The evening dinner proved rather expensive. Christine certainly did look stunning in her sari and I felt rather grand in my kirta, although the dhoti was a logistical nightmare that I feel I will never master. However one of our party (Karen) said that I really should purchase the sari for Christine and Neena, the Norland nanny’s eyes gleamed at the prospect of a sale. By the end of the meal I was about £45 poorer having bought both our outfits! I had opted for pyjama rather than a dhoti however.
In the morning we boarded our tender and headed off towards the island of Majuli, which means ‘the land between the water’. It is one of the world’s largest occupied river islands which was formed in 1750 due to massive floods following 3 major earthquakes. However constant erosion means that the island is getting smaller. In 1991 it 2as 1,256kms and now it is a mere 420 sq kms. It might disappear in the next 20 years.
Arable farming (rice and mustard) and fishing are its main concerns along with dairying (buffalo and cow) and hand weaving of both cotton and silk. They also make papier-mâché masks. Pots are made to keep yoghurt in as well.
There are about 200,000 people on the island in 150 villages, mostly speaking Mishing, Assamese or Deori. They are followers of Lord Vishnu.
We docked at the ferry terminal in an area of sand dunes that looked vaguely like something out of the Wild West. There were small stalls that sold snacks and a tariff board for the ferry that even gave you the cost of carrying an elephant with its mahout. We boarded vehicles and bumped our way over the dunes. I caught sight of a beautiful kingfisher, but as we stopped to photograph it it disappeared into its improbably small burrow in the bank. We then joined a tarmacced road and passed through busy, but charming villages with houses built on stilts.
The cars delivered us to a small area of beaten earth in front of a traditional house. This was where we were to witness the dancing and other delights. A brightly coloured curtain hid the retiring room where the cast could be heard shuffling and whispering. The air was filled with anticipation as four musicians started warming up just below the house’s verandah.
The first dance was a solo by an attractive young lady highly skilled in the art. It was quite stunning, but unfortunately, I’m not sure what it portrayed!
Then eight girls (I was going to say maidens, but who can be so sure these days) appeared and danced the ten incarnations of Vishnu. They were excellent, moving with incredible grace and flexibility in their brightly coloured robes.
Finally we had a drama about Lord Vishnu, his wife Parvita and a demon. It was like a pantomime, but very well done, with a particularly nasty villain who laughed and would have twirled his moustaches if they hadn’t been painted on. In the end Hanuman and Vishnu overcame the baddies and it all ended happily ever after. At which point a fish appeared. The fish was beautifully made and moved like a fish thanks to the acting of a man bent over double inside the costume. The first incarnation of Vishnu was as a fish.Then the whole cast came out to take their bows and were rightly applauded to the hilt!
From there we were taken to a satra or monastery. Each temple in Assam has a long corridor leading to the holy of holies called a Namghar and it was here that we were to witness a traditional drum and cymbal dance. However it was the first day of Bihu a 3 day festival that marks the start of the new year, so the monks were engaged in prayer and we were told that our dance would be at least half an hour late.
Still it was pleasant to wander around the square of monks’ cells that surrounded the temple. Each cell or room is subdivided and so is shared by a number of monks. Parents can send children to the satra between the ages of 5 – 9 to get religious training as well as a proper education. At 18 the young men can make up their own minds whether to stay or not. Once they leave there is no return. Monks have to be celibate, but many have jobs in the outside world (journalist, teacher, accountant etc.) returning to the monastery in the evening. The money they earn goes to fund the monastery as does the money from their drumming and dancing. One group is currently in the U.S.A. at the moment.
The singing of the prayers was very pleasant on the ear as we waited and we were amused to watch the children misbehave just like children the world over! Eventually we went in and the monks slowly assembled with their cymbals and drums. What then followed was an electrifying performance that took my breath away. I was so entranced that when they stopped I burst into applause, quite forgetting the stricture not to. Still they seemed very forgiving, which is what you hope for in monks when it comes down to it!
We went back to the boat via ‘a town like Boothill’, only pausing to watch a ferry unload a car and several tens of bikes. After lunch we boarded cars at the dockside and went to Sibsagar, the stronghold of the Ahom civilisation which ruled N.E. India from 1228 to 1817. They came originally from Burma and the dragon is their symbol. They were skilled in
* wet rice cultivation
* saving land from erosion by using bamboo porcupines
* constructing houses on stilts
* irrigation systems
It was an hour and a half’s hair raising journey there, which at least allowed time for a post prandial nap, if you were prepared to place yourself in the hands of God and whatever deities the driver had faith in.
Our first stop was the Talatal Ghar (1751 – 1769), a palace and a military station. It was once huge with 4 floors above ground and 3 floors below. It also boasted 2 tunnels, 1 of them 16 kms long so that the king could escape his enemies. Both are now shut because of earthquakes and indeed the place is in rather a poor state of repair, although work is being done. Still the grounds were very pleasant.
We were hurried on to the Rang Gabriel (House of Entertainment, built in 1734) which was described as an amphitheatre but was more like an arena in which the popular sports of wrestling, archery, elephant fights and buffalo fights could take place, while members of the royal family watched from the safety of the second storey set of rooms, only accessible by elephant. If that sounds unlikely, then le5 me assure you that the steps up stopped a good ten feet off the ground, so not if you arrived on the back of an elephant could you enter! Thankfully today steps have been added to help those you do not possess a pachyderm.
Onward we sped to the Sivadol (Siva Temple)also built in 1734. Night was falling as we walked passed the enormous tank in front of it and around its side to the namghar where priests sit to sell flowers, charms, etc to the faithful. We entered and walked into the temple. Our guide P.K. assured me that pictures could be taken inside but I was hesitant as that is not normally the case. As I raised my camera, I was reprimanded by the priest and a forceful discussion then took place between P.K. and said officiant. I stayed out of it, of course, and the result was, no pictures. However it was fascinating to watch pilgrims pour milk and place flowers and fruit into a hole in the ground where an old siva lingum was to have been found. 3 more modern lingums lingered near by, also annointed at times by milk. The result of all this lactation was a fairly rancid smell and cockroaches the size of small cars…..the ‘Volkswagen cockroach’ anyone?
As w3 left the namghar a priest, friendly to our guide, tied coloured string to our wrists to keep us safe; and can I say that those strings did the business. I have observed before that there is nothing more terrifying than being driven by someone with an innate belief in reincarnation. I wish to correct that observation and say that there is nothing more terrifying than being driven by someone with an innate belief in reincarnation and who is late for their tea. The shades of night had fallen so what we missed on the way home was only identifiable by the bright lights sunny into our windscreen, but miss them we did. At times there may have been little more than a fag paper in it, but that’s enough in my book.
Back at the boat we had a delicious farewell dinner and the ship thoughtfully provided me with a birthday cake for us all to share. They also tactfully only put 4 candles on it…… the ones you can’t blow out! I think 66 will be a birthday I won’t forget in a hurry!