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Aharya of Ankiya Bhaona from Sanjib Kumar Borkakoti's blog

by Dr Sanjib Kumar Borkakoti

Srimanta Sankaradeva was the first playwright in all modern Indian languages. It started with his play Chihna-yatra, which was enacted in 1468 AD at Bordowa in front of 10,000 audience. His plays are known as Ankiya play. Enactment of the Ankiya plays authored by Srimanta Sankaradeva and his successor-disciple Madhavadeva is called Bhaona. Many plays have been written since then by different Assamese playwrights in the style of the Ankiya plays. But these later compositions are not called Ankiya play. So Ankiya Bhaona means the enactment of only the Ankiya plays authored by Srimanta Sankaradeva and Madhavadeva. Enactment of other plays written in the style of Ankiya plays are called simply Bhaona. There are many special characteristics of Ankiya Bhaona and for that matter of any 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. Among these characteristics, the Aharya elements are some of the important features of Ankiya Bhaona. Aharya comprises of seven elements. These are costumes, ornaments, headgears, make-up, mask, firework, stage property and accesories. While Nandikeswar treated only costumes and ornaments as elements of Aharya, Bharata included other five elements too in it.

Aharya adds an additional dimension to the play. It is an addition to the process of Abhinaya in Ankiya Bhaona, because of which the use of Aharya in Ankiya Bhaona is called Aharyabhinaya. Even Natyashastra says that Aharya is a part of Abhinaya. It is not only the human actor who performs, his Aharya also performs in the Ankiya Bhaona or for that matter any Bhaona. These are external components brought in by the actor as the very word Aharya signifies. The other three types of Abhinaya - Angik, Sattvik and Vachik are performed by the human actor himself, while Aharya is an external element used by him. [Traditionally only male actors performed in Bhaona. That was the trend all over the world. Even one century after Srimanta Sankaradeva no female actors were permitted to act in play anywhere in the world.]


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 of Compere 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 costume of Sutradhara does not reflect any sex.

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, not white like that of Sutradhara.

The Ghuri or Lahanga worn by the Sutradhara is a type of petticoat that reaches upto the ankles. A silver-made 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 wear Chapkon 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 the Sattradhikar 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, Moni etc like Sutradhara. But that practice has been discontinued. Of course sandalwood Tilak is a must for every one on the forehead.

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 a Banamala 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 decorated with lace etc. They wear coloured Dhuti.

The characters of Seers like Vishwamitra, and Parashurama wear ochre coloured (Saffron) clothes in Ankiya Bhaona. All of them wear simple Dhuti and Cheleng. This costume of the ascetics is different in Ankiya play from the plays in 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 Kaupin in 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 wears a garland. Vishwamitra and Parashurama wear matted hairs. Both of them wear garlands of Rudraksha beads around neck as well as the wrists.

The female characters wear Mekhela and Riha if they are royal characters. Otherwise they wear Ghuri, 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 the Chadar 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. A waist-band called Kanchi is used by all the female characters. The hair is tied to a knot called Khopa. In earlier days the female roles were played by males. It is still practised within the Sattras. So they need extra hair, which is prepared from jute. The artificial breasts are made of wood. Sometimes the Gamocha (Assamese towel) is also made into the shape of a ball for this purpose. Wooden breast covered by Gamocha was used in the time of Srimanta Sankaradeva.

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. 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 Sutradhara are 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.


An important Aharya used 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 of the play, the Sutradhara wears a Sutradhara Pag. 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 360 year-old wooden Kosha. Thus the Sutradhara Pag symbolizes the blessing of Ishwara on the Sutradhara. Interestingly the character of Indra also used to wear Koshapatiya Pag in the Kamalabari Satra in 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 the Sutradhara 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, Singkhap was used in the crowns, but now velvet is used as Singkhap is not produced nowadays. Crown made of Sanchipat (bark of Sanchi tree) is also used. The crown is of two types, Mukut and Kiriti. The Mukut 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.


Regarding ornaments, the Sutradhara wears earings known as Kanphuli or Lokapara in his ears. He hangs Motamoni, Dugdugi etc from his neck. Earlier a silver-made necklace named Pesandar was also used. The Sutradhara 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 ankles. 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 Ghugura in the legs, Baju in the arms, gold bracelets called Muthi-Kharu in the wrists, bangles in the forearm, earings in the ears, necklace like Golpota in neck, gold rings in the fingers, and gold tapering called Jethi on the forehead etc.

Since the ornaments made of gold and silver are costly, ornaments made of Plaster of Paris, wood and hard paper are frequently used in Ankiya Bhaona. Some are even made of clay. Lockets made in the traditional style of Jonbiri, Dholbiri, Lokapara etc are fitted to the necklace. Different earings like Unti are made in traditional design. All these are also made of raw gold. Such ornaments are very popular among the women in Assam for common use too. The shape of Unti is like a couple of the vegetable Ridged Gourd (Luffa Acutangula).


Mask is an integral component of Aharya. It is used by the demonic characters like Bakasura and the animal characters like Garuda, Jambavanta etc. Deities like Brahma also wear mask as there have to be four faces. The frame of the mask is prepared by bamboo sticks. Then three layers of cow-dung mixed clay, cloth and again cow-dung mixed clay are put over it. Sometimes paper pulp is also used instead of cow-dung mixed clay as it makes the mask light. Finally it is painted by traditional dyes like Hengul-Haital etc. The colour put on the mask depends on the character depicted by the mask. For demons it may be black, dark blue or deep green. For deities it may be white or some light colour.

Mask may be made of wood to make it permanent. Some masks are made of Kuhila, which is a white substance extracted from a plant. Such masks are very light, but not permanent. When the mask is made for big characters like God’s incarnation Narasimha or structure like a Govardhana mountain, it is called Cho. When the mask is made for four-footed animals like Indra’s elephant or footless creature like serpent Kali it is called Sanjeeva. In these cases the whole body of the character is prepared. The teeth for mask or Cho are made of Kuhila, Papaya, leaf of areca nut tree etc. Since the actor has to enter inside the Cho or Sanjeeva if it is mobile, an entrance is kept in it. There are provisions for looking from inside as well as for breathing comfortably inside the mask, Cho or Sanjeeva. Expert artisans make them in such a manner that the neck and lips of the mask or Cho or Sanjeeva move just as the actor wearing it does.


There were indigenous techniques for make-up too. In the past the Sutradhara used to redden his lips with a herb named Barhamthuri. Regarding facial make-up, it has to be Gaura or pale red colour for the Sutradhara. A Tilak of white sandalwood paste is put on his forehead. Different characters are given different 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, Brahmanas and their wives are given white make-up. Spiritual characters like Krishna, Rama etc are given Shyama or greeenish black make-up.

For the moustaches and beards, the actors used different types of hairs. In earlier times, these were of human beings or deer or bear. White, black and brown colour were used in these moustaches. Old characters and noblemen like Bhisma wear white moustache and beards. The deities do not wear any moustache and beards. Characters like Indra are always clean-shaven.

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 Owtenga fruit or Elephant Apple (Dillenia Indica), the gum of the Bael fruit or Wood Apple (Aegle Marmelos) and Tamarind seeds, the juice of earthworm, charcoal of dry gourd, lamp black, quartz etc.

These raw materials have been dispensed with in modern times as different face-paints are now readily available. Use of modern make-up has become essential due to the non-availability of indigenous ingredients. This change may be accepted as long as the modern make-up brings out the colours created by the indigenous ingredients. But 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 an Ankiya Bhaona is performed in that manner, heavy make-up in traditional manner will be necessary.

Stage Property and Accesories

Some important stage properties used in Ankiya Bhaona are Chandratap, Agnigarh and Aar-Kapor. The Chandratap is a rectangular piece of white cloth which is hung over the arena of acting to mark it as an auspicious place as such cloth is hung over the altar (Guru-Asana) only. Moreover it demarcates the area for the actors. The Agnigarh is the gate through under which the actors have to enter the arena. It is actually an arche placed atop two posts. The two ends of the arche are shaped like Magar. The arche is coloured with traditional dyes. There are nine lamps lit over the arche, which imply the nine modes of devotion. The Aar-Kapor is a piece of cloth which hides the actor before his entry; as soon as the Aar-Kapor is removed, the actor becomes visible and he enters the arena. This act implies the lifting of illusion. As soon as illusion is dispelled, devotion to God dawns in the devotees and they see the truth. In the medieval time the Aar-Kapor used to be colourful, but nowadays only white cloth is used.

There are many stage accessories used in an Ankiya Bhaona. For example the kings carry swords, bow and arrow etc. These are made of cane, wood and bamboo. Fan made of cane and bamboo is used for fanning the kings. The Vaishnavite seer Narada carries a Veena in his hand. Vishwamitra carries a Kamandalu (water-pot) and a Yogadanda (arm-rest) in his hands. Parashurama carries a Kamandalu and an axe in his hands. The axe and arm-rest are made of wood. Kamandalu is made of the shell of Pumpkin (Cucurbita Moschata).


An interesting component in Ankiya Bhaona is fireworks. Traditional expertise exist in the Sattras and villages for preparation of crackers etc. These are used in the Ankiya Bhaona to create festive atmosphere or war situation. For example an element called Chengeli is attached to the axe of Parashurama, which gives out fire when he makes entry into the arena of acting. The firebrand character is thereby literally established. Ammonium Nitrate is used in these fireworks. The Ammonium Nitrate is indegenously produced from the urine of cows. It is mixed with Charcoal and Sulfar. The Ahom kings permitted the Sattradhikars to prepare fireworks. So this expertise was carried in the Sattradhikar families in hereditary manner.

Ethnic sources of Aharya

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 in the medieval times. So Srimanta Sankaradeva felt the necessity of bringing the ethnic groups together. Culture was the fittest medium for that. This thinking is reflected in his incorporation of ethnic ingredients in Aharya 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 multi-coloured Vrindavani cloth depicting the life of lord Krishna, which is presently preserved in Guimet Museum of Paris.

The Aharya of Ankiya Bhaona reflect local traditions. For instance, the Sonowal tribe has a tradition similar to that of Gayan-Bayan. 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 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 of Sutradhara of Ankiya Bhaona. It is however difficult to determine the direction of influence, whether it was from Sutradhara to Oja or from Oja to Sutradhara.

The Rabhas also wear dresses resembling the Pag, Jalikota Chola, Ghuri, and Tangali, of the Sutradhara in their Baikhu dance. The Jalikota Chola worn by Sutradhara is also similar to the Khangaliphaga of the Tiwa tribe. The Tangali used by the Sutradhara and other characters was a tradition of the Bhuyans themselves. Srimanta Sankaradeva and Madhavadeva were Bhuyans. They retained this nice costume of their community in the costume of Ankiya Bhaona. 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 in their royal dress.

The Sutradhara Pag also is an indigenous style that was refined by Srimanta Sankaradeva. It was an innovation by Srimanta Sankaradeva, based on ingredients from ancient traditions and the costumes of the Jaintia and Dimasa tribe. 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.

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.

Almost all the ornaments of Ankiya Bhaona except Nupur, Pesandar and 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 and 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, not Gam Kharu. Some of the Satradhikars also used to wear Gam Kharu in earlier days.

The whole selection of materials for Aharya 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 in costume, while options were kept open for natural silk too.

Aharya is so important in Assamese culture that the artisan who excels in this craft is accorded a special status in the Assamese society. This artisan is called Khanikar. This vocation became hereditary and was patronised by the Sattras and the society at large. But this skill gradually started dying for different reasons. It is heartening that young people are again learning this craft. Our organisation Society for Srimanta Sankaradeva has taken an initiative and held workshops to train people in this craft. Sangeet Natak Akademi has assisted us in this endeavour.

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