A world of masks in Assam’s Majuli island

Faces of gods, goddesses, demons, ogres and otherworldly characters from Indian mythology and folklore will spice up your visit to Majuli island in Assam

A world of masks in Assam’s Majuli island

Local material and vegetable dyes are used for mask-making, a craft which is passed on from one generation to another.

Harleen Gurunay Majithia

Throughout the world, masks have been used in rituals and festivities. While the West has its masquerade parties, India, too, has a unique cultural legacy of masks and mask making. Majuli island on the Brahmaputra river in Assam has carved a special place for itself among culture aficionados across the world, especially for its craft of mask-making.

The island can be accessed by ferries via Jorhat city. The dock on the island gives it a barren and desolate look, but do not fall for this mirage because as you wheel inside, Majuli welcomes you with its greenery and offers you the colours, tastes, music, art and traditions of Assam and its tribal communities, especially if you visit it during the festive season around Dasehra and Diwali. Inside Majuli, the island can be best enjoyed on bicycles and bikes. The rustic thatched bamboo huts in traditional Mishing style on the riverside or in the fields create picturesque views. As you traverse through Majuli, the everyday agrarian life is worth observing. Homestays are popular on the island where freshly brewed rice beer and delicacies like porang apin (rice cooked in tora leaves) and pamnam (fish baked in banana leaves) offer new experiences to the palate.

The island of Majuli is also the seat of neo-Vaishnavite culture of Assam that houses Satras or monasteries. These are said to have been established by Mahapurush Sankardeva in the late 15th century. Fine details on the decorative wood panels on some ancient Satras represent tribal art, folk culture and heritage of the Ahom kingdom. The Satras are important centres of traditional performing arts. Each Satra has a distinct identity and serves as a sanctorum to a different art form. For instance, the Auniati Satra stores ancient artefacts and is famous for traditional Mishing tribal dances and paalnaam, a congregational prayer. The Dakhinpat and Garamur Satras stage theatre performances raas leela and bhaonas, which make use of dramatic masks. The renowned among these is Samaguri Satra that has brought Majuli to the foreground for its art of mask-making with some of its remarkable folk creations also being exhibited in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.

Use of indigenous material

What differentiates these masks from other folk masks across the country is that these are made from indigenous material of the island and not Plaster of Paris, and without the use of synthetic colour. Special attention is paid to intricate details and technicality (newer kinds of masks have movable jaws, making dialogue delivery easier). The traditional art of making masks is passed down from father to son or from the guru or teacher at the Satra to the students.

The technique involves making a three-dimensional bamboo framework onto which clay-dipped pieces of cloth are plastered. After drying it, a mix of clay and cowdung is layered on it. This helps to add detail and give depth to the mask. Jute fibres and water hyacinth are used for beard, moustaches and hair. Once the mask is complete, a kordhoni (bamboo file) is used to burnish the mask. And finally, drama is added to the masks with deft painting. The mask-makers of Majuli prefer using vegetable dyes and colours derived from hengul (red) and hentul (yellow) stones.

Three different types of masks are made. The Mukha bhaona covers the face, Lotokoi, which is bigger in size, extends to the chest and Cho Mukha is a head and body mask. The masks are made exactly the way luminary Sankardeva described the characters in his Ankitya Natya from which bhaonas have emerged. These bamboo masks are light in weight and comfortable for the performers to wear. It takes approximately 10 to 15 days to make the mask.

When you visit this Satra, faces of gods, goddesses, demons, fiends, ogres and all kinds of otherworldly characters with raised brows and flared nostrils from Indian mythology and folklore, as attendees either smiling or scoffing at you, will spice up your visit to the otherwise peaceful Majuli.

Fact File

How to reach: It is a 15-km-drive from the city of Jorhat to Nimati Ghat from where the island of Majuli can be accessed through ferries. If you’re in luck, you can catch a glimpse of the beautiful sunrise and sunset (although ferries generally start by 8 am and end by 4 pm; the timing varies according to season).

Best time to travel: The island is open throughout the year but October and November are the best time to experience the island in its vibrancy and festivity.

where to stay: There are many hotels and homestays here. The Satras also offer guesthouses to devotees and tourists.

What else to do: Majuli is a birdwatcher’s delight. One can spot rare species of migratory birds, which arrive here in winter.

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