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xEurasia Odyssey


INDIA | Friday, 27 September 2013 | Views [1003]


 The road from Jorhat to the ferry for Majuli passes by miles and miles of rice and tea fields.  I also saw people fishing in what looked like lily ponds in the middle of the rice fields and in their water-soaked front yards.  It seems that there are fish throughout the low-land even in the rice paddies.  When we got to the ferry, a rickety looking metal vessal, that even the cars boarded via warped wooden planks laid out just for the space of the tires, I looked at the price list.  I was amazed to find that you can bring your elephant, or your lion, tiger or buffalo across for a set fee, which differs depending on whether you are going in the wooden cheaper boat or the “modern” one like the one we were on.  You can also bring a basket of eggs across for RS. 2.  It seems that the price list is fairly inclusive.  I’m not sure how I would feel about sharing a 2+ hour ferry ride on this smallish ferry with a large cat or an angry elephant.

Majuli is a largest island in the Brahmaputra River.  It is the home of a number of satras, Vaishnavite monasteries which specialize in masked dances. The name comes from a combination of the word ‘Ma’ for the goddess Lakshmi and ‘Juli’ for granary, indicating the fertility of the land here. All sorts of citrus based fruit trees, coconuts, bananas, cane, rice and lentils grow in abundance. Most of the satras, in their heyday up to 65 of them, were started in the 16th C by the Ahom rulers. Today there are about five that stand out and have well over a hundred students and monks in them.  They each have residence halls, a gateway, a guest house, store houses and a central temple. The monks have a regular set of fourteen prayers, which include devotional songs and dances. The Majuli monks form the center of the Satriya culture.

 Perhaps the largest and arguably the most famous of the Satras is the Auniati, which is part of the Brahma sanghati order. Today there are over 400 people who are part of the monastery, including over 150 young boys between 6-12 yrs of age. Sometimes the young boys want to join the order, and other times, parents give their children to the satra.  The monks live their entire lives in the one institution they entered as children.  It seems no one is admitted after age 18.  The young boys are grouped together with three or four others with a mentor until they are old enough to take on their own mentees. Each of these small units is responsible for the construction and maintenance of their living quarters as well as growing and preparing their own food.


The satra was established by Ahom King Jayadhwaha Singha (1648-1663). Lord Govinda, a form of Krishna, is the leading deity who is worshipped here.  In the central temple, there are five separate idols all related to Krishna. They also have a small museum, but, unfortunately, photography wasn’t allowed.  One of the pieces in it was a beautifully carved ivory and buffalo horn table and chair that Queen Victoria donated after her visit to the satra.


 On the drive from Auniata we saw a young man lying on the side of the road and a motorcycle off to the side.  He was obviously hurt, so we stopped.  It seemed that an older man was cutting sugar cane by the road when the motorcycle with two men came by. The falling cane pole hit them and the cycle skidded off the road, throwing the riders to the ground.  The driver had a few bad gashes on his arms and legs, but the passenger was flat on his back as he had landed on his head. Another car soon stopped and between us, after making sure that the one on the ground hadn’t broken his neck or back, was helped into the bigger car while the driver was brought to ours and in tandem we drove to the ‘hospital’.  It was really a very ill equipped first-aid clinic, but it was the best the island had to offer. 

 We left the two motorcyclists in the hands of the medical staff and continued to the next satra.  This one had been ravaged by floods and Burmese invasions, so most of their artifacts were destroyed.  They are trying to build a new library for antique manuscripts, and have set aside a building for it, but so far no manuscripts are inside.

 On our way to the Chamaguri Mask Makers we stopped to watch some of the Mishen tribeswomen weaving.  The cloth they were making, which takes about a week to make, was for personal use.  Their houses are built on stilts to allow for the floods, and consist of bamboo woven floors, walls and thatched or tin roofs.  There is no furniture, only a few personal items.  Between a few of the houses there was a water pump; I didn’t see any washing facilities besides the communal hand-cranked pump.  The women were happy to have me take photographs and from them you can see how beautiful they, and their work, are.

 The mask makers are skilled artists. Even the largest of the masked figures, which are sometimes up to 10 ft. tall only weigh at most 15 kg.  There are three different kinds of masks: the small facial ones, the ones that cover the upper part of the body and the face, and the largest which extend well beyond the puppeteers/dancers head.  They make them by creating a bamboo frame, then putting cloth around the frame and a cowdung/mud mixture on the cloth.  This is then sun-dried before the actual facial features are added, again out of the mud/cowdung mixture, which is again sun-dried before the painting process begins.  I’ve included images from each of these stages in the photo gallery.  They only use natural tools, not even anything from iron.  The stories that the masked dances relate to come from both The Mahabharata and The Ramayana, and they are done almost in a Commedia dell' Arte style with an outline of the storyline followed, but with lots of improvisation during the actual performance.  The Masked Dancers from this site are now in their 5th generation; the roles are passed down father to son, and yes, only men dance in the masks. We met three generations each of whom showed us their work. Prandip and Debojit, the guide and driver, also got into the fun by trying on the masks and acting out the characters. Beyond the masks and their dances, these artists are skilled sculptors and wood-workers.  The wooden doors had beautiful reliefs, and the sides of the studio were decorated with concrete reliefs of images from the sacred texts.


I noticed that the houses and monks quarters on the island and in the nearby on-shore communities are in three basic building styles: bamboo woven, like the Mishen; bamboo woven with mud/cowdung plaster which is sometimes painted and sometimes not; and cement bricks with the plaster over them, again sometimes painted and sometimes not.  The bamboo is also used below the tin roofs, which are more common now than the thatch. I was amazed at the neatness of the communities near the shore and on the island, especially in contrast to what I’d seen in Jammu.  When I asked, I was told, “of course, these people are educated.”



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