This is my first trip to Assam and both my husband and I were unanimous in picking Majuli as our must-see destination in Assam. Majuli is locally the title holder of the largest river islands in the world, but more likely the largest only in India. Nestled as it is between the channels of the Brahmaputra, access to Majuli is not too easy. The first step for me was to get to the ferry crossing point at Neemati Ghat. Driving through narrow kuccha village roads that streamed up dust storms, lined with wetlands which were a bird watcher’s paradise being home to black drongos, wild ducks, blue-streaked jackanali, red kingfishers, open bill storks etc. Punctuating the landscape were forlorn Chinese fishing nets and fishing boats submerged in the low tide.
At the Neemati Ghat, I catch a ferry ride to the Kamalabari Ghat in Majuli. Sitting on the roof of an old green ferry boat, with nothing but a wooden beam as my seat, I shared space with some scooters and bikes, our Innova and also several daily commuters for whom this boat is a vital link to the outside world – not a joy ride as it is for me. Over the 1 hour boat ride, I watched the busy river world of the Brahmaputra pass by. The fishing boats which have instant markets at the ghats, the supply boats which bring all essential supplies including oil barrels to Majuli, the game of cards between the passengers underway on the boat roof, the herons that circle around the boat, the grey panels of sandbars that line the river banks – this rare “Male” amongst the rivers of India is undoubtedly the lifeline of the North East. The sense of peace that I feel in the cool river breeze and the warm winter sun is hard to shed as I reach the banks of Majuli.
“La Maison De Ananda”, a “Mising” homestay, is a perfect base from which to explore the sights of Majuli. The homestay is a traditional bamboo house on stilts called the “Chang-Ghar”. The Mising caretaker of the homestay took me on a walk through the village and introduced me to their way of life. The Mising tribe are cultivators who are supposed to have originally fleed from Arunachal Pradesh after an inter-tribe war between the Adi tribe and another rival tribe. The tribe has now fully adapted to living in the flood plains of Assam and live in self-sufficient villages which are proficient in agriculture, fishing, bamboo crafts and weaving. It was fun to hear about interesting customs such as ”marriage by elopement” post which the community accepts a couple as married and learn about their Cultivation festival, Ali-aye-ligang, celebrated to seek the blessings of their Sun-Moon God, Donyi-polo, for a bumper harvest. I ended the day Mising-style too with a glass of warm Apong – the rice beer brewed by Mising families from a mix of rice and special mountain herbs. The night was eventful too at the Chang-Ghar with all the creepy crawlies that find their way in through the gaps in the cane walls!
The next day I start the day early to make the best of the limited hours of daylight during winters. My companion today is a young monk, Deb, who will introduce me the world of the Satras, the most famous and unique of all attractions in Majuli.
A Satra is viewed in Assam as a place that offers shelter to the soul. The Satra monastery culture is a part of the neo-vaishnavite sect that was started by Srimanta Sankardev, a philosopher from the 16th century. The Guru wrote many devotional songs in Assamese, Sanskrit and Vrajawaali (a mix of Mithila and Assamese). He wanted to bring about a spiritual Renaissance and brought to the forefront the merit of listening to and singing kirtans and bhajans. Soon, the Satras became the means of uniting various Assamese people across tribes, castes and ethnic groups – offering a homogenous solution to the spiritual needs of the Assamese. And Majuli lies in the centre of the Satra tradition and is home to over 20 different Satras giving it the status of “the holy island”.
Deb is a member of the Uttar Kamalabari Satra and proudly walks me around his Satra. He was brought here as a as a 5 year old kid and left to the care of the Satra. His family, like many others, believed that since they are busy in their day-to-day lives earning a living, they don’t spend enough to time on God and spiritual matters. Hence, it is best to give up a child who can pray full-time for his family’s well-being and pay the spiritual debt for his entire family.
Deb seems to be completely at peace with his destiny and with his parents too, who he visits once in a while. He proudly walks me through his small house and his bedroom. He shares his house with 2 other monks – one being an 84 year old Monk who is the head of the family while the other is a young kid from Deb’s village. This is now his family for life and the house that he would return to in his hour of need.
All monks take a vow of celibacy for life, but the monastery is open to a monk (a bhakat) leaving at any time if he feels that his heart is not in it. A few months back, the Head or Satradhikar of Garamur Satra left his post and got married after 38 years of celibacy!
Deb explains that his Satra, which takes Sankardev as its Guru directly, follows Niraakar or formless devotion to God through prayers. However, apart from learning spirituality and religious texts, the Satras also are custodians of Assamese culture and all the Satra arts are celebrated in an annual cultural festival called “Raas” which is attended by people from all parts of Assam. Deb, for example, is a very good dancer trained in Sattriya-nritya (a unique form of dancing specific to the Satras) and has even performed in a folk festival in France! All monks play the drums, participate in dramas and practice singing. They are also trained in cane weaving and work their own paddy fields. And if all this is not enough, I learn that the Satra monks also attend regular school and college – Deb recently graduated in geography! To my mind, this seemed to be a good mix of providing a well-rounded education that allows a Satra member go back to a normal life if he chooses to do so – in fact, as a much more accomplished person than a commoner!
I also visited Samaguri Satra, which specialises in making masks. I met the master mask-maker who showed the complex mask-making process. A shell made out of Bamboo is coated with a mix of clay and cowdung, then moulded into the required base shape (a bird, a demon, a man, a tiger etc) and then dried and re-layered with clay and strips of cloth before it is hand painted with water colours as well as natural pigments to create a colourful mask. The masks seemed to be decorative to me, but for the satra members, they are strictly utilitarian as they jump around giving me little demos of their roles as Surpanakha – the demoness in Ramayana, Hanuman – the Monkey God etc.
Life at a Satra seems a world apart. It was nice to see so much of calmness and quiet. Such an unconditional belief in their rules and systems and such aloofness from the material aspects of life. While it’s easy for us to be cynical, it’s more difficult for us to keep an open mind with respect to the traditional way of life.
This little island seems so far away from the 21st century in terms of customs and the old, sleepy, dreamy way of life. I hope Majuli remains largely unchanged…if not forever, at least until I manage another trip to time it with the Raas festival!