Monday, July 31, 2017

Update on my fieldwork in Majuli, India!

Hi readers! I’ve spent a good part of my summer in Majuli, a 189-square mile river island, located in Indian state of Assam. Majuli is girdled by Brahmaputra* and is one of the many islands that experiences severe erosion both from natural causes, such as seismic activity and flooding which alter the course of the river, and from man-made causes such as badly planned flood prevention methods and the rapid mushrooming of development projects along the course of the river. My project examines the lives that are shaped by this erosion on Majuli, particularly the practice of two religions: one a 17th century neo-Vaishnavite sect of Hinduism called Eksarana, and the other, an indigenous religion called Donyi Polo. In this blog post, I’d like to describe two festivals that took place in the final week of May, even as the island prepared for the monsoon, and even as cyclone Mora crossed the Bangladesh coast.

While the festivals I will describe in this blogpost are celebrated across the island of Majuli, the particular ones that I attended took place in and near Garmur, a town that has grown around two monasteries or Satras where Eksarana is practiced. Surrounding this town are villages where people of the Mishing tribe live, practicing both Hinduism as well as an indigenous religion called Donyi Polo.
Caption: Picture taken while walking along the riverbanks in Majuli. The bamboo structures at the edge are called 'porcupines' and are placed to reduce the force of the river current and prevent erosion along the banks.

On May 28, 2017, I went to the smaller or minor Garmur Satra to join the celebration of an annual festival that brings together the wards of that particular Satra or people who live on the lands owned by the monastery to pray for their well-being and the well-being of the area that falls within this monastery’s jurisdiction. While Majuli is very much integrated into the modern state of India and its ‘well-being’ is now completely governed by an elected democratic government seated in the city of Guwahati in Assam, this festival is telling of a time when monastic jurisdiction was the major form of governance across the Brahmaputra.**

The minor Garmur Satra was a short walk from the Risong lodge, which has become my ‘home’ during my trips to Majuli. Bhajans and Keertans (two forms of songs) echoed across the Satra’s grounds during the entire day, and the Satra’s wards attended them in turn. I spent my day wandering around the town, buying mangoes and apples that had been brought in by boat from the nearby city of Jorhat for the festivities, and watching people travel through rain, and by muddy roads using vans and bikes to attend the day’s festivities.

At 5 pm, I showered and dressed in a pair of new Salwar-Kameez that I had kept aside for festivities and walked to the temple, both a little excited and a little afraid that I, as an outsider, would stand out in the crowd. While I was met not only with curiosity, I was also treated to the kindness of the men and the women who had come together for the final Keertan of the day. I watched the singing from a corner of the temple, trying my best to observe people, without interfering or disrupting the prayer. However, as soon as the last song was sung, Jyoti, a friend I’d made during my last trip came up to me and thanked me for making time to come. He asked me about my research, and then invited me to stay on for the Bhavna, a late-night performance that would celebrate the avatars of Vishnu through theatre and dance. That day, they would celebrate the story of Parasuram, a Brahminical avatar of Vishnu who was forced to prove his loyalty to his father by beheading his mother. Terrifying as that story sounded, I felt excited to be invited to stay and watch the Bhavna, a form of prayer that the Eksarana monasteries are famous for in the Brahmaputra valley.

The performance started a little after 10 pm and continued well past midnight, as the time stamps in my photographs will show. The actors were all male wards of the monastery, trained in the many locally created thespian arts that train them to dress and act as human and non-human characters that span the gender spectrum. While this was low-budget production, the performances were splendid and so moving that it made several members of the audience weep along with the characters of the story. While I did not cry, I could not help me moved by the question that the play seemed to be animating the play: can filial duty be so harsh as to make you choose between your parents? Even as I could see Parasuram struggle with the burden of this choice and with the sadness and guilt of killing his mother for his father, I could not help but also question the gendered nature of this dilemma. Would the mother have asked her son to behead the father if she had been as frustrated with him as he was with her? The performance uses the idea of karma to answer the question. After Parasuram behead his mother, the story punishes the father and rewards the mother. After proving his filial piety, Parasuram asks his father to use his divine strength and bring his mother back to life. Not shortly after this, the father himself is killed in a battle with a king. While Parasuram is once again asked to fulfill his filial duties by killing the King, his father remains dead, leaving Parasuram, at the end of the play, with one parent: the mother, who does not need proof of filial piety, nor is aggressive enough to ask her son to kill for her.

Photo captions (from top to bottom): 1. Song and Dance performances by young monks 2. Parasuram's father meditates 3. Parasuram's mother looks on 4.Vishnu and Lakshmi comment on the story and question filial piety. 5. A young Parasuram makes his entrance 6. Parasuram kills his mother.

As I found my way through the darkness to my lodge, walking along the muddy roads produced by the short but powerful bouts of rain that were forerunners to the monsoon, I could not help but wonder how these performances dictated gendered norms for both men and women on the island. The play wasn’t without a critique, and yet its understanding of gender and the ways in which justice was meted out to gendered violence pivoted around the theosophical idea of karma. Majuli, however, was now a part of a secular Indian state, where it was a democratic judicial system and not cosmically determined karma that would mete out justice. I could not help but wonder at the ways in which two forms of governance and judiciary—one monastic and the other democratic—were intertwined on Majuli.

Gendered norms took a very different turn in the festival I attended two days later in Sitadhar Phuk, a village where the Mishing where gathering to celebrate Dobur, a festival that Donyi Polo followers celebrate to honor Kine Nane, the goddess who takes care of the earth. This festival too is marked by several songs. The prayer however is performed only once a day—around noon—and there are no theatrical events that follow. Instead, a large community comes together to cook and eat food, particularly the meat of an animal sacrificed in the honor of the goddess. That day, a chicken was sacrificed and later cooked with lentils and vegetables, in a spicy sauce and served with a plate of rice, fried fish, greens and potatoes. In this gathering, I was struck by the way in which men and women worked together both in the prayer hall and in the kitchen. While men presided over the festivities, women were very vocal throughout and actively shaped the ideas that were then formally presented as ‘prayer’ to Kine Nane and other Donyi Polo deities.

However that day, the festivities were also disrupted by strong winds blowing from the south, and I later learned that these winds had raged across Majuli around the time that cyclone Mora had hit the coast Bangladesh. After the festivities, a few women and I went to one of their houses, for snacks and a chat, and by the time we called it a day, stronger winds were blowing across the island, and bringing with them heavy bouts of rain. Later that night, a storm crossed the island, and knocked down a few trees. When I asked my female interlocutors if their routines had been disrupted by these, they only laughed, and said, that the fallen trees would make it easier for them to get firewood for the upcoming rainy season. Worshipping Kine Nane, to them, was about being prepared for the disorder that was inevitable during monsoon, and learning to live with it. The only thing that worried them was the unnatural changes that were shaping the monsoons and erosion in addition to the natural environmental disorder that they were already prepared for.

Photo captions (from top to bottom): 1. The Donyi Polo flag 2. Cooking for the masses 3. Momi, Naina and Manalisa, whose powerful voices echoed through the day of celebrations.

In my next blog post, I will describe more of what my interlocutors meant by learning to live with environmental disorder and the chaos during the monsoon. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the photographs from the two festivities, and continue to think about overlapping forms of governance and gender politics, as I do.

Caption: A day after heavy bouts of rain.
*The Brahmaputra originates in China and flows through the state of Assam in India, before cruising into Bangladesh, where it joins the country’s complex river systems and finally empties into the Bay of Bengal.
**Indrani Chatterjee’s archival research in Forgotten Friendships (2013) provides more information on monastic governance in this area.

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