Majuli: A Disappearing Island and Its Satras
With the constantly changing climatic conditions and environment, we usually fear that the things which we get to experience today, our next generation might not. And one such thing is Majuli Island, a paradise disappearing in the lap of the Brahmaputra day-by-day. As if the island originated from the river and the river gradually wants it back. While Majuli is known for its culture and craft, it is a hub of Assamese neo-Vaishnavite culture, initiated around 15th century by the revered Assamese saint Sankardeva and his disciple Madhavdeva. Many Satras or monasteries constructed by the saint still survive and represent the colorful Assamese culture. The people survive here on weaving, pottery, agriculture and fishing and the development has been minimal in the past few years due to the issues of connectivity as well as negligence. In such situations, the Satras or monasteries help followers to enhance their skillset and learn one or many arts.
After talking to my host, Danny Gam, who is also a forest officer in Kaziranga, Assam, I decided to do the monastery run for two full days and understand the concept and intention behind setting as many as 66 monasteries on an island. Now the number has been reduced to 22 due to lack of maintenance and finances. I got the chance to interact with one of the protégées and they are called ‘satriyas’ colloquially. He has been staying in Satra for the last twenty years and works as a writer and a social worker. The children start following the Satra culture when they are very young, from the age of 4-5 years. Their parents decide that it is best for their children to leave home and live in the cultural hub. But they have the freedom to decide on their own if they wish to continue to follow those strict rules or be the part of outer society which has thousands of unsaid rules. They are normally provided a mentor who guides them in their individual journey. While I see the concept of Satras helping the children provide the opportunities they might not get elsewhere in Majuli but they also restrict the freedom in one or other ways.
Among the many Satras, I visited almost 12 and to mention a few names of important ones which should be on the list of travelers visiting Majuli- Kamalabari Satra, Dakhinpat Satra, Auniati Satra, Samaguri Satra and Garamurh Satra . All of these are situated within 15 kilometers of each other. The first and important is the Kamalabari Satra has been producing great figures in Assam the cultural sector. It is the home to legendary musicians and performing artists performing Satriya Dance, which is nationally and internationally recognized for its root and uniqueness. On our request, the dancers performed a precise piece in their traditional costumes. Their movements and expressions with the local instruments left us all mesmerized and we promised to take the word out and share it as much as possible.
Another significant visit was to Samaguri Satra, the mask making Satra of Majuli. The Satra is renowned for the traditional masks that are made here. It is one of the most important pilgrimage centers of Majuli. To keep the ancient art of mask making alive, the secret is being passed generation after generation from the master to Protégées. The mask makers of Majuli usually make masks with the bamboo spilt covered with cotton cloth, clay and cow dung. There were masks of different sizes; some to be worn on the face and the others to cover the entire body. And I tried wearing different masks and started playing the role of Lord Hanuman, Lord Rama, Ravana, Kansa, Kaalia, Hirankashyapa and various other Hindu mythological characters. The good thing is one can come and stay in these monasteries while they learn the art of mask making. Well, I promised to return to this land of deep-rooted culture and heritage once again, allowing myself to increase my skillset by learning mask-making.