“Water water everywhere and all is going to sink”! Sadly, that is the state of the island which should have been world’s heritage site. Majuli or Majoli, the largest river island in India and second in the world got its name because it snuggles between mighty Brahmaputra and its anabranch Kherakutia Xuti. Situated in the state of Assam Majuli had a total area of 1,250 square kilometers which has now reduced to 421.65 mainly due to erosion.
Majuli is about 20 kilometers from Jorhat a very significant commercial town of Assam. The only way to reach Majuli is through a ferry which is an experience in itself. You ride that ferry along with big and small vehicles, live stock, school and college children, office goers and all sorts of supplies because that’s the only way to connect the island to the mainland. There are at least two ferry rides to Majuli and you cannot afford to reach late for they operate with the punctuality not known to our race.
For us the most exciting moment was to see our giant safari board the rickety boat in the most aboriginal way one can imagine. One man held a wooden plank to join the muddy passage to the ferry and the driver was supposed to maneuver the way up the ferry with utmost precision. One inch here and there and you are either in the river or on the man who’s holding the plank. We all watched with baited breath with rumbling in our stomach.
Once on the ferry we had the choice to continue to sit in the car or take the benches meant to seat the passengers. You also had the choice to stroll around the ferry and feel the wind on your face. We went even a step further and took the ladder to reach the top of the ferry. What we felt cannot be expressed in words. We were in the middle of invincible Brahmaputra which is both beautiful and fierce. It’s so extraordinary that it makes you ordinary. You feel helpless and blessed all at the same time.
Once we reached the bank we set course on our Safari to move around the island. Majuli is the centre of the neo-Vaishnavite religion, art and culture. In fact, it is considered to be the Vatican of neo-Vaishnavism. It was way back in the 16th century that Mahapurush Srimanta Sankardeva along with his chief disciple, Madhabdeva, laid the foundation of the Satra culture in Majuli, which ushered in an era of distinctive religio-cultural heritage. Honestly speaking the above information could only be obtained from Google because although locals used the term frequently but couldn’t explain to us its meaning.
There are several villages: Dakhinpat Sattara, Kamalabari Satra, Garamurh Satra, Uniati Satra, all known for their distinct cultural heritage. We realized the lack of homework we did because once there we could not find anyone to direct us to the right places. The locals appeared as clueless as we were. We were lucky to have heard about a mask making village in Majuli and after crossing many labyrinthine narrow nonexistent roads, we came home to Natum Samaguri Satara, the village associated with ‘Mask making’ . Mask making is one of the most famous traditional crafts still practiced in Majuli. Natun Chamaguri Satara has worldwide acclaim in making exquisite masks. It has been practiced by the Bhakats here for centuries. Masks are an integral part of Sattriya culture. Traditionally, masks were used for religious dance and drama. They were conceptualized as a tool by Shri Shankaradeva to make and depict the characters of Srimad Bhagwat to the devotees. Mask helped people to associate with the character and expressions of the mythical heroes. We found a bunch of foreigners already sitting there when we reached the small cottage where masks were displayed. A devout Vaisnavite with Tilak on his forehead, much like the text book picture of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, very zealously enacted scenes from the epics adorning the relevant masks. We thoroughly enjoyed the theatrics which had the mix of all Raasas.
After a satiating dose of art and culture we were hungry for food. Finding a place to eat seemed like an impossible task till we chanced upon an Assam tourism resort with food that exuded flavors from the east. It was time for our ferry back to the mainland and missing that would have meant a night stay at Majuli which we were not prepared for.
We came back enriched in our knowledge of art, culture, geography and some history. It was a short trip and this was all we could assimilate. But the experience like that needs to be absorbed by spending days in the surroundings, to hear the weavers sing when creating the exquisite traditional ‘Angochha/Gamchha‘, to watch the farmers go about their chores, to see the setting sun create a calming saffron backdrop against incisive Brahmaputra.