Situated in the mighty river Brahmaputra in Assam, Majuli is claimed to be one of the largest inhabited river islands in the world. Majuli hosts a vibrant cultural landscape and is especially renowned for being a hub of Neo-Vaishnavite culture. Apart from being a cradle of Neo-Vaishnavism, Majuli also features distinct aspects of tribal lifestyle. In 2016, Majuli was officially recognised as a district and consequently it became the first island district of India. Majuli is cherished for its geographical distinctiveness as well as its rich biodiversity.
Majuli, as we know today, was formed following a series of natural phenomena including earthquakes, erosion and channel migration of rivers. The royal chronicles (Buranji) of Assam mention that Majuli got its name in the 16th century CE. Once upon a time it used to be the capital of the Chutiya (pronounced Sutia) kingdom, and was believed to be called Ratnapur. The Assam Buranji, one of the oldest chronicles, states that the Mughal forces battled with the Ahoms in the year 1634 CE at the Majulir Bali or sand-shore of the island. At that time, it was a narrow, long piece of land with the Brahmaputra flowing along the present channel of the river Lohit and the river Burhi Dihing. It was in the 18th century that Majuli attained its present-day geographic form due to the headward erosion and channel migration of the river Brahmaputra.
Majuli is located at a distance of around 500 kms east of Guwahati, the capital city of Assam. The most frequently used route to reach Majuli is via the Brahmaputra from Nimatighat in the Jorhat district. During the beginning of the 20th century, Majuli had a total area of 1255 square kilometres. However, with continuous erosion, it currently covers only 352 square kilometres. Present-day Majuli is a myrobalan-shaped plain land surrounded by splendid flora and fauna. A total of around 260 species of birds including Little Grebe, Spotted Billed or Grey Pelican, Large Cormorant, Purple Heron, Pond Heron, Great Egret, Open Bill Stork, White Necked Stork, Purple Moorhen, White Jora, Shama, etc. are present in the island and its surrounding water bodies. The island consists of several stagnant water bodies or Beels, cultivable and non-cultivable fields, wetlands and sand shores.
The population of Majuli consists of the tribal communities of Mishing, Deori and Sonowal Kachari, as well as the non-tribal communities including Koch, Nath, Kalita, Ahom, Kaiwarta, etc. This island district has around 144 villages with a population of over 150000, and a density of 300 individuals per square kilometre.
Majuli is known for several rich cultural traditions centred around the Neo-Vaishnavite monasteries or Satras. Srimanta Sankaradeva, the 15th-16th century Vaishnavite saint of Assam, was aware of the emerging Bhakti movement in various parts of India. In the Brahmaputra valley, he introduced a unique form of Vaishnavism, viz. Eksaran Naamdharma or Shelter-in-One-Religion, that reduced focus on ritualism and emphasised on devotion or Bhakti to Krishna through mass listening or Sravana, and singing his name and deeds in the form of Kirtans. The Satra, a monastic space integral to Neo-Vaishnavism, originally, started as a religious sitting or association with the purpose of reciting or explaining the Bhagavata. Over time, the Satra turned into a full-fledged socio-religious and cultural institution that patronised literature, music, theatre, dance, manuscript-writing, painting and crafts.
The island of Majuli is noted for the highest concentration of Satras. During the early 16th century, Srimanta Sankaradeva established several Satras in Majuli to promote the spread of Neo-Vaishnavism. It is said that he established the first Satra here by planting a Bilva (Indian Bael) tree and hence naming the place Belguri. Presently, this island is reported to have 22 Satras. Kamalabari Satra, Garamur Satra, Auniati Satra, Dakhinpat Satra, Bengenaati Satra, Samaguri Satra, etc. are some of the distinguished Satras in Majuli.
A typical Satra campus in Majuli is composed of four architectural units, viz. Batcora, Hati, Namghar or Kirtan-Ghar and Manikut. The Batcora is in the form of a small open house and is the entry to the Satra campus. Hatis are cloisters of residences for the Bhakats or devotees. The Namghar, also called Kirtan-Ghar or prayer hall, is situated at the centre of the Satra campus. It is surrounded by four rows of Hatis. The chief function of a Namghar is to accommodate the devotees for choral prayers. It is also used for arranging meetings, and holding theatrical and musical performances. A Manikut or Bhajgar, literally meaning ‘house of jewels’, is the sanctum sanctorum of a Satra institution. A Satra campus usually also consists of crop fields, and water-tanks or ponds. The institutional head of the Satra is called the Satradhikar or Adhikar. The residential Bhakats or devotees are also given certain portfolios including Deka-Satradhikar (deputy to Satradhikar), Bhagavati (a person who recites and expounds the Bhagavata at prescribed times), Pathak (one who recites the metrical renderings of the Bhagavata and the poetical works in Assamese), Sravani (those who listen to the reading and expounding of the scriptures), Gayan (singers), Bayan (instrumentalists), Deuri (in-charge of worshipping in the Manikut), Namlagowa (leaders in congregational prayers), Dhan-bharali (treasurer), Likhak (copyist for writing and copying manuscripts), Khanikar (artist associated with the work of painting or sculpting.) A Bhakat usually wears a white Dhoti, a Chadar and a Gamosa. The Satras of Majuli generally fall under two major categories viz. Udasin Satras and Grihasti Satras. The Satras where the Bhakats and the Satradhikar practice celibacy are called Udasin Satras. However, in the Grihasti Satras, the Bhakats and the Satradhikar are allowed to get married and have a family. The Uttar Kamalabari Satra, Auniati Satra in Majuli are some of the Udasin Satras, while the Garmur Satra is one of the Grihasti Satras in the island.
A number of prominent Satras in Majuli were established under the royal patronage of the Ahom and the Koch Kings during the 17th century. The Ahoms appointed an officer titled Satriya Barua to look after the activities and organisational management of the Satras. The Satra campus reflects a peaceful and devotional life with a set of rituals and customs.
The Satras of Majuli observe some important ceremonies connected with death anniversaries of Vaishnava Gurus and former Satradhikars and annual occasions including Krishna Janmastami, Ras-Lila, etc. While these ceremonies are observed in other Satras too, they are celebrated in Majuli on a very grand scale. Krishna Janmastami or the birth anniversary of Lord Krishna is observed on the 8th lunar day of the dark fortnight in the month of Bhada, i.e., July-August. Ras-Lila is celebrated on a full-moon day during the month of October-November. It is based on the theme of Lord Krishna’s amorous plays with the cowherdesses of Mathura. This festival attracts a large number of tourists to Majuli every year. Pal-Nam is an important Satriya ritualistic event that is specifically connected to the Satras in Majuli. It is observed during the months of July-August and October-November with communal prayers and choral singing.
The Satras are instrumental in retaining and promoting many invaluable traditions of Neo-Vaishnavism in Assam. Sankaradeva introduced the theatrical performance of Ankiya Naat or Bhaona (traditional Assamese One-Act Plays) as a means of conveying the Neo-Vaishnavite philosophy to the masses through dance, drama and music. Ankiya Naat or Bhaona is a performing art interspersed with dance (Nritya), drama (Natya) and songs. Sattriya Nritya, one of the important classical dance forms of India, was introduced by Sankaradeva as an accompaniment to the Ankiya Naats. This is a genre of dance-drama that narrates mythical and religious stories through hand and facial expressions. Sattriya Nritya is accompanied by devotional musical compositions called Borgeet, composed by Srimanta Sankardeva and Madhavdeva (Sankaradeva’s chief disciple and successor). Musical performances involving instruments such as Khols (long shaped drums), Mridanga (two-headed drum), Taals (cymbals), Doba, etc. are an integral part of Bhaona performances.
In 1468, Sankaradeva is believed to have staged his inaugural play titled Cihna Yatra where he introduced the use of Mukha or mask in Bhaona to portray different expressions of mythological characters. The great saint is believed to have himself crafted masks of Brahma, Garuda, and Hara for Cihna Yatra. This tradition of mask-making is an integral part of Satriya culture in Majuli. Samaguri Satra, established in 1663 by Sri Sri Chakrapani, grandson of Sankaradeva, is globally renowned for its centuries-old mask-making tradition.
The art of manuscript-painting was another significant artistic tradition associated with the Neo-Vaishnavite movement that developed in Majuli under the patronage of Ahom Swargadeo Shiva Singha (r. 1714 CE - 1744 CE). The theme of all the manuscripts is centred around the life and the events related to the life of Lord Krishna. The main purpose behind the painting of manuscripts was to make the written text appealing and interesting to the readers. The bark of for Sanchi or Tula tree was used for the manuscripts. A Likhak was usually involved in copying the original text, while an expert designated as Khanikar was assigned with the responsibility of preparing colours and illustrating the text. Homemade ink was prepared from Xilikha (terminalia citrina) and cow urine and the writing was done with a brush or pen, made from coconut fibres, thin bamboo and peacock feathers. Sanchi trees are planted and maintained near the Hatis, and Xilikha trees are also available in different corners of the island. A special area inside the Satra, called Gandhiya Bharal was traditionally allocated for the storage of the manuscripts. Presently, it is reported that around 3000 manuscripts are preserved in different corners of Majuli.
Majuli, besides being a centre of Neo-Vaishnavism, nurtures a treasure trove of cultural traditions cultivated by different communities. Weaving is one of the major traditions seen across the island. The Mising women of Majuli are experts in producing colourful fabrics. The textiles produced by them are exceptionally attractive with contrasting colours, figures and patterns.
The terracotta village of Salmora is another important centre in Majuli with an invaluable living tradition. Salmora village is known for its age-old terracotta industry run by the Kumars, who generally belong to the Kalita and Koch communities. Such tradition of terracotta craft is also widely practised in parts of Dhubri including Asharikandi village, Goalpara and Kamrup. It is believed that the families of the Kumars were settled in Salmora by the Ahom Kings to ensure necessary supply of clay products to the Satras that received royal patronage. The Kumars of Salmora village produce different types of household containers and toys in the forms of animal and human figures.
The laborious process of terracotta craft production consists of different phases ranging from collecting the clay (Kumar Mati) to firing the final products. The first phase of collecting the clay is generally called Khani-Diya. This is followed by the next phase called Mati-Sijuwa in which the clay is mixed with sand. Kholani Diya is the third phase where different shapes are given to the mixture of clay and sand. Peghali Diya, the last phase of the production process, indicates the act of firing the products. It takes around eight hours to complete the process of firing. The women usually take part in crafting the terracotta goods, while the men are responsible for digging out the clay, firing and selling of the products. They carry their products on boats to different places along the river Brahmaputra to sell them. The Kumars of Salmora village are also efficient in the making of boats. Apart from making boats for personal use, they also deal in the business of boat making.
Majuli, a unique geo-cultural formation, is a favoured destination for tourists in Assam. However, over the years, this incredible landscape has also been plagued with episodes of disastrous erosion affecting life and resources. Its potential for boosting tourism in the Brahmaputra valley offers hope that effective steps will be taken to counter the effect of natural forces on the island. Echoing tunes of the Sattriya music and reflecting expressions of folklife, Majuli continues to stand as the pride of Assam.