Majuli Raas: Dancing to the Flautist’s Tune

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For the duration of the Raas Festival, Majuli is peopled with gods, demons and devotees celebrating the life of Lord Krishna. ANURAG MALLICK and PRIYA GANAPATHY get a ringside view of all the cosmic action.

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In the purple hour of twilight, Brahma passed us cups of chai while Narada suggested we try the pakodas. As Kamsa hastily stubbed his beedi to pose for a photograph, Shiva grumbled for a solo. A frantic Aghasura ran amok, looking for his missing hair… The drama had not yet begun but Krishna was already in character, smiling beatifically at the proceedings. We were backstage, rubbing shoulders with the who’s who of mythology at Majuli’s famous Raas festival in Assam.

A seat of the satras (Vaishnava monastic centres) since early 16th century, Majuli celebrates the divinity of Krishna with infectious fervour. Like the Brahmaputra in spate, whose fluctuating course has shaped the island; all are engulfed in a surge of spiritual ecstasy. Young children are cast as Bala-Krishna, teachers lend their voices to characters, shopkeepers quote shlokas and daytime bank employees become asuras by night. Everyone in the local community has a role to play. Majuli’s various satras stage different interpretations of Krishna’s life through folk theatre, puppetry, masks and gayan-bayan (song and dance). 

All around us, the audience at Garamur sat transfixed on the hard earth, oblivious to any discomfort, perhaps numbed by the assault of colour, sound and electrifying monologues. Squashed between limb and flesh, we wiggled our stiff bodies to get some circulation going. All the island’s mosquitoes had converged to sample new blood and the dizzying stench of betel-breath hung in the air. We were enthusiastically offered fermented leaves, but we declined with equal vigour. Three days in Majuli had made us hard nuts to crack! The night wore on and spectators gasped and recoiled as demons displayed their wrath while wailing children snuggled into their mother’s bosoms. When Krishna slew monstrous snakes and giant storks, people applauded gleefully – the tension was real and the magic of theatre was alive. Like the good old days before television, the raas was all-night entertainment with no commercial breaks.

At dawn, we set off on a hired bike to explore why Majuli was an aspirant for the UNESCO World Heritage tag. One of the largest riverine islands in the world, Majuli’s ecological and cultural landscape is unique. Its geographic isolation, serene atmosphere and abundant land and water made it an ideal site for uninterrupted spiritual reflection. It was the Vaishnava saint Srimant Shankardev (1449-1568) who set up Majuli’s first satra at Belguri, igniting an artistic revolution. Under patronage of the Ahom kings, satras flourished as centres of religion, education and culture. Hailed as the Father of Assamese Culture, Shankardev’s path-breaking contribution to the field of theatre, dance, music and visual art lives on till today. 

Belguri had long sunk into the Brahmaputra, so we visited Bhogpur, Majuli’s oldest surviving satra, established by Shankardev in 1528. Devoid of any idol, its namghar (prayer hall) hums with borgeet  (devotional songs) and exemplifies Shankardev’s reformist bhakti traditions. In time, his followers set up several other satras at Majuli, of which a handful survive. At Garamur, a stunning sculpture of Garuda brooded in solitude. The quiet stillness was broken only by the strange, bill-clattering sounds of Adjutant Storks nesting in the trees. Noted artist Hem Chandra Goswami enthralled us at Chamaguri with the nuances of mask making, the satra’s hallmark. His eager pupil Som gave us a live demo. The vibrant outré form of the four-armed Narasimha danced before our eyes, while Mohini, Putna, Hanuman, Sugreeva and Ravana awaited their turn. That night we were fortunate to witness Chamaguri’s masks come to life in its 132 -year-old raas tradition.

The rough road to Auniati was softened by the sight of blue cloudless skies above green marshes speckled with Purple Moorhen. At the satra, inmates were getting the last brushstrokes of makeup. Like Garamur and Dakhinpat, Auniati is an udasin satra, where the Satradhikar (head) remains celibate. Since women were disallowed in the premises, men enacted female roles. Yet, we weren’t prepared for the sight of two young boys dressed up as women performing the Apsara nritya! Gayan bayan, a graceful ballet by a percussion ensemble was a sublime experience. But it was Khagendranath Lekharu’s solo rendition of the Dashavatar nritya that was the highlight. An expert in Sattriya dance, Lekharu seamlessly leaped, danced and whirled through the ten avatars of Vishnu. Our respect for him swelled on learning that he was 67 years old! 

After a long day of dusty rides to Kamalabari and Bihimpur, we sank into the rustic comfort of our bamboo cottage La Maison D’Ananda. Inspired by the lack of tourist infrastructure, French architect Jim Chauvin teamed up with local guide Danny Gam to give the island a tourist home. Modeled on a Chang ghar (ethnic hut of the Mishing tribe), but souped up with a balcony and a pucca bathroom, the cottage was dedicated as a New Year gift, ‘a symbol of love to Majuli and its people’. A slender tree trunk with notches served as a ladder to this house-on-stilts, run like a homestay by Manjit and his vivacious sister Junali. The nimble-footed lass would waft up with cups of chai and lure us with local delicacies. 

A delectable blend of flavour and rhyme, Mishing cuisine stirs up unusual combinations like Mule-hule (radish-fish), Hahe-bahe (duck-tender bamboo) and Kukura-kumharai (chicken-ash gourd). Snug in her kitchen, we realized the practicality of a Mishing dwelling. Dust and food crumbs slipped through tiny gaps in the bamboo floor and hens pecked away down below. Besides keeping dampness at bay, a home off-the-ground also provided space for storage and other activities. We spotted looms below most Mishing homes, where women wove exquisite homespun textiles like the mirizim (ethnic shawl), which captures the brilliant crimson of semul (silk cotton) blossoms.

Not to be outdone by the French, Englishman Ian Mcarthy built a similar hut called Do:Ni Polo (Sun-Moon Cottage), named in honour of the Mishing gods. It was apparent why Majuli had a captivating effect on people. Riverside walks to Mishing settlements, sunsets at Luit Ghat, tribal girls crooning by campfires, news of another raas nearby; we exhausted our excuses to overstay. Soon, we were on a bus to Kamalabari, for a ferry back to Nematighat. With 3 cars, 30 bikes and 100 people on board, the boat slowly sputtered across the waters. Each year, the Brahmaputra swallows large slices of Majuli, shrinking it from 1,200 sq km to nearly half its size. As we drifted away, we saw a huge chunk of embankment slide into the swirling waters in a puff of mud; a poignant reminder of the fragility of the island and the need to preserve its endangered heritage.

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Getting there

By Air: Jorhat is the nearest airport and Jet Konnect has a direct flight from Kolkata, which departs at 12:25 pm taking 1½ hrs (all days except Tue/Sat)

By Road: Take a bus/shared auto from Jorhat to the nearest ferry point Nemati Ghat (14 km), from where boats take you to Kamalabari (20 km), a 1½ hr ride. Though there are two boats (10:30 am, 2:30 pm), timings tend to vary and frequency increases in tourist season. Since most satras on the island are quite remote, you can hire motorbikes/bicycles to get around. 

Best time to go

The winter months of October to March are ideal. Celebrations like the Raas (November 20-22) and Mishing agrarian festivals like Ali-a:yé Lígang in mid-February and Po:rag post-harvest add colour and gaiety to Majuli.

Where to Stay

La Maison D’Ananda (House of Joy) Karpunpuli, Kamalabari, Manjeet 99571 86356

Me:Po Okum (House of Happiness) Chitadar, Garamur. Bamboo Cottage near the river with 5 rooms and a dorm Ph 94352 03165

Authors: Anurag Mallick & Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the November 2010 issue of JetWings FLyLite. 

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