Bir Chilarai: Paying tribute to an astonishing war hero

The Northeast Dialogue

The stage was readied to narrate the inspiring story of Bir Chilarai, the younger brother of Maharaj Narnarayan, the 16th century great Koch king of eastern Bharat, as the astonishing war hero mesmerised everyone with his bravery, clever diplomacy, patriotism and scholarly personality. The makeshift platform, erected  on the bank of mighty river Brahmaputra, welcomed thousands of enthusiastic audience as the evening Sun set on the horizon. The illuminating stage under the soothing full moon started unfolding the events which gave birth to Chilarai, who was born on a Phagun Purnima and so initially named as Shukladhwaj and later Sangram Singha, and the dramatic journey ended with the demise of the great general on the bank of Ganges.

Presented by Pragya Foundation on 514th birth anniversary of Bir Chilarai, the play was staged on 24 & 25 February 2024 highlighting the unique qualities of the supreme-commander of an organised Koch armed forces. An unbelievable warrior- who was swift as a kite (Chila in Assamese language, so was named as Chilarai by his soldiers), a brilliant strategist and also an art connoisseur. Chilarai along with his elder brother Malladhwaj (before emerging as Narnarayan) went to Varanasi to study Sanskrit literature, art and culture under Brahmananda Swami. During the period, their father Biswa Singha, founder of the Koch royal dynasty in 1515 AD died. Soon they returned and started an aggressive warfare to successfully  expand  the territory of Kamrup Kamata kingdom  covering the present day Assam with neighbouring localities and also some parts of  Bangladesh.

Based on a novel penned  by writer Nayanjyoti Bhattacharya and directed by eminent theatre personality Purnima Pathak Saikia, the action-packed play  created some golden moments from the pages of eastern India’s history five centuries back. The temporary stage decorated with different backgrounds in blocks and guided by judicial use of illumination along with thundering background music and character voices choked the theatre goers, who also witnessed four horses with riders in costume making roundup movements to add more excitements to the event.

People of Assam will never forget Koch dynasty heroes Narnarayan and Chilarai for their enormous contribution to rebuild Kamakhya temple (one of the major Shakti Peeths of Bharat atop Nilachal hills in Guwahati) and also much needed patronage to  great Vaishnavite saint, philosopher, scholar, artiste, singer, poet  Srimanta  Sankaradev, who preached Ek Saran Naam Dharma. Narnarayan and Chilarai not only gave protection and shelter to Sankaradev, but also supported the Vaishnavite movement and later both preached Vaishnavism. 

The birth anniversary of Chilarai is observed every year on the full moon day of Magh in Assamese calendar year with various programs. The  State government celebrates the day as Bir Chilarai Divas on the particular date and also declares it as a state holiday. Moreover, the government confers an important award in memory of the great warrior. Historians say, Sankaradev was chased by the then Ahom king and had to move towards the west. Without the patronage of Narnarayan -Chilarai,  Sankaradev would not have even survived. Often some intellectuals interpret this fact as a hate speech towards Ahom rulers, without realising that if Ahom General Lachit Barphukan could not defeat the Mughal invaders, the north-eastern region would have been changed forever.  Bir Lachit not only saved the region, but also many parts of present day southeast Asia from a forced process of conversion to Islam. Hence, the indigenous populace  will continue admiring both Chilarai and Lachit to generations to come.


 Nava Thakuria is a senior journalist based in Guwahati and has been in the profession for more than three decades. His focus areas remain the socio-political and environmental issues of eastern Bharat. Often his articles are used by various media outlets based in different parts of south & southeast Asia.


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