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Samaguri Satra: Mask-Making Hub of Majuli

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 (Samaguri Satra), the center of Majuli’s mask-making culture.

For the uninitiated, a Satra (Pronounced differently in the Assamese, which cannot be written in this script, which is why sometimes people use X instead of S to indicate that and write it as Xatra) 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 or Samaguri”) 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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Satras are the cultural center of not only Majuli but most parts of the Brahmaputra Valley

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 Hall of Faces
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Notun Samaguri Satra

Artist Hemchandra Goswami is an award-winning craftsman who is responsible for developing this craft in recent times. 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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Artist at work…

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.

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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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Masks are not only for display at Chamaguri

I spent a couple of hours appreciating the art form. It is going through some changes considering 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.

Majuli Mask Hanging

Guide to Exploring: Masks in Majuli

Where to explore mask-making in Majuli?

You will see the masks everywhere in Majuli and you can also catch performances wearing them at various satras. You will have to ask around for timing. However, if you want to see the mask-making process, you need to go to the Samaguri Satra, which is the hub of mask-making art.

How to reach Samaguri Satra?

Samaguri Satra is a bit far-off, around 8-10 KMs from the major areas like Garamur or Kamalabari. I checked the map online and cycled to it (bicycles can be borrowed in Majuli for roaming around, for a small daily fee). Otherwise, you can ask around and hire a vehicle.

Can we buy these masks?

Yes, some of them are sold as souvenirs. You can ask the people at Samaguri when you visit it.

Jitaditya Narzary

16 thoughts on “Samaguri Satra: Mask-Making Hub of Majuli”

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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!

  4. 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!

  5. 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!

  6. The quality and detail in those masks is very impressive! I also love the variety, some real nice, some quite scary! Nice article!

  7. 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.

  8. Pingback: Majuli Travel Guide | The Travelling Slacker

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