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The Vaishnav monks of Assam’s Majuli island

Nurtured and threatened by the Brahmaputra, a community of Vaishnav monks pursues a unique form of devotional art, the 'Sattriya Nritya', on Assam's Majuli island

Viashnav monks put on their costumes for a village performance on the Majuli island of Assam. Photos: Sankar Sridhar
Viashnav monks put on their costumes for a village performance on the Majuli island of Assam. Photos: Sankar Sridhar

A line of novice monks await their guru as tentatively as the approaching dawn. They are huddled together, hands crossed under white robes wrapped tightly around their bodies as protection against the early morning nip in the air.

Cool, misty spring mornings are one perk of being surrounded by a river. Other perks of being sequestered by the mighty Brahmaputra include solitude and fertile soil.

A Mishing fisherman casts his net at dawn.

That was, perhaps, what drew the Vaishnava saint Srimanta Sankardev to Majuli island in the 15th century, though how he managed to accomplish that feat is anybody’s guess. Even today, the motorized ferry that transports people and vehicles from Nimatighat in Jorhat to the island struggles against the mighty river’s current. The helmsman is still guided by thoughtfully placed flags to avoid hidden chars (temporary islands formed by sedimentary deposits) and sandbars and deposit his passengers safely at their destination.

Monks enact a scene from the Ramayan in a dance drama.

Despite the odds, Srimanta Sankardev not only reached Majuli island, but, along with his disciples, set up 65 sattras—which is said to translate to “unique monasteries". Here, away from the prying eyes of the world, Sankardev developed an equally unique way of worship through dance and drama, called the Sattriya Nritya. Bhokots (monks) at the island’s various monasteries say the saint chose the performance arts as a means to pray and preach because these transcended barriers imposed by language and geography.

Gayan-Bayan performers after a concert. Amongst traditional musicians, the singers are called Gayan, and the instrumentalists, Bayan.

The beauty and far-sightedness of this choice is evident. The indigenous Mishing (originally from Arunachal Pradesh, they made this island home centuries ago) live in peaceful coexistence with the monks. And while they continue to follow their animistic faith, they have over time also imbued the tenets of Vaishnavism.

And that is not all. Since 2000, when the Sangeet Natak Akademi recognized this dance form as classical, the nation woke up to its existence. Now, this dazzling retelling of the Ramayan and Mahabharat—complete with comedy, action, suspense and make-up to match—has found followers around the globe. Today, monks from the sattras regularly tour abroad, and even conduct workshops that teach participants the art form.

It is nice to travel, to see the world, the monks say, but they always count down to the day when they are supposed to head back home, to the Majuli island and its silence.

Devotees at Uttar Kamlabari Sattra offer prayers.

And so it continues to this day, with the bhokots, who lead spartan and mostly self-sufficient lives, dividing their time between worldly chores—cooking, cleaning, washing, farming, grazing cattle, attending regular school—and higher pursuits: meditating, learning to play instruments such as the dhol, flute and cymbals, practising yoga, and studying the scriptures. But constancy is hard to come by, even on an island such as Majuli. The neo-Vaishnavite movement, held together by Sankardev, saw a division into four sub-sects after his passing. And that is just one of the many changes that have occurred since.

Paddy is Majuli’s main crop. The ‘sattras’ own large swathes of land where monks practise collective farming. Here, a monk spreads out parboiled rice to dry.

Some have been for the better, like the dance drama itself, which, until the 20th century, was the preserve of male monks but has since brought women into the fold. The jury is out on others, such as the advent of mobile phones and TV. The art of mask-making, an integral part of the dance dramas, has been on the decline. Today, only a few monasteries continue that tradition. The most well-known of these is the Chamaguri Sattra.

Monks from the Garmur Sattra sail to a performance fully dressed. One boat holds Ravan, Sita and two ‘asuras’, while the other holds Ram, Lakshman and Hanuman.

The greatest change, though, continues to be wrought by the Brahmaputra itself. As the river swells during the monsoon, so too does it engulf Majuli—gnawing away at the precious land, consuming villages and sattras alike. Everyone on Majuli (now about 350 sq. km, with a population of 167,000, according to the 2011 census) knows that the river exacts a steep price for the perks it offers.

Today, only 22 of the 65 sattras remain on the island. And while the monasteries uprooted by the river have been transplanted to safer sections of Assam’s mainland, Majuli’s residents and monks maintain that lack of solitude and easy access to the temptations of cities and towns have taken a toll.

A novice and a senior monk wait for tea.

The monks hope to remain on the island, practising with an all-consuming dedication their life of penance and performance, in the living tradition of gurus passing on their knowledge to novices.

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