Written by Koumudi Mahanta (Guest Post).
“The breathtaking Majuli island in Assam has become a much sought after destination in recent years. Read on to savour the beauty of the place and to learn about the high stakes that lie in its future. “
Back in December 2016, an acquaintance from my college ran towards me one day and told me exuberantly, that she would be travelling to Assam in the winter break. She requested me to suggest a few places, before adding that Majuli island was already on the list.
“Have you been there?” she asked.
I found it rather odd. Growing up, Majuli had been a place we associated with the neo-vaishnavite tradition of Assam, known for its Satras (shrines or monasteries), the Raas Mahotsav, the art of mask-making, and various other art forms. To an extent, it was a conservative, religious place.
There’s certainly a lot to see and learn there. But Majuli as a destination for a young group of travellers? This was new to me. Nonetheless, I told her whatever I knew of it back then.
She returned from Majuli (and Assam) pleasantly surprised. When I met her after the break, she told me how much the island seemed to have changed, which could be due to its recently gained status as a district.
Over the last few years now, it has become clear that the changes have been beyond just infrastructural. The long term ramifications of these are to be pondered upon. But that is a discussion for another day. Here, I shall talk about interesting things in and about Majuli, based on my own, very recent visit to the river island.
Five of my friends and I were in Majuli from the 20th to the 22nd of March, 2021. We were a group of four girls and two boys. We reached Jorhat town early in the morning on 20th, around 5 am, (as we took a bus from Guwahati the previous night) and went to Nimati Ghat to board the earliest ferry (7:30 am).
Only the boys and I knew how to ride a bicycle. So it was decided that taking a car would be a safe idea. Upon reaching Jorhat, we went to Nimati Ghat in an SUV. The same vehicle was with us throughout the two days and even dropped us back to Guwahati on our return on the 22nd.
Our stay was at Okegiga Homes, Garamur Chariali, one of the many eco-friendly homestays that have sprung up across the island in the last few years.
Yes, for those who are unfamiliar, Majuli is indeed a river island on the mighty Brahmaputra river, located in Assam, a state in India’s northeast.
Travelling to Majuli has become smoother in the past few years, owing to its fledgeling tourism industry that has drawn travellers from within and outside the country. But ferries are still the only viable option to reach the island, either from Jorhat (Nimati Ghat) or Lakhimpur (Luit Khabolu ghat).
Ferries operate during the daylight hours and can accommodate passengers, vehicles, goods as well as livestock, with standardised rates for each of them. The sandy banks in the Kamalabari Ghat can deceive a spectator, giving the island a somewhat desolated look. But while moving towards Garamur (the district headquarters), the farmlands, lush green countryside, various streams and marshes are bound to leave anyone in awe.
The Natun-Samaguri Satra (also known as Mukha Satra), around 20 km east of Garamur, is famous for intricate handmade masks depicting various deities, is also a Mukha Nirman/Praxikhyan Kendra, ie. a mask-making centre under the Sangeet Natak Academy.
The head instructor was kind enough to brief us about the history of the traditional art of mask-making and the integral part it occupies in theatre performances (known as Ankia Naat & Bhaona). He displayed masks of different colours, expressions, shapes and sizes, even wore a couple of them to exhibit a few dialogues and gestures.
He also tried to patiently answer all our questions and being a group of academics, filmmakers, journalists and researchers, we sure had a lot to ask. Pointing to a humongous mask (that clearly stood out from the rest due to its divergent aesthetic) in one of the shelves, he told us it was made by a person who had come all the way from Israel, to take up the training under the satra.
The “mask of Dali” from the popular OTT show “Money Heist”, amidst a room full of mythological characters was quite an intriguing sight.
We also went to a few other satras, namely, Dakhinpat, Auniati and Kamalabari. The Auniati Satra had a museum on its premises with several royal artefacts, jewellery, manuscripts and other archives.
Situated in the southeastern bank of the island is a potter’s village called Salmora Gaon, wherein resides a traditional group of potters known as the Kumars. Pottery among them is unique in the sense that it does not involve the wheel (chakari).
It is entirely handmade, with the crafting process being done by the women. The men are engaged in procuring the clay and for trading the finished products on their boats, either for money or in exchange for rice.
A few of us had done our own little research about Majuli, once our dates got confirmed. I looked up articles, watched youtube vlogs, took recommendations from those who’d recently travelled there and spoke to peers who’ve taken in Majuli as their field of study.
I found out about Salmora from one of them. Another vlogger had passionately suggested cycling across the tribal villages in Majuli. There’s a lot to see besides just the satras, he’d stressed. Well, he was clearly not wrong.
The Misings are numerically the largest tribe in Majuli. We spent the second day of our stay, travelling through the north-western part of the island, crossing Patharichuk, Dambukial and a few more villages, all of them with a predominantly Mising population.
We also crossed the Subansiri river which had a newly constructed wooden bridge over it. Cycling after so long was definitely a respite, for me as well as the boys (while the other three girls took the SUV to wherever they could, doing a significant amount of walking where they couldn’t), but it did get quite humid around noon.
We all took breaks in between and ended up getting divided into smaller groups. The villagers were warm and keen to talk to us. We ended up visiting different households and were offered tea, apong (rice beer) and betel-nut by the members.
The Missing houses (also Deoris and some other communities’) are built on bamboo stilts, to place them above the level of surging floodwaters during the monsoon season. We noticed the base pillars of several of the houses being constructed on concrete now, although the walls, roof and floors are all made of bamboo.
On our way back to the town, we spent some time swimming in the shallow waters (as the dry season was about to end) of the Subansiri before heading for lunch. Both the days, I thoroughly relished the lunch, which had to do with the bao-dhan being served (a certain variety of brown rice cultivated in the floodplains of Assam). We mostly had local cuisine during our stay.
The locals in Majuli are also proficient in making boats. Auniati and Kamalabari have their own boat crafting cottage industry stations. Several villages are also famous for their traditional crafting of boats. We couldn’t cover all of these due to the paucity of time.
Another interesting place we missed was the Molai forest reserve. Padmashri recipient Jadav Payeng, who also hails from Majuli, has single-handedly transformed this sandbar into a forest reserve, planting trees each day for the past thirty years.
I am keen on visiting Majuli again in the future and staying for a longer duration. Unfortunately, however, geographers have been speculating that Majuli may no longer exist in the next twenty years or so. Created due to the Brahmaputra and its tributaries changing its course in 1750, these turbulent waters that encircle the island are the very reason why it slowly getting engulfed.
In the past hundred years, nearly 60% of Majuli’s land coverage has shrunk, from over 880 km² to just a little more than 300 km². Flood and erosion rip at its banks every year, washing away several homes, lands and lives.
While the biannual floods that were at one time predictable, enriched the soil and fisheries, the accelerating pace of the rushing waters off late have also become highly erratic. With a majority of the local people being dependent on agriculture, the extent of destruction has been impacting their ability to sustain themselves.
Amidst all these, tourism to the island presents itself as a reassuring solution to the locals. It may facilitate an alternative stream of revenue for the island’s rural population, making them not entirely dependent on agriculture for their financial well being.
Yet, if this growth is not handled carefully, it may do more harm than good. Making bicycles available for rent, thatched bamboo huts being built as homestays and restaurants do seem like a favourable direction to take. The only hope is that this will be carried on.
I have not elaborated upon the Satra institution and the neo-vaishnavite tradition that emerged in Assam in the 15th-16th century, as knowing more about these would take some time as well as serious reading.
A lot of research has been done and continues to be undertaken around these themes, by scholars across various fields. I personally find a lot of scope for feminist readings of Satra and Namghar (prayer hall) institutions.
Especially with reference to the current regime we live in, where an attempt to bring in various “little traditions” within the homogenous fold is self-evident. The effects of these changes were palpable in a few satras of Majuli.
When I look back at my visit to the island, which was, delightfully, in the onset of spring, the sight that dominates my mind is of the mallows that were in full bloom. Called Ratnakar in Assamese, (scientific name: Hibiscus tiliaceus) this beautiful variety had canary yellow buds, reddening throughout the day and later, falling off on the ground.
The entire Majuli appeared adorned with this mallow, as we spotted them blooming almost everywhere, near the riverside, next to paddy fields, in the gardens of a few houses, but mostly growing wildly.
There are now plans for another bridge to be constructed over the Brahmaputra connecting Jorhat to Majuli. My conversations with a few locals gave an impression that they don’t really have any complaints about the move.
Yet, I somehow knew they were aware that my questions have a purpose beyond general curiosity. If I may quote Lila Abu-Lughod, they had “immediately recognised and firmly placed me in a social network that they have known”, even though I played on my Assamese identity to distinguish myself.
Koumudi is a PhD research scholar from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Her current research revolves around feminist perspectives on neoliberalism and governance. When not doing academic reading, she likes to write on her blog, watch shows or read fiction.
Visit her blog at – https://wordpress.com/view/alphabetspotted.wordpress.com