HIDDEN BEHIND A TEA STALL IN MAYONG, a cluster of twelve hamlets about forty kilometres up the Brahmaputra from Guwahati, stands an unfinished brick-and-concrete building of, at present, a single large room. A plaque declares it the home of the Mayong Village Museum and Research Centre, and at the entrance is an image of the building’s proposed design. When I visited in November, the tea stall’s gaunt proprietor showed me inside, and guided me through the museum’s collection of artefacts. There were old hookahs, weapons, utensils, stone busts, cannon balls—all of which once belonged to Mayong’s royal family. But what my guide was most interested in showing me was a large glass case holding fifty ancient manuscripts, all neatly arranged. All of them, he told me, had to do with magic.
Written in two early Assamese scripts, Brajavali and Kaitheli, the manuscripts contain various chants that some believe to have mystical powers, comprehensible to none but a handful of “magicians” in the village, most of them old men. Mayong’s folklore is replete with tales of magic, set hundreds or thousands of years ago. Its reputation as a cradle of black magic stretches far into the past, and continues to draw visitors. But though that legacy is a crucial part of the local history and culture, it is at risk of fading away. Many young people see the belief in magic as little more than outdated superstition, and have little interest in carrying on the traditions associated with it.
“There should be a way to legitimise this culture instead of shying away from it,” Utpal Nath, the brains behind the museum, told me. I met Utpal, a composed man in his early thirties who teaches economics at Mayong Anchalik College, for tea at his house, a short walk from the unfinished building. He started displaying historical artefacts in 2002, first in a rented room and later at a vacant hall offered to him by the forest department. The project began “as a mere tourist attraction,” he said, but he soon expanded his goals. His hope now is to help preserve Mayong’s heritage by making people “consider magic as a cultural practice … rather than a superstitious act.”