Majuli: A Paradise Lost In Time?

Categories Assam, India, Majuli
Sunset Majuli
Sunsets in Brahmaputra

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.

Masks Majuli
Masks in progress

Here’s why I can’t wait to wrap myself in the midst of the mystic beauty that is Majuli, the second time round:

Along The Waters of Brahmaputra

Majuli Assam
The ferry

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.

Neamati Ghat
Walking through Neamati Ghat

Spirituality, Satras and the Pious Folk

Auniati Satra Majuli
Entrance of Auniati Satra

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 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, in this ever shrinking island.

Auniati Satra Majuli
A look inside
Satra Majuli
A young apprentice looks out of his room

Mask Making and Other Crafts

Mask Majuli
Mask making in process

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.

Samaguri Satra Majuli
The collection
Mask Majuli
The huge one

In addition to the mask making, the island dwellers also engage in boat making, pottery and weaving fabrics.

Samaguri Satra Majuli
A priest demonstrating the usage

The Welcoming Tribals, Villages and Life

Mishing Tribe Majuli
Day at the Mishng village

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.

Mishing Hut Majuli
A Mishing hut
Mishing Tribe Majuli
Weaving equipment generally found under the houses.

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.

Mishing Hut Majuli
Inside the hut

Lazy Evenings, Bonfires and More

Me: Po Okum Majuli
Our hut

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.

Me: Po Okum Majuli
The bamboo chairs
Majuli Assam
Cattle around the properly

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 north east, 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.

Me: Po Okum Majuli
Lush meadows and openness, Oh there’s my new friend

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.

Majuli Assam
Fishermen collecting wetland grasses that serve as fodder for their cattle

 

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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.

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Hi, I’m Prerana, I’m pursuing a degree in Architecture, and spend a lot of my time designing with music keeping me company. Since childhood, I’ve never lived in a place for too long. I’ve always liked the idea of travelling, going to offbeat places, experiencing indigenous societies and places we often overlook in our daily lives. I believe in enjoying the small things, with a travel mantra and photograph my journey along the way. I’m very enthusiastic about music and mostly engage in singing. I have always been fascinated by art, coming up with some sketches along the way. Additionally, I adore my cats, playing with dogs, morning jogs, reading a book or two and discovering new places.

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