Museum of a sacred place: A case study of Bordowa mini museum

a great vaishnava revival under Sankardeva in the sixteenth century has made the assamese people kindly, tolerant and humane”
Mahatma Gandhi

1. Bordowa historical background:

In different writings of the yore Bordowa has been called a village or a Jana pada(a large geographical administered unit).SrimantaSankardeva is said to have been born at Bordowa on the midnight of a new moon on the Kartika Sankrantiday in the Saka 1371 (1449 AD).He grew up here among the admiring relatives and the subjects of the Shiromoni Bhuyans(Chief of the Bhuyan clan). He got educated under the tutelage of the Brahmin Pandit Mahendra Kandali. Sankardeva demonstrated streaks of innate genius in him by display of exemplary feats including writing skills. He got married and took the mantle of leadership of the community. After the demise and marriage of his daughter he left for his famed pilgrimage—a sojourn destined to have a determining impact in the subsequent history of Assam.

 On his return to Bordowa from the pilgrimage, a very important event was the arrival of a Brahmin pundit called Jagadish Mishrafrom Puri who is said to have been divinely ordained to chant the Bhagawatato Sankardeva. Thus, the insights developed through the pilgrimage and the Bhagawata had kindled the spirit of Krishna, the principal character in the Bhagawataas the human manifestation of the supreme deity. This he propagated through art, culture and literature and most interestingly a well laid out plan of brilliant social engineering and organizational structure in his scheme of things. Focus was the common man and the simple lot and their path to salvation was not to be some complex, inhuman and magical totems but through a system of aesthetic diasporas on the basisof age oldscripts made easy to comprehend by adroit transliterationand updated to accommodate the indigenoussociocultural milieu.

 2. Location of Bordowa and significance of the Than:

 Bordowa also known as Batatdrawa is a Than1, situated in the Nagaon district of Assam, 140 kms away from Guwahati. It is a holy pilgrimage site where the Vaishnava Saint Shri Shri Sankardeva was born.

Bordowa is stated to be a Than – a holy shrine – instead of being a Satra, because it was not organised like a Satra in style and function. Bordowa is a Than, a seat of Pilgrimage for containing some relics of the past which are directly related to the birth and activities of Sankardeva. Bordowa Than, birth place of Mahapurusa Sankardeva is a repertoire of wood carvings.

In Bordowa, Sankardeva constructed the first community prayer hall called by nomenclatures like devogriha, harigriha and kirtangriha and most popularly naamgharwhich had later become the model of nucleus of the Satra institution. Gradually the numbers of followers of the Guru began to swell and the newly constructed community prayer hall had become the epicentre for the lives and pursuit of the devotees. He is also said to have constructed the Doul mandirand laid the foundation of the dormitories (hatis) around the kirttanghar during his years at Bordowa. The seeds of the Assamese renaissance were sown here itself when the great master had conceptualized and performed the magnum-opus Cinha Yatra(one act play or ankiya naat). The role assigned to the Satras of guardianship over the disciples was started by the great master himself in Bordowa when he donned the multiple roles of an administrator, preacher, preceptor, writer, composer, artist and performer.

Fig: Naamghar in Bordowa Than

Than1-a holy shrine, naamghar2– prayer hall

 3. Rediscovery of the site:

Nothing much is heard about Bordowa following the exit of the great master for a long time. It was only after three generations, when Kanaklata, wife of Sankardeva’s youngest grandson set-out eastward along with her adopted son Damodora with a mission to re-discover the holy arena, where the spiritual and cultural renaissance was brought about by the great master. They camped at the south bank of Brahmaputra and continued with the practice of Vaishnavite monastic order. This place, where some disciples were also settled came to be known as the Bali Satra. Damodora then moved to the south and impressed the chieftain of a local tribe who had facilitated Damodora’s hunt for the place of the Guru. The tribal king Cetuwa later was initiated into the faith. Damodora was also summoned by the Ahom king Jayadhvaja Singha to his court and also was granted a plot of land for establishing a new Satra. This place is known as Vasudeva Thaan Narowa Satra situated on the bank of the river Kadha, near Dhakuakhana. Later, with the help of two royal officers, Tangshu Phukan and Mohidhar Buragohain, Damodora succeeded in his mission of locating the holy place, Bordowa. As the new Satraat Bordowa began to take shape, Damodora established another Satraat Bordowa known as the Kuji Satra.

After Damodora’s demise, his son Ramakanta began looking after the development of the Bardowa Thaan. There had been a quiet dispute on the right of running of the Bardowa Than between the descendents of Kanaklata and those of Ramakanta. Ananta Raya, grandson of Kanaklata through her daughter Subhadra had earlier established his sattra at Kowamara near the present day Sivasagar. His sons established aSatraat Kalugaon Salaguri and had earned royal patronage of the King Kamaleswar Singha who became a disciple of the Salaguri Satra. The King, through copper plate inscriptions gave ownership of a small part of the Bordowa Satra away to Salaguri Satra. Since then Bordowa is managed by both Narowa and Salaguri groups. The dual ownership of the premises had its ramifications in bifurcation of ritualistic practices and also literary and cultural pursuits.After independence of India a section of enlightened devotees worked hard to unify both the groups. This has resulted in reconstruction of the kirttanghar in the year 1958 to be used by both the groups. To conduct and manage the affairs of the Satra, a management committee was formed. Harinarayan Dutta Baruah, Haladhar Bhuyan, Motiram Borah, Bishnuram Medhi, Tirtha Nath Dev Goswami and Mitradev Mahanta were some of the leading citizens of the state who had worked towards ensuring a democratic management of the Bordowa as it exists today. Thus Bordowa is now a Thaan– a holy shrine under the auspices of two Satras, managed by a committee as per a constitution. As of today, Bordowa is flanked and managed by two household Satras bearing the names Narowa and Salaguri on its north and south respectively.

Keeping the rich tradition alive, the groups in and around Bordowa encouraged writing of plays and poetry. In addition, the art of mask making, manuscript writing and painting along with woodcarving, sculpture making became respectable vocation actively encouraged by the succession of pontiffs. Among such talented preceptors the name of Lakshmideva would figure prominently. Another scholar Sasadhar of Aibheti Na-Sattra (Salaguri) commissioned illustration of manuscript of Parijat Harana, another play detailing snatching of the heavenly flower. Kesakanta (Charaikhola), Khagendraand Vamsidhar of Aibheti were famous for mask-making and wood works. Vamsidhar’s son Chandrakanta lifted the ban of entry of the schedule castes to the naamgharand administered initiation to that community for which, he was excommunicated by the then Mahanta Society of Bardowa group of Satras. Equally expert in mask-making was Padma of Bhogbari. His forefather Mohanchandra wrote few dramas.

4. Bordowa mini museum

The museum is situated at the heart of the Bordowa Than near the Akashiganga lake in the picturesque of beautiful natural serene. The bordowa mini museum was set up in 1985 by a committee of the Bordowa Than under the aegis of the Directorate of State museum.

Fig: Bordowa mini museum

Objectives:The main aim of setting up this museum is to preserve the cultural heritage of the Vaishnava community of Assam, which is fast diminishing due to the impact of modernisation. This museum has taken painstaking effort to preserve the material culture of the Than and putting forward the rich collection which has survived from the days of Sankardeva in its original state and to induce cultural awakening among the masses.

The museum lays emphasis in collecting socio-cultural and religious objects of the Vaishnava community. The present collection of the museum holds around 103 objects of different types. Most of the objects are wooden artefacts believed to have been once a part of the Than used for various socio-religious purposes. Apart from wooden objects there are few metal objects put on display.

An eminent museologist has said that the collections of a museum, however rich and important they may be, are only of real value to the extent they are made use of by the public and the extent to which the public is able to benefit by the instruction and entertainment they are intended to afford.

The collection of wooden structures kept in the museum are perhaps mere remnants of a wonderful treasure that must have got destroyed over centuries because of ravages of time and unthinking human intervention. Some connoisseurs like Dr. Naren Kalita of Bordowa had played an important role in surveying and retrieving the ones kept in the museum.

The ancient artwork of Bordowa may be divided into the .

  1. doors/arches(fig 1.)

  2. the pillar mounted wooden statues (fig2. )

  3. the wooden wall panels.(fig3.)

  4. Wooden materials used during naam-prasanga (fig4.)



4.1 Museum Collection:

Doors, coated with molded brass sheets having a number of figures are few rich collection of the museum. The wood carvers are found to be very adroit in their treatment of space and composition in the limited picture frame for pictorial delineations. There are very interesting secular subjects also, found to be adorning the walls of the Bardowa Thaan. The elephant fights, buffalo fights and scenes of animal hunting are also found as a part of temple decoration. Dr. K.K. Dasgupta draws a parallel of these carvings with those of Babylonian and Assyrian repertories of the remote past. Dr. Dasgupta is also very impressed with the four panels illustrating the act of slaying of Bali by Rama.

Among the other significant statues are those of Garuda and Hanuman. Here also, the Bardowa artists accentuated the prominent body parts like eyes and facial muscles to make the characters display an expression of bhakti– the hallmark of the culture.

Sankardeva initiated a vigorous religious movement, the Bhakti movement, with the doctrine to surrender to one God, Krishna, during 15th -16th century AD. Along with the formation of a distinct regional identity of Assamese Bhakti Culture and literary tradition, also, wood carving was one of the fields which in direct response to the movement and the cult of Bhakti began to flourish as a major form of art of the people. Guided by an impulse to decorate the places of worship, the local artisans created stylistic variation in the medium of wood. Moreover, since woods were easily available locally, it provided support to the development of the art form.

The objects were always a part of the socio-religious culture of the Than. The different Satras in Assam have preserved very few specimens of wooden objects of art belonging to the past tradition.

Bordowa Than retains a considerably big repertoire of wood carvings of the past. These objects have been recovered from an uncared state by Dr. Naren Kalita at the Than premises and thus it was decided to put up on display on 1985.

The significance of the wooden objects is its intrinsic artistic carvings and is very closely linked with parallel developments in literary traditions of the Mahabharata and Ramayana epics.

4.1.1 Objects:

There are 103 objects in the collection of the museum. Most of the objects are wooden panels, wooden doors, wooden pillars and other wooden materials used during religious rituals in the Than. The objects on display belong to 17th-19th century. Due to lack of preservation most of the objects are destroyed. The objects were collected from the Than on a very late period.

Significance of the objects: The persistent belief around the objects was that they were representations of eighty out of eighty one categories of bhakti that the human beings could visualise on earth. This was the reason for the display of the objects in the shrines. Therefore, for the understanding of the social significance of the display it would be necessary to look at the areas to which the embellished objects belonged and which greeted the eyes of the beholders. We can break up the areas as below:

  1. The facade and the doors.

  2. Walls around the kirtan-ghar.

  3. The pillars and pillar-capitals.

  4. The areas inside the prayer-hall.

  5. The component parts other than the kirtan-ghar.

Some of the objects on display are:

  1. Figures of birds and animals carved on wood                         2. objects displayed in

  1. Different objects displayed in showcase           4.Carved wooden pillars The artisans/wood carvers: The Satra artisans were meticulous in their treatment of the avataras of God. They had, in fact, a distinct programme of carving the avatara figures as visual accompaniment to the literary tradition and embellished the walls and the doors of the shrines whenever they found scope for their treatment. The available specimens show that these figures were carved in isolated panels to make their impact profound on the viewers. These figures were carved sometimes in high relief and sometimes in the round shape.

Bordowa Than is comparatively richer in terms of avatara figures. There are as many as nine images of seven avataras. Each of the images carved in high relief was provided with a separate picture-frame in some continuous friezes. The carvers were meticulous in their treatment of space and composition in the limited picture-frame provided to them for pictorial delineation. So, we have found the carving of the image of Narasimha in a balanced composition. The image is seen caressing his long tail with his two hands, above his head a host of subjects dealing with divine and semi-divine beings together with accessory subjects drawn from day-to-day life and environment formed an integral part of sculptural decoration.

The Bordowa panel depicting the composite image of Hari-Hara is interesting for the physical presence of the vahanas of Hari and Hara along with the image at the centre. In illustrating the image the carver deviated from the standard iconography and followed contemporary improvisations derived from the local idiom.

Stories from the Ramayana constituted the major narrative compositions on the panels carved by the artists at Bordowa. It is stated that the old kirtan-ghar at Bordowa before its demolition for reconstruction in the fifties of the last century had the entire Ramayana translated into the medium of wood.

Bordowa Than presents a few rare pieces of pillars illustrating some divine and semi-divine beings. Life-size carvings of Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, Narada and Ganesha constitute the pillar-statues. Although looking like tribal totem-poles, they do not represent any belief associated with tribal society in the naam-ghar. The carvers derived their images from the local literary tradition and the cylindrical format of wood contributed to their forms marked by sensitively rounded and plastic volumes.

Of all the sculptures, the most significant one is the colossal figure of Garuda, a semi-divine winged god, in the kneeling posture. Bordowa Than possesses a few pieces of sculpture of the winged god. The Satra artists developed the form of Garuda as a hybrid one with a prominent beak and wings of a bird. One of the Garuda sculptures in the museum forms a variety by itself. It has no wings; its face with a curved beak is emphasised by the deeply furrowed lines creating the eyelids and the brows. The carver maintains the cylindrical feature of the medium in carving in the pot-belly and closely knit limbs in the figure. Rhythm of line creates movement in the figure and endows it with a sinuous contour of round and sensitively modelled plastic volume. The artists of Bordowa also carved two images of Hanumana portraying him in two different aspects. In the aspect of a hero, he is seen carrying Rama and Laksmana on his shoulder immediately after rescuing them from the world of Ravana. Rama and Laksmana are holding Hanumana’s head closely and the feet of the former dangling on either side of the breast of the latter have enriched the figure in equipoise and balance. Hanumana is a devotee in his other aspect. To represent him in this aspect the Satra artist devised his iconographic norms as wearing a garland of rudraksa and holding a ladu or ladduka in his right hand. The Bardowa figures of Hanumana with his eyes housed in large concaves being accentuated by arch-like eye-brows are expressive of his inner feelings. Method of carving of the wooden objects:

The method followed by the Satra artists of Assam in carving sculptures was one of deep incision inside the wooden panel. It is known as charaikhuliya in which charai and khuliya stand for bird and carving respectively: it is similar to the woodpecker’s method of digging holes in the tree. In this method, the uncut portions of wood remain raised to give the pattern of the objects.

All objects require to be executed in two distinct phases. The first phase is called kondhowa meaning slicing off the surface in flakes. In the final stage, further work is done upon the patterns to give finish to the objects. Thereafter, the sculptures, whether relief or in the round, are painted with colour. As regards finish, it can be said that the carvers practised an extremely primitive carpentry with a limited number of tools comprising an axe, a knife and a few batalis (chisels) of various sizes and shapes. These tools are very much useful for creating a very impressive texture with imprints of the edges on the sculptures.

4.1.2Collection policy:

A written collection policy is not followed by the Bordowa mini museum. It is through the experience and local skills that the museum incharge collects objects relevant to the museum or materials related to Sankardeva. The museum collects the objects related to Bordowa Than and from the neighbouring areas in Bordowa.

Collections are mainly done through donations and gifts and explorations.

Collection through exploration is carried out by the peon employed to look after the museum by the Assam State Museum authority. Sometimes when situation gets critical, such as negotiations are required to be made for acquiring the object from the locals, a high official from the directorate of museums, Assam takes care of it.

Though from past few years the collection of the museum is not growing and the 103 objects it holds in its collection is a very few number if seen from the date it was established, i.e a period of 27 years.


“It is an important professional responsibility to ensure that all items accepted temporarily or permanently by the museum are properly and fully documented to facilitate provenance, identification, condition and treatment.” (ICOM Code of Professional Ethics, 1990, p. 31, nr. 6.2)

Objectives of museum documentation

  • Ensure accountability for objects: they can be used to define the objects that are owned by a museum, identify the objects, and record their location.

  • Aid the security of objects: they can be used to maintain information about the status of objects and provide descriptions and evidence of ownership in the event of theft.

  • Provide a historic archive about objects: they can be used to maintain information about the production, collection, ownership, and use of objects and as a means of protecting the long term value of data.

  • Support physical and intellectual access to objects: they can be used to support access to objects themselves and information about the objects.

Documentation of the objects in Bordowa mini museum:

It is a matter of utter surprise that a proper documentation system is not followed by the authority. The museum houses the most valuable treasure related to the Assamese Vaishnava community and which is indeed a mirror to the roots of the Vaishnava culture and related practices and a clear evidence of the presence of the great saint Sri Sankardeva whose path is still being followed in Assam.

Fig:Documentation of the objects in Bordowa mini museum

The museum keeps a record of the incoming objects as well those put on display in a single leaf handwritten white paper. No Registers (general accession register, classified accession register) is maintained for the objects in the museum premises. Though the authority claims to have one register for the objects but they failed to produce the same within a time period of 30 days. Only the name and the size of the objects are mentioned in the record paper. The objects are not given any accession number or identity number neither any details about the object is written on the record paper.

4.3 Display of the objects:

Fig:floor plan of Bordowa mini museum.

The objects are very poorly displayed. There are no written panels to communicate with the group of objects.

The objects are displayed in 3 corridors and 2 halls. Most of the objects are made of wood. The wooden panels are seen nailed to the walls or hunged to the support of the nails. There is proper lighting system or ventilation in the halls and the corridors. The walls are not painted which leaves a very dull and bad picture of the antiquities on display. The objects displayed in the showcases are not put in the height of the viewers eyelevel. Most of the objects are congestedly displayed by hanging them to the walls.

Display of objects in showcases Display in the corridor

4.4 Labelling and signage:

Signage for direction are placed inside the galleries and near the corridors. Captions are given to almost all the objects but the placement of the captions is another poor story of the museum display. The letters written in the captions are not clear enough to read. Some of the captions are placed at the bottom of the objects, while some are just placed atop the objects. Some of the captions only read the name of the object or the depiction of the object. Much information is not available in the captions placed along with the objects.