Field Trip to Enchanting Majuli: The Largest River Island in the World (Namrata Sarmah, India, ITP 2018)

Written by Namrata Sarmah, Project Curator, Assam State Museum (India, ITP Fellow 2018)

I was fortunate to be selected as one of the Sustainable Development fellows 2021 by East West Center, Hawaii to explore the concept of Eco Museum which is still an evolving cultural phenomenon in India.

(Read Namrata’s first blog about this project by clicking here!)

The riverine island of Majuli occupies a unique geographical location. It is surrounded by the constituent streams of the Brahmaputra River on all sides. In the pre-modern period, this provided Majuli with a modicum of isolation. And as a result, the island was privy to a unique historical trajectory and cultural matrix which sets it apart from the regions in its vicinity. In the age of globalisation and  rapidly changing norms of identity, culture and livelihood, it is the need of the hour for a cautious appreciation and preservation of the intangible cultural heritage of Majuli. This calls for a multifaceted engagement with the traditional forms of knowledge in the island within the purview of intellectual property rights.

Samuguri Satra, mask making 

This engagement can be at numerous different levels like due to its riparian location, the island is often subjected to recurring flood during the rainy season in the summer monsoon months. While a flood can be often devastating, it also plays a crucial role in subsistence and livelihood- for pisciculture and for renewal of fertile alluvium which is vital for wet-rice cultivation. The communities living in the island have devised numerous strategies to co-exist with the inevitability of floods. This ranges from unique methods of house construction and embankment, selection of particular crops for cultivation, and social practices and rituals that are synchronised with the cycle of monsoon. A consciousness about the surrounding environment and ecosystem is hence coded into the collective memory of Majuli, and it is transmitted from one generation to the other. This collective knowledge is a form of non-standardised intellectual property of Majuli.

River side view of Majuli

My favourite part of the fieldwork was being back to the primitive joy of life that is visiting women weavers in one of the Mishing villages of the island.  The indigenous designs of the region are a Museologist’s delight. It is a reflector of the cultural identity and aesthetic sense of the people of diverse races and making a script of ethno-history on those fabrics.

A large section of the demographics of Majuli comprise of the indigenous tribal communities of Assam- most notably the Mishings, Deoris and Sonowal Kacharis. The language, patterns of subsistence, cultural norms and the collective polity of these communities significantly differ from their non-tribal neighbours. And yet, social-economic and cultural transactions between the tribal and non-tribal inhabitants of the island are common place. This has created a unique atmosphere of tolerance, diversity and peaceful co-existence in the island. This ethnic diversity has shaped nuances of Majuli’s syncretic and composite cultural heritage.

Dakhinpat Satra 

Neo-Vaishnavism propagated by Srimanta Shankardeva (1449-1568) is one of the predominant spiritual and intellectual schools of thought in Assam. In the pre-modern period, many Satras [Neo-Vaishnavite monasteries] were established in Majuli. To date, Majuli remains the sacred core and the cultural heartland of Assamese Neo-Vaishnavism. The numerous Satras scattered over the island play a distinctive role in Majuli’s public sphere. On one hand, the Satras with their land resources is crucial to sustain the local economic networks. On the other hand, cultural and the ritualistic realm of Majuli is also informed by the Satras. Most of the religious functions are intertwined with the Satras. The principal clerics of the Satras, known as Satradhikars, are often revered public figures and play a crucial role in shaping public opinions. In addition, Satras are also repositories of proscenium heritage. Neo-Vaishnavism  has a deeply performative component to its spiritualism. This has proliferated numerous forms of performing arts- Satriya classical dance, Ankiya Naats and Bhaonas (both are forms of dance-dramas), as well as the crafts of producing masks and musical instruments for these performances. Satras are the nuclei where the forms and contents of these arts and crafts are codified, refined and preserved. Considering these diverse roles of the Satras, their relationship with their surrounding habitats is important to understand the tangible and intangible cultural heritage of Majuli.

Glimpse of Auniati Satra 

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