Assessing the Socio-Religious Trends of Medieval Assam from Tantricism to Neo-Vaishnavism and their Impact on the Ahom State

By assessing the prevalent understanding of Tantra and the emergence of major Bhakti sects in Assam during the medieval period, this essay looks at the trajectory of the processes through which the social demography of the region underwent phases of formation and re-formation in the medieval period.  

Unmilan Kalita and Abhilash Chetia Wanniang

As Assam approaches the 2021 assembly elections, the fissures among variegated ethnic identities are visible. Historians since EH Carr’s (1990) critical intervention have underlined the linkages between the present and the past. The complex socio-political realities of present-day Assam raise important questions about its past. We attempt to temporally locate the answers to some key issues in the region’s medieval history. In several Puranic texts, we find the prevalence and the spread of tantric Shaktism in early medieval Assam, which along with proto-Shaivic practices patronised by several tribes, and the arrival of amalgamated forms of Buddhism in the region, resulted in a reign of esoteric cults. The interplay of socio-political processes, with the coming of a new political force during the early thirteenth century and the emergence of a particular form of Bhakti introduced a significant shift in the socio-political structure of the region.


Since the publication of RS Sharma’s groundbreaking work Indian Feudalism (1965), there has been a shift towards writing regional histories. But the major breakthrough was provided by Brajadulal Chattopadhyaya (2012) and Hermann Kulke (1993) in their scholarship on Rajasthan and Orissa respectively. Kulke’s research on the processes of state formation and legitimation in Orissa is particularly significant for our arguments in this essay. Kulke’s (1978) research traces the development of the cult of Jagannath and ‘analyse(s) the role of the royal temple policy in the formation and consolidation of the medieval Hindu kingdoms.’ We wonder if such a methodology can be adopted for the study of social formations in early-medieval and medieval Assam.

Chattopadhyaya had suggested a pan-Indian ‘dynamic pattern’ of economic, socio-political and cultural dimensions. Chattopadhyaya (2012) identified three major processes which pervade all phases of early Indian history which include:

(1) the expansion of state society through the process of local state formation; (2) the peasantization of tribes and caste formation; and (3) cult appropriation and integration. 

Chattopadhyaya partially touched the case of Assam in his book while presenting a larger framework for social structures in early-medieval India, but did not provide much beyond hints. With a clear emphasis on Rajasthan, Chattopadhyaya coupled Orissa along with Assam in his discussion on the ‘religious and ideological expressions’ of regions. There has not been any significant attempt to expand Chattopadhyaya’s framework for the study of social patterns in medieval Assam. It is beyond the scope of this essay to present an alternative to the current discourses in the study of cult practices in the region but we are attempting to identify an empirical approach to the study of the region. It must be noted, Assam has two river systems which divide the state into two principal physical zones: the Brahmaputra Valley in the north and the Barak Valley in the south [1]. The scope of this article is limited to the Brahmaputra Valley. Moreover, we must distinguish between the boundaries of the present-day state of Assam and the physical zone of the region in history.

There have been several studies on the emergence and spread of tantric practices across the Indian sub-continent during the early medieval period. In a dated yet relevant work, RS Sharma (1974) argued that tantricism was the ‘ultimate product of brahmanical colonisation of the tribal area through the process of land grants’ and that it was an attempt to solve the socio-economic problems initiated by the ‘confrontation between the brahmana beneficiaries and the tribal people.’ Moreover, Sharma has highlighted that the prevalent Buddhist traditions in regions like Assam provided an impetus to Vajrayana and Sahajayana schools of tantricism. Assam continues to be regarded as a centre of tantric practices in popular imagination and as such, the roots remain germane to present considerations.

There are contestations within the scholarship regarding the origins of the Kalika Purana, a major source for the study of tantricism along with the Yogini Tantra [2]. Hugh B. Urban’s (2003) reading of both these texts has transformed the existing understanding of tantric practices in South Asia. Urban has underlined the close ties between tantra, kingship, blood, sacrifice, and war. Urban has focused on the Kamakhya temple (in Guwahati) as a ‘matrix of power’ in which he lays emphasis on the tribal and non-tribal interactions in its development. In Urban’s (2003 and 2010) works, we witness a radical shift from the simplistic notions of tantra to a more complex perspective of the dimensions of power, sexuality and religion. Kunal Chakrabarti (2000) on the other hand, has made a strong case for Bengal as a cult region. So, if we keep these research methodologies and developments in mind, the questions that arise are, whether Assam qualifies to be labeled as a cult region and if so, what will be the trajectory of future studies?

In early Kamrupa, several historians such as BK Baruah (1951), point at the prevalence of the deity of Vishnu being worshipped among a few sections of the ruling elites and not much among the common masses. Hueng Tsang’s report of Assam after his visit to the region during the reign of Bhaskarvarma in and around 642-643 C.E.  and the Barganga Rock inscription of Bhutivarnam (554 C.E.) refers to the King as Parama-Bhagavata [3]. Puranas like Garuda Purana, Markendaya Purana and Vishnu Purana mention that ancient kings of Kamrupa linked their descendence from Lord Vishnu along with references to other deities like Garuda, Markendaya, Skanda. The Varaha incarnation of Vishnu, the killing of Naraka and the enthronement of Bhagadatta in Pragjyotisha finds mention in the Vishnu Purana. A Puranic legend refers to King Narakasura, the founder of the Bhauma-Naraka line, as someone whose birth is ascribed to the union of Vasumati (Mother Earth) with Vishnu in his Varaha incarnation. Various historical readings such as BK Kakati (1948) opines that the brand of Vaishnavism that was prevalent in Assam before that of Sankardeva as mostly Vasudavaism of the Pancarata cult.

Amalendu Guha (1984) states that in medieval Assam, two rival political systems existed:

1) a loose confederacy of hierarchical petty feudal chiefs [bhuyan-raj] thriving on ruins of an erstwhile imperial of Kamrupa and 2) the rudimentary semi-feudal state formations emerging directly from tribes, e.g., Chutiyas, Kacharis and Ahoms.

It is in this very milieu that Sankardeva adapted the religious requisites by putting them into accessible parables, and therefore, democratised the monotheistic Vaishnava cult which was for so long not accessible to common folk. The age of Sankardeva was an age of great religious upheavals all over India, as an array of religious ideas emerged in the lines of heterodoxy that questioned the earlier status quo. The brand of bhakti that Sankardeva institutionalised and propagated was a monotheistic doctrine centred around the Bhagavata Purana and Sankaracharya’s teachings of advaita vedanta, the doctrine that claims that there is only one reality, the existence of a Supreme Self [4]. This brand was a vernacular brand of bhakti that emphasised on knowledge (jnana) as a means to attain devotion towards the ‘Supreme Self’ which is considered to be devoid of any attributes and is non-manifest, i.e nirguna. Sankardeva upheld the view that though there were around nine paths for attaining bhakti, Sravana and Kirtana were much easier and accessible than the rest. Sankardeva preached the principles of fraternity in the sphere of bhakti by bringing the Brahman and the tribal devotees (who were at the social periphery despite being the natives of the region) under the same religious purview.

Assam: The land of Neo-Vaishnavism and Tantricism. Illustration: Bhaswati Bhattacharyya, 2021

One outcome of Vedic heritage was the concept of casteism in which the upper-castes closed all doors of wisdom and devotion to the so-called lower-castes. Sankardeva contested caste in the field of doing bhakti, which was a reformist move but did not advocate the same in the social life like that of Nanak or Kabir [5]. Nanak and Kabir’s stand against the practice of the hierarchical caste system was so fierce that each of them discarded it’s practice in their respective sects. Such fierce opposition and a social boycott of the caste system was not seen in the context of Sankardeva although he negated its practiced in the arena of devotion and personal conduct. This duality of thought was contextualised by Sankardeva but it left a fracture to allow his successors, which constituted mostly of Brahmans and Kayasthas, to adopt either or both of his ideological standings in this context. This was a primary cause for the emergence of several sub-sectarian ideologies among his followers after his demise.


Though the Bhakti Movement is often regarded as a radical and reformist movement aimed at socio-religious reforms and adoption of new social values, one crucial facet that is often missed while assessing this period, is that it also carried certain fundamentalist and conservative forces imbibed in its characteristics. For example, on one hand, preachers like Kabir and Nanak who upheld the nirguna strand, rejected the Vedic caste hierarchy and all social conventions based on caste distinctions, and on the other hand, there were saguna preachers like Tulsidas who ferociously upheld the sanctity of the caste system and the supremacy of the Brahmans over other castes [6]. Here, the former advocated an anti status-quo stand whereas, the latter advocated for the preservation of the existing social order and the established socio-religious norms. The teachings of one group led to the emergence of a protestant, unorthodox, breakthrough branch of the sect whereas the other nourished and revived the earlier order with a few new reforms.

Sankardeva refrained from appointing any successor of his sect until the last year of his life when he nominated Madhavdeva, his devout disciple, as his successor. After the demise of Sankardeva, the fissures of ideological clashes started to widen, therefore, leading to debates and differentiations among several stalwarts of the sect. Damodardeva, a Brahman follower and a revered member of the order discarded the authority of Madhavdeva and deviated from the former to form his own sub-sect. The Carits, the hagiographical texts written by disciples, mention that Damodardeva not only rejected the authority of Madhavdeva but also that of Sankardeva by alleging that Sankardeva’s works were mostly based on Puranas and had nothing original. Damodardeva organised his Satra by forming his own order – sanhati or school of neo-vaishnavism – brahma sanhati with new modes of recruitment of inmates and instituting the system of religious tax in the order [7]. The element of casteism was given full license to be prevalent in this Satra which ran contrary to that of Sankardeva’s principles. Damodardeva also propagated among his disciples the need to preserve the nittya naimittika rites of Brahmans within the bhakti sect and instituted puja or ritual worship of the image, thereby, taking a polar opposite ideological stand with that of Sankardeva. The conservative school of Satra, therefore, emerged with Damodardeva.

The divergent ideological stands among various disciples of Sankardeva resulted in an array of samhatis of Satras, of which the major ones were the brahma-samhati, purusha-samhati, nika-samhati on one hand which adhered to the caste rules and introduced brahmanical ritualism in varying magnitudes, and kala-samhati on the other which defied caste hierarchy in totality, rejected idol worship and adhered to the norms of nirguna bhakti. Amalendu Guha (1984) referred to the former ones as right-wing school of Satra and the latter as the left-wing school of the same.

The kala-samhati was founded by Gopal Aata, a leading disciple of Madhavdeva. Gopal Aata initiated a liberal mode of recruitment which brought people of lower castes and tribal communities into the sect and as such, the kala-samhati school was looked down upon by the other sub-sectarian schools. Gopal Aata’s radical disciple, Aniruddhadeva, expanded the scope of kala-samhati by founding the Mayamara Satra. Aniruddhadeva began preaching from 1601 onwards by initiating members of the Kaivarta caste into his sect, who were fisherman by occupation. The Kaivarta were considered among the lower rungs of the caste hierarchy and therefore, Aniruddhadeva’s move was ridiculed by the conservative Satras by terming his school as moamariyadharma or moamariya religion, and not neo-Vaishnavism of Sankardeva. The Ahom state patronised the establishment of large Satras by providing the Brahman priests enormous land grants, status and power thereby, relegating Annirudhadeva and his disciples. Annirduhadeva’s religious beliefs championed an egalitarian and liberal take which attracted thousands of members from tribal communities. Members of Moran, Motok, Ahom, Chutiya, Kaivarta and other communities, came under the purview of Aniruddhadva’s Moamariya Satra. Therefore, the ideological base of Annirudhadeva’s sect had a widespread popularity and adherence, and radically differed the from other samhatis on grounds of recruitment, conduct and patronage.


The socio-religious context of Assam, in the early as well as later medieval periods, witnessed the interplay of several factors interspersing religion, agrarian mode of production, social status-quo and the role of the state and other sources of authorities. The prevalence of Tantricism in Kamrupa with Kamakhya Peeth as its centre, which finds mention in tenth century texts like Kalikapurana or later, the Yoginitantra, provides a picture of interplay of several religious contours. These include the pre-existing variants of Shaivism, the spread of Shaktism along with the emergence of esoteric rituals of animal and human sacrifices in centres like that of Kechaikhaiti of Sadiya and Kamakhya of Pragjyotishpura, and also about the prevalence of a variant of Buddhism called Vajrayana. The rise of neo-Vaishnavism from the mid-fifteenth century with Sankardeva’s rise as a religious preacher ushered new dimensions in the socio-religious and political fields of the region. The institution of Satra with time, gained mass popularity and became a legitimate village authority in terms of village consolidation and revenue collection. The feudal roots behind the rise of neo-Vaishnavism are reflected from the fact that it advocated the idea of one people under one monarch. This viability prompted the initially hostile Ahom kings to provide patronage to the Satras as Amalendu Guha (1991) argues ‘the state would require a supporting ideology that would cut across the tribal fragmentation and would legitimize the feudal rule’.

The neo-Vaishnavism sect, after the demise of Sankardeva, underwent massive sub-sectarian divisions that led to the emergence of schools that differed in their ideology and conduct. Certain Satras began to receive massive land grants, paiks and other grants from the ruling elite [8]. Notwithstanding, one samhati of this same Satra system, the kala samhati, emerged as non-conformist and it thus, attracted a large population into its array and grew in the hinterland. This resulted in the growth of the Mayamara Satra under Anniruddhadeva and thereafter, witnessed a large expansion in its support base. The growth of two parallel Satra cultures — one pro-state, pro-feudal and conservative and the other pro-tribal and protestant — resulted in a series of uprisings which are collectively termed as the Moamariya Rebellion of 1769. It was a juncture that shook the established political authority and marked a breaking point for the Ahom dynasty.


  1. For details, see M. Taher, Assam: An Introduction, 2001.
  2. While R.C. Hazra has traced the origin of the Kalika Purana to early-medieval Bengal, B. Shastri has argued that the text took shape in Kamrupa, see R.C. Hazra, “The Upapuranas”, 1962 and B.N. Shastri, The Kalika Purana: Text, Introduction and Translation in English, 1992.
  3. Barganga Rock is a sixthcentury rock inscription excavated from Barganga river, Nagaon.
  4. Advaita Vedanta, as forwarded by Adi Shankaracharya, is a philosophical doctrine which holds that the Brahman is the absolute reality and is devoid of any duality i.e dvaita features.
  5. For more on this, check Dambarudhar Nath, “Cult, Ideology and Conflict: Mayamara Vaishnavism and Social Conflict in 18th Century Assam”, 2014. 
  6. To know more about this division within the Bhakti Movement, see Krishna Sharma, Bhakti and the Bhakti Movement – Towards a New Perspective, 2002.
  7. Satras are institutional centres associated with the Ekasarana tradition of Vaishnavism which constitutes of prayer halls, residences of inmates and also acts as a centres where the performing arts associated with the sect are practiced and community festivities are held.
  8. The paik system was a state-organised system of compulsory labour where all active men of the state in the age group of 16 to 50 years had to work for the Ahom state for a period of three months in a year. It was state-conscripted labour. The paiks had to deliver free labour for various works like leveling of highlands for cultivation, construction of dams to resist floods, roads for communication, and ponds, tanks etc. for water supply etc.


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  2. Carr, EH. What is History? New York: Penguin Modern Classics, 1990.
  3. Chakrabarti, Kunal. “Cult Region: The Purānas and the Making of the Cultural Territory of Bengal.” Studies in History, 16, no. 1 (2000): 1–16.
  4. Chattopadhyaya, BD. The Making of Early Medieval India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2012.
  5. Eschmann, Anncharlott, Hermann Kulke and Gaya Charan Tripathi eds. The Cult of Jagannath and the Regional Tradition of Orissa. New Delhi: Manohar, 1978.
  6. Hazra, R.C. “The Upapuranas” in (ed.) S. Radhakrishnan. The Cultural Heritage of India Vol. II. Kolkata: Ramakrishna Mission Institute of Culture, 1962. 271-286.
  7. Guha, Amalendu. “Neo-Vaishnavism to Insurgency: Peasant Uprisings and Crisis of Feudalism in Late 18th Century Assam”. Centre for Studies in Social Sciences Occasional Paper, 67 (1984): 66-67.
  8. Guha, Amalendu. Medieval and Early Colonial Assam: Society, Polity and Economy. Calcutta: Published for Centre for Studies in Social Sciences by K.P. Bagchi & Co., 1991.
  9. Kakati, Banikanta. The Mother Goddess Kamakhya. Guwahati: Lawyer’s Book Stall, 1967.
  10. Kulke, Hermann. Kings and Cults: State Formation and Legitimation in India and Southeast Asia. New Delhi: Manohar, 1993.
  11. Nath, Dambarudhar. “Cult, Ideology And Conflict: The “Māyāmarā” Vaishnavism And Social Conflict In 18th Century Assam”. Proceedings of the Indian History Congress, 75 (2014): 351-57.
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  13. Sharma, RS. “Material Milieu of Tantricism”. In Indian Society: Historical Probings,  (eds.) RS Sharma and V Jha, 175-189. New Delhi: People’s Publishing House, 1974.
  14. Shastri, B.N. The Kalika Purana: Text, Introduction and Translation in English. Delhi: Nag Publishers, 1992.
  15. Taher, M. “Assam: An Introduction.” In Geography of Assam, (eds.) Abani K Bhagabati et al..1-17. New Delhi: Rajesh Publications, 2001.
  16. Urban, Hugh B. Tantra: Sex, Secrecy, Politics, and Power in the Study of Religion. London: University of California Press, 2003.
  17. Urban, Hugh B. The Power of Tantra: Religion, Sexuality and the Politics of South Asian Studies. London: IB Tauris & Co Ltd, 2010.

Unmilan Kalita is an undergraduate student of Political Science in Ramjas College, University of Delhi. He is interesred in political history, international relations, comparative studies, Indian history, Assamese literature, folkculture and politics associated with the tribes of Northeast India. He has been an avid quizzer and also has a deep interest in Indian classical and folk music. He is currently associated with the Northeast Cell of Ramjas College along with Qnights, the Quizzing Society of Ramjas College.

Abhilash Chetia Wanniang is an undergraduate student of History at Hansraj College, University of Delhi. His areas of interest include state formation, colonialism, gender relations, Bhakti tradition, Dalit literature, tribal identity, and language politics. He currently holds the position of Editorial Head of the North-East Cell, Hansraj College. He is also the Content Head of Feel to Heal: A Mental Health Forum.

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