Cihna Yatra—Opera Extraordinaire
Cihna Yatra (Cihna Yātrā), an opera of one act, is among Sankaradeva’s first literary creations and occupies pride of place in the annals of world-drama for being one of the earliest dramas of its kind. This famous play was written and staged in the early part of the Saint’s life, just after he had completed his education (about 1468 AD), at the insistence of his relatives and friends who had expressed a desire to view the sapta Vaikuntha (Seven Vaikunthas). This invaluable literary work, unfortunately, is not extant anymore.
A Pioneering Work
The Cihna Yatra may be regarded as the preamble to the first regular Assamese drama, stage and music:
It must also be the first work of its kind in the whole range of modern Indo-Aryan languages....the first Assamese drama and stage seemed to precede the English drama and stage by about a hundred years, if not more.
A Pageant In Scenes
Although the Yatra is not in existence anymore, the key role played by Sankaradeva in each and every stage of its production—his extraordinary initiative in making the musical instruments, in painting the background scenes, besides writing out the drama and songs—has been well documented by the Saint’s biographers. Ramacarana Thakura, for instance, gives us the details relating to the composition of the songs and verses, and distribution of other matters of the drama by the Saint:
vaikuntha nagar patate lekhiā anka karilanta tār // dhemālir ghosā prathame lekhilā dwitiya sloka racilā / sutra bhatimāka gitak kariā cihna save bibhāgilā // yār yena thān yimat laksan kalpataru upaban / sarobarcay adhik sobhay ananta sajyā sobhan // laksmi saraswati caudha pārisad gitat savāke dilā / sāta vaikunthar sāt gotā nat savāke tāte nirmila // git nāt sutra samaste kariā yeve sānga karilanta / bhuyā save rabhā ghar sāji teve sankarat janāilanta //
He painted the city of Vaikuntha in pictures and composed a drama relating to it. He wrote the preliminary chorus and, secondly, composed a Sanskrit verse. He composed also Sūtra, Bhaṭimā and other songs, and divided them in scenes. The garden of Wish-Yielding Tree (kalpataru), the lakes, the Exquisite Bed of Eternity, he put them all in their proper places and in their native characteristics. He described the goddesses of wealth and of learning and their fourteen attendants and pictured the Seven Vaikunthas (paradises) with their respective Seven Overlords in his very songs. When he thus completed the composition of the songs, the drama and the Sutra, the Bhuyans also completed the shed for the performance and informed him.
Sankaradeva staged the Cihna Yatra on a certain night by making provision for light. After the preliminary orchestral music consisting of several stages, viz. nāṭa-dhemālī, choṭa-dhemālī, bara-dhemālī and deva-dhemālī was over, Sankaradeva himself entered the stage as the Sūtradhara. Then seven actors (Sankaradeva was one of them) representing seven Visnus entered the stage followed by six Laksmis. Six boys dressed as maidens performed the role of Laksmis. There was no Laksmi in the seventh Vaikuntha where Sankaradeva Himself in the role of Visnu appeared. Sarvajaya performed the role of Garuda, putting on a mask resembling the head of a bird.
The Cihna Yatra was staged on a painted background. Sankaradeva had imparted training to the dancers, singers and musicians (gāyana-bāyana), prepared masks (mukhā) and accessories (cho) and had even made necessary arrangements for the entry and exit of characters.