Dr. Srutimala Duara
When we plan a holiday, most of the time we look out for exotic places, places that have historical interest, beauty, and if there is a waterfront it is an added attraction. Strangely, we often miss out the places that are in our state, perhaps thinking soon we will visit, no hurry as it is not very far. We keep postponing and it leaks out of our bucket list. One such place that had been on my list for long was Majuli, which is the largest river island of the world. I had been to Jorhat so many times, but wonder why the thought of crossing the river to Majuli never occurred. When my friend, Joyshree Das Verma suggested we could go to Majuli end December, I jumped at the chance. And on December 26, 2020 Joyshree, Prabidita and I set out for Majuli.
2020. The year had not been a good one, with the pandemic keeping us all home bound. It’s not that the fear of Covid is over, but I said to myself - enough is enough; I need to travel out.
We set out at 8 in the morning, halted in Jorhat for a night in the gorgeous Thengal Manor, taking in the old world charm at this heritage bungalow built in 1929 by Rai Bahadur Siva Prasad Barooah. Early morning of December 27 we set out for Nimati Ghat from where we took the 9:30 ferry to Ophala Ghat of Majuli. There are two ghats in Majuli; one is the Ophala Ghat, the other Kamalabari Ghat. Our car was also ferried across the Brahmaputra. It took 45 minutes to dock in Ophala Ghat. Our stay was booked in Circuit House, but we went straight from the ghat to Dakhinpat Satra, built in 1584 by Satradhikar Vanamali Dev. There, Bayan and Borbhoral Kakati, Brojen Saikia, took us around, showing us the Satra complex that houses the naamghar, the inner sacred hall that has idols.
Sankardeva was against idol worship, but this satra was founded by Damodar Dev and it is Brahma Sangati satra. The thirteen idols inside are those of Bhuban Mohan, Kalyan Rai, Brindaban Chanda, Balabhadra (there are 2 idols), Jadavrai (the main idol), Bansibadan, Jagganathrai, Baikunthanath, Koliyathakur, Brahmamohan, Achyutananda, Madangopal. Sri Saikia said that the idol of Jadavrai was brought from Puri temple. We walked past the cottages where the bhakats live and the pond full of tortoises. About 100 celibate bhakats live in this satra; some have come at the age of 6 or 7. Ahom king Jayadhwaj Singha had donated liberally to the satra.
The treasure house is ancient and they had kept that old world in tact. A bhakat who is in charge of the treasure house took us in to show what the house holds. Two idols are placed in an enclosure of six elephant tusks. I was amazed at the items in this bhoral, all belonging to the Ahom rulers and date back to 375 to 500 years back - a sword with poison smeared, a stout stick with a hidden sword belonging to the king's security personnel, a stick of pure silver with the dashavatar carved all over, gold and silver pots, an array of baan bati, pots, baan kahi, bhogjora all used by the Ahom king. I was fascinated by a betel nut crusher that is shaped like a peacock with an old woman at one end and an old man at the other, speaking to each other as the nut is being crushed. There sits a horse too at the end where the old woman sits, but much below her. An animal was barking at the horse . What a fascinating story carved! The treasures would be much more interesting if housed properly with enough lighting facility. But the bhakats there preferred the centuries old way of storing in borpera and cupboards. And they guard it with pride, not allowing all to view the treasures. I think if the items are put in a museum, revenue would be generated, and would definitely be an attraction for tourists.
Tour next half was the Samaguri Satra, and here the focus is on mask making. Bhaona, the form of drama introduced by the Vaishnavite guru Sri Sankardeva had actors that wore masks to depict characters mainly from the epics. The traditional masks were fixed, not flexible at all. However, innovative attempts were made and now the masks are made flexible, the mouth opens and shuts as the actor speaks. Sri Hem Goswami explained how the masks are made. The base is bamboo, then comes the cloth with clay plaster, cow dung to shape and then after it is dried, the paints come in. All the paints used are organic with three primary colours derived from turmeric, earth and plants.
The next day, we visited the two Satras again with the Ambassador of Israel to India, Ron Malka and his family who were on a holiday trip, with our friend Joyshree who is presently the Hon Consul to Israel, accompanying them. For them, in the mask making center close to Samuguri, a very short performance was out up with Aghasur swallowing two little children. Coming from a country with maximum number of museums, we felt Ron Malka might be a little surprised at the way the treasures were housed in a dark house with the bhakat pointing at and explaining with a torch in hand.
After the Ambassador and his family left, the three of us went to Kamalabari Satra. We couldn’t leave Majuli without visiting one of its oldest satras. The complex is quite big, and walking around gave a sense of serenity. The long row of rooms housing the bhakats, have beautiful doors. This Satra, established on 1595 by Badala Ata, disciple of Madhavdev, is regarded as the seat of literature, art and culture for centuries.
Walking through Mising village, seeing the Mising women at their looms, taking in the golden mustard fields, the river sand where birds flew low catching fish, the thatched houses on stilts with their reflections on the waters, were moments to cherish. Majuli is generally believed to be about visiting satras, but it’s not simply the satras that one should aim while visiting Majuli. The Mising villages, the pottery village near Samaguri, nature’s abundance are equally engaging.
On December 29we took the 8:30 morning ferry from Kamalabari Ghat. This time it took one and a half hour to reach Nimati Ghat, as we were sailing upstream.
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