The Ramayana portraying Indian culture and ideals had been made very popular in Assam by the various recentionists who flourished in different periods. Assamese Literature may boast of its priority in producing the Ramayana over all other provincial Aryan Language. For, there was no Ramayana in any other language when the first Ramayana poet Madhab Kandoli rendered Valmiki’s Ramayana into Assamese verse. Not only that, the Ramayana appeared in varied forms—in verse, prose and in songs. There are five versions of the Ramayana in Assamese and each of different type.
The Ramayana probably gained more popularity after Ramananda of the 14th century had preached the Rama cult. It was through the disciples of Ramananda that the worship of Rama had spread widely in northern and middle India (Sir, R.G. Bhandarkar—Vaisnavism and Saivism). This wave reached Assam through the local aspirants who went about the holy places in quest of knowledge and religious merit. The Ramayana poet Madhab Kandoli flourished towards the end of the 14th century A.D. He composed the verses of the Ramayana at the request of King Mahamanikya. Sankardev in his Uttara Kanda has referred to him as a predecessor and flawless poet. The poet had no other work in other provincial languages before him to serve as a model or to imitate. He therefore made verses direct from the Sanskrit original—the Adikavya of Valmiki.
The poet writes—”Valmiki wrote in various rhymes. I have with great care, looked into them and have written in condensed from what I could understand in my own way. Who there is, who will understand all the ‘rasas’? The poets write in the ways of the peoples; sometimes they supply things of their own and sometimes they lengthen as the subjects would demand. It should be borne in mind that there are not words of God but are the creation of man. So one should not take offence at my diversion.” At another place he says—the great sage Valmiki has produced the Ramayana. In fact he has created nectar for the world, etc.’ He has also said that he has inserted Kavya-rasa at the words of King Mahamanikya.
The special characteristics of the Ramayana of Madhab Kandoli may be summarised as follows—
He gives local colour to the descriptions of nature, man, and the works of men. His language is forceful and full of apt similies, metaphors, idioms and phrases, some taken from the original, some from the local language, and some built by himself. He gives photographic and dramatic descriptions of scenes. He adopts various rhymes suited to the various themes. There are also verses which are exact translations from the original. In similies and metaphors he deviates sometimes from the original and there is seen the influence of his age.
Madhab Kandoli’s Ramayana is followed by the Giti Ramayana of Durgabar of Kamakhya of the time of King Viswa Sinha (1515-1540 A.D.). Songs predominate in this work. The songs are lyrical—each complete in itself and yet forming a part of the whole Ramayana. They contain varied tunes or Ragas. The names of the ragas are—Belawar, Barari, Gunjari, Dhanasri, Ramagiri, Ahir, Patamanjari, Bhatiyali, Vasanta, Suhai, Manjari, Megha Mandal, Devamohan, Sri Gandhakali, Marwar, Devajini Akasmandali.
The poet shows originality in his selection of the scenes and in his twisting some of the facts to suit mass psychology.
The Giti Ramayana represents a type of Assamese literature of the early period.
Ananta Kandoli a follower of Sankardeva produced another version of the Ramayana in verse. This poet took the work of Madhab Kandoli before him and amply borrowed from his verses and expressions, condensed somewhere and elaborated elsewhere. What speciality he claims is his incorporation of the Bhagawat element into the epic.
Sri Rama Kirton is another recension of the Ramayana in a different style. This was the work of Ananta Thakur Ata belonging to the fourth generation from Sankardeva.
The poet was a follower of Sankardev and accepted Rama as no other than Krishna himself, and made the work fit for daily chanting. It was written in 1574 Saka.
THE PROSE RAMAYANA
The Assamese Prose Ramayana or Katha Ramayana was written about the latter half of the 16th century by one Raghunath Mahanta. This work is a valuable treasure of Assamese prose literature, and it contains the facts of the Ramayana in a concise form. At the end of each chapter the poet has mentioned the name of the Valmiki Ramayana.
Besides the above very many minor works were produced at different periods showing the wide influence of the Ramayana. The facts of the Ramayana was first dramatized by Sankardeva, Madhabdeva, and other poets. The facts penetrated even into the shepherd songs, marriage songs and incantations.
Attempts at rendering the Mahabharata into Assamese verse made early in the 13th century and till the days of Sankardeva we find traces of three poets. From what has been found till today it may be surmised that some solitary episodes or parvas only were done into Assamese during the period. Thus Harihar bipra’s Vabrubaha Yuddha, of the Aswamedha Parba, the Jayadratha Vadh of the Dron-Parva of Kaviratna Saraswati and Satyaki prabesh of the Dron Parva in the name of Rudra Kandoli are only productions left to us till today. It is not that no other portions were done besides those mentioned.
The poets in those days were patronised by the Kings and it is from the eulogies made by the poets of the Kings that the times of the works and the poets can be traced. The poets composed verses on popular themes of the Mahabharat to fit to the use of the Oja-Palis who sang these at public gatherings and on festive occasions. The poets took the subjects from the original Sanskrit works and narrated them generally very freely in tune with the folk-songs, and the national traits with all their details found full expression in them.
It was in the Vaisnava period at the initiative and patronage of King Narnarayana (1540-1585 A.D.) and at the inspiration from Sankardeva that the whole of the Mahabharata was taken up for translation into Assamese verse. The Koch King Narnarayana, the great patron of learning specially engaged Rama Saraswati, a follower of Sankardeva for his great work during the reign and at the patronage of this King Assamese literature and learning grew abundantly and to a high extent. From the descriptions of the poets on the generosity of this King one is naturally reminded of the great King Bhoja of antiquity. Narnarayana and his brother and general Sukladhvaja bountifully gave money and other rewards to those who would sit listening to the readings of the scriptures, the newly-composed verses and would take active part himself in the various scriptural discussions. It was in his court that the Ekasaran Nama-Dharma of Sri Sankardeva was established in the long-drawn controversy between Sankardeva and those who opposed him. Some works of Sankardeva and Madhavadeva came at the wish either of this King or his brother. The Gunamala of Sankardeva which is a very condensed version of Bhagavata was composed overnight when once the King wished to hear the Bhagavata from any one in his court at one sitting. In very many places of the Mahabharata and other works the poets have sung his praises.
Engaged by Narnarayana, Rama Saraswati took up the work. Some other poets also volunteered their services and assisted Ramsaraswati in versification. Being a devout follower of Sankardeva, Ramsaraswati while fulfilling the wish of the King made his Mahabharat subservient to the propagation of the Bhagawata religion as was preacged by his great preceptor. The stories of the Mahabharat like those of the Ramayana naturally attract people, these being repositories of all knowledge and ideals and representatives of Indian culture. The whole Mahabharat specially the Vana Parva afforded ample scope for the poet to the Vaisnava tenets—to show the glory of Lord Krishna and the triumph of virtue over vice. The Vana Parva of the Assamese Mahabharat has been made very voluminous. This parva is also known as the Vaisnava Parva and the Assamese people regard the Mahabharat as a religious scripture in no sense inferior to the great Bhagawata. The Vaisnava element had crept in even into the original composition of Krishna Dwaipayana Vyasa. Ramsaraswati made it still more pronounced. The stories and the truth behind them, so long unknown to the mass became not only popular but also their hearts’ most prized treasure. The works of the co-workers and followers of Ramsaraswati all bore the same tone and spirit. Further specialities of the Assamese Mahabharat is that it contains some sub-parvas and upa-parvas some of which are very volumious, and which are not found in the works of any other provincial languages.