Freedom by foot

On the 9th of September 2011 we set out from England to the continent by ferry to begin our adventure in earnest. By foot we will make our way to the first destination, which is Milan, from there we will be flying over to Bangalore for an archaeological conference (as you do) and an escape from the harsh European winter.

At any and all points in our little wander we will be on the look out for interesting and exciting places and people to learn from. Our journey begins with a zeal for experiencing ancient and traditional life & new innovative ways of living for the future.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Sore Bums & Satras

Majestic Majuli Monk

We haggled our way onto a rickshaw and headed to the ghats (docks), where we boarded one of the overcrowded wooded boats that chug the hour-trip downstream to Majuli. Next to the loading boat stood a great big board with prices for travelling on the boat. Not only were there the normal passenger and bicycle tickets, but to our great amusement it was only a few hundred rupees to take a tiger on board and if you really feel like 'pushing the boat out' you can spend just over 10 pounds to take an elephant all the way over to the island. Brilliant.

The boat bobbed inches above the water with about one hundred passengers, 3 cars and dozens of motorcycles vying for space on the deck, as we headed to the island (sadly no wild animals joined us this time). The river was empty, the dusty silver sand shores crumbled and reflected their neutral colours into the water, which made the whole trip feel as if the landscape around hardly changed. Stark and yet magically stunning, this boat trip was a very peaceful hour of thought.
We arrived and caught a car along the dusty tracks that are raised above ground level for protection against floods and erosion. This gives a spectacular viewing point for travelling around and seeing this beautiful new haven. Streets were lined with bamboo huts, children ran around, lush green trees, paddy's and big fishing pools filled our eager eyes. This wasn't much different to describe as the landscape we had just come from, however a feeling of tranquillity filled us as we watched this new place.

We arrived at the pad of our 'contact' and met his family. Dulal is a former monk and now runs a small shop. He is also the goto guy on the island, being the point of contact for Michael Palin when he did his Himalaya series 8 years ago (as Dulal was all to keen to show us). We dumped our stuff in the nearby guesthouse (possibly the most basic yet) and went about exploring the island. We were lead into the associated satra (Dulal's old monastery) and watched the rehearsal for that evenings dance performance. Which turned out to be an amusing affair including incredible flexibility, skill and femininity of the young monks dances and a power cut, that led to the performance being finished under the romantic glow of a battery strip light.

Our first day, Moon, the monk in charge of the guesthouse lent us 2 sturdy Indian bicycles, a tad on the small side for our long pegs but we managed to navigate our way safely across the old bamboo bridge and out onto the island’s winding networks of small mud paths. Along we went for almost 15km, stopping for a banana and coconut biscuit fix before reaching our first place of interest. We had been recommended to head to the famous Majuli mask makers, as this family have become renowned for their exotic and complex masks. As we arrived bumbling along on our new wheels we were presented with a humble old Satra, a few men chopping down some rather large bamboos and a man who beckoned us in. We settled into his simple show room, he slung a visitors book at us instantly and the thousands of international names written inside the visitor book made us wonder whether we were in fact just more pesky tourists. However once we realised this was just a pleasure and a pride to have us write about his masks, we settled back and let the masks speak for themselves. The masks are made with a bamboo woven frame before being covered in a layer of fabric and mud. Most of the masks are finished with bright oils with thick black outlines around each of their eyes. Some of the masks were over 30 years old, and retained a dusty yet dominant presence amongst the newer models. His father was the famous maker, and from this his sons have continued his passion. They run yearlong courses to teach this art form and occasionally receive commissions for making huge sculptural masks for big festivals. After drinking tea and being shown the basics we left him to continue his days work. Wobbling off on our little cycles we talked about the masks, and though we valued this type of fine and sacred art form we realised that our real interests lie within more domestic arts, skills, crafts and ways of life.

So as our luck would have it, we bumped into Gilly. A young lady from Israel, working for a local NGO, Impact NE. As one of her many projects, she is beginning to implement a subtler approach to tourism where tourists can go and eat lunch in the local peoples homes, a simple way to experience the life of the tribal Misings, a way to understand their lives in more depth and to ensure the families have some kind of independent financial backing when more floods and erosion of the island destroys more of their land. We let her be assured she could rely on us to be her guinea pigs for this project. She embraced our offer gladly. We seem to becoming good at this.

That evening we ate in the Satra with the young monk of 19, Devandra.
All fashioning thick long black hair (as they believe themselves to be the wives of God) and various elegant white robes strewn across their dark bodies, the monks can have more of an effect than they realise. DevandraMajuli facts, of which I shall share. Majuli now has 22 remaining Satras/Monasteries from the original 64. This gradual loss of Satras is nothing in compared to the exponential  erosion of the island that is rapidly taking place, at current it is 650km2. These conversations when on Majuli were not infrequent, the topic of their homeland and its troubles was openly and greatly discussed. Reflecting on this particular evening, we went off barefooted through the Satra, back to our room.
We ate with Devendra every night after this. A magical and unique addition to our time in Maujli.

Never before had my bottom hurt so much. I may have been romantic about the winding mud tracks, but in truth, when one cycles 40km on bumpy roads and rock hard saddles, the result is quite painful. Marc suffered less, and so took great pleasure in telling the monks of my painful rear, but he did sympathise with me enough not to suggest another days bike ride. Instead we walked about 20km to the islands biggest Satra, home to 450 monks and it was only then that I was persuaded to jump back on the saddle and go for a little pootle. My god, we went all round the houses, determined to reach the north coast. Though it was just a few miles away we just kept being taken on detours. The journey along the way however was stunning, peaceful and full of things for the eyes to see. Exhausted but buzzing we returned to Komolabari and ate some fantastic veggie momos and watched a black smith making a special knife for harvesting rice.

Early the next morning we dressed and shot off on our wheels towards the pot maker’s village. Slightly disconcerted that it was actually only a bit further along than the mask makers Satra, which we hadn’t realised at the time, but both happy to be embarking on a new adventure. We stopped en route at a tiny roadside café with one table and 4 chairs. We sat and ate puri and sabji with 2 other men indulging in this roadside delicacy and paid a satisfying 40pence for it. Peddling onwards and onwards, embracing the bumps and turns, feeling much more accustomed to the roads, we swung a right and begun to see we had reached our destination. Children in their blue uniforms popped out from behind the great piles of round bottomed, red clay pots. Two of the cheekier looking specimens took us further into the village, where we found ourselves right on the banks of the river, covered in small clay pits and boats stuffed to the brim with pots pots pots. A group of people were stood on a huge mound of earth removing the finished ash covered vessels from what turned out to be one of my favourite wood-fired kilns yet.

Annoyingly, I will abandon writing any more detail about this experience. It’s purely so we can write it up later in more depth Believe me you will all be glad of it.

Speeding off again, we decided to take some more interesting routes home. We followed the river bank eastward, further past more of the pottery villages, every space filled with more and more vessels piled high and the huge kilns dotting the landscape. Heading inland only when our path way fell into the crumbling river bank. We cycled for the rest of the day, following the occasional path that led nowhere and the occasional path that led to new adventures. One track headed straight over a tiny bamboo bridge, with an elderly lady carrying newborn goats over the narrow crossing. We stopped and Marc helped some men and boys fish amongst the thicket of water hyacinths. It was an amusing event, resulting in a handful of tiny alien fish with each haul from the murky depths.

Majuli days were really all about the cycling, we saw so much of the Mising villages because of this freedom, we learnt so much from being able to take our time. I felt this was a similar pace to when we were walking. I missed the slowness and the independence of this way of travel. So on the last day we relied on the wheels again and went off for a bike ride with Devenadra, he took us to a bamboo tourist complex, peaceful but strange to turn up just to look, but there was a magical river near by and multiple ganja plants lining the pathways. Amusing. We sang all the way along the roads, I think poor Devenadra thought we were mad, but he smiled all the way too. As we whizzed back into the town, we realised we had to go with Gilly for our Mising lunch, so off straight away with her, charging through more muddy tracks. Amazed, we entered one of the most beautiful bamboo houses we had seen yet! Welcomed by two lovely smiling people, it was comforting that Gilly had spent time here and so the atmosphere was very relaxed. We sat on the floor and chatted, helped them prepare lunch, though they really didn’t like their guests doing work. They fed us with Apong, the home made rice beer and the Vodka too. The food was cooked in the middle of the room on a fire raised on a mud bed. Me and Marc’s fascination with the architecture grew and grew from just the few hours of being in the house. The breeze and sunlight pours in gently and creates a very peaceful space to be in. We ate the rice and fish and veg masala, our bowls regularly being topped up and enjoyed a contented afternoon. A brilliant end to our stay in Majuli. The next day we caught the early ferry, enjoying the company of all the men on board, playing cards in the morning sunlight.    

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful read. i am so glad that the cycle ride we shared to Conques earlier in the year was in preparation for further two wheeled explorations. Travel safe and Happy New Year to you both. xx