Inside Majuli’s monasteries

30 Sep 2018

One of the many things I love about India is the sense of permanence. While this may seem at odds with the astonishing economic transformation this thriving, ambitious nation has achieved, particularly over the last three decades, there are many senses in which India scarcely changes at all. It’s filled with experiences — cultural, social, physical, metaphysical — that feel like they have been there, and will be there, forever.

Majuli’s monasteries proudly wear the mouldy history-marks of its climate and the passing of the centuries.

Majuli’s satras (monasteries) are a perfect example: many date back 400 or 500 years. Walking into a satra instils a remarkable sense of place and permanence, despite the depredations of nature (Majuli is a river island slowly being engulfed by the mighty Brahmaputra river). It’s a feeling amplified by the way in which Nature has been allowed to do the decorating: no spit-and-polish, no constant rejuvenation of wood and whitewash. Instead, Majuli’s monasteries proudly wear the mouldy history-marks of its climate and the passing of the centuries. The result is a worn, deliciously distressed patina that is very sympathetic to the creation of photographs.

Inside, the walls bear fading murals, the woodwork is chipped and battered, the stained plaster richly textured, and the wattle-and-daub ceilings have been allowed to fall into a state of comfortable disrepair. The light is low: a few wall lamps take care of the basics but most of the responsibility for illumination falls to the bright Assam sunshine outside, which leaks its way beautifully into rooms and corridors making even the simplest scene a rich opportunity for photographic experimentation.

The monks in the monasteries are Vaishnavites — a prominent monotheistic tradition within Hinduism. The Vaishnava saint Srimanta Sankardev and his disciples somehow overcame the formidable land-and-water obstacles associated with this river island and, beginning in the 15th century, set about constructing 65 monasteries on Majuli. Srimanta Sankardev simultaneously pioneered a unique model for worship through dance and drama, and his legacy continues unbroken today as the bhokots (monks — some as young as four) study, rehearse and perform the same timeless reenactments of the Hindu epics.

Today there are but 22 of those 65 sattras still left on Majuli: the island is just a third of its size a hundred years ago and threatened monasteries have upped sticks and transplanted themselves to the shores of the Brahmaputra, where they are simultaneously safer from the river and more exposed to the impermanent but perennial distractions — TV, mobile phones, internet, urbanisation — of a fast-growing India.

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