May 1, 2023

Music in the Manasa Cult of Bengal: Significance of the Traditional Folk-drama Performances

Indigenous Art & Culture

Aindrila Dutta Chowdhury, Ph.D. Research Scholar, Department of Music, University of Delhi


The worshipping of the snake goddess Manasa has been quite popular in Bengal, mostly in the rural parts. Throughout the year, especially in the rainy season, one can find several ritualistic as well as non-ritualistic performances related to the folk deity are going on. Focusing on non-ritualistic performances, music plays a significant role in almost all forms of the Manasa-oriented performance tradition. Based on the previous works and critical observations, this paper primarily deals with the systematic and scientific study of the musical analysis of Bhashan Jatra and Bishahara, the two main folk drama performance traditions of Manasa where the performers portray the stories of the chosen deity by amalgamating the three various mediums of art- acting, storytelling and music. In addition, the introductory part explores the historical evolution of the practice of worshipping Manasa in Bengal, and the conclusion part talks about the contemporary trends of these particular art forms. 

Keywords: Bhashan Jatra, Bishahara, Folk Drama, Manasa, Bengal.


Telling stories of various deities to preach their glory to the world has been largely well-known from the very beginning and the storytellers prefer using music to portray these stories in a more beautiful manner. Manana, the snake goddess has been a source of various performance traditions in the eastern parts of India, especially in the Indian subcontinent of West Bengal. It is interesting to notice that in these performance traditions, the theme remains the same but their name and performative style differ because of their regional influences. Starting flourishing in the medieval period, these performances still are seen to be practiced throughout the year, especially in rural Bengal. From the women of the houses performing Manasa Brata[1] and singing the ritualistic Brata-Gaan[2] to the fully commercial non-ritualistic theatrical performances of Manasa, e.g., Bhashan Jatra (also known as Manasa Jatra) and Bishahara, music plays a very significant role in all of these performance traditions.

Manasa cult and Manasa narratives

In India, we have the Nag-puja tradition. In North India Nagraj Vasuki is worshipped in zoomorphic form, in South India live snakes are worshipped, and in Bengal, a folk goddess named Manasa is worshipped in the anthropomorphic form. Scholars are of various opinions regarding the origin of Manasa. Research says that the goddess was popular among the people in Bengal in different eras by different names. Till the era of the Buddhist Pala dynasty, the goddess was known as Janguli and at the time of the reawakening of Hinduism the name Janguli[3] was relinquished, and instead of that the goddess was newly named Bishahari because of its alexipharmic quality. The name Manasa is comparatively a modern name for the goddess Janguli and also the folk deity Manasa is quite identical to the south Indian goddess Manchamma or Mane Manchamme[4].

But the mention of the name Manasa is not found in any Sanskrit Purana or Ramayana or Mahabharata or even in Panini’s Ashtadhyayi. It was only around the 12th century onwards, that the name of the goddess Manasa has been started mentioned in Padma Purana, Devi Bhagvata Purana, and Brahmavaivarta Purana.

A type of religious narrative poem was popular in Bengal from the thirteenth century CE to the eighteenth-century CE. This narrative poem is called Mangal Kavya. It has dealt with the different cultures, faiths, and lifestyles of several religious and regional sects. In Bengal, the myth of the goddess, Manasa has been expanded and explored in detail and by large in the Manasamangal kavya, the sacred book that relates to the great name of the goddess, which has been written from the twelfth century CE to the nineteenth century CE in Bengal. The widely popular Manasamangal Kavya or Manasamangal Pala[5] is regarded as the oldest among the Bengali Mangal Kavya literature and has been written under various names, like Manasamangal, Padmapuran, and Manasavijay, through the ages. A total of fifty-eight poets of the Manasamangal are listed in the book, History of Bengali Literature and Language (Sen, 1954). From the narrative technique perspective, Manasamangal literature is generally divided into three regional aspects, e.g., West Bengal, East Bengal or Bangladesh, and North Bengal or Assam. (Sen, 1940). So, it can be said that the poets of Manasamanal literature can be separated as – West Bengal – Bipradas Piplai, Ketakadas Khemananda, etc, North Bengal & Assam – Tantrabibhuti, Jagajjiban Ghoshal, Jibankrishna Maitra, Durgabar, Mankar, etc, East Bengal or Bangladesh – Vijaygupta, Narayandev, Dwija Bangshiya, etc.

Manasa Mangal Kavya emerges at a time when Saivism in Bengal is getting replaced by the Sakta cult. The worship of the serpent goddess reveals its strong association with non-Aryan cultural influences. In fact, the worship of Manasa is prevalent all over Bengal especially the rural Bengal and the neighboring regions among the people of the lower stratum of the society like the Dom, Bauri, Keot, Mal, Bagdi, etc., mostly Hinduised aboriginals (Jash, 1986). 

The eastern provinces of India and the peninsula of the Deccan are the places where the Aryan influence could not spread so effectively. Hence it is this part of India that possesses some of the pre-Aryan cultural characteristics (Bhattacharya, 1977, p. 131)

The deity is worshipped regularly in a permanent shrine[6] or in a Manasa sij,[7], particularly during the rainy season. On the last day of the Bengali month of Ashadha (June-July), Shravana (July-August), and of Bhadra (August-September), Manasa is worshipped all over Bengal.

Manasa Performance tradition: Bhashan Jatra & Bishahara

In Bengal, numerous performances related to the goddess Manasa can be seen performing throughout the year, especially in the rainy season by using various mediums – songs, drama, pictures, storytelling, etc.

 As far as performance is concerned, these Manasa narratives can be performed in various ways. These are the four principal forms in which the narrative has been adopted for folk amusement: viz, Bhasan Yatra, a popular drama; Rayani, a kind of musical entertainment; Jagaran, a musical recitation of the narratives; and Putul Nach, a puppet dance. In addition to these principal forms, there are a few others of minor importance (Bhattacharyya, 1965, p. 10)

The following chart describes the present scenario of the Manasa performance tradition of West Bengal:

If we consider the following definition of storytelling, we can see that throughout the ages, the Bhashan Jatra of South Bengal & the Bishahara of North Bengal has been a platform where several methods of communication mingled- including folklore, oral tradition, acting, and music- all of which helped to amalgamate, involve, and portray the stories of Manasa and its ideations.

“Storytelling is the art or craft of narration of stories in verse and/or led by one person before a live audience; the stories narrated may be spoken, chanted or sung, with or without musical, pictorial, and/or other accompaniment, and maybe learned from oral, printed, or mechanically recorded sources, one of its purposes must be that of entertainment”. (Anne Pellowski, The World of Storytelling, 1977, 3-5)

It is believed that because of the regional influences, the performers of Bhashan Jatra of South Bengal and Bishahara of North Bengal generally follow the text of the Manasa Mangal poets Ketakadas Khemananda and Jagajjiban Ghoshal respectively.

Performative style

Focusing on Bhashan Jatra and Bishahara, both of the performance traditions have ritualistic as well as non-ritualistic elements. Among the people of North Bengal especially among the Rajbangshi[8] community listening to the songs of Bishahara is regarded auspicious and as the story of Behula and Lakhindar, the two main protagonists of Manasa Mangal is a story of the reawakening of life, at the wedding, Bishahara pala is arranged by the groom’s side for the goodwill of the newlyweds. If these two folk drama performances are performed for ritualistic purposes only, then the performative style remains simple, and these can be played for six to seven nights generally. But now, because of increasing commercialization, these performance traditions become more professional, and various professional groups are found that perform these palas throughout the year regularly. Long prose dialogues, loud makeup, light, etc make these performative styles even more theatrical[9] where the performers are seen to perform only a small section of the Manasa Mangal Pala, preferably the part of Behula and Lakhindar which can be played within three to four hours. This type of compact and concise theatrical representation of Bhashan Jatra and Bishahara performance tradition is seen usually in recent times.

Both the ritualistic and non-ritualistic performances start with a concert[10], generally, is played to attract the attention of the audience at the beginning of a performance, and then the Vandana music is performed where the performers seek blessings for the gods and goddesses and their gurus[11].

The theatrical representation of both of these performances needs a total of ten to twelve performers where there should be one Geedal or the director (also known as sutradhar) of the play who sings the entire pala, one Doyari or the Buffon who basically assists the director to carry out the play and sometimes gives the audience comic relief. Other than these two performers there should be some accompanying singers[12], dancers,[13], and musicians[14].      

Music in the Manasa folk drama performances – a scientific study

Written in the Bengali language, the entire performances of Bhashan Jatra and Bishahara are the perfect blend of oral literature that has been passed down over generations by word of mouth and numerous instant musical dialogues which the performers create during their performance rapidly.

Revealing the stories of Manasa, both of the folk drama performances preferably concentrate on the life of Behula (the women protagonist of the Manasa Mangal literature) and her chastity. Starting with the pre-composed traditional Vandana music, the entire conversation of the Pala is in the musical form which is delivered in various styles, e.g., kathakata, question-answer, etc.

If we concentrate on the musicality of the songs used in these two performance traditions, we can notice that like any other genre of music, these songs also comprise tonal and rhythmic structures. Now examining the tonal structure, the range of these songs is between the middle and the higher octave as the main target of this performance is to tell the stories to the listeners and make them understand that is why the performers preferably do not choose the lower octave. Generally, the performers of these performance traditions use the musical scale equivalent to Hindustani classical music ragas[15], e.g., Bilawal[16], Kafi[17], Khamaj[18], Bhairavi[19], etc. Especially, the use of Komal Ga and Komal Ni can be found in all genres of pala gaan tradition. If we analyze the rhythmic structure usually, 3/3,4/4, and 5/5 beats are found in the songs.  From this perspective, it is considered that the songs are sung in the Hindustani classical music tala[20] named Dadra[21], Keherwa[22], Ektali[23], Jhaptal[24], Ar-theka[25], Jhumur[26], etc.

Like other Pala Gaan performances of Bengal, dance is one of the major elements in Bhashan Jatra and Bishahara as well. As these two folk forms have been performing for ages, previously women were not allowed to perform in front of audiences, which is why young boys are seen dressing up as women and dancing like them. The peculiarity of the Bhashan and Bishahara dance can be easily noticed because the dancers move and dance like snakes as the performance reveals the stories of Manasa, the snake-goddess.

The musical instruments used in the Bhashan Jatra and Bishahara performances are Khol, Kartal, Mandira, etc. Some regional influence can be seen in the use of musical instruments in both performances, especially, in Bishahara we can find the use of the regional musical instruments, Mukhabanshi[27] and Dotara.  



Though centuries ago, Bhahashan Jatra and Bishahara started flourishing as a ritual among the people of Bengal where the main purpose of this tradition was to make people know about the greatness of the goddess Manasa, now it has also become the source of entertainment for the society.

Nowadays, like in any other traditional art form, in the case of Bhashan Jatra and Bishahara too, it is a matter of debate when comes to the word ‘originality’. Once we comprehend the dynamics of oral composition, we have to leave the idea of the ‘original’ of any traditional song. In fact, each performance is an original; it is futile to retrace the work of generations of singers at the moment of composition. One song keeps changing as many times as it is sung by different singers. So, the process of change continues from generation to generation. We must be content with the texts that we have; we must not endeavor to ‘correct’ or ‘perfect’ them in accordance with a purely arbitrary guess at what the original might have been. The use of heavy costumes, make-up, lights, long prose dialogue, characterizations, and use of electronic musical instruments, are some of the shreds of evidence of the evolution that highly influenced every Pala Gaan tradition of Bengal. But it is painful that in recent times, the dominance of the contemporary tune of film songs in a Bhashan Jatra or a Bishahara performance has increased so much that the original tune has been corrupted or lost in many ways. Sometimes, even the performers or the artists have no idea about what the original tune was and what has been evaluated. The possible reasons for this evaluation can be one, the popularity of the film songs, two, the financial and social crisis of the performers of Rayani Gaan as the number of performances has now become so less that they cannot survive only on the basis of earnings from their performances, three, the lack of awareness of the tradition among the people of the society and so on.

Apart from the formation and presentation style of Bhashan Jatra and Bishahara, needless to say, the thematic element remains unchanged even today and that uniqueness is the key element of these two performance traditions to keep its standing as a performance tradition through centuries.

Frame from the Bhashan Jatra performance performed by the Jayanti Jatra Unit, at Ramrajatala on 16th March 2023


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[1] Some religious rituals are related to a particular deity and are performed by the women of the houses traditionally.

[2] Songs of Brata

[3] ‘The Hindu Goddess Manasa or Visahari has a marked resemblance to the appearance of Janguli, and some of the Dhyanas in the Hindu Tantric works for the goddess distinctly give her the epithet of Janguli’ (Bhattacharya, 1958, p. 80)

[4]‘The Senas came from Southern India and settled in Bengal in the middle of the eleventh century CE. They very likely favored the worship of the snake goddess Manch and their rise probably gave an impetus to her popularity’ (Bhattasali, 1929, p. 224)

[5]The Bengali word Pala means a branch. Pala gaan means a branch or a small section of a musical drama

[6]Temples made with mud walls and covered with straws, commonly known as ‘Manasa-badi’ (House of Manasa)

[7]Kind of tree (scientific name – Euphobia Lingularia)

[8]Ethnic Koch people are found in North Bengal, lower Assam, Bangladesh, Bihar, Nepal, and Bhutan.

[9]Jatra, a performance tradition of Bengal

[10]A loud musical piece played by all of the musicians of the performance

[11]Teachers or the ancestors of the performers


[13]Chokra or chukri


[15] Literary means ‘coloring’, a raga is a specific grouping of musical notes.

[16]Ragas with all Buddha swaras, musical notes

[17]Raga with Komal Ga and Komal Ni and the rest of the notes are Suddha. Komal Swara is a half note below the Suddha Swara

[18]Raga is with Komal Ni and the rest of the notes are with Suddha.

[19]Raga where Re, Ga, Dha, and Ni are Komal. The rest of the notes are Suddha.

[20]musical meter

[21]tala comprises six beats

[22]tala with eight beats

[23]tala comprises twelve beats

[24]Ten beats tala

[25]tala with twelve beats

[26]Eight beats tala

[27]kind of flute, popular in the North Bengal region, especially in the Jalpaiguri district.