Demystifying Black Magic: Mayong Village Museum and Research Centre, Assam

All photographs by the author

The construction of popular narratives about a place is sometimes driven by an overuse of popular tropes, which delegitimises and silences the local community’s own interpretations of their history and culture. A Google search on ‘Mayong’ opens results such as ‘India’s Black Magic Capital’, ‘Land of Black Magic’, and so on, where the words ‘black’, ‘occult’, and ‘spooky’ take a connotative precedence. The image search provides a confusing plethora of images ranging from portraits of Naga sadhus smeared in bibhuti (holy ash), neo-Vaishnavite Assamese monks, Amazonian tribes and shamans passed off as practitioners of ‘black magic’ in Mayong. There is a particularly odd image of a collection of globes, a skeleton, and an assortment of objects, ostensibly hosted by the ‘Mayong Central Museum and Emporium of Black Magic and Witchcraft’. The image is definitely not from any museum in Mayong and the words “Black Magic” and “Witchcraft” were never a part of any museum title in Assam. The frontier Kamrupa-Pragjyotishpur has always been associated with magic and myths around magical practices since ancient times, because of the Śākta cult of the Kamakhya temple, and alleged instances of blood sacrifices and associated Tantric practices. This exoticization of Mayong in popular imagery, therefore, has deep historical roots.

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Mayong is situated at a distance of approximately 40 km from Guwahati, in the Morigaon district of Assam. Known for its traditions of magical practices, the village is also a popular site for visitors because of the Pobitora National Park, home to a large number of one-horned rhinos. The history of Mayong is as enigmatic as the mystery associated with the ‘magic’ of Mayong. Though written sources about the history and etymology of Mayong are scant, popular folklore describes Mayong as a “dangerous place”. According to one belief system, the name Mayong may have been derived from ‘Ma-anga’, “ma” meaning mother and “anga” meaning body-part, specifically the female organ “yoni” of the mother goddess. In the Yogini tantra, a reference is found of Bhadrapith as a part of Kamapith. Bhadrapith was bordered by the Brahmaputra in the north, Kachari and Jayantia kingdoms in the south, Kampur and Silghat in the east and Kamrupa towards the west. Another name for Goddess Kamakhya is Bhadra and therefore there is a belief that Mayong may have been the Bhadrapith mentioned in the Yogini tantra.

Another version ascribes Mayong to be named after Mayan, a general of king Rampala (1080-1124 CE) of the Pala dynasty of Bengal. Under general Mayan, Rampala sent a huge army to defeat the weakened Kamrupa kingdom, then under Jayapala (1075-1100 CE) of the Bhauma Naraka dynasty. After defeating Jayapala, the general established a town named Mayangarh and settled Buddhist Tantric emissaries there. Mayan installed Timgyadeva (1110-26 CE) as the Governor of Pragjyotishpur-Kamrupa under Rampala and left for Bengal.

According to a manuscript in possession of the present royal family of Mayong, which contains the genealogy of the present kings of Mayong, the kingdom of Mayong was established by a Kachari king, who had come from Maibong, the erstwhile capital of the Dimasa Kachari kingdom. The kingdom was established in the year 1624 and Sunyat Singha, the brother of Kachari king Satrudaman, was named the first king of Mayong.

The facade of Mayong Village Museum and Research Centre

Another claim to the political ancestry of Mayong is by the Tiwa community. The Tiwas claim that the kingdom of Mayong was established by Mahasing who was the youngest brother of the king of Gobha (the ruler of the Tiwas). The claim is based on a sanchipat manuscript describing the genealogy of Tiwa kings, believed to be found by Gobang Lalung of Bormajrong village.

The culture of Mayong seems to have a strong Śākta-tantric belief system syncretized with associated indigenous practices, such as magic. The use of magic by bez (traditional magic healers) for constructive purposes like healing or finding social solutions for theft is good Tantra, or su mantra, while the use of magic for causing harm to someone for individual gain like settling agrarian disputes might be considered bad Tantra, or ku mantra. However, a bez is supposed to know the application of both su mantra and ku mantra and its applications in jantra because the ritual practices of Tantra demand a total knowledge of both in a composite system, counter-balancing each other. The villagers as well as practitioners of magic traditions seem to understand the need for this balance. In addition, Mayong is also home to Shaivite and neo-Vaishnavite belief systems. There is absence of rigidity in the politics of participation from different traditional practices and there seems to be no bar on believers of one religious tradition from participating in the religious ceremonies of others.

Terracotta image of a deity wearing a necklace with a tortoise pendant

The Genesis of Mayong Village Museum and Research Centre

On September 27, 2002, an exhibition was organised at Mayong Higher Secondary School to celebrate World Tourism Day. The exhibition contained artefacts collected from different villages in and around the Mayong area. A large part of the objects displayed came from the personal collection of a local teacher Shri Lokendra Hazarika. The exhibition was immensely popular and was covered extensively in the regional media. The popularity of the exhibition encouraged the organisers to form a Museum Committee of ten members with Lokendra Hazarika as President and Shri Utpal Nath, an ex-student of the school, as its Secretary. An Assam-type  house with three rooms was rented and on November 1, 2002, it was inaugurated as Mayong Central Museum by the then king of Mayong, the Late Ghanakanta Singha. The entry tickets were priced at Rs. 10 andRs. 5 (for students). Despite several challenges, the museum survived. The income from tickets, however, was not sufficient and once the tourist season was over, there was a lack of funds.

For a while, the members of the Museum Committee, particularly the President and the Secretary, tried to run the museum with their own money. On August 30, 2003 the collection was shifted to Mayong Central Library, but was faced with another problem – pest infestation. The Museum Committee approached the Range Officer of the Pobitara Range Mr. Mukul Tamuli and requested another space to house the collection. The collection was then shifted to three rooms of a government quarter inside the Pobitara Wildlife Sanctuary, in 2008. The following year, the Committee passed a resolution to rename the museum as Mayong Village Museum and Research Centre. Meanwhile, the Committee’s request for land to construct a permanent museum was acknowledged by the Government.

The first construction remained incomplete. It was started by District Rural Development Agencies, Government of Assam

The construction of a museum building was first started by the District Rural Development Agency, but it remained incomplete. The present building was constructed by the Morigaon Zila Parishad and the collection was shifted here on the October 20, 2010. However, in an interview with the Committee members, they revealed that the building was not constructed as per the scientific norms of Museum architecture and the DPR (Detailed Project Report) requested by the Committee. Eventually, the Committee was able to persuade the Nath Jogi Development Council to start construction of a new museum building, but the circular architecture with high ceilings and sufficient wall space remains incomplete due to the dissolution of the Development Councils by the Government of Assam in 2017. The museum still houses its rare and valuable collection in the building constructed by the Zila Parishad in 2010.

The incomplete new museum building started by Nath Jogi Development Council

The Collection: a museum for the community

The museum holds a variety of objects. The manuscript collection, a valuable archive of oral traditions written in the local language, contain information on tantra-mantras and herbal medicine, among other things, from the 12th to 18th century. Most manuscripts are in the Assamese language, in Kaitheli script. Among other objects are artefacts in terracotta: utensils, earthen necklaces, incense pots, spouted pots, chillums, bricks and some terracotta images reportedly dating back to 12th century; 8th to 9th century stone sculptures like yonipeeths, lingams, padma chakra; items belonging to the royal family like a palanquin, and rare copper and brass utensils: hati khojia bati (or “a bowl as big as an elephant’s foot”), caskets, copper plates and medals etc.; arms and armour, iron and stone cannon balls; monetary items like silver and copper coins and cowrie shells; local fishing implements; local oil extraction implements; agricultural implements; weaving implements; traditional weights and measures; ornaments; traditional musical instruments; and household items.

Inside the Museum
A diorama depicting the taming of a tiger using magic.
Stone sculpture
Spears and Shield

The collection was developed by Lokendra Hazarika, the President of the Museum Committee. Hazarika’s interest in collecting objects can be traced back to his childhood when he would roam the fields and forests of Mayong after fresh rains to find potsherds and beads. Mayong is rich in archaeological remains which are yet to be explored and excavated properly. According to villagers, finding objects during the digging of wells and ploughing of fields is still common in the area. Influenced by Hazarika’s efforts, local youth (particularly Utpal Nath who now teaches at the local college), students and concerned citizens began their own collection drive in nearby villages. It is important to mention that the collection of the museum has been acquired entirely through donations and fieldwork by individuals. The Committee took a conscious decision not to acquire any artefact commercially. The acquisition process seems to be arbitrary; no conscious pattern of collecting seems to have been employed. The collectors rely on oral history, popular narratives and traditional community knowledge to determine what is to be collected. In addition, there may be a few objects in the museum which have been collected out of sheer curiosity in the esoteric arts.

Caretaker of Mayong Village Museum and Research Centre Mr. Kanuna Nath

It is interesting how the Committee persuaded the local villagers to donate their family or community heirlooms to be housed in a new, incomplete museum space in a rural area with communities who obviously did not possess the metropolitan museological consciousness. The Committee documented a series of public meetings (raij mel) organised by the community, with the help of village elders, where important members of the community were asked to initiate a trust-building exercise to build awareness about the importance of preserving Mayong’s collective heritage to inculcate a sense of pride about the culture of the village. In these meetings, villagers were requested to donate an object of cultural importance that they may have found in the locality and were also requested to inform the Committee members if any object is unearthed while digging wells or ploughing fields. they came across any other objects in the future. As a result of these meetings, the Committee believes that villagers of Mayong have been persuaded to regard the Museum as an important institution of the collective heritage.

Fishing implements

The caretaker of the museum, Mr. Karuna Nath has been providing free services in the museum for a long time: “I am giving [my] services for the preservation of the glorious history of Mayong and our community practices. They will be lost otherwise. I hope someday the Government will take notice and think of providing some basic remuneration to me so that I can work in this museum full-time. But I also need to run a family and so I run a small tea shop here in front of the museum”.

Buffalo head

Apart from local students and villagers, the museum is visited by research scholars, academics and journalists. Favourably located opposite the approach road to Pobitora Sanctuary, the museum ends up attracting visitors to the sanctuary and local commuters, particularly during tourist season.

It is sad that the Mayong Village Museum and Research Centre, in spite of media attention, is in a dilapidated condition today. The present building is crumbling, and the construction of the new building largely remains incomplete. The display is temporary in nature: there are no showcases, barring one which displays the manuscript collection of the museum, and the rest of the collection is displayed atop cloth-covered wooden benches and on the floor against the walls. There is no running electricity at present. This is the result of a severe lack of funds and government apathy towards completing construction of the space and other demands for the upkeep of the museum. The Committee’s appeals and petitions somehow get lost in government files and verbal assurances. The local community, according to Committee members, is against the transfer of the collection to any other big museum of the State. They believe this would diminish the importance of the collection and decontextualize it from the composite culture of Mayong. The Committee members are equally wary of government interference – they believe it will counter the very essence of the museum, that of a community space maintained and curated by members of the community. However, they are open to the idea of the government acting as facilitator: providing a maintenance fund for the museum, while recognising it as a community project managed by local bodies autonomously.

Wooden Manuscript Box

In the absence of a tangible presence in strict museological terms, like display, access, conservation, and so on, the museum has turned to multiple field activities. This includes door-to-door collection drives, seminars and temporary exhibitions, special exhibitions during Government festivals like the Namami Brahmaputra Festival, digitisation and preservation of the manuscript collection through the National Manuscripts Mission, photo documentation of ritual practices and archaeological remains, recording of oral history, among other things. The Committee has planned initiatives to sustain the museum in the future, such as a residency programme, guest house, and a library and research centre, which can attract scholars as well as build revenue. Recently, the INTACH Assam Chapter has shown an interest in the museum and is currently undertaking a conservation project to save the collection from deterioration.

Ongoing INTACH, Assam Chapter Manuscripts Conservation Project
Manuscripts

There is a prevailing sense of history and collective memory amongst the villagers of Mayong in spite of the exotic portrayal of the area as a land of black magic and witchcraft in the popular imagination. The idea of Mayong as a ‘dangerous place’ is accepted by the community as part of the grand narrative of Assam, though it might not necessarily be representative of the collective past of Mayong. In the past few decades, oral history and folk narratives from Assam have come to the fore, increasingly contesting orientalist and nationalist narratives with marginal and local plots. The Mayong Museum tries to fill a void by adding community histories in the grand narrative of Assam and India’s northeast. The museum, therefore, serves as an important institution to legitimise and demystify the overlap of magic, ritualistic traditions and healing practices that form the core of Mayong’s cultural history.

A version of this article was originally published in criticalcollective.in

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Kaustuv Saikia Written by:

Kaustuv is District Museum Officer at Directorate of Museums, Assam State Museum and was former Assistant Curator (Central Asian Antiquities) at National Museum, New Delhi

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