Majuli – Assam’s Shrinking Island

This piece was first published in Travel Secrets Magazine. Read the published version here: Majuli – Assam’s Shrinking Island

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I stand on a rickety wooden bridge, watching the setting sun turn the river Luit a gorgeous shade of orange. If someone ever mentions the word quaint again, I’ll picture nothing else but this.

Majuli sunset

Discovering a quaint sunset spot in the island

I am in Majuli, India’s largest inhabited river island. Located in the heart of the mighty Brahmaputra, the calm island yields little clue to its turbulent birth—high frequency earthquakes pounded this region for years, creating 452 square kilometers of what we now know as Majuli. Growing up in Assam, I have often heard of the violent floods that ravage Majuli, and the island’s brave response to them all. Today, it is one third the size it used to be, and fears that it will cease to exist some two decades on are growing increasingly real.

For now, I feel content to be standing here. The island is just five hours from my hometown in Dibrugarh, but a whole world apart. The rolling countryside of Assam I am used to, but Majuli is so much more– abundant water bodies, sandy Ghats and picturesque villages that hold on to a history and culture so strong that it is impossible not to fall in love.

A ferry transports hundreds of locals, livestock and vehicles a few times a day from Neematighat in Jorhat district. Several ethnic communities dot the island’s 243 villages. Small markets cater to their basic needs and there’s a sprinkling of dhabas where travellers can enjoy parathas and local meat dishes. Electricity is erratic and local transport next to none, but if like me, you seek solace in rustic life, then Majuli is just the place for you.

I’ve booked a room at La Maison de Ananda, which aptly translates to “House of Joy”. It is heartwarming to learn that the eco-friendly cottages at the property were set up by a French couple and an Englishman, who developed a lasting bond with this beautiful land.

Majuli

Cycling through Majuli is the best way of interacting with locals and learning more about the charming island

The beautiful eco-property of La Maison de Ananda in Garamur village

Booking a cottage in La Maison de Ananda in Garamur village is highly recommended

I spend my first evening by Luit Ghat, coaxing a local fisherman to take me on a short tour on his boat. We drift close to some stunning migratory birds—Lesser Adjutant Storks perched atop a mid-river fishing hut and Ruddy Shelducks floating in the distance. Sitting on the edge of that narrow wooden boat, gazing at the lush greenery, it is easy to drift away in time and forget the concrete world miles away. The sunset sojourn is probably the best way to begin acquaintance with the island before losing yourself in the bylanes of its cultural diversity.

Luit Ghat Majuli

Locals going about their daily life in Luit Ghat

Majuli is known as the cultural capital of Assam. It is here that 15th century saint Sankardeva first established a Satra or neo-Vaishnavite monastery. Today, 31 such registered Satras lie scattered through the island—serving as both worship centres and treasure houses of books, art and artefacts about Assamese culture. During my stay, I visit some of these Satras. In Uttar Kamalabari, I meet Tirtha Bhuiyan, a monk who writes for an English daily called Sentinel, and has been learning traditional Assamese dance, music and drama since the age of 12. In Chamaguri, I watch the talented Satradhikari (spiritual head of the monastery) working on clay moulds. Mask making dates back centuries here and it is fascinating to watch local craftsmen make life-like masks out of bamboo, cow dung and clay. Monks wear them when enacting cultural dramas called Bhaona.

Uttar Kamalabari Satra

Devotees offering prayers in Uttar Kamalabari Satra

A Bhaona artist breaks into an improptu act in Chamaguri Satra

A Bhaona artist breaks into an improptu act in Chamaguri Satra

I am delighted to learn that my trip coincides with Porag, a post-harvest festival of the Mising. The Mising migrated to the island from Arunachal Pradesh centuries ago, settling around swamps and river banks and building huts on stilts. Thriving on fishing and farming, they now make up almost half the island’s population. Every year, the entire community pools in funds for the festival. Men clad in dhotis and Mibu Galuk (over-coats) and women dressed in sarees and intricately designed Gaseng (self-woven waist cloth) dance to the beat of dhols. Their excitement is almost over-whelming. One local wants me to click a picture of his little girl, another invites me to sample their special pork preparations. Someone ushers me to the area with the most crowd – the apong (rice beer) brewing and drinking corner. Of course, I stick around the entire day.

Porag Mising

Porag celebrations in progress in Namuni Damnukiyal village

Villagers put together dance performances and even organise competitions as part of Porag celebrations.

Villagers put together dance performances and even organise competitions as part of Porag celebrations.

 

I spend my last evening in Majuli cycling through its bylanes, across paddy fields and woods to remote villages, through rickety bamboo bridges; discovering my favourite sunset spots on the way. Prayer chants from the Satras keep me company and loudspeakers echo Porag celebrations. Looking back at my warm stay and hour-long conversations with the locals, I realise that Majuli has been my happiest solo trip so far.

 

Additional informationGetting there: Take a flight toJorhat from any major city. Once there, a taxi can be hired from the airport to drive onwards to the ferry-boarding point inNeematighat that lies 13 km away. The last ferry forMajuli leaves at 3:30 pm everyday so plan accordingly. After the hour and a half long ferry ride, local buses or shared taxis can be used to reachGaramur village.Accommodation: La Maison de Ananda in Garamur has beautiful bamboo cottages with all basic amenities and a restaurant. You can either use one of their cycles to explore the island or request them to arrange a car. (Doubles for Rs. 800; For bookings and queries contact the head caretaker, Manjit at +91 9957186356 or monjitrisong@yahoo.in )

For more information you could refer to http://majulilandscape.gov.in

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