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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.