“Land of the river and the whispering wind
Sweet rice and plenty of fish,
Where the sun rises to the sound of a hundreds birds.
And the evening resonates to the music of cymbals and kirtans.”
-Sanjoy Ghosh on Majuli, 1996
The first time I heard of Majuli was while preparing for the quiz competitions in school, as the largest inhabited riverine island in the world. In my atlas, I marked it dreaming of a trip to this place sometime. It was the 15th of May, 2016, the Sunday break in between my training in Dibrugarh, I finally got a chance to make my wish a reality.
Majuli island is about 20 kilometers from Jorhat district of Assam. The only way to reach here is to ferry through the mighty Brahmaputra for more than an hour.
While searching on what all options are there in this place to roam around, I just came across this interesting story about the formation of the place. There was a king called Arimatta who killed his father and later being remorseful for what he had done, came to Brahmaputra for washing away his sins and pay offerings. But the river refused the gold and diamonds he offered and parted into two, leading to the formation of a landmass. It is that landmass became the Majuli island.
If the story is interesting, the realities about Majuli are far more interesting. The place is one of the major hubs of the Neo Vaishnavite culture which got flourished in Assam since the beginning of 15th Century. The Satras established by them to propagate their ideas, principles and devotional practices is a unique yet common scene across Majuli. The Vaishnavites have selected music and dance as the means to propagate their ideas; this in turn ensured a very strong base to the island culture. Since the time of the Ahom empire, the Sri Auniati Satra established in AD 1653 by king Sultanla is considered as the most important among all.
The peace at the Satra with the slow-paced rain outside will tranquillize any wanderer’s soul. A walk in the green has taken me to one to the Mishing villages. Mishings are one of the three major ethnic groups in the island. They are believed to be migrated to here from Arunachal Pradesh centuries ago. As heavy rains and floods in Brahmaputra are inseparable from their lives, the Mishing houses are perched on bamboo or wooden stilts. Few recently constructed houses have concrete poles too.
Major livelihood options for these people include agriculture, weaving and rearing of small animals. Beneath or beside most of the houses, one can see the traditional weaving looms. Weaving is a part of everyday life and is generally done by the womenfolk. Their magical hands weaves bright and colourful cloths for their family as well as for outer markets. The most common hand woven dress materials includes Gamosa, Mekhla Chaddar etc.
The lifestyle of people here is so simple that not many of the modern household amenities are available. But what can be seen is a peaceful coexistence of man and nature, which hardly is there in our modern society. Even in the pigs, cows and chickens freely wandering in the place, I could observe the same.
But as Sanjoy Ghose rightly pointed out in 1996,
“Far inside, where the lights and roads haven’t reached
The world is different, difficult
In the night with each clap of thunder and raindrop
We lie half-awake, listening to the echoes of our heart
Wondering what will be left of our land and our lives in the morning”
The largest island once is becoming a vanishing island now. Erosion being the most pressing issue here, a major chunk of the landmass is eaten up by Brahmaputra over the past years. The island which had an area of 1246 sq.km in 1853 as per East India Company records has shrunken to a mere 352 sq.km by the year 2014. Traversing through the river, I could see that most areas had severe damages caused by inundation.
Adding to this, as it is the case in most interior areas of the country, the place seriously lacks basic facilities for eg. primary health, education etc. People being poor with very low contact with the outside world struggles a lot when situations like health emergency coupled with an extreme climatic conditions arises. That thought itself gave me a chill in the nerve. Still I realized that the ethereal beauty of the land which keeps the people close to its heart like a magnetic field has already mesmerized me too. And I began the count down to come here again..