristics. For instance, the costume of the Sutradhara is unisexual. While the audience can differentiate all other characters as male or female from the costumes, they cannot do so in the case of Sutradhara from the costume. It is because this character is defined after Ishwara or the universal self, who runs the entire show of this universe. Sutradhara means one who holds the thread. It is he who holds the threads of all our lives. Ishwara is the real Sutradhara. And Ishwara is beyond sex. So the cosume of Sutradhara does not reflect any sex.

            The Om on the Pithiya of Krishna is not in tune with the philosophy of Eka Sarana propounded by Srimanta Sankaradeva. We have to keep in mind the special characteristics of his Vaishnavite order. There are many features in it which distinguish it from other branches of Sanatana Dharma or Hinduism. These must be upheld. The Om is considered to be an icon in Maitrayani Upanishada. That is why there is no mention of Om in Srimanta Sankaradeva’s writings, which preaches an iconless system of worship. Adding an Om would distort that ideology. I do not think it is proper to add Om. It must be dispensed with. Moreover lord Krishna himself is attributeful universal self. To scribble an Om that represents an icon of the attributeless universal self on the attributeful universal self is utterly confusing. It is also a gross act. No character carries a name-plate in any play. Actually the Pithiya itself is an aberration, as it is an external element that crept into the costumes of Ankiya Bhaona through the outside suppliers of costumes. The costumes of Ankiya Bhaona have suffered from many such distortions. Certainly the Pithiya is one such costume. It should be altogether given up.

            The decorated piece called Nimai put over the Chapkon worn by the royal characters and hung from the waist-line by the female characters also appears to be a later day addition and an import from outside. It does not reflect the spirit of Ankiya Bhaona. I consider it a vulgarization of the Sankari tradition. Probably this style was incorporated during the post-Sankaradeva era, when Mughal influence became prominent a la the Ahom kings. Some of the Satras became much dependent on royal patronage, which told on the cultural elements too. It is too gross. It should have been much subtler in order to reflect the true spirit of Ankiya Bhaona. Vishwamitra and Parashurama wearing the Dhuti in the style of Kaupin is also not in tune with the aesthatics of Ankiya Bhaona.

            The changes incorporated in costumes of Ankiya Bhaona are not always praiseworthy. For instance the use of velvet cannot be called a good change. Use of velvet instead of natural silk and cotton for making the attires is a distortion. It should not have replaced cotton and natural silk. Actually the whole selection of materials was made on cost consideration and local availability of raw materials. The entire system preached by Srimanta Sankaradeva and Madhavadeva was such that people at large could afford to procure the inexpensive and locally available raw materials. That was why the use of cotton fabric was predominant, while options were kept open for natural silk too. But the introduction of velvet has left no alternative as no other fabric can be used as its substitute. The introduction of velvet has made the preparation of costumes an expensive affair and the enterprise of costume making has been wrested by commercial firms from lay public. Incorporation of velvet is vulgerization of the aesthatic costumes ofAnkiya Bhaona. Such vulgerization and corruption of the indigenous traditions should be discouraged. Classical things are done according to a design, according to a grammar, dictated by some principles. One must abide by these principles. So it is necessary to rescue the costumes of Ankiya Bhaona from vulgerization and corruption. Moreover it is an external influnece. So it should be dispensed with. We can use the indigenous Kingkhap instead of velvet if at all such decorative clothes are necessary. Similarly the practice of wearing immitation jewellery or ornaments of non-Assamese origin by the female characters also have to be discontinued.

            Another external influence that needs correction is the use of Jama or Mirzai Chola by the royal characters. It was derived from Mughal tradition when the Ankiya Bhaona were presented before the Ahom kings by some Satras campaigning to derive royal patronage. The introduction of blouse is also a similar later entry. The pure indigenous tradition permits wearing of bodice, which ie worn by the old ladies even today. However blouse can be accepted as a refined version of bodice as long as it is long enough to cover the navel area. But I have seen open navel area in recital by some female artists. This should not happen. It is not in tune with the Sankari culture.

            The use of modern make-up has become essential due to the non-availability of the indigenous ingredients. I think this change may be accepted as long as the modern make-up brings out the colours created by the indigenous ingredients. Moreover the indigenous ingredients should be used whenever possible because it is important to preserve the classical traditions. Only these make-up should be used in lesser proportion as the strong lighting arrangements in the modern stage has made heavy make-up unnecessary. In the medieval period, the make-up had to be very heavy as lighting arrangement was done by lamps of mustard oil. If performance is done in that manner any time for academic reasons, heavy make-up will again be necessary.

            Regarding the colours used in the costumes of Ankiya Bhaona, we find a plethora of colours. There are white, yellow, red, blue, ochre, green, black etc. They are used as per the nature of the character who wears it. Now-a-days colours like violet also are used. But it does not go well with Ankiya Bhaona. The choice of colour happened to be mostly from the primary colours. Deviation from that principle does not fit well with the system. The choice of colours is very important in Ankiya Bhaona. The costumes of Gayan-Bayan must be white as they render a prayer to Ishwara. The costumes of Sutradharaare also generally white. But these costumes can have a tinge of light colours like pink, sky blue etc because this character is neutral and at the same time representative of Ishwara. We can go that far for the sake of modernization and no further.

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