Brahmaputra flows calmly in the wee hours of the evening, the sun glistening in its waters. Fishing boats and ferries, all return to the bank, as the darkness tightens its hold around the evening skies, marking the end of work for the day. I couldn’t help but be humbled, as my gaze met the barely visible outline of the distant mainland, overwhelmed by the sheer vastness of the river. It is these waters, strengthened with intensified current, that flood most of the island during the months of monsoon. Magic is one of the many adjectives that come to mind when asked to describe the world’s largest riverine island. Far removed from the modern society, the land between two parallel rivers, Majuli continues to remain one of the most memorable places I’ve been to.
Here’s why I can’t wait to wrap myself in the midst of the mystic beauty that is Majuli, the second time around:
Along The Waters of Brahmaputra
A sturdy public ferry floats in the water, as people accompanied with a few cars, motorbikes, bicycles and well as cattle make their way onto it. Some go to sustain their livelihood, some return home and some like me come to spend a while, looking for something new. The engine roars, the anchors pulled, and the big boat is set in motion. Inching closer to the island, the mainland gains distance with every passing minute, making up for a pretty long ride. The river meanders along its course showing no signs of halt, its waters stand partial to no one, yet large enough to accommodate the biggest of the riverine island. With every passing year, Majuli shrinks giving away to the ever-expanding Brahmaputra. Occasionally an island or two pass by, emitting an aura of desolation in the air, covered in wheatish sands, and visited only by the local fisherman trying to make for the catch of the day. These islands will disappear in a few years’ time with nothing left behind as the river continues eroding them, contributing to the landform changes continuing for an eternity.
Spirituality, Satras and the Pious Folk
Meet the Monastery’s equivalent of Majuli, a Satra. A foot inside, and I was surrounded by inescapable piousness and calmness that filled the air. The Satra was complete with still ponds, hints of green from the plants that covered the place, living quarters of the monks, and rooms designated for prayers and preserving ancient artefacts. Satras were founded by an Assamese saint Srimanta Sankardeva, giving birth to the Neo-Vaishnavite cult, and with the main focus on worship of a single god and discouraging all forms of idol worship. Here in a Satra, a day begins and ends with a prayer, with chants, kirtans and bhajans heard till the farthest reaches of the Satra. Little boys as young as eight are made to join a satra, serving under a Guru; learning various art forms like drama, dance, and songs and dedicating their lives to the Lord, hence preserving this age-old culture and customs. My concerns about these children, forced into this way of life, as they developed their own will later, were laid to rest when I was informed that they were free to pledge their life to the Satra or leave it when they became adults. The monks here are educated, live a life of celibacy, dedicating it to the Lord Vishnu. Of the original sixty-five, twenty-two remain to date, on this ever-shrinking island.
Mask Making and Other Crafts
Evening sun splatters a shade of orange in the sky, and I spot two people sitting on their front porch, their hands working on some unfinished masks, while the other masks are laid to dry up in the sun. Being an art and handicraft enthusiast, visiting Hemchandra Goswami’s house of Samaguri Satra was an enriching and enjoyable experience at best. Here in this satra, they are allowed marry and many have families. We enter a room where every corner is filled with masks and tools used to make them. They usually use bamboo for the frames and cover it up with cotton cloth, clay, and cow dung and paint it with vegetable dyes. I stare at those masks; such craftsmanship and detail; I could hardly resist trying them out myself. And there seemed to be no dearth of variety as well, some being face masks of two types based on the mobility they offer to the jaw, some come up till the chest and some are full-bodied containing two parts a head and a body. Goswami goes on about how the mask making business isn’t much of a profit, but he tries to keep this ancient art alive. Sometimes, his visitors order masks for themselves. They’ve been using these masks for plays depicting Krishna’s life and during the Raas Mahotsav, tradition as it is.
In addition to the mask making, the island dwellers also engage in boat making, pottery and weaving fabrics.
The Welcoming Tribals, Villages and Life
Women sit in a group, relaxing after a long day of work. At a distance, some women are winnowing as children run around, playing their games. A girl sits below her house, in middle of weaving cloth. This is a typical evening in a village of the Mishing tribe, one of the many communities inhabiting the island. Life is simple, yet difficult for these tribals. Resources and contact with the outside world is very limited and their villages flooded through most of the monsoon. They are originally immigrants from Arunachal Pradesh (they went missing from their home state and hence the name stuck). Their homes like most in Majuli are made mainly from bamboo, standing on concrete pillars. Some have corrugated roofs while others are thatched. A ladder made with wood joins the house to the ground, and typically every house has a boat around for commute during floods. We were invited to have a look inside their homes. Their living quarter consisted of a central cooking area, just a room, with their belonging in other parts of the room. A bamboo partition covered the triangular area of the house, giving it an attic like feel and utensils hanging from it above the cooking space. Cosy yet comfortable, a plethora of tranquillity surrounded the whole place.
Driving across the island and you’d find an abundance of paddy fields and ponds covered in Hyacinth blossoms with an occasional boat crossing about. With the whole island engulfed in shades of greens, browns and sand, I lost myself in the ethereal vibe emanating from the place.
Lazy Evenings, Bonfires and More
My stay at Me: Po Okum which translates to Happy Home, was at best authentic, indigenous and unlike anything, a hotel would offer. The huts were styled to look like a typical mishing home, complete with beds and an attached washroom; simple yet complete with the essentials. Nestled between the fields, surrounded by friendly dogs and cattle, it’s a great place to lose yourself in the rustic spirit. I sat on the bamboo chairs overlooking the fields with a book in hand under the pink hues of the sky deepening with every passing moment. It’s a funny thing to notice that the cows in Assam are much smaller in size when compared to the ones found in other parts. The hosts were kind and served us some succulent tribal food cooked in the flames of their traditional kitchen. Most noteworthy being the bamboo chicken (made by stuffing chicken in bamboo and roasting it) with other dishes being just as delicious.
A bonfire was lit in the common area warming up my cold bones on a winter night. We absorbed the heat, sang songs, had some snacks and were joined by a lovely aged Canadian couple, here exploring the northeast, the same as us. It is on nights like these that stories are exchanged, of life and other adventures. They were surprised by the number of cows on road and deemed the Indian roads very unsafe with speeding vehicles everywhere. They went on about their life in Toronto, how different India was from their country. We bid adieu and they gave us a badge shaped to look like a tiny Canadian flag as souvenirs to remind us of the lovely evening for days to come.
Practical Information: Majuli is an island situated in the waters of Brahmaputra. It is accessible through ferries that ply between Neamati Ghat near Jorhat and Kamalabari Ghat of Majuli. Taxis and shared tempos are available on the island and you could rent bicycles or scooters for exploring the island. There are a lot of guesthouses, homestays and a circuit house if you are looking for a place to stay at.
Have you visited Majuli? If not, are you compelled to make the trip? Do give me insights on your visit and let me know your thoughts on the same.