Located in the middle of mighty river Brahmaputra, Majuli is the largest inhabited river Island in the world. The River Island, which is the top seat of Neo-Vaishnavite movement started by 15th Century scholar and reformer Srimanta Sankardeva, is also the first Island district of India.
According to the statistics with the Assam government, there were 65 Vaishvavite Satras in the Island. However, most of them had to shift to other places due to the recurrent erosion problem every year and only 22 Satras exists in the Island now. The erosion had already eaten up more than one-third of the Island’s landmass over the years. While Majuli comprised over 1,256 square km of land in the beginning of 20th century, the Island is reduced to a mere 352 square km in 2014.
Although dominated by the Mishing community, the Island is also home to other ethnic communities like the Deoris, Sonowal Kachari, Nepalis etc. The Vaishnavite Satras set up by Srimanta Sankardeva, his disciples and their descendants in the Island is what gives the Island its unique identity. The Satras which are Vaishnavite Institutions basically preaches about a caste and classless society that seeks spiritual upliftment of every individual. While some Satras as known as ‘Udasin’ Satra, where the Bhakats follows celibacy, in some Satras the Satradhikar (head of the Satra) and the Bhakats are allowed to marry and have a family.
Although all the Satras in the Island follow the basic principles of Neo-Vaishnavite movement, each of them has yet some different identity in terms of their cultural commitments—while some Satras masters the art of mask making, some Satras takes pride over their mastery in Satriya Gayan and Bayan (the music and dance forms that are part of Vaishnavite culture). Some Satras, on the other hand, boasts their expertise for Bhaona (the act based theatrical performance) and Paalnam, the art forms innovated and used by Srimanta Sankardeva to propagate the principles of Neo-Vaishnavite culture.
The cultural landscape of the Island becomes more vibrant during the annual Raas Leela festival, which is celebrated during the month of November in most of the Satras and during the ‘Ali aye ligang’ festival—the main festival of the Mishing community, which is celebrated during the month of February.