Charyapada the earliest extant Bangla poems, also known as Charyagiti and dating back to at least the 9th century. A manuscript of writings on palm-leafs containing the poems was discovered in the library of the royal court of Nepal in 1907 by haraprasad shastri. Shastri edited the manuscript which was published by the vangiya sahitya parishad under the title of Hajar Bachharer Purana Babgala Bhasay Bauddhagan O Doha (Thousand-year-old Buddhist songs and verses in Bangla) in 1916. Known as Charyashcharyavinishchaya, the manuscript is referred to as Bauddhagan O Doha or Charyapada in short.

A page from the Charyapada

The manuscript contains 47 verses, composed by 23 poets, estimated to have lived between the 9th and 11th centuries AD. However, muhammad shahidullah suggests that the poems go back to the 7th or 8th centuries. The language of the Charyapada is referred to as Alo-Andhari (light and shadow) or sandhya bhasa (twilight language). Though predominantly Bangla-with a recurrence of such words as 'Babgal Desh', 'Panuya Khal' (the river Padma), 'Babgali Bhaili'-it also draws from Oriya, Assamese or Ahamiya and Bihari, suggesting that the Charyapada poets came from the regions of Bengal, Orissa, Assam, and Bihar. The Charyapada poets include Sarhapa, shabar pa, luipa , Dombipa, Bhusukupa, kahnapa, Kukkuripa, Minapa, Aryadev, Dhendhanpa.

The Charyapada poets or siddhacharya were mystic poets, initiated in the sahajiya doctrine. The poems express their tantric beliefs in figurative and symbolical language. Hence, the poems, written in an early form of Bangla, are difficult to understand. The following lines by Dombipa, for example, show how the siddhacharya used similes and metaphors to express their deeper, esoteric meanings. The literal meaning of these lines is that Dombi crossed the river. The deeper meaning is that Dombi reached the holy place through meditation.

Bahatu dombi baha lo dombi batata bhaila uchhara. Sadguru paa pasae jaiba punu jinaura. The Charyapada were meant to be sung as the use of the word 'Dhruva' in each couplet suggests. Each verse also prescribes the raga and tal in which it is meant to be sung.

The verses provide a picture of medieval Bengali society. They describe the different occupations of people who were hunters, boatmen, and potters. They also describe the popular musical instruments such as kada-nakada, drums, and tom-toms. The custom of dowry was prevalent. Cows were common domestic animals. Elephants too were common. Girls used to adorn themselves with peacock feathers, flower garlands, and earrings. Nevertheless, though they provide valuable details of everyday life in the medieval period, the Charyapada poets were essentially mystic poets. [Azhar Islam]