I remember it as a floating paradise, disjointed from the rest of the world.
I decided to take a month long break from work and spent fifteen days traveling across the North East. Majuli is a remote large river island in the state of Assam, formed in the 16th century as a result of earthquakes and a catastrophic flood that changed the course of the Brahmaputra River and its tributaries. This anomaly of nature has been the cultural capital of the Assamese civilization since the 16th Century. So far I had only known it for its monasteries, called ‘satras’, which specialized in mask making, music, dance, theatre, crafting boats. Activities that I fully intended dabbling in.
The beautiful backwaters of Majuli Island
The ferry ride from the city of Jorhat, is the only connecting link between Majuli and the rest of world. Carrying a heavy rucksack, and exhausted from the treks I had done in other parts of the North East, I wrestled my way through the noisy and crammed Jorhat to board the ferry. It was crowded, brimming with testosterone and left me a wee bit nauseous. Maybe it wasn’t all bad, but after spending two peaceful weeks in the mountains, even the slightest brush with the clamor and commotion of a typical city life irked my nerves to the greatest extent. Then Majuli arrived. And everything was forgotten.
Bhaona - A form of theatre being performed at a Namghar or local temple
My cab passed through green meadows and paddy fields that were flourishing in the pre monsoon weather under a partly cloudy sky. The roads were narrow and lined with monsoon flowers and bamboo trees swaying in the cool breeze. The locals, clad mostly in white, rode on bicycles ringing their bells, signaling unperturbed goats to get out of the way. I would take this innocent traffic jam any day over the deranged ones we have back home!
Ferry ride from Jorhat - the only link that connects Majuli
I stayed at a charming little guest house built in traditional Assamese style, made entirely of Bamboo and mud. It had a lovely rustic architecture and the porch became my favorite spot to laze around and read. Especially when it rained. I spent a good amount of time venturing out on my rented uncomfortable bicycle. Cycling around Majuli reminded me of the simple joys of innocent aimless adventures during my childhood. I rode leisurely on the narrow roads dodging goats along the way, crossing one paddy field after another, visiting the various Satras. And when my legs wobbled in pain while cycling up an ascent, I took comfort in knowing that I was burning all the rice I had been eating for weeks. A lazy blissful week was spent here gulping the delicious Assamese food with rice beer.
Cycling through the lanes of Majuli is the best way to enjoy discovering it's beauty
One of the satras in Majuli, Chamaguri Satra, caught my attention. Chamaguri is known for making masks which are used in Raas leela or Bhaona, an ancient form of Assamese theatre. It had been a family tradition, mastered over years and passed on from one generation to another. If one is keen, you can even request the folks at Chamaguri to teach you mask making. I spent a few days following the family of Hem Chandra Goswami, the Satradikar or Monastic Head, understanding the process of this centuries old tradition.
Krishna, a member of Chamaguri Satra, putting up a small performance for displaying the masks that are made there
The masks are made using simple products such as bamboo (found in abundance in Majuli), cane, mud, cowdung, cotton, jute, and water. While the raw materials are simple, the technique of making masks is so unique and skillful, that it has earned them accolades from all over the world. In fact, during my stay they were working on creating a custom made mask ordered by the London Museum. None of this had put the slightest dent on their humility. They even have a `pay what you like’ motto to lend their knowledge to tourists.
Some of the spectacular masks on display at Chamaguri
Throughout my stay, I encountered random acts of kindness. Hardened by city life, it took me a while to get used to this treatment. The guest house keeper insisted on accompanying me with an umbrella and a torch on a rainy night so I could safely go and watch the local theatre. He called me ‘beti’, one of the few Hindi words that he knew. On my walks, almost everyone would greet me with a loud hello peeking from the porch of their houses. Young girls, clad in their lovely traditional Mekhela Chadar attire, would teach me Assamese words. Even the tiny dog near my guest house used to follow me everywhere I went and then show me the way back, waiting patiently every few steps.
A few kids from the village happily posing for the camera
Majuli had character. It seemed to thrive only within the confines of the island. Perhaps it was because of this disconnection from the outside world beyond its edges, that had managed to preserve and uphold the pieces that make it special. But these boundaries are now closing in. Majuli Island is slowly shrinking in size due to erosion along the banks of the Brahmaputra and other vagaries of nature. From 1250 sq km in the mid-19th Century, it has now shrunk to around 350 sq km. Surveys predict that Majuli will disappear in the next couple of decades. In times of floods, with inadequate government support, the locals have learnt to deal with such tragedies in their own way. But life here has remained the same. So has the spirit of the people.
View from the porch of one of the beautiful houses of Majuli
The day after I left Majuli, I heard about the Brahmaputra flooding and Majuli was one of the places that was affected. All ferry rides were shut for two weeks. I received a call from Chamaguri asking if I had reached Jorhat safely. Krishna, whom I spent a lot of time with, asked shyly if I would stay in touch. I had promised to send photographs. I’m on my way to having them printed and delivered. Several pictures of Majuli now hang on my wall and when I look at them I am reminded of a warm nostalgic embrace from an innocent childhood memory. One that will always remain special.
Hem Chandra Goswami, the Satradhikar or Monastic Head of Chamaguri, with his disciples
1. How to get there: Take the 20 minute ferry ride from Jorhat, Assam.
2. Where to stay: La Maison at Garamur Village is recommended. It was built by a French family a few years ago. There are only a couple of guest houses in Majuli (all in Garamur), so advance booking is recommended.
3. What to do: Rent a bicycle. Visit the various satras in Majuli. Learn mask making at Chamaguri Satra. Visit the pottery village. Watch the local theatre at any village temple every Sunday if you’re visiting during the harvest season. Visit the morning or evening aarti by young monks at Dakhinpat satra. Watch the dark streets come alive with fire flies at night!
4. What to eat: Ask for the delicious parathas or the usual Assamese thali at La Maison along with the rice beer. Try the fresh local fish. The lemons in Assam are incredibly delicious. Recommend mixing them with every meal and even taking a bunch back home. Your usual lemonade will never be the same again!
5. What to buy: Purchase the mask souvenirs from Chamaguri Satra, varieties of bamboo items, or the local cotton or silk textiles made by the Mishing Tribe of Assam using bamboo handlooms.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com.
By Tanushree Singh
Photographs by Tanushree Singh