Majuli – Culture and Heritage

The river island of Majuli left us spellbound in so many ways. I have already written an elaborate post on the scenic natural beauty of Majuli. My description of Majuli would remain utterly incomplete if I do not write about the Satras. The scenic beauty of Majuli is intricately interwoven with its art and culture, a large part of which is contributed by the Satras.

Pic 1: A pond at Auniati Satra

Satras are religious and cultural institutions or monasteries dedicated to Lord Krishna. Satras date back to the 15th century when the first Satra was established by Srimanta Shankardev, the great Assamese saint and Neo-Vaishnavite reformer. Subsequently, 64 more Satras were established. Though only 22 Satras exist today. The rest were washed away by floods and erosion. Some of these have been rebuilt in other locations in Assam. The Satras are much more than just religious centers. They have shaped the culture of the island and continue to have a huge influence on the social lives of local people.


A friend of mine, well versed with the culture of Majuli on account of her husband being posted there as a high govt. official, had recommended that I visit the Satras strictly in a Sari. Consequently, I landed up being in a Sari all through my Majuli trip. Something I did for the first time while on travel. And, I must say that it felt amazing!

Majuli owes much of its rich cultural heritage to the Satras. They are the hub of traditional art and folk culture, which naturally ripples all across the state of Assam. Each Satra has a distinct identity and caters to a specific art form. Over the centuries, these institutions have had significant contributions to Assamese art and culture. The classical dance form, ‘Sattriya’, and the theatre form, ‘Bhaona’, along with their associated music have been developed and preserved through these Satras over the past five centuries.

Pic 2: The quarters for the Bhaktas overlooking the pond at Dakhinpat Satra

Each Satra has its own set of residing monks who preserve its distinctive cultural significance. Their lives are dedicated to the devotion of Lord Krishna. The religious and the administrative head of a Sattra is known as ‘Sattradhikar’ and rest are known as ‘Bhakats’. The Bhaktas are responsible for various administrative, maintenance, religious, and cultural activities of the Satra. The Bhaktas are brilliant artisans too and make several items like masks, musical instruments, hand-fans, door frames, etc. The monks are quite friendly and open to having conversations with visitors.

Each Satra typically consist of a large prayer hall facing the shrine, known as ‘Naamghar’ surrounding which are dormitories or huts for the monks. Each Satra also has one or more ponds or tanks. Some Satras also offer guest accommodation, where devotees and visitors can participate in the daily worships and also watch traditional Bhaona performances.

We visited five Satras, few of the most important ones. It’s a boon that such places still exist, which not only value our culture and heritage but are working towards preserving the same. Especially in today’s era that has engulfed most of us in endless rat race and mindless consumerism.

Sri Sri Dakhinpat Satra

One of the oldest Satra, Dakhinpat was established in 1584, which is evident from some of the old structures we saw here. The ‘Naamghar’ supported by huge wooden pillars was under renovation and there was cement and sand all over. Even then, it emanated an old-world charm that was difficult to miss. Hundreds of diyas were lit on the floor making the festive season all the more prominent.

This Satra is known for preserving various types of dance forms that are performed during the festival of Raasleela, which depict the life of Lord Krishna. It is also said to house treasures and artefacts from the Ahom kings, which are not in display for public. Though they are constructing a museum where they may display some of the items. This was the first Satra we visited and consequently spent quite a bit of time. A monk even invited us for a cup of tea and provided some valuable insights about this Satra.

Pic 3: The entrance gate of Dakhinpat Satra
Pic 4: The age-old structures at Dakhinpat Satra
Pic 5: Diyas at the Naamghar, the uneven floor clearly indicating that it is under renovation.

Sri Sri Samaguri

Majuli has a unique tradition and legacy of mask-making, which is preserved and propagated by Samaguri Satra.  That makes Samaguri the most fascinating of all the Satras. The masks or ‘mukhas’ represent various mythological and religious characters and are integral to ‘Bhaona’ performances.  The masks are completely organic made of cane, cloth, mud, dung and are mostly used during the festival of Raasleela.

The Sattradhikar, Dr. Hem Chandra Goswami, has been instrumental in not only reviving the tradition of mask-making but bringing in many innovations, such as moveable jaws and eyes. Dr. Goswami has been acclaimed nationally and internationally for his endeavor and unique craftsmanship. He is also a recipient of the prestigious Padma Shri, India’s fourth-highest civilian award, for the year 2023. We were extremely fortunate and truly honoured to be able to meet him as he happened to be at the Satra at that time. His passion and dedication was clearly evident when he took time out to enthusiastically explain to us the intricacies of Sattriya dance and the importance of masks in Bhaona. He also demonstrated the functioning of a couple of masks and encouraged us to try them out. He went on to share about all the accolades he received, including that British Museum displayed five of his masks during an exhibition called ‘Krishna in the Garden of Assam’. All that with no hint of pride or arrogance but in complete humility, leaving us even more astonished.

Pic 6: Various types of masks are seen displayed inside Samaguri Satra
Pic 7: Entrance to Samaguri Satra (L); An artisan at work (R)
Pic 8: The various stages of creating the masks or the ‘mukhas’
Pic 9: Hand-made cane statues depicting Sattriya Dance poses (L); a huge mask in the making (R)
Pic 10: Truly honoured to meet Sattradhikar and Padma Shri, Dr. Hem Chandra Goswami who spent quite a bit of time with us explaining the use of masks and the process of their creation.

Sri Sri Uttar Kamalabari Satra

This Satra has a major contribution to the Mati Akhora and the Gayan Bayan forms of the clasical Sattriya dance. This Satra is also famous for crafting some of the finest boats of the island. Personally, I thought this was the most aesthetically designed Satra. The ornate doorways and the beautiful paintings on the life of Lord Krishna that adorned the walls of the Naamghar were captivating.

Pic 11: The ornate entrance to the Uttar Kamalabari Naamghar
Pic 12: Beautiful Paintings on the life of Sri Krsahna adorn the walls of the Naamghar.
Pic 13: The quarters of the Bhaktas at Uttar Kamalabari Satra

Sri Sri Garamur

This is one of the four royal Satras of the island and hence used to be quite affluent back in the days. It houses a museum that preserves ancient canons, known as ‘bortop’. The museum was closed when we visited. The inmates of this Satra are householders and not monks that have renounced the world.  The same is true for Samaguri Satra as well.

Pic 14: Garuda idol and little Hanuman at Garamur Satra

Sri Sri Auniati

We arrived at this Satra early morning while it was still opening up. We walked around soaking in the early morning air through the peaceful ambience. Lord Krishna is refereed to as Govinda in this Satrra and all festivals and activities are centered around Govinda. This Satra also houses a museum that preserves ancient artefacts like old utensils, jewellery and handicrafts. The museum was however closed at that time. Auniati Satra is famous for traditional Mishing tribal dances and a congregational prayer, known as Paalnaam.

Pic 14: Entrance gate of Auniati Satra.
Pic 15: The quaint Naamghar at Auniati Satra

Majuli – Peaceful and Serene

This was the first time I was going to be in Guwahati for a few days on my way home to Shillong. Over the years Guwahati has been reduced to being just a transit point for me, enroute home. I have been wanting to explore the city for a while now but that hasn’t happened yet. However, a little bit of Assam happened in the form of Majuli – and a long-standing wish was finally fulfilled.

I’m back after a prolonged blogging hiatus and what better way to restart than writing about Majuli. Also known as the ‘Cultural Capital of Assam’, Majuli is the largest river island in the world with a total area of 352 square Kilometres. Formed by the confluence of River Brahmaputra and its tributaries, the island is however shrinking due to extensive soil erosion that’s chipping away its banks. In fact, surveys have indicated that the island may cease to exist in just 15–20 years. It is a biodiversity hotspot and houses several villages. It’s a UNESCO world heritage contender too.

Pic 1: Lohit River – A tributary of River Brahmaputra

It was the second week of April, time for the most important festival of Assam – Rongali Bihu or Bohag Bihu, which celebrates the Assamese New Year. This wasn’t in my mind though when I had booked the tickets, way back in the month of February. Rather, I was concerned about the weather, as we were at the brink of Summer. Well, it turned out to be one of best times to visit Majuli – the festive season of Spring. Though locals told us Winter would be the best time for the various cultural festivals held during that time, such as, Raasleela, Majuli Festival, Magh Bihu, etc. Summers and Monsoon are not the right time to visit the island, for obvious reasons.

Pic 2: The wooden bridge we came across over Lohit River
Pic 3: The wooden bridge won’t be around long, the red flag indicates its precariousness.

Reaching Majuli

Reaching Majuli by itself is an exciting venture for city people like us, especially if you choose to take a ferry over River Brahmaputra. It takes about an hour and is really convenient. The ferries carry not just people, but vehicles too. So, you can choose to take your own car or bike. Another way to reach Majuli is through road but that’s a very long arduous drive and takes close to 10 hours. We took an overnight train from Guwahati to the town of Jorhat. There we hired an autorickshaw that dropped us to Nimati Ghat, where we boarded the first ferry that was leaving at 7.30 AM. The double-storied ferry was unusually crowded. Jostling through the crowd we managed to reach the upper deck while the ferry was well into the mighty Brahmaputra away from the shores.

What We did at Majuli

We landed at Kamalbari, the Ferry Ghat of Majuli, boarded a shared taxi and reached the homestay that we had booked. The simplicity, peaceful, and rustic charm of Majuli was immediately evident. Wrapped in anticipation, we were all set to explore the mystical island in the next two days. One of the two days happened to be my birthday and I hadn’t planned to be here. It was the best coincidence.

Pic 4: It was green and only green wherever the eyes looked.
Pic 5: An algae covered reddish brown pond, the white dots are flower petals from a particular tree. I don not know the name of the tree or flower. These petals were strewn all over Majuli at that time.

An ideal way to explore the island is on a two-wheeler. This will enable you to traverse through the narrow pathways of the village interiors. A car can limit your experience to a large extent. Consequently, we rented a two-wheeler, which became our companion for the next two days. We had no particular plan or itinerary and simply rambled around Majuli’s green fields and straight roads, literally going wherever our eyes took us. We did plan to visit the Satras, a few of which we had shortlisted. Satras are religious and cultural institutions or monasteries dedicated to Lord Vishnu that profoundly influence the social lives of local people. Satras deserve a separate post where I’ll write in greater detail.

Pic 6: Another algae covered pond, with the boat making it quite picturesque.
Pic 7: White Lotus blooming in a pond at one of the Satras (Dakshinpat Satra)

Majuli felt like a bride draped in green! She was gorgeous and vibrant. Anywhere we looked green was all that we saw. Soothingly refreshed we kept riding all day long ingesting Nature’s calming bounty so much so that we even missed having lunch on the first day. Now and then we would just take a turn from the main road and explore the narrow pathways through the interiors of the island.

Pic 8: We saw most of the houses built on bamboo stilts. This one was a resort though.
Pic 9: Peaceful vibes emanate everywhere in the island.

It being the time of Bihu, we had the unique opportunity to experience Assam’s rich culture through the traditional Bihu Dance. The invigorative dance celebrates the vitality of Spring and is performed by groups of young men and women. At Majuli, we found groups of little children dancing around the lanes and bylanes in their traditional Assamese attires – the red and beige mekhela chador (the tribal children wore mekhela chadors of various colours). They had no qualms about dancing for us, as well, each and every time we requested a group. The tradition is they dance and you offer them a small sum of Rs 20 or Rs 30 as a token of your appreciation.

Majuli is home to many tribes – Misings, Deoris, Sonowal, and Kacharis. Of these, Misings are predominant. We had plans of touring at least one tribal village but we gave that a miss as our random meanderings was turning out to be more fun and interesting. On the second day, we spent the afternoon hours on the banks of Lohit, which is a tributary of Brahmaputra. The quietude of Lohit left us spellbound and those 2-3 hours was like a lifetime of peace and solitude.

Pic 11: The banks of Lohit River had a lot to offer, it was a photographer’s paradise.

My friend, R, who was with me on the trip spent most of that time laying down on a patch of green grass on the banks of the river. I, on the other hand wandered around and met a couple of women from the Mising tribe. Since I can speak Assamese, language was no barrier. We exchanged stories and got a glimpse into each other’s’ lives. A group of three chatted with me while they collected some kind of specific leaves from the vegetation around the river bank. This was in preparation for a village feast they had that evening. They even invited me to their home. Then, I watched two other women catching fish that lay hidden in the clusters of water Hyacinth. I had no idea what they were doing until they explained it to me. It was a wonderful afternoon, one that I will never forget.

Pic 12: Mising women collect leaves from the vegetation around Lohit River
Pic 13: Another group of women catch fish from the water Hyacinths floating on Lohit River.

We spent the evenings watching sunset over River Brahmaputra. Sun down and the island is all quiet, there’s nothing much to do anymore. We did try riding around in the dark but that was quite boring and we gave up.

Majuli’s food is worth a mention too, especially the fresh fish and the rice beer or Apong. Unfortunately, we happened to miss the latter due to reasons that aren’t worth mentioning in this post. Well, there will be a next time and that’s for sure.

Pic 14: Sun sets at Kamalbari Ghat over Brahmaputra River.
Pic 15: Houses built on bamboo stilts to protect from the floods.

Majuli’s peaceful and tranquil vibe pervades my senses even now as I write about it. It’s simply meditative!

I leave you with two of my Instagram posts, if you are interested to know more. First one for Bihu Dance and second one for the scenic nature.

Deepor Beel – A Morning Done Right

“We’ll leave at dawn”, announced my brother-in-law (BIL) in his usual style as we were getting done with dinner. BIL and I are partners in crime when it comes to exploring nature and have our tiny little adventures each time we meet in my hometown, Shillong. This time we were at Guwahati, about 100 Km. away from Shillong as I had accompanied them – BIL and cousin sister – for some work they had in the city.

Whenever in Guwahati, BIL never misses an opportunity to visit Deepor Beel, which is quite understandable given his hobby of bird watching and bird photographing. It was my demand that he takes me along sometime, which he was acceding this time.

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Pic 1: Fisherman are already way into their day’s chores even as morning just breaks in

I was up before dawn. The anticipation and excitement of going for an early morning drive was incentive enough to get me out of the laziness of a cozy bed on a chilly December morning. It was Christmas Eve and the dip in temperature was as expected.

Soon we set off towards our destination, which was a good 45 minutes away. We drove along the well tarred road with easily navigable twists and turns, chit-chatting in the warm coziness of the car accompanied by a light music in the background. The darkness of the night was gradually fading away with the sun peeping in the horizon spreading its soft and warm glow.

A perfect start to the morning it was!

Pic 2: The sun peeps through giving way to morning light

Located in the south western part of Guwahati city, Deepor Beel is a freshwater lake that is surrounded by highlands on the northern and southern side. The word beel means lake in the local Assamese language while dipa means elephant in one of the indigenous dialects. So, Deepor Beel literally translates as Lake of Elephants.

With a total area of 40, it is considered to be the largest lake in Brahmaputra Valley and is fed by Kalmani and Basistha Rivers. A part of the lake has been declared as a wildlife Sanctuary and that is where we were headed that morning.

Pic 3: A tiny island of a place somewhere in the vast lake

As we drove along, I noticed the lake making its appearance on the right side of the road illuminated by the soft rays of the morning sun. We parked the car and stepped out when I noticed a railway track right in front of us just on the other side of the road. So focused I was on the lake that I hadn’t noticed the railway line until now.

I wondered just how nice it would be to see a train pass by and instantaneously, as if by magic, along came a train chugging away. Taken by sheer delight, BIL and I cheerfully waved at the passengers and made our way towards the lake.

Pic 4: The train that delighted us

The beel is a natural habitat to many varieties of birds and aquatic vegetation like water hyacinth, aquatic grasses, water lilies and other submerged and floating vegetation. On the entrance was a signboard that mentioned about the lake providing direct and indirect livelihood to fourteen indigenous villages comprising of about 1,200 families that are located in its precincts. Woah! Quite a number I thought!

Another signboard mentioned about this being an elephant corridor making me wish to see a herd pass by right then, which sadly didn’t happen.

Pic 5: Aquatic vegetation submerged and floating

At the lake, I stared at the vast expanse of water trying to figure out if I could see land at the horizon; I watched the fishermen diligently cast their nets every now and then, wondering what kind of fishes they were catching; I followed BIL trying to make sense of the various birds he was photographing while he tried explaining some of the species to me; and most of all I enjoyed the peace and quiet of the early morning hour with nobody other than the two of us.

Pic 6: The train line continues as a bridge on one side of the lake

With our Christmas Eve started right, we soon headed back home where my sister greeted us with warm tea and hot breakfast.

Leaving you with pictures of Kites, Swallows, and Herons that BIL clicked that day.