SUNDAY FEATURE: In the Island of Masks – Majuli

Throughout the world masks have been prevalent in rituals and festivities since antiquity. Hollywood movies and popular English Literature has much familiarized us with masks at the masquerade parties in the West. But not many know that India too has a unique cultural legacy of masks and mask making. This fantastic mask craftsmanship has been preserved and is being passed on from generation to generation on a tranquil riverine island of Majuli on the Brahmaputra River in Assam. Today Majuli has carved a special place for itself amongst culture aficionados across the world, especially for its art of mask making.

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Beauty of Majuli lies in its remoteness

Inside Majuli

The island of Majuli can be accessed by ferries via Jorhat city. The dock on the island gives it a barren and desolate look but do not fall for this mirage because as you wheel inside, Majuli welcomes you with lush greenery and offers you the colours, tastes, music, art, languages and traditions of Assam and its tribal communities, especially if you visit it during the festive season around Dussehra and Diwali. Inside Majuli, the island is best enjoyed on bicycles and bikes. The rustic thatched bamboo huts in traditional Mishing style on river side or in the fields create picturesque scenes that calm the mind. As you traverse across Majuli, it is worth observing the everyday life of the agrarian folk here. Homestays are quite popular on this island where the local freshly brewed rice beer and authentic delicacies like Porang Apin (rice cooked in tora leaves), Pamnam (fish baked in banana leaves) among others provide a new experience to the palate.

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Performance at a Satra in Majuli

The island of Majuli is also the seat of neo-Vaishnavite culture of Assam that houses Satras or monasteries that have been established here by Mahapurush Sankardeva in late 15th century. The fine details on the decorative wood panels on some of the ancient Satras here represent the tribal art, folk culture and also the heritage of Ahom Kingdom. These Satras are now important centres of traditional performing arts. Each Satra has a distinct identity and serves as a sanctorium to a different art form. For instance, the Auniati Satra stores ancient artifacts and is famous for traditional Mishing tribal dances and Paalnaam which is form of congregational prayer.

The Dakhinpat and Garamur Satras stage raas leela and bhaonas which are theater performances that make use of the popular dramatic masks made exclusively in Majuli. The most renowned amongst these is Shamaguri Satra that has brought Majuli to the foreground for its art of mask making with some of its remarkable folk creations also being exhibited in Victoria and Alberta Museum in London.

Use of Indigenous material

Majuli is world renowned for its folk art of mask making

What differentiates these masks from other folk masks across the country is that they are made from indigenous material of the island and not plaster of paris, and without the use of synthetic colours. The techniques used for it are in fact being used since medieval times where special attention is paid to the intricate details and technicality (now there are also new kinds of masks that have movable jaws making dialogue delivery easier). The traditional art of making masks is passed down from father to son or from the guru or teacher at the Satra to the students.

The technique involves making a three dimensional bamboo framework onto which clay dipped pieces of cloth are plastered. After drying it, a mix of clay and cow dung is layered on it for adding details and giving depth to the mask. Jute fibers and water hyacinth are used for beard, mustaches and hair. Once the mask is complete, a kordhoni (bamboo file) is used to burnish the mask. And finally, the zeal and drama is given to the masks through deft painting. The mask makers of Majuli preferably use vegetable dyes and colours derived from hengul (red) and hentul (yellow) stones.

The three dimensional bamboo framework

There are three different types of masks that are made. The ‘Mukha bhaona’ covers the face, ‘Lotokoi’ which is bigger in size extends to the chest and ‘Cho Mukha’ is a head and body mask. The masks are made exactly the way luminary Sankardeva described the characters in his ‘Ankitya Natya’ from which bhaonas have emerged. These bamboo masks are very light in weight, making it convenient and comfortable for the performers to put them on. It takes approximately ten to fifteen days to make them.

It is but natural that when you visit this Satra, you have faces of gods, goddesses, demons, fiends, ogres and all kinds of interesting otherworldly characters with raised brows and flared nostrils from Indian mythology and folklore, as attendees either smiling or scoffing at you, spicing your visit to the otherwise peaceful Majuli.

Masks of Majuli
 Fact File

Where: Majuli is the first island district of India located in the Brahmputra river that passes through the beautiful and enthralling Assam.

What else to watch: Majuli is a birdwatchers delight. Rare species of migratory birds arrive here in winter.

Best time to travel: The Island is open throughout the year but October-November is the best time to experience the island in its full vibrancy and festivity.

How to reach: It is a 15km drive from the city of Jorhat to Nimati Ghat from where the island of Majuli can be accessed through ferries. If you’re in luck you can catch a glimpse and enjoy the extraordinary scenes during sunrise and sunset (although ferries generally start by 8:00 am and end by 4:00 pm; timing varies according to season).

Where to stay: There are many hotels and homestays in Majuli. The Satras also offer guesthouses to the devotees and tourists alike.    

Published in The Tribune on 29.11.2020

SUNDAY FEATURE: Palampur – An Enthralling Getaway

The land where sparkling streams and brooks adorn the green carpeted landscape, giving way to spectacular views of the mighty Dhauladhars overlooking the lush green tea gardens, is none other than the alluring Palampur – literally meaning the land of abundant water!

The Tea Capital

Situated in the Kangra Valley of Himachal Pradesh this British tea plant legacy is also known as ‘The Tea Capital of Northwest India’ and is world famous for its ‘Kangra Tea’! Palampur offers you the exquisite experience of strolling and feasting your eyes at the lush green tea gardens all around. The air drips of sensuous aroma of the tea leaves while pine trees render it a relaxing and a rejuvenating quality. One can enjoy time at the Bundla Tea Co-operative or observe tea making process at the Palampur Tea Co-operative.                    

Tea garden in Palampur

People of Palampur are warm and friendly. They celebrate the local festival of Sair with much ecstasy and enthusiasm. The legend has it that worshiping the Shair deity during the Sair Festival protects the region from heavy rains and crop failure, bringing prosperity to the region (and Palampur is indeed one of the most developing and economically thriving regions of Himachal Pradesh!).

 Apart from the exotic tea, the local food is no less tempting! The Khatti Dal, Mithe Chawal and Chooar Ka Raya excite one’s palate. The ayurvedic treatments at Palampur are also popular.

Artist’s Delight!

About 13kms from Palampur is the serene village of Andretta. It is an artists’ village which was once the home for the painter Sobha Singh and playwright Norah Richards. The Sobha Singh Art Gallery and the Andretta Pottery House are quiet a mosaic of art and culture. Another remarkable monument is the 1200 years old Mahadev temple at Baijnath near Palampur.

                      

Mahadev Temple

The Shikahra style architecture and the fine sculpture are prolific in its own kind! The ‘Shivratri Festival’ held there is a well attended fair with people coming in from across the country. Another peculiar thing about Baijnath, as locals told, is that people here worship Ravana for his superb intelligence and knowledge!

The Adrenaline Rush

For those who want sheer adventure- Bir and Billing are the ideal places. They are approximately 35 kms from Palampur and are known well for paragliding and hang-gliding. Every year Himachal Pradesh government conducts International Paragliding Competition at Bir-Billing.

Paragliding at Bir – Billing

Treks can be made from Palampur towards Chamba which are fascinating and easy. A short trek can also be made to Neugal Khad on the periphery of the town which is an awe-inspiring chasm. The more tough treks are from Sanghar Pass to Bharmaur via Holi and from Baijnath over the Jarser pass to Bharmaur.

Other places to see nearby…

  • The Saurabh Van Vihar, in the vicinity of the Neugal Khad is a well preserved natural park – ideal for picnics!
  • The Taragarh Palace which was  once the summer palace of the last Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir is worth visiting. It is now a luxury hotel.
  • The Tashijong monastery near Taragarh is also very impressive.
  •  The monolithic rock cut temples at Masroor, about 40kms from Palampur, are a stunning architectural piece of art.
  • The temples of Jawalamukhi and Chamunda Devi are popular pilgrimage centres.
  • The Kangra Fort located on the outskirts of the town of Kangra makes one walk through the walls of history.
  • The Kangra Toy Train journey to Palampur is also a great experience with beautiful views to lay your eyes on!

FACT FILE

How to reach:

 Palampur is well connected by all means of transportation. The Kangra airport is just 40 kms from Palampur. The nearest railway station is at Maranda which is about 3 kms from the main bus stand. Palampur is 254kms from Chandigarh via Pathankot by road.

Where to stay:

There are many hotels and resorts in Palampur to stay in.

Climate:

The mild climate makes Palampur a comfy zone for every tourist.

Best time to visit:

Palampur can be visited throughout the year but the best time would be from March to June and mid September to November.

Published in Identity India in its August 2013 issue

SUNDAY FEATURE : Sangla Chitkul – The Ultimate Retreat

With the scorching sun, parched landscape and ever thirsty air – it is indeed a fortune to travel to areas of extraordinary beauty in the picturesque Himalayan range, splattered with glaciers and turquoise blue lakes, rivers and streams. Travelling to remote areas is always thrilling but only a few offer adventure and spirituality with the aroma of love. And Sangla-Chitkul proves to be one such perfect summer retreat package!

En route

On the way to Sangla, Shimla can be the first stopping point. Tour around the famous mall with its church and mock Elizabethan architecture to sink in the city’s feel. Sangla is a ten hour drive from Shimla. Sangla and Chitkul are in Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh. Kinnaur is a land of legends and is bestowed with the choicest bounties. It has the Great Himalayan range and the high Dhauladhar ranges surrounding it. The road is good for most of the journey up to Rampur except for few stretches in between and is fairly decent up to the valley. While en route to Sangla, apart from the serene views there is a huge statue of Lord Hanuman which is awe-inspiring with the beautiful mountains in the backdrop. It is built in a temple compound on the side of the road after crossing Rampur and is quite eye catching. The journey can take on the spirits but it’s worth the ‘heaven’ in close proximity.

Hindustan – Tibet Highway

The redolence of Love and Spirituality

Sangla Valley is also called Baspa Valley. It follows the 95km long Baspa River which gives breath taking view. The valley is a remote area with nature in its pristine form and a romantic enchantment that is un-ignorable. Saffron fields, cumin crops, apple and walnut orchards fill the valley-rendering the air with love and passion. The road climbs the steep slopes giving way to beautiful alpine meadows.

The scent of apples in the air is overwhelming

Sangla is the largest village in the area and is situated on the hind side of Kinner Kailash range. It is built high on a slope with the village houses rising in tiers. The local people have a distinct Kinnauri dialect and culture. The fruit, the charming faces of Kinnauri women, music and rhythm of the Kinnauri community life are irresistible.

Kinnauri women in their traditional attire

 It is here that one gets to see and experience the subtle mergence of Hinduism and Buddhism. Nag Temple and Devi Maa Temple are typical examples of this amalgam in the valley. The Nag Temple is also central to the flamboyant Phulaich Festival – ‘The Festival of Flowers’ which is held annually in September. The villagers from around the place get together at the festival. They dress up in colourful clothes and sing and dance under the trees. It is a splendid experience and a real feast to the eye and soul! The village of Kamru, situated about two kilometers above Sangla, can also be visited for the temple of Kamayakha Devi. The castle like temple has the idol of the goddess Kamayakha brought from Assam centuries ago.

Kamayakha Devi Temple

The last village

Chitkul can be reached via Barseri and Rakcham. Barseri is a green valley in the midst of barren surroundings. Immediately above the village of Barseri is Rakcham. Here the valley widens and the road passes through wooded hillsides. Finally, Chitkul is the last village on the old Hindustan –Tibet trade route. It is also the last point one can travel to, without permit. The road does not lead to the border but closes around 90 kilometers before it. The rest of the area is under the control of Indian Parliamentary force ITBP.  

A wooden hut at Chitkul

Of particular interest at Chitkul are its houses, with either slate or wooden plank roofs, Mathi Devi temple, a small tower and potatoes (they are famous for their distinct taste and texture; and the high price!)

The Mathi Devi temple is apparently the oldest in the valley and has beautiful pagoda style architecture. The place evokes feelings that are hard to define in earthy terms. The small monastery at Chitkul has a highly valued, old image of Sakyamuni Buddha. There are four statues of directional kings on either side of the door, as well as a wheel of life.

Trekkers’ call!

For those who are fond of trekking, there is a beautiful trek up the Baspa from Sangla through Chitkul to Dhumti. A trek to Nagasthy up to the last Indian post is also a good option if with family since it is easy and flat. The 1,000-year-old Rekong Peo, known for the chilgoza forests, the Nako Lake and the Kalpa valley are just 55 km away and definitely worth a visit. One can also trek to Yamunotri, Harsil or Har-ki-dun directly from Chitkul but these are difficult treks requiring thorough preparation and proper equipment.

Baspa river flowing next to Chitkul

The valley is considered one of the most beautiful, astonishing and spell binding in the entire Great Himalayas. Trekking or hiking across it is a gift in disguise. One feels more than eyes can see! It’s a place where waters meet below, while snow capped mountains touched the sky. It’s a place where a wandering traveler could find solace.

FACT FILE

Best time to travel: May to October is a good time to visit but April-June and September-October would be the best. Avoid during Dusshera and Durga Puja season!

Climate: It is cool but nevertheless it might get chilly even in summers so do take some woolens along.

How to reach: Chitkul is about 255kms from Shimla. Follow the NH22 till Karchham via Narkanda, Jeori and Rampur. At Karchham, take a right diversion and go via Rakcham and Sangla to reach Chitkul.Where to stay: There are a few hotels and resorts. Also, booking can be done at the HPPWD Guest House.

Published in Hindustan Times on 24/6/2013