MAJULI, India — Every morning, on an island in the Brahmaputra River, centuries-old monasteries come alive with the sounds of rhythmic chants and the footsteps of young monks closely watched by their teachers.
Majuli island is home to more than 20 Vaishnavite monasteries, traditional prayer halls belonging to an offshoot of Hinduism dedicated to the god Vishnu. Inside the monasteries, thousands of monks are keeping alive an ancient tradition that melds worship with the arts.
Vaishnava monks believe the way to salvation is through dance, drama and music. Their work centers around dance dramas, based on ancient Indian texts that often focus on the god Krishna, an incarnation of Vishnu. The young monks, many of whom come from poor families, perform the dances at Krishna festivals across India and around the world.
The monasteries, called satras, are outposts of traditionalism. No girls are permitted to live inside them, and teachers and students live together, following the ancient Indian teaching tradition.
Apart from training in the arts and praying, the young monks also get a secular education and learn to cook and farm.