Salmora Potters of Majuli – A Journey through Time and Space

From the beginning of human civilisation, our ancestors had mostly preferred river banks to settle. Rivers are dual in nature. On the one hand, their fertile plains are extensively exploited for farming and their courses are used for mobility and trade. On the other hand, rivers periodically bring catastrophes through floods damaging livelihood in no time.

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It was through river-based trade India witnessed the second urbanisation around the middle of 1st millennium BCE in the region of the Ganges in North India. Buddhism was also spread through merchants and traders along the major river basins. Through river trade Srenis or Sresthis (trade guilds) had carried out the business of trade commodities, the major item being ceramics or pottery.

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There were different kinds of luxury and everyday use of pottery traded in Ancient India. Among the luxurious pottery, Northern Black Polished Wares (dish and bowl) were in high demand. It had reached to a large part of the Subcontinent through river trade. These were used among emerging aristocrats and elites as symbols of status in Ancient India.

Two millennia have passed. It is difficult to visualize with 100% accuracy the mechanism of Early Historic Pottery trade – how were the ceramics made, who made them, how were they bartered or sold through river trade, what kinds of watercraft were used and so on.

Travel Tips

Majuli is world’s second largest river island located in the newly created Majuli District in Upper Assam on the banks of Brahmaputra. To reach Majuli one has to take ferry service from Koklimukh Ghat at a distance of 15 km from Jorhat Town, which is connected by both rail, bus and air services. It takes about 1 hour 30 minutes to reach Majuli. Salmora Village is about 25 km from Gormur, the heart of Majuli Island. While at Majuli visit various Namghars, a Vaishnava institution established by 16th century Saint Sankardev. Bicycles are the best options to commute within Majuli in one’s own pace. Hummingbird School is located in remote Kulamuha Village. Pathorichuk is yet another Mishing Village which can be reached after crossing three wooden bridges over a river. You can also have a boat ride in beels and rivers at your own pace. While at Majuli visit Samagri Satra for the masks. Made of bamboo and dried cow dungs these masks depict special characters and used in various religious dramas called Bawna. For a gastronomic experience try patta dia mas (fish backed in banana leaf), chicken kharika (chicken roasted in sticks) and fish curry (Oo Tenga Mas Jul) along with fresh vegetables. 

Salmora village in the southeast corner of Majuli Island on the bank of mighty Brahmaputra has somehow kept the historic tradition alive. Close to Dakshinpath Satra, the Kumar potters of Salmora make handmade pottery and supply them to various villages inhabited by Mising community apart from Assamese villages through river trade. They also make watercraft for sailing in the Brahmaputra and its tributaries. Size and shape of boats vary depending upon its usage in various kinds of water bodies including ponds and swamps. The business of pottery is partly through the barter system and partly through direct selling.

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Misings use them to make and store apong (rice beer) and in return provide black grams and other food items to Kumar Potters.

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Misings of Majuli – An Anthropological Journey

The craft has survived among 600 families inhabiting the south-eastern fringe of Majuli in the villages of Salmora, Barboka and Besamara. Though there are no historical records of their origin, however many historians agree that the craft was introduced during the reign of Ahom kings.

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According to a legend, the Kumar potters came to Assam from Burma during 7th century BCE. According to yet another legend, during the 13th century CE, when Chalung Sukapha came to Assam crossing the River Irrawaddy he brought with him about 11 Bor (large) Kumar families from Hong Kong in China.

The Kumars settled first in Sadiya on the bank of River Brahmaputra in Upper Assam and then migrated to Majuli in search of suitable clay required for making pottery. It was during 13th to 16th centuries migrations to Salmora took place in phases.

Apart from making pottery, the Kumars also make boats. A legend goes: in the earlier time, the Kumars used to arrange their pots on the banks of rivers and would wait for customers to buy. These banks would be regularly visited by merchants and sailors of large ships during the heydays of Ahoms. Many of these merchants would be attracted to the beautiful pots displayed for sale by the Kumars. In the course of time, these sailors started influencing Kumars to make boats so that it would be easier for them to commute long distances through river courses. The Ahom King Joyadhaj Singha had brought a family from amongst the Kumars to Salmora Village. The family members were well-versed in the art of boat making. Through the members of this family, the art of boat making was established in Majuli.

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There are about 26 varieties of earthen pots produced by the Kumar potters of Salmora. Some of these are locally called mola, madia, choru, pati kalah, becha ikalah and chaki. The making of pots is primarily done by the womenfolk.

During the monsoon season, the earth is dug with shallow pits spread wide to store clay during floods. In this season, fresh alluvium is deposited in abundance on river banks, which is used for making pottery. The glutinous clay is extracted from 60-70 feet deep pits on the river banks. After extraction, the clay is then transported back to their homes where it is further mixed with water and left to stand for a day.

After the monsoon is over, the women potters prepare the puddle with clay, silt sandy mix for primary lump. Then they give shape by hands. Following this, they dry the pots under the sun and finally take them to a furnace. The furnace is prepared by men potters with bamboo, banana leaves and dry wood. Tools used by potters are made from locally available timber and bamboo.

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Today, the eroding Brahmaputra is threatening to the extinction of this ancient craft. In the last couple of years, the river island has shrunk from 1250 square kilometre to 400 square kilometres. Flooding in Brahmaputra force people to shift their villages from one area to another within Majuli from time to time. Ironically, Salmora is also not spared. On top of this, according to experts of the Brahmaputra Board, the government organization which has been involved in anti-erosion projects on the island since 2004, the digging of pits for clay soil makes the river bank vulnerable to erosion by the river. Potters of Salmora blame the district administration for restricting them from digging on the banks since the last couple of years. This is affecting their livelihood and also the craft that has the link of India’s five thousand years of civilisation.

Author – Jitu Mishra

He can be contacted at jitumisra@gmail.com

Misings of Majuli – An Anthropological Journey

Year 2017! Bipin Sivaji Dhane, a young alumnus of IIT Kharagpur visits Majuli and it was love at first sight. Bipin left his lucrative job in cosmopolitan Singapore to start a school in a remote village for the children of Mising Tribe. A new journey was embarked upon through partnering with local Mising community leaders to bring in qualitative changes in the area of school education in a land that is gifted and cursed at the same time. Today Bipin’s school ‘The Hummingbird’ has become a ray of hope for the Mising children and is thriving as a model for the rest of India on community-driven education. In December 2018 I was fortunate to be here spending 3 days with the Mising tribe, about whom I had heard a lot but not experienced life with them.

The meaning of the word Mising – Mi (Men), Yashing (Bright or God), which means – ‘We are bright or Good People’.

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According to Mising folklore on their origin myth, there is a common origin of the three groups – Mising, Padam and Minyong from the creator of the universe itself.

The myth goes: Sedi Babu (father Sedi), the Supreme Being is the creator of all the living and non-living beings in the universe. Sedi Babu first created Melo Nane, the creator mother and they together created Dietem (the earth), Rukji Meran (the ants and insects) and Peyi-Peltang (the birds and animals). At the same time, they created Sun (Donyi) and Moon (Polo), and wind (echar), water (asi), fire (enic) and other objects of the universe. Sedi then created Diling who was survived by Litung. Litung was survived by Tuye, Tuye by Yepe and Yepe by Pedong. Pedong gave birth to Dopang, Domi and Doshing. The son of Dopang was Padam and his offspring are the Padams of today. The son of Domi was Minyong whose descendants are known as Misings.

Sedi created the sun and the moon, which act as the two eyes of the Supreme Being through which he watches the people of the earth and no man can hide or escape from them. Both the Misings and the Adis share the common belief and regard the Sun and the Moon as the manifestation of Supreme Being. The cult of Donyi Polo has a great influence on the Mising as well as the Padam and the Minyong tribes. No ceremony, either secular or ritual ever begin without invoking Donyi Polo for their blessings.

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Today the Misings (earlier known as Mirs) are one of the largest tribal groups in Assam. There are a small number of Mising villages also found in the lower hills of Arunachal Pradesh. Capt Nuefille was the first British officer who reported about the Misings of the Assam Valley in 1825. At that time the Misings inhabited the north bank of Brahmaputra River. Now they are settled in a much wider region of Upper Assam. However, their maximum concentration is in Majuli and North Laxmipur Districts on the banks of various rivers and streams.

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Travel Tips

Majuli is world’s second largest river island located in the newly created Majuli District in Upper Assam on the banks of Brahmaputra. To reach Majuli one has to take ferry service from Koklimukh Ghat at a distance of 15 km from Jorhat Town, which is connected by both rail, bus and air services. It takes about 1 hour 30 minutes to reach Majuli. While at Majuli visit various Namghars, a Vaishnava institution established by 16th century Saint Sankardev. Bicycles are the best options to commute within Majuli in one’s own pace. Hummingbird School is located in remote Kulamuha Village. Pathorichuk is yet another Mishing Village which can be reached after crossing three wooden bridges over a river. You can also have boat ride in beels and rivers at your own pace. While at Majuli visit Samagri Satra for the masks. Made of bamboo and dried cow dungs these masks depict special characters and used in various religious dramas called Bawna. For a gastronomic experience try patta dia mas (fish backed in banana leaf), chicken kharika (chicken roasted in sticks) and fish curry (Oo Tenga Mas Jul) along with fresh vegetables. 

 

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The Mising migration to the plains of Assam was spread over a long period of time, commencing approximately in the 16th century and ending only in the early decades of the 20th century. According to their folklore, the community had originally occupied the area upstream of the Dihong River, while the Minyong inhabited the area north of Dihong up to the eastern bank of Dikhari River. The Padams lived between the Dibong River in the east and the Dihong River in the west.  Despite their common origin and the common cult of Donyi Polo, the relationship between the three communities could not remain brotherly and peaceful. Although they occupied independent through contiguous mountainous terrains, they were engaged in regular conflicts over the possession of the valleys and hill slopes for carrying on shifting cultivation which was a major subsistence activity of the hill tribes. Thus for the increasing need of cultivable land, the days’ internecine feuds began which finally took the shape of regular wars among the communities living in the Dihong Valley. Some of the folktales also describe the important socio-political events that took place in the past which finally forced the Misings to migrate from the hills in search of new homes where they could live in a better peace.

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As you enter into Majuli what draw your immediate attention is their vernacular houses on raised stilts, locally called Chang Ghar.

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The house on stilts is a large hall with a central kitchen for a large joint family. The lower part of the house is used to provide to shelter animals that every household rears. Apart from the main house, there is a traditional granary over a raised platform. According to the elders of the Mising tribes, once upon a time, the banks of Brahmaputra used to be tall grasslands and also had thick vegetation of reeds leading to the favourite game area for wild elephants. According to them, elephants do not attack houses on stilts and therefore not destroy even the granaries. The grains are also protected from moisture, rodents and floods.

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The major components of these houses are bamboo, cane and palm leaves for roofing. Bamboo is a raw material of great flexibility and forms an integral part of the lifestyle and economy of the Mising community. Their stilted houses have thatched tops and are patterned simply like the letter ‘I’. Mostly they face rivers. Sometimes boats are left underneath the dwelling in case of a flood.

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Another draw in a Mising village is women engaged in weaving. The Mising women of Majuli are specifically renowned for their exquisite hand-looms, especially their mirizen shawls and blankets and they keep reinventing their traditional diamond pattern in countless weaves using their favourite colour palate, yellow, green, black and red.

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Their traditional throw shuttle loom is built under their stilt houses. Though a tedious process, the weavers produce wraps like mekhela chador and gero, stoles like gamosa and some other utilitarian items. Traditionally, weaving in the Mising community was for their own use. But these days, Mising handloom products are much in demand in cities.

The Mising women are generally known to be laborious with extensive participation in agricultural work. Traditional methods of farming techniques are used for agricultural productions. They generally cultivate rice, mustard seeds, black pulse, Jute, potatoes and other vegetables. Besides agriculture, they are also engaged in livestock rearings such as cattle, pigs and poultry.

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Misings also depend upon fishing. They use small plank built wooden boats to perform the operation in the marginal areas of Brahmaputra River and its tributaries and beels (swamps). The fishing activity is started in early morning hours and continues throughout the day until sunset. During the start of the operation, the fishermen select a shallow area with mild water current near the river bank. They take a small piece of duck meat and squeeze it with fingers at a depth of about one foot below the water surface for 10-15 minutes. After ensuring that a good number of fishes have gathered in the area, the fishermen scrap only a part of bottom soil from the river bank to dig a small semi-circular pit of about 30 cm diameter using a small spade. The fishermen with the meat piece in hand then shift the location of squeezing the meat to inside the pit. Fishes attracted by the meat ultimately enter the pit, after which the fishermen block the narrow entrance to the pit with the help of a steel plate. Thereafter fishes trapped in the pit are handpicked and kept in harvesting pots made of bamboo.

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Misings mostly depend on nature for their livelihood. Besides fishing and farming, they use plenty of wild plants and vegetables in their daily food items from time immemorial. Leaves of plants are especially used as wrappers for the preparation of different pithas (sweetmeats), smoked fish and pork.

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Pork and fish are the favourite food items for the Mising tribe in addition to the meat of domestic fowls. These are cooked with green leaves both on a daily basis and on festive occasions.

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Misings of Majuli coexist with Assamese Vaishnavites who are part of the classical Satara institution.

Though life is peaceful here, there is always a danger in monsoon, flooding and land erosion in Brahmaputra River. In the last few decades 60% of Majuli’s landmass has been shrunk and there lies an uncertain future for the Mising community. Migrating to cities and abandoning the traditional life especially among youth in a globalised economy add further misery to their unique indigenous life and living with nature.

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Author – Jitu Mishra

He can be contacted at jitumisra@gmail.com