Dindori, Madhya Pradesh, India...
The Satras in Majuli are not only religious institutions but also significant cultural and historical pillars in society. One of the classical dance forms in India, known as Sattriya, was initiated by Srimanta Sankardeva within the Satras. This dance form, which has evolved over time, holds a prominent place as one of the eight classical dances in India. The Satras, with their religious and cultural contributions, continue to play a vital role in shaping the artistic and historical landscape of Majuli.
The mask making for the Sattriya tradition, has three distinct types of masks that serve various purposes within the performances:
Barmukha or Great Mask (Mask and costume – covers whole of the body): These masks are crafted in two parts—the torso and the head. During the performance, the artist wears both parts simultaneously. Notably large, the Barmukha stands at an impressive height of at least 10-12 feet, earning it the name “Barmukha.” The grandeur of these masks contributes to the visual spectacle of the act, enhancing the overall theatrical experience.
Lotokari Mukha or Hanging Mask: Smaller than the Barmukha, Lotokari Mukhas also consist of separate torso and head parts. However, the head mask is designed to be flexible, allowing greater mobility for the performer. Examples of Lotokari Mukhas include Putana, Taraka, Maricha, Subahu, and others forms. The adaptability of the head mask facilitates dynamic movements during the act, adding a level of flexibility to the performance and it is specifically used during the Rasa festival.
Mukh Mukha or Face Mask (Mask covering the face): Mukh Mukhas cover only the performer’s face, leaving the rest of the body adorned with complementary and attractive costumes that harmonize with the mask. These masks are considered ornamental, serving as a complement to the overall attire. Mukh Mukhas play a role in enhancing the facial expressions of the performer, allowing for a more nuanced and emotive portrayal.
The traditional handicraft products of Assam symbolize not just artistry skill but also hold immense practical value, seamlessly integrating into the daily life and culture of the Assam. Beyond their aesthetic appeal, these handicrafts play a key role in sustaining the livelihoods of several households in rural villages across the state. The intricate craftsmanship and utility of these products create a relationship between tradition, culture, and the economic well-being of the local communities, reinforcing the significance of traditional handicrafts in Assam people’s life.
Masks, objects typically worn on the face, serve various purposes such as protection, costume, and act. With a history dating back to antiquity, masks have been employed for both ceremonial and practical reasons. They play a significant role in diverse cultural expressions, including dance rituals, dramas, folk songs, and religious ceremonies within temples. In various socio-cultural contexts, masks are crafted using materials such as bamboo, cane, cloth, clay, and more. This ancient and widespread tradition showcases the versatility of masks as artefacts, representing a fusion of artistic expression, cultural symbolism, and functional utility.
Bhaona masks, known as Mukha in Assam, constitute a distinctive element of the Sattriya performative tradition, particularly in the context of Bhaona—a traditional form of drama and dance associated with the Vaishnavite monasteries or Satras (religious institution) in Assam. Crafted primarily from bamboo and wood, these masks are integral to the larger Sattriya tradition, playing a vital role in conveying emotions and expressions (bhava) during performances. Each mask is carefully designed to represent specific characters from the. Sattriya repertoire, including gods, goddesses, and mythological figures, and the use of masks in Bhaona not only adds a visual dimension to the performances but also underscores the importance of visual arts in preserving and transmitting cultural narratives and teachings.
A ground breaking play, ‘Cihna Yatra,’ by Sankaradeva marked an essential moment by introducing masks for characters that could not be effectively portrayed by the human face, such as Garuda, four-headed Brahma, and Lord Shiva. This innovation extended to other epics like the ‘Ramayana,’ featuring characters like Ravana, Kumbhakarna, Surpanakha, Jatayu, Taraka, Maricha, Subahu, Sugriva, and the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu.
The Raas Mahotsav, featuring a spectacular mask exhibition, became a showcase for the diverse characters and stories depicted through this traditional art form. Srimanta Sankardev’s successors continued to contribute to Sattriya culture by writing plays based on the ‘Ramayana,’ ‘Mahabharata,’ and ‘Puranas,’ thereby enriching the cultural heritage.
Bhaonas used to be a nightlong performance during auspicious occasions inside the prayer halls.
Sutradhar or Sutradhari: He is an integral part of bhaona; he recites slokas, sings, dances and explains in prose what is what at every stage of Bhaona.
Bhaoriya: The actors performing characters as per script.
Gayan: The singers
Bayan: They plays khol, Taal etc. from the beginning to the end of bhaona.
Traditionally, masks were kept in the naamghar. Earthen lamps and incense sticks are lit in front of them. Because of the belief that disrespecting the masks invites bad luck, actors worship them before putting them on.
The theatrical arts of Assam are deeply rooted in the cultural tapestry of the region, reflecting a rich heritage over centuries. It has sustained from the ancient tradition of temple dancers in Shaiva and Vaishnava temples during the 9th century to the contemporary expressions in traditional forms like Bhaona. Bhaona, a traditional form of drama and dance associated with the Neo-Vaishnavite culture, has been a prominent feature, with devotees like Srimanta Sankardev contributing significantly to its development. The use of masks, intricate choreography, and musical elements characterize Assamese theatrical performances, creating a unique and captivating theatrical experience. This artistic legacy not only serves as a cultural bridge to the past but also continues to evolve, showcasing the resilience and creativity inherent in Assam’s theatrical arts.
Bordhuvan village in the Nangaon district of Assam is the birthplace of the craft of mask making, popularly known as ‘Mukha’ and also social reformer Sankardeva’s who introduced masks in his plays.
Srimanta Sankaradeva, a prominent Vaishnavite Saint from the 15th-16th century played a pivotal role in promoting the philosophies of Neo-Vaishnavism (Bhakti Movement) and established Sattra institutions on Majuli for the practice and preservation of this cultural tradition.
Majuli stands as a remarkable geographic location and a cultural treasure influenced by Shankardeva’s movement and is deeply rooted in Neo-Vaishnavite culture. This island holds a crucial position in Assam, boasting a distinct historical and cultural background that has earned acclaim for its rich folklore resources. Among the various cultural elements that contribute to its uniqueness, Majuli is particularly renowned for its Sattra institutions, Naamghars (prayer halls), oral literature and traditions, captivating performing arts like Bhaona, and the traditional art of mask making known as Mukha Shilpa. Each of these components adds layers to Majuli’s cultural tapestry, making it a significant hub for heritage, spirituality, and artistic expressions deeply embedded.
Mukha Shilpa, has been an enduring art form on Majuli island, with roots dating back to the 16th century. This age-old craft remains a prominent and cherished tradition in Majuli, an island located in the upper reaches of the Brahmaputra River in upper Assam. Over the centuries, this traditional craft has not only continued but has also become one of the most renowned and practiced crafts in Majuli, showcasing the island’s commitment to preserving and celebrating its cultural legacy.
The creation of Sattras not only provided a spiritual foundation but also became a vital space for the flourishing of performing arts that could effectively connect with the masses. Sankaradeva, as a visionary leader, introduced the use of Mukha or masks in theatrical performances, particularly in the traditional one-act plays known as Ankiya Naat. These masks served as a transformative element, allowing performers to vividly portray various expressions of mythological characters.
During the inaugural performance of his one-act play titled “Cihna Yatra,” Sankaradeva showcased his innovative approach by crafting masks representing Brahma, Garuda, and Hara. These masks became integral to the visual storytelling of Bhaona, enhancing the theatrical experience for both performers and the audience.
Bridging the gap between religious teachings and the local community, the use of masks in Bhaona not only adds a layer of cultural richness to the performances but also reflects the enduring legacy of Sankaradeva’s creative vision in shaping the cultural landscape of Majuli and preserving the Neo-Vaishnavite heritage.
Sattriya Nritya, also known simply as Sattriya, is a significant Indian classical dance form. Originating as an integral part of Bhaona the performances are closely associated with the Sattras, which are communities of live-in devotees following the Ekasarana Dharma, a Hindu sect established by Sankardev. The themes depicted in Sattriya dances revolve around Krishna, as well as other avatars of Vishnu like Rama, and narratives from the epics Mahabharata and Ramayana. Recognizing its cultural significance, the Sangeet Natak Akademi of India accorded Sattriya the status of one of the eight classical dances of India on November 15, 2000. In contemporary times, Sattriya has evolved to explore various themes, and its performances are showcased not only in India but also worldwide.
However, historical evidence suggests that the use of masks in the region predates the introduction of bamboo masks. Wooden masks and masks made from sholapith (Indian tree-cork, Aeschynomene aspera) have been found in the region, indicating an earlier tradition of mask making. These materials were likely consumed for their availability and suitability for carving intricate details, contributing to the visual richness of cultural and religious recitals. The evolution of mask making from wooden and sholapith materials to bamboo reflects the adaptability and creative developments within this rich cultural heritage.
In contemporary times, the art of mask making has gained global recognition and appeal due to its intricate features, allowing for complex movements of organs like eyes and mouth. This has contributed to the worldwide popularity of the art form.
Furthermore, the commercialization of masks has led to financial empowerment for mask artists, attracting enthusiastic learners, particularly the younger generation. The adaptability of masks for various purposes, including gifts, festival decorations, meetings, and house decor, has expanded their utility beyond traditional performances. Notably, traditional masks of Assam have been exhibited internationally, including at prestigious institutions like the British Museum in London. This global recognition signifies the enduring cultural value and artistic excellence embedded in Assam’s traditional mask-making heritage.
When making masks, they are carefully categorized based on their shape and structure. This categorization is outlined into two main types: loukik (worldly) masks and oloukik (supernatural) masks.
Loukik (Worldly) Masks:
Demonstration: Loukik masks are designed to represent characters from the worldly land, encompassing both human beings and animals.
Oloukik (Supernatural) Masks:
Demonstration: Oloukik masks are exclusively crafted for characters with supernatural attributes and mythological significance. Deities, mythological creatures, and other supernatural beings.
The careful distinction between these two categories reflects the intricacies of Sattriya mask-making, where each type is crafted with specific characteristics to accurately portray its intended worldly or supernatural essence.
Some of the notable characters for which masks are created include Brahma, Hansa, Ganesha, Gaduda, Jatayu, the ten-headed Ravana, Kumbhakarna, Taraka, Maricha, Putana, Chakravat, Kaliya Naag, Bakasura, Aghasura, Dhenukasura, Batsasura, Hanuman, Jambuban, Baraha, Narasingha, and many more.
Innovations by mask artist Dr. Hemachandra Goswami, especially the incorporation of lutukori mukhas and puppet-like flexibility, have revolutionized traditional constraints on actors. His masks enable dynamic facial expressions, including eye and lip movements, enhancing liveliness without compromising aesthetics. Designed for practicality, Goswami’s masks can be dismantled for easy portability. These innovations, crucial for the commercial viability of mask making, play a key role in popularizing the art form. Workshops and the creation of smaller, popular wall-hanging masks contribute to the broader appeal and sustainability of this traditional art.
The financial challenges associated with mask making can discourage aspiring artists from pursuing it as a full-time profession. The lack of financial support, coupled with the absence of a stable income source for established artists, creates an environment that discourages the sustainability of the art form.
During monsoons, the artisans cannot practise the art of mask making as the masks are to be dried under sunlight. This has restricted the livelihood activity of mask making in Majuli to only few months of the year.
Another significant challenge faced by traditional artisans and the youth engaged in mask making on Majuli island is a lack of exposure. This deficiency spans across various aspects, including exposure to quality and diversified products, as well as new tools and technology. The artisans often face limitations in understanding the art of packaging, and there is a notable gap in knowledge regarding market linkages and the dynamics of the external market. Addressing these exposure gaps is crucial for empowering traditional artisans and the younger generation involved in mask making, enabling them to enhance the quality, diversity, and market relevance of their products while staying familiar to evolving industry trends and technologies.
Mask-making in Majuli, India, is a sustainable craft combining bamboo and cane for flexibility, reinforced by cotton cloth, potter’s clay, cow dung, jute fiber, paper, and Sholapith. Natural colors add vibrancy, following traditional steps like pond soaking, bamboo cutting, cloth layering, clay application, appearance enhancement, final drying, and painting. Rooted in tradition, the process reflects a commitment to preserving artistic heritage sustainably.
Bamboo and Cane: Masks are crafted using perishable raw materials, with bamboo and cane serving as essential elements for basic support. The flexibility and strength of these materials provide the foundation for the mask, allowing artisans to shape and structure the intricate details with accuracy.
Cotton Cloth: The use of cotton cloth adds reinforcement to the masks, enhancing their durability.
Potter’s Clay: Artisans use this material for moulding and shaping, creating the desired forms and expressions that characterize the masks.
Cow Dung: It is when mixed with clay, is applied to the cloth-covered structure, providing additional strength and resilience to the masks. This combination of materials ensures that the masks not only have visual appeal but also structural integrity.
Jute Fibre: Added into the mask-making process to give texture and depth to the final product.
Paper: Used for layering, contributing to the overall structure of the mask. These materials contribute to the visual intricacy and detailing of the masks.
Sholapith: a lightweight material derived from Indian tree-cork, is utilized in mask making for its unique properties. Its lightness adds to the wearability of the masks, making them suitable for performances. Sholapith serves as a distinctive component, enhancing both the aesthetic and practical aspects of the masks.
Natural Colours: The final touch to the masks involves the use of natural colours. This includes pigments derived from natural sources, adding vibrancy and authenticity to the masks. The application of natural colours not only enhances the visual appeal but also aligns with the sustainable and eco-friendly approach of traditional mask making.
Knives (Dau): Used for splitting bamboo and transforming it into strips.
Spatula: Both bamboo and metal spatulas are utilized in sculpting the mask. It helps in refining the details and curves of the mask’s features.
Brushes: For applying colours on mask.
The weaving process for masks in Majuli follows a specific pattern known as “Lakhimi sutra.” This name is locally associated with baskets used for growing rice. The bamboo weaving patterns used in mask-making resemble those used in crafting these rice-growing baskets. The connection to goddess Lakshmi, who is associated with rice, is evident in the name “Lakhimi sutra,” where “sutra” refers to the formula or pattern used in the weaving process.
Step 1 – Pond Soaking Method: Traditionally, the bamboo pieces are submerged in a pond for approximately a week. This soaking period allows glucose to seep out of the bamboo, a process that can enhance the flexibility of the material. Additionally, this method serves as a preventive measure against insect attacks, ensuring the durability of the bamboo.
Step 2 – Cutting Bamboo into Hollow Pieces (Paab): Next is to cut the bamboo into two to three hollow pieces, known as “paab.” These hollow sections will form the structural framework for the Mukha masks.
Step 3 – Structure Preparation: Craftsmen then starts to create the basic structure using split bamboo arranged in a hexagonal shape. The choice of jaatibaah, a type of bamboo that is two to three years old, ensures the necessary flexibility.
Step 4 – Cloth Layering: The hexagonal bamboo structure is covered with a layer of cotton cloth dipped in glue. The cloth is dipped in potter’s clay to enhance its strength and durability.
Step 5 – Clay Application: A mixture of clay and cow dung is applied to the cloth-covered structure. The mask is left to dry in the sunlight, allowing the clay and cow dung mixture to set.
Step 6 – Appearance Enhancement: Once the mask is dried, craftsmen work on refining its appearance.
Step 7 – Final Drying: The entire mask is left to dry thoroughly, ensuring that all applied materials are well-set.
Step 8 – Painting: The dried mask is painted using natural colours. The choice of natural colours adds vibrancy to the mask while maintaining an eco-friendly approach. Ornamental details such as crowns, hair and jewellery are also added at this stage.
The use of biodegradable raw materials reflects a commitment to sustainability and the preservation of traditional art using eco-friendly practices.
Bamboo and Cane Residues: Trimming and shaping bamboo and cane for the mask structure may result in leftover pieces or offcuts, which can be considered as waste.
Cotton Cloth Trimming
Jute Fibre and Paper Scraps: Cutting and shaping jute fibre, as well as using paper for layering, may produce scraps or leftover materials.
Sholapith Debris: Shaping and carving sholapith for the mask may generate small debris or offcuts.
Majuli serves as a hub for Assamese neo-Vaishnavite culture. Recognizing its cultural and environmental significance, Majuli has been on the UNESCO Tentative List since 2004 as a potential nominee for World Heritage Site status.
Majuli, originally known as Ratnapur, was situated between the Brahmaputra to the north and the Burhidihing to the south, converging at Lakhu. It served as the capital of the Sutiya kingdom until a massive flood in 1750, triggered by earthquakes in the 17th century, caused the Brahmaputra to change course and form Majuli island. The Ahom king Pratap Singha constructed the Meragarh rampart, and during the Moamaria rebellion, Majuli was controlled by Haoha, a rebel leader.
The shifting confluence of rivers led to the creation of the Burhi Xuti and the Luit Xuti, with the latter evolving into the Kerkota Xuti over time. Majuli, a cultural hub since the 16th century, has been associated with the visit of Srimanta Sankardeva, a social reformer who pioneered the neo-Vaishnavite movement. Sankardeva preached Vaishnavism and established monasteries known as satras on the island, making it a major center of Vaishnavism. Under British rule until India gained independence in 1947, Majuli is now recognized as the world's largest river island, where locals primarily speak Assamese and Mising languages, with some using Deori.
Originally spanning 1,300 square kilometres in the 1790s, it has significantly diminished due to erosion and currently covers 352 square kilometres as of 2014. Positioned at the confluence of the Kherkutia Xuti and Subansiri River, Majuli is accessible by ferry from Jorhat, about 300-400 kilometres east of Guwahati. Shaped by river course changes, especially those of the Brahmaputra and its tributaries,
Majuli, a crucial wetland, hosts rare avian species, particularly migratory birds. Notable species include the greater adjutant stork, pelican, Siberian crane, and whistling teal. Wild geese and ducks fill the skies after dark. Despite its ecological importance, Majuli faces severe soil erosion due to unintended consequences of upstream embankments. Predictions indicate the island may vanish within 15-20 years, with over 35 villages lost since 1991. The Indian government allocated ₹2.50 billion for protection, proposing a four-lane highway and riverbed excavation. Activist Jadav Payeng's Molai Forest combats erosion, providing habitat for elephants, tigers, deer, and vultures.
Majuli's primary industry is agriculture, with paddy rice being the chief crop. The island boasts a rich agricultural tradition, cultivating as many as 100 varieties of rice.
In the education sector, Majuli hosts institutions like Majuli University of Culture and Majuli College Kamalabari. The tourism sector thrives with attractions such as the Vaishnava Satras, vibrant tribal culture, migratory bird watching, and festivals like Ali-ai-ligang, Paal Namm, Folgu Utsav, and more. Birdwatching is particularly rewarding in the southern part of the island, making it a paradise for bird lovers. Majuli can be accessed through various transportation modes. The closest railway station is Jorhat, located just 20 km away, offering well-connected rail services to major destinations in Assam. From Jorhat, travellers can take a ferry to reach Majuli Island. Road travel is facilitated by ASTC buses and deluxe buses operating regularly between Guwahati and Jorhat, with additional bus services from different parts of Assam to Jorhat. Subsequently, ferries become the sole means to reach Majuli from Jorhat. The Jorhat Airport serves as the nearest air link, providing flights to major cities within the state and across India. From Jorhat Airport, travellers need to proceed to Neemati Ghat, situated 14 km away, and then take regular ferries to reach Majuli.
The architectural essence of the Satras on Majuli Island showcases intricate details and distinctive features. The grand entrance, known as Batchora, is adorned with elaborate floral patterns, celestial figures, and hybrid animal sculptures. Inside the Satra, the main entrance, called mukhaduar, is complemented by side entrances known as Petduar. Some entrances feature carved lion motifs (Simhaduar), while others display floral designs called Phuljalikataduar. The central structure of a Satra is the Namghar, or prayer hall, where traditional hymns and kirtans take place. The Namghar's interior boasts artistic motifs, intricately carved doors and windows, decorative posts supporting the prayer hall, hybrid animal sculptures, ancient manuscript paintings, and various artefacts.
The art and architecture within the Satras serve as visual narratives, captivating the minds of residents, nobles, and devotees. The unique structures and details present in the Satras encompass stylish features, distinct motifs, precise compositions, character depictions, a diverse range of colours, and both secular and religious themes.
Majuli's villages, including these Satras and other vernacular settlements, house people from various ethnic backgrounds. The primary ethnic communities in Majuli, such as Misings, Deuris, Sonowal Kacharis, and non-tribal groups like Koch, Kalitas, Ahoms, Chutiyas, Keots, Yogis, and Kaivarttas, each have their distinct characteristics and building typologies. Notably, the Mising and Deuri communities feature a unique house form built on bamboo stilts near riverine tracts, wetlands, and other hydrological features. These settlements are dispersed across the island's diverse natural landscape, incorporating various land types and water bodies. The local people's profound understanding of the island's natural systems is reflected in their nomenclature for each component of the landscape, evolving over time
The Ali aye ligang festival, observed for five days in mid-February, is a significant event on Majuli Island, commencing on the second Wednesday and concluding on the first Wednesday of the Fagun month. During this grand celebration, local delicacies like purang apin, apong (rice beer), along with various pork, fish, and chicken dishes are savoured. The traditional Mising dance, Gumrag Soman, is performed in every village to honour Donyi polo (mother sun and father moon) for a plentiful harvest.
In upper Majuli, the majority of Christians in the Mising tribe celebrate Christmas, with Jengraimukh village being a central hub. Serving as the cultural capital and cradle of Assamese civilization for 500 years, Majuli's satras safeguard ancient artefacts such as weapons, utensils, jewellery, and culturally significant items. Traditional pottery, following methods reminiscent of the ancient Harappan Civilization, is crafted using clay and fired in driftwood kilns. These unique cultures and dance forms remain unaltered by modernism, underscoring the importance of their preservation as noted by sociologists. The hand-loom work of these tribes has garnered international acclaim.
The three-day Raas festival, depicting Krishna's life, involves virtually the entire island, attracting people from distant places, including emigrants. The satras on Majuli have mastered diverse art and craft traditions, with some exclusive to the region. Notably, Natun Samuguri Satra specializes in mask-making, while Kamalabari Satra is renowned for crafting exceptional boats.
Majuli has long served as the nucleus of Assamese neo-Vaishnavite culture, a movement initiated in the 15th century under the guidance of Assamese saint Srimanta Sankardeva and his disciple Madhavdeva. The monasteries, known as Satras, constructed by Sankardeva still stand as enduring symbols of the vibrant Assamese culture. Seeking refuge in Majuli, Sankardeva spent significant time in Belguri in West Majuli, where the historic 'Manikanchan Sanjog' event unfolded, marking his first meeting with Madhavdeva. The establishment of the first satra in Belguri by Sankardeva paved the way for a total of 65 satras in Majuli, yet today, only 22 of the original 65 remain active. In the broader context of Assam, out of the 665 original satras, Majuli housed 65.
Majuli's demographic composition includes Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, constituting 14.27% and 46.38% of the population, respectively. Hinduism is the predominant religion, with 99.04% of the population adhering to this faith. The island is renowned across Assam for hosting a significant number of Satras.
The island is renowned for its pottery, recognized throughout the valley for the design and quality of crafted products and artefacts. Boat making is an age-old tradition, crucial in this flood-prone and waterlogged region where water transport is the primary mode of commuting. Approximately 3,000 families depend on this trade.
Handicrafts and furniture making thrive, particularly in bamboo craft and cane works. Majuli's women exhibit expertise in handloom weaving, creating their own fabrics. Mising women produce the world-famous 'Mirizim' fabric, celebrated for its striking designs and pleasing colour combinations. Additionally, horticulture is practiced, capitalizing on the island's fertile land and suitable climate, albeit mostly on a non-commercial scale.
Natun Samuguri Satra specializes in mask-making.
Auniati Satra – The Ahom Ruler Sultanla established this Satra in 1653 AD. The Auniati Satra has an idol of Lord Krishna that is believed to have been brought from Jagannath Puri. This Satra is considered to be the epicentre of Satriaya and Vaishnavism culture in Assam and is one of the most famous places to visit.
Garmur Satra – This historic Satra was established in 1656 by Jayaharideva and is considered to be one of the Royal Satras of the island. The Garmur Satra houses numerous articles and artefacts that can offer you deeper insight into the beliefs and traditions of locals. During the Raas Festival, both men and women take part in the celebrations, which is against the rules of the other Satras.
Tengapania – Located at the banks of the River Brahmaputra, Tengapania is a mesmerizing site. It houses a golden temple structure and is a great representation of the Ahom style of architecture
Boat ride to see sunset in the East in the Brahamaputra river.
List of craftsmen.