Mājuli: Reflections of a Native Assamese

Mājuli reminds me of the Assam [in northeast India] of my childhood—isolated and amiable. Few places in Assam possess such an allure of a not too distant past. Mājuli [pronounced mah-joo-lee] could also be one of the last bastions at preserving tribal and indigenous Assamese traditions in its original form.

Surrounded by the Brahmaputra River and its tributaries, Mājuli is the largest riverine island in the world. Life in Mājuli appears idyllic but the hardships the inhabitants face due to the monsoon floods and silt deposits seem demanding.

Mājuli is home to 22 satras [monasteries] while some others have moved off the island due to soil erosion. Satras started in Assam during the 15th-16th century and propagate a form of Vaishnavism [a set of traditions that adheres to the worship of god Vishnu] that emphasizes equality for all people instead of the Varna [caste] system that divides society into four hierarchical classes.

Getting There

From any major city in India, fly into Jorhat or Dibrugarh, Assam, and on the following day, get an early morning start en route to Mājuli. Both Jorhat and Dibrugarh have ample facilities for lodging but don’t expect four-star rated accommodations.

Be careful driving in the early morning fog. Winter temperatures will range from low to mid-40℉ up to low-60℉. There is no central heating in homes and hotels; layer up for the day. I recommend at least two days to explore Mājuli. However, if you only have a day to spare, a reliable tour guide can help you to plan and maximize your visit.

River Crossing

Make sure you are at the correct ghat [usually a flight of steps to a river but in this instance, the dock to catch your ferry] to catch your ferry to Mājuli. Be on time, buy your tickets on the ferry, get a seat, and be prepared for late departures. You cross the river in what is referred to as either the iron or wooden ferry. The former is larger and the latter seems precarious, to say the least. While sitting inside the wooden ferry, the water level was a few inches below the window and seemed higher than the floor of the ferry. Nonetheless, this is the only and a reliable mode of transportation to reach Mājuli.

Driving on the Brahmaputra

The best months to visit Mājuli are November through April [December-January are the coolest periods]. The Brahmaputra River is mostly dry during these months. After your ferry ride, you have to drive on the dry riverbed to reach Mājuli. The riverbed is temporarily laid with dry stubbles of rice grass, which help to keep a vehicle’s tires from getting stuck in the sand. Stay on track! When the Brahmaputra is flowing at full capacity, your ferry will dock along the banks of the island.

Mājuli

Upon reaching Mājuli, it felt as though I was transferred to an idyllic tribal and Assamese village from the recent past. [Note: I recommend a visit to the Mishing tribal villages.] The roads in Mājuli are narrow, traffic is light, and pollution is minimal. The Mishing and Deori tribespeople of Mājuli build their homes on bamboo stilts being located near the riverine tracts or wetlands.

Primarily an agricultural community, rice is the main crop of Mājuli and several varieties are grown on the island. Kumol saul [tender rice, in Assamese] is a unique rice that is grown in Mājuli and can be eaten without cooking. The rice is immersed in warm water for a few minutes and eaten with plain yogurt and jaggery.

Migratory Birds

Mājuli is a biodiversity hotspot and its fertile floodplains and wetlands provide an ideal habitat for a wide range of migratory birds. Being on the Central Asia/Indian Flyway, over 200 varieties of migratory birds visit Mājuli during the winter months. Many make Mājuli their winter home while others make their way to the sea.

The Whistling Duck arrive from Siberia in September-October and throng the large ponds until March-April. The Pallas’s fish-eagle comes to breed in Mājuli. During the summer months, migratory species like the hawk-cuckoo make Mājuli their home.

The Satra

Satras in Mājuli are religious and cultural centers. They communicate cultural and religious philosophies of Sankardav [1449–1568] and Madhavdav [1489–1596] who were Assamese Vaishnavite scholars and social-reformers. Monotheism is practiced in the satras while animal sacrifice and idolatry are rejected. Additionally, as centers of art and culture, traditional forms of music, dance, and mask-making take centerstage at the satras.

Satras are headed by a satradhikar. An integral aspect of a satra is a nāmghar [prayer house], a congregation hall where the name of Lord Govinda is recited by the Vaishnavites [a disciple of Vaishnavism]. Some satras provide basic accommodation and meals, which gives you an opportunity to watch life up close in a satra. [Note: No footwear is allowed at the satras.]

Nāmghar

A nāmghar is associated with religious and cultural life of the indigenous Assamese people. A nāmghar is also the central structure of a satra. In the Assamese language, nāmghar translates to nām [prayer] and ghar [house]. A nāmghar is also a community hall and a center of training for arts and crafts.

My father, along with contributions from a few other members of the community, built a nāmghar opposite my childhood, and his current, home. During the evenings, I remember listening to the music from tals and khols as a group [including my father] practiced gayan-bayan in the nāmghar. From an architectural perspective, nāmghars are usually rectangular in shape with a raised roof on two parallel rows of pillars that run along the length of the nāmghar and aligned along the east-west axis.

Garuda

At one of the nāmghars within a satra, a giant wooden Garuda statue protects the premises. Garuda represents birth and heaven and is the enemy of snakes, a symbol of death and underworld. In Hinduism, Garuda, an eagle-like creature, was the vehicle of god Vishnu. In Buddhism, Garuda is one of the Astasena [eight nonhuman super beings]. Garuda is the national emblem of Thailand and Indonesia and is referred to as Phra Khrut Pha and Garuda Pancasila respectively. In Burma, garudas are called ga-lon, the Japanese call it Karura, and in Mongolia it is the Khangard.

Masks

One of the satras in Mājuli is known for it masks. The satra traces its mask-making tradition to the 17th century. These masks have a base layer made of bamboo, which gives it a structure for the face. Upon the bamboo frame sits layered strips of cloth dipped in soil collected from the banks of the Brahmaputra River. A blend of cow dung and clay is applied to give a mask its necessary shape and contours. Beards and mustaches for the masks are made from jute. Vegetables dyes are used for color. The masks come in three sizes and are used for bhaona, a traditional Assamese theatre form. An interesting aspect of these masks is that they have been redesigned to move with the actor’s jaws, allowing for greater control during a bhaona.

Gayan-Bayan

A gayan-bayan is a devotional performance by the Vaishnavite Assamese. A gayan is the singer and bayan is a musician. The singers play tal, a medium-sized cymbal made of bell metal and used for rhythm or time-measure. The musicians play a khol, a wooden drum that is hung horizontally from their shoulders. The right side of the khol produces a high pitch whereas the left side produces a deep bass sound. The singers stand behind the drummers, swinging their bodies; the drummers play their instruments and dance.

Pxley Extra: The following video is an excerpt of a gayan-bayan performance by the bhakats [monks] of a satra.

Acknowledgements: Video and photo for “Getting There” contributed by BJG. Photo for “Migratory Birds” contributed by BJB.

4 Replies to “Mājuli: Reflections of a Native Assamese”

  1. The rising sun seems to have set the water on fire. That is a beautiful picture. The waters parted……. it is actually mind boggling to think that one can drive through the mighty Bramhaputra. Is the blue carved area the inner sanctum of the Saira?

    1. Thanks, SP. My nephew took the picture you are referring to. It is indeed mind boggling, as you say, to think of driving on/through the Brahmaputra, given how powerful the river becomes during the other months. The general area you are referring to is where the current Satradhikar of the satra resides. This specific section is where he holds office.

  2. What a great story! It’s about a place I would have never known about. I loved the video. It makes the story come alive. Also the link to your father’s story. Truly warm and inspiring.

    1. Thanks, Dan! Also, thanks to my nephew for the video. I am glad you enjoyed the stories. Mājuli is unique and I hope my experience will encourage others to visit.

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