Magical Mystery Majuli

March’s column for First City magazine. Bouquets and brickbats welcome.

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Magical Mystery Majuli

As we walked towards the ornate arched gateway, I mentally prepared myself for a bit of a wait. Like all other visitors to northeast India, I’d learnt that time is meaningless here. I wasn’t even sure that I had understood our host’s instructions correctly. But as soon as we walked under the arch, a shadow detached itself from the wall and approached us. It was a boy with a perm.

He was a novice monk, in his mid-teens, with lustrous black hair falling perfectly across white-robed shoulders. In perfect English, he asked, “Are you going to Dulal Saikia’s house?”

“Yes”, we nodded. He switched on a torch and, shining it at our feet, said, “Please leave your shoes here.” Since I couldn’t see any place that looked ideal for shoe depositing, it seemed we were expected to leave our shoes under the archway, which is still in the middle of the road that enters the monastery. We shrugged, not really having a choice, and took our shoes off.

The boy set off into the darkness of the monastery, shining his torch to light the way as we padded our bare feet after him. The ground seemed to be of damp but hard packed clay. We strode past quaint stone cottages with heavyset yet elegant wooden doors besides which were stacked huge bales of hay. The night sky was brilliant in the way stars can be only when you’re far away from a city; Orion’s Belt in particular was having a resplendent evening.

At the end of the path, we turned into the last cottage and were shown to a living room consisting of two large charpoys, several posters of Hindu deities, a transistor radio, and three small footstools. With a flurry of footsteps, our host Dulal entered the room apologizing, “Please sit down and wait for a few minutes….You see, once we start cooking, we are not allowed to touch anything else.”

I was beginning to feel more and more like Alice in Wonderland. Would there be a walrus in the next room? How else to explain two fairly easy-going liberal guys showing up on a beautiful river island and, with a number of options to choose from, ending up as guests of the Clean Sect?

“In fact”, our host continued, “I’ve also just finished my bath, which means I can’t touch you at all, or else I’ll have to bathe again.”

We sat down as he began to bring the meal into the room. I commented to Vik, my travel buddy, on the irony of having to leave our ‘impure’ shoes at the satra (monastery) compound gate and walk about seventy-five meters to the monk’s home while stepping around cows and over cow dung, neither of which appeared to be unclean. He didn’t reply. He was staring in shock at the huge mound of rice on his plate, experiencing that sinking feeling known to many travellers when they realize they have to eat an enormous unappetizing meal or else appear rude and ungrateful.

On Dulal’s return, clad only in white dhoti and ponytail, we sat down to a meal of rice, dal and a miscellaneous sabzi. He apologized for the austerity of the meal but felt sure that since we were all good Hindus, we were used to this, of course. Neither one of us felt it would be appropriate to reveal our very Catholic eat-anything-that-moves upbringings, so we just looked down and tucked in. Well, sort of. Vik picked at his plate, trying to Zen a large cheeseburger into existence, while I began distracting our host with a barrage of questions.

At over 1000 square kilometers in size, Majuli is the world’s largest river island, serenely drifting in the Upper Assam section of the Brahmaputra. In the 16th century a sage called Shankardev founded a new sect of Vaishnavism here, which has flourished healthily in the last five hundred years. Today, the satras play a major role in the religious and social lives of every inhabitant of Majuli. Every family sends one son to be a monk, usually from the age of six; the belief is that if one son becomes a monk, then the whole family will be blessed by God. Translated pragmatically, as our host himself volunteered, the prayers said by the monk over his lifetime compensate for the rest of the family, who can then be more relaxed in their devotion. Still, with pilgrims flocking here every year in numbers matched only by the migratory birds for which the island is also a haven, Majuli is known in some circles as the ‘Vatican of Vaishnavism’.

Ok, great, we thought, but what’s with the tresses? Upon delicate probing, we learnt that Shankardev believed that Vishnu, being the Swamy or husband of the world, needed to be worshipped as such. As a result, the monks of Majuli believe they are the wives of Vishnu; hence the long hair, effeminate mannerisms, and strict celibacy (with the exception of the Puro Sect). But if you are the wives of Vishnu, why not have nuns instead of monks, Vik logically wanted to know. “No, no”, said Dulal looking horrified, “Girls are not allowed to join the monastery.”

Different sects have different kinds of satras and different ways of worshipping, Dulal continued. “We, that is, the Kamalabari (or Clean) Sect, worship only the Gita, but the Auniati (or Brahmin) Sect worships idols of Vishnu and five of his incarnations”, he ended disapprovingly. The next day, I witnessed an Auniati meditation that was unlike anything else I have ever seen.

It took place in a cavernous hall that was about five times as long as it was wide. In the center sat four monks leading the prayer, with fifteen other devotees who ranged themselves in no particular formation along the walls and pillars of the massive hall. The prayer itself was like a mix of a Buddhist chant and a muezzin’s call to namaz, and just as I’d come to terms with that unlikely juxtaposition, I’d be started by a loud yell followed by staccato “Hare Ram Hare Krishna” repetitions. I was mesmerized.

But I digress. Back to dinner, and watching with awe as Dulal took another large helping of rice. By now, he had already eaten more than Vik and I combined. “What’s a typical day in the life of a monk in Majuli?”, I asked.

“Oh, it’s very easy”, came the reply. “You only have to pray fourteen times a day and take good care of yourself and your satra. Otherwise you are free to do as you wish. I myself have two businesses. Besides the guesthouse, I also have a stationery shop in Kamalabari town…what’s wrong? You don’t like your food?” He was looking at Vik, who had barely made a dent in his rice mountain.

“No, no, I’m just a slow eater”, Vik assured him, picking up his plate and wolfing down huge mouthfuls of dal-chaval in a show of respect. Dulal looked pleased. “You know, you boys are different from most Indians. Most of them don’t care about our beliefs and way of life here. Some of them even come all the way, over many roads and crossing many rivers, and when they get here, they refuse to remove their shoes at the gate. So they go back without learning anything.” He puckered his lips. “That way, foreigners are much better.”

After dinner we bid farewell and, pleased to see our shoes lying untouched in the middle of the road, returned to the guesthouse. There, my feeling that Lewis Carrol was messing with me returned when we met Peter, an English traveller from another era altogether, who while using expressions such as ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ and ‘Yankee’ as if they were still part of everyday lexicon, told us a story of being in Sri Lanka in the early 1980s. A young man walked up to him and said, meaningfully, “I’m a Tamil tiger.”

“Pleased to meet you”, Peter replied, wondering what he meant but hoping not to be rude. “I’m an English elephant.”

In Majuli, as I would see over and over again, you get all kinds.

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Acknowledgement: My travels in the northeast were partly made possible through the support and encouragement of Pravah, a Delhi-based organization that is “dedicated to equipping young people with skills essential to building sensitivity and responsibility towards the society we live in, and developing them into positive Changemakers of the future.”

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