Masks of Majuli

Jitaditya Narzary

Is a traveller disillusioned by the familiar and fascinated with the unknown... and of course the founder of this blog.

I visited Majuli, one of the world’s largest river islands, way back in February but somehow never wrote about it on the blog although I wrote one elsewhere. I am still toying with the idea of a bigger piece on it. But as of now, I am doing this short one on Notun Chamaguri Xatra (Satra), the center of Majuli’s mask making culture.

For the uninitiated, a Satra (Pronounced differently in Assamese, which cannot be written in this script, which is why sometimes people use X instead of S to indicate that) is a Vashnavite monastery prevalent in Assam that also acts as a cultural center of its locality. For more details of this 500 year old tradition, you can check this wiki.

I was cycling through the island, without trying too hard to do anything in particular. I visited some of its bigger Xatras but found them to be too big and institutionalized for spending some quiet time. I decided to visit Chamaguri (pronounced more like “Samoguri”) because I was told that it was a smaller one, focused on one particular craft.

It was a bit far away from my place and I had to cycle for a couple of hours to cover 15 KMs. Also, it was indeed a small one, so much so that I missed it completely and cycled past it. After a while, I got confused and asked a local, who sent me back to the right place. It just looked like an ordinary house from outside, but as I peeked through, some otherworldly heads stared back.

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I first entered a room full of heads and only heads. These heads represented various mythological characters and creatures. It was almost as if someone had entered fantasy land and beheaded many of them and brought back as trophies. My macabre imagination apart, this represented some of the finest specimens of this art form that has been honed for centuries by this family.

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The Satradhikar (Head of the Satra), Hemchandra Goswami is an award winning craftsman too. The entire family practices this craft and although I could not meet him, I met Dhiraj Goswami, one of the next generation artists from the family, who was busy giving finishing touches to a Ganesha mask.

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Here it must be noted that these masks are not only for display. They are used in the Bhaonas, traditional dramas where mythological stories are enacted by actors by wearing these masks to depict respective characters. Goswami even demonstrated a few of them by wearing them himself. All these masks have a frame made of bamboo underneath, which is then covered with clay and then painted to come up with the faces.

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I could see Ravana with ten heads, Narasimha, Varaha, Hanuman, and many other characters. But the best ones are the ones representing demons and other unsavory characters, good enough to silence nagging children.

Apart from the ceremonial masks, I could also see a lot of small as well as large masks that will never fit an actor’s head. These are nowadays being made and sold as souvenirs as tourism is steadily growing in the state. I was told that many foreign tourists are now visiting the place, and learning mask making.

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I spent a couple of hours appreciating the art form. It is going through some changes considering the tourism nowadays. But the hold of the satras as a socio-religious institution is strong in these parts of Assam and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. So, I would like to believe that these artforms are still doing well in the 21st century unlike some others elsewhere in the country.

Jitaditya Narzary

Is a traveller disillusioned by the familiar and fascinated with the unknown... and of course the founder of this blog.

15 thoughts on “Masks of Majuli

  • 2017/07/11 at 4:47 pm
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    माजुली द्वीप अपनी खुद की विरासत सम्भाले हुए है।

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  • 2017/07/12 at 12:58 am
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    I can’t believe the town was so small you cycled right past it! The detail in those masks is incredible. I love finding art like this off the beaten path.

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  • 2017/07/12 at 1:14 am
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    What a fascinating place, and only a bike ride away from your house. I hear you on the changes tourism brings but it also seems like sales of masks and mask-making classes would help sustain Chamaguri and other xatras. A mixed bag, if you will.

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  • 2017/07/12 at 1:22 am
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    Had been to Maujali ages ago and dont really remember much about the place, but surely remember rows and rows of ‘mukha’ aka the masks lined along 4 houses near a paddy field. You brought back some memories with this post 🙂 Nicely captured!

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  • 2017/07/12 at 2:23 am
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    wow, this sounds like a great place to visit, I can see why you spent hours here. The different masks are so interesting, are they all different if made by hand? Tha animal shaped ones are my fav although I see why you like the demons!

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  • 2017/07/12 at 2:02 pm
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    This is a really interesting post, and about an artform I’ve never heard about! I must admit, some look quite scary and intimidating! I’m not sure how I would be watching them in a performance! Thanks for enlightening us travellers on this unknown subject!

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  • 2017/07/12 at 3:21 pm
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    I love collecting masks from around the world. These masks are so colourful. Though a bit intimidating. But that’s what makes them interesting.

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  • 2017/07/12 at 5:02 pm
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    The quality and detail in those masks is very impressive! I also love the variety, some real nice, some quite scary! Nice article!

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  • 2017/07/13 at 3:55 am
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    It seems like you have had a great adventure in Majuli. The masks do look a bit scary I have to say. It sure looks like these art forms are still doing well.

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  • 2017/07/13 at 5:28 pm
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    These masks are so beautiful. Such vibrant colours.Well worth the 15km+ ride here.

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  • 2017/07/18 at 9:52 am
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    Amazing and interesting !!

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  • 2017/08/02 at 7:36 am
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    Interesting information; haven’t been aware of such a place 🙂

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