Majuli, an island on the River Brahmaputra in Assam, is a retreat as elemental as it is spiritual. Photographer Sankar Sridhar captures its misty mornings and the unique people that inhabit them.

Majuli
An early evening stroll in Majuli means a walk at 3.30 pm. But the languorous life ensures there is always time to stop, chat, and smile for a photograph, even if the request is made by an absolute stranger.

A group of novice monks await their guru, huddled together, hands crossed under white robes wrapped tightly around their bodies as protection against the early morning nip in the air.

Majuli
A novice monk in his living quarters.

Cool, misty mornings are among the perks of being surrounded by a river. This perk is amplified when the river is the mighty Brahmaputra, and the island is the one declared by Guinness World Records to be the largest river isle in the world.

Majuli
While stubble-burning is practised even in Majuli, the Islanders’ isolation means they reduce and reuse most of their resources. Most of the hay is used as fodder for the cattle the villagers keep. The extra hay is used as thatch to mend and redo roofs of their mud houses.

Other benefits of living in Majuli include fertile soil and ample solitude. This was, perhaps, what drew the Vaishnava saint Srimanta Sankardev and his disciples here in the 15th century, where they set up 66 sattras (said to translate to ‘unique monasteries’). Here, away from the prying eyes of the world, Sankardev developed an equally unique way of worship through dance and drama called sattriya nritya.

Bhokots (monks) in the island’s many monasteries say the saint chose performance arts as the means to pray and preach because it transcended barriers imposed by language and geography.

Majuli
A monk shows off his dancing skills before a performance. It takes each monk a decade or more of practice to be considered fit to perform a major role on stage.

The farsight in this choice shows. For starters, the indigenous Mishing people (originally from Arunachal Pradesh, but who made this island home centuries ago) live in peaceful co-existence with the monks. And while they continue to follow their animistic faith, they have, over time, imbued the tenets of Vaishnavism as well.

Majuli
A monk dressed as Ravana is escorted to the venue of his performance. While all the other characters can fit on one boat, Ravana, with his outstretched hands and 10 heads, needs a special ride.

That’s not all. Sattriya Nritya has found followers all around the globe. Today, monks from the sattras regularly tour the western world and even conduct workshops on the art-form. It’s nice to see the world, the monks say, but they always count down to the day they are to head back home, to the island and its silences.

Majuli
Ponds, lakes, and streams dot Majuli’s landscape. Although it is ranked as the world’s largest river isle, Majuli is speculated to have lost one-third of its area to erosion in the last four decades. Given the extent of the annual flooding this island sees, every home on the village has a boat. For the other months, transport is usually bicycles or motorbikes, depending on the distance the rider has to cover and the hurry he is in.

And so life goes, on this languorous river isle: the bhokots continue to lead spartan and mostly self-sufficient lives, dividing their time between worldly chores—cooking, farming, grazing cattle, and attending school—and higher pursuits—meditating, learning to play musical instruments such as the dhol, flute, and cymbals, practising yoga to stay fit, and studying scriptures.

Majuli
There are no easy roads in Majuli. Even a visit to the market entails walking across small bamboo bridges and through paddy fields.

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