I had never heard of Majuli until Nandan told me that it was the “largest river island in the world” and we have planned for a one night’s stay after Kaziranga, about which I had written in my previous story on Kaziranga National Park. We didn’t know what to expect from the Island of Majuli and I quietly told myself that we will think of crossing the bridges when they come.
But then curiosity took the better of me and I found myself browsing at the net for Majuli. The more I learnt about the island, the more curious I became. With its ancient history, vaishnavite culture, agricultural economy and wetland ecosystem, I somehow knew that once we reach at its ethereal green banks, we’d never be the same again. And then the D-day came. It was the early morning of February 28,2013 and after finishing a quick breakfast, we were all set for heading towards Majuli. The day happened to be the festival of colors – Holi. Pihu our seven years old granddaughter, though normally a very understanding child, somehow became insistent that we must play “Holi” before heading for Jorhat. Luckily the staff of the resort presented us a small packet of “Gulal” and we put a small “tilak” on each other’s forehead and gulped some sweets to mark the occasion.
The driver of Sumo had already arrived. The two hour journey on NH 37 to Jorhat’s Nemati Ghat (also pronounced as Neamati Ghat) from where we were scheduled to get a ferry for Majuli was simply spell-binding, with both sides of the road fully covered with lush green tea plantations sprawling for miles. I believe Assam produces more than half of the tea produced in India and the area that we were passing through headed towards Jorhat, which is called the “Tea capital of the world”. It was simply stunning to see the workers watering the plants and picking tea leaves and putting in the huge baskets they were carrying on their backs.
|Probably it is not very clear in the above photo, but it is interesting to see the ticket prices, especially for an urban dweller like me.|
We reached Nemati Ghat at around 10.30 in the morning. To reach the jetty from the Nemati Road, we had to cover a small muddy descend. Around half a dozen ferries were already parked there. An over-laden ferry bumps onto the sandy banks, disgorging people, motorcycles and cars onto the bank over precariously narrow planks. We board the ferry heading for Kamalabari. While Nandan, our two daughters made way to the top deck, over the tin roof, where around twenty motorcycles were already parked, rest of us headed for the lower deck. The overcrowded lower deck, with people sitting and standing everywhere made a pathetic scene for the two senior citizens, one of whom was carrying Kuhu, our younger granddaughter over her shoulder. One Assamese gentleman respecting my seniority offered me his seat. Without getting into the formality of offering the seat to my wife, who was at a little distance, I decided to scramble on the seat. A tribal woman squeezed a little and accommodated my wife and Kuhu.
As the ferry moves away from the river bank, the hot air suddenly cools and settles around us as a strong breeze blows over the mighty Brahamputra. What a relief for the passengers. The turbulent river was flowing in its full bloom and with the other bank nowhere in sight, it was a breathtaking scene. As we were going against the current, the speed of the boat had slowed down considerably and it took us an hour and half to cover the 14 kms stretch. Suddenly, there was a commotion on the deck and the passengers started moving towards the steps leading to the bow. The gentleman sitting next to me announced the arrival of Kamalabari. The ferry stopped near a sandy bank, the gates were opened and then started the disgorging of people, automobiles and goods onto the bank.
The half a dozen shopkeepers were honking to sell their wares. You can reach, Gharmur, the largest habitation in Majuli by bus, shared taxis or own cars. One of the Sumo drivers, constantly tailing us offered us a ride to “ME: PO OKUM” (which means happy home); our abode for the night, for Rs. 500. Considering the distance of around 15 Kms, we found it acceptable. Passing aside the small creeks, lakes and water bodies, we reach the market center of Majuli, which has a number of shops selling all kinds of goods. It is surprising that despite being connected to Jorhat only by three ferries plying in a day, the modernism has reached there, with the setting up of medical centers and educational institutions. Housing too, has segued from traditional bamboo and mud construction to ones made of concrete. There are ATMs, shops selling electronics, Airtel and Tata Sky outlets and what not. We picked up some eatables for the young ones and some cokes, sodas and bakery products for our use.
Me: Po Okum is an eco camp located at Chitadar Chuck village in Majuli. Haren Narah, the owner of the camp received us with a big smile and guided us to three cottages reserved for our stay. The camp has 10 cottages including a large one. All these cottages made of bamboo; thatch and wood have been raised on stilts around 4 -6 ft. above the ground, probably to mitigate the fear of floods during the monsoon. The camp looks like a group of traditional huts around a small mustard field. The cottages have attached basic western toilets with some basic supplies.
I must give you a bit more on the lodging. Each unit has 3 or more small rooms, all of bamboo. Since the structure is raised on a platform, one needs to be very sure-footed while moving on the platform. It took me a while and it was very very tricky to move around. The other thing was the frequent up and down from the rooms is again difficult. My guess is that different units are at different levels of comfort so if you are planning to stay here, then ask for the ones in the centre. Here is the visiting card which Haren gave to me. Please be very patient on phone since it might take a moment or two to get comfortable with Haren’s accent.
Though not elegantly dressed, Haren looked like an educated person, fluent both in Hindi and English, albeit with a thick Mising accent. The much needed piping hot tea was very welcome. While the family was busy with freshening up, I took the opportunity of talking to Haren. He told me that Majuli, the largest river island in the world keeps getting smaller as the tempestuous Brahamputra continues to grab chunks of land from it.
The dwellers of Mājuli are mostly tribal folk. These tribal are the Mising (also pronounced as Mishing) tribes from Aruanachal Pradesh, who immigrated here centuries ago. Apart from them, the inhabitants are also from the Deori and Sonowal Kacharis tribes. Languages spoken here are Mising, Assamese and Deori. The island has over hundred villages with a population of over 150,000. Literacy rate of Mising tribe is fairly high. The island has 6 senior colleges, an equal number of junior colleges and over 50 schools.
Haren told me that many centuries ago, the island was a narrow and long piece of land called Majoli, which means land in the middle of two parallel rivers that had Brahmaputra flowing in the north and the Burhidihing flowing in the south, till they met at Lakhu. Frequent earthquakes in the middle of the 17th century set the stage for a catastrophic flood in 1750 that continued for 15 days. This is mentioned both in historical texts and reflected in folklore. As a result of this flood, the Brahmaputra split into two anabranches—one flowing along the original channel and the other flowing along the Burhidihing channel and the Mājuli island was formed. The Burhidihing’s point of confluence moved 190 km east and the southern channel which was the Burhidihing became the Burhi Xuti. The northern channel, which was previously the Brahmaputra, became the Luit Xuti. In due course, the flow in the Luit Xuti decreased, and it came to be known as the Kherkutia Xuti; and the Burhi Xuti expanded via erosion to become the main Brahmaputra river.
Satras (monasteries) spread over the various villages are the mainstay of Majuli. Majuli is gorgeous mainly on account of its dozens of satras that people visit this offbeat island. When asked about the economy of the island, Haren told me that though the yearly floods in the turbulent Brahamputra besides bringing havoc to the island, leave generously on its retreat the rich soil deposits, which are extremely helpful in cultivation of Paddy. Mājuli has a rich and diverse agricultural tradition, with as many as a hundred different varieties of rice grown, all grown without pesticides or artificial fertilizers. Fishing, dairying, pottery, handloom and boat-making are other important economic activities. As they say –“Necessity is the mother of invention”, no wonder the inhabitants are expert navigators by boat; their expertise is most visible during the monsoon season when they navigate the temptuous waters of the Brahmaputra. Since Majuli is flooded every year during the months May-August, the best time to visit Majuli would be between Oct-March.
Haren suggested a small restaurant in the main market which serves good thali meal of fish curry and rice. The smart Sumo driver, Pradeep struck an attractive deal with Nandan to take us around the island and show places of interest. We found his companion, Rajeev, a BSF personnel who was on his annual leave to the island, interesting enough for accompanying us.
Visit to the Satras
Rajeev told us that in the 15th century, the Bhakti movement was gaining popularity throughout India and saints / philosophers, like Chaitnya Mahaprabhu, Surdas, Meera Bai, Kabir, Tulsidas, Namdeo, Tukaram and a little later Guru Nanak Dev were at its forefront. This new wave was brought to Majuli by Srimanta Sankardev – a 16th century social worker. As per the written records, he was the pioneer of the medieval-age neo-vaishnavite movement, preached a monotheist form of Hinduism called as Vaishnavism and established monasteries and hermitages known as satras on the islet. Sankardev’s simple message was devotion to one God, Krishna (as an avatar of Vishnu, the creator). For easy accessibility, he translated the voluminous religious scriptures into Assamese, challenging the very monopoly of the Brahmins over religion. He pioneered the use of music and dance-dramas to enact the many epics and stories based on incidents of Lord Krishna’s life. The island soon became the leading center of Vaishnavism with the establishment of these satras.
We started with our visit to the biggest Satra, Sri Sri Auniati Satra. The Auniati Satra was established in 1653 by the recently converted Ahom King, Jayadhaja Singh. Since the slightly elevated land of Majuli (which in Assamese is called “Ati”), where this Satra was established, was full of Auni Paan (a kind of betel creeper plant), the name Auniati Satra came into being. The satra is spread over a huge area and you have to walk quite a distance to reach the temple. The daily worshipped idol in the Satra is the idol of Lord Krishna (also referred to as Govinda). This idol was originally located at Jagannath Puri in Odisha and installed at this satra with all the vedic religious rituals. Besides the idol of Lord Krishna, there are some other idols too. The Auniati Satra has twelve branches in Assam, the main branch is located at Guwahati.
The “puja” in the Naamghar (Prayer House) was in full swing when we entered. The spellbinding music and the accompanying “Bhajans”, attracted us to sit in the temple along with the other devotees. The “bhaktas” were so engrossed in devotion that they hardly noticed our presence. We were there for about 15 minutes, when Nandan signaled us to move on as we had to cover a large area.
We met the Deka Satradhikar (second in command), who was kind enough to explain about the row of houses at the periphery and the Namghar (temple) at the center. All the Bhaktas (Vaishanava Devotees) live in the row of houses. The Bhaktas are trained in singing and dancing from childhood and become accomplished dancers and followers by puberty. He told us that the heart of all villages, the Namghar is also where villagers episodically gather to sing and pray. It is the most important public place for the villagers. After the rituals are complete, villagers decide here on issues concerning the village such as auctioning of fishing rights, what to do with money raised, and other topics of significance to the community as a whole.
At our request the monk agreed to show us the age old scriptures, jewelry, utensils, handicrafts and artifacts kept at the Satra. The 17th century scriptures were kept in a safe and were a rare sight. The satra is famous for the “Paalnaam” and Apsara Dances and reportedly has over hundred disciples and over seven hundred thousand followers worldwide.
The next port of halt was the Kamalabari Satra, which is considered as one of the most influential Satras of Assam. It has been not only the center of Vaishnavism but also cultural center of the region. The Satra was named as Kamalabari, Kamala means Orange and Bari means Garden in Assamese. The Kamalabari Satra has been a center of art, culture, literature and classical studies for centuries. It has also a branch in the mainland Assam. The satra has produced some of the great performing artists like the late Maniram Dutta, Muktiyar Bayan and Raseswar Saikia Barbayan, whose contribution towards the conferment of classical status upon Sartriya Dance will always be remembered. We believe that the disciples of the satra still perform this form of art, both at the national and international circuits. The satra is also known for its craft in boat-making.
Then, If my memory is not failing me, we went to Garamur Satra. Since all this happened over a matter of few hours and after a long ferry ride, I do not have a vivid recall but when I looked at the below photo, I could remember that we did make a visit.
Samaguri Satra – The Mask Making Satra of Majuli
Pradeep took us to a virtual dreamland, Samaguri Satra, the mask making satra of Majuli. The satra is renowned for the traditional masks that are made here. It is one of the most important pilgrimage centers of Majuli. The satra is renowned as a core for classical and cultural studies. .We were welcomed by a young man in his twenties and he told us about the ancient art of mask making and its importance in the devotional heritage of Majuli. The mask makers of Majuli usually make masks with the bamboo spilt covered with cotton cloth, clay and cow dung. The craftsman who has to work with a stone or a wooden log has to make the mask within the size of the material. The Satradhikar, the head of the Satra, joined us for a couple of minutes and explained to us the different characters using the masks. There were masks of different sizes; some to be worn on the face and the others to cover the entire body. The monk showed us the facial of masks of Lord Hanuman, Lord Rama, Ravana, Kansa, Kaalia, Hirankashyapa and various other mythological characters. The whole body mask was to portray, Garuda. Our granddaughters, Pihu and Kuhu (3) were almost terrified to see the act of mask bearing Demon King, Ravana. The bhaktas of the satra keep performing their art on various festivals and also for the benefit of tourists. There was a performance scheduled for the next evening, which unfortunately we missed, as we had to catch a boat in the next morning.
The other important Satras, included – Dakhinpat Satra, which was founded by Banamalidev. The Dakhinpat Satra is renowned for the famous Raasleela that is enacted here with great pomp and glory. So much importance is given to this form of dance in the state that it has been declared as one of the major festivals of Assam. Bengenaati Satra is also worth visiting.
Back to the camp
After an enthralling visit to the Satras and meeting some wonderful people, we came back to the camp, freshened up for a large well deserved drink and headed for the dining area. The dinner was almost a magic, with a spread of bamboo chicken (fowl cooked in freshly chopped bamboo tubes), fresh river fish – both fried and in curry form and not to forget the goat meat, which the chef told us to try especially. He told us that the goat meat in Majuli is perhaps extra tasty on account of the animals being fed on the greener meadows of the island, which are there in plenty. The traditional items like delicious red rice, with basic dal and veggies were also served.
When we met for the early morning tea, we realized that we were not the only guests in the camp, there were around ten foreigners, who had come back late in the night perhaps after watching a performance of the dancing monks in one of the satras. Haren told me that the group was heading for Nagaland, which is not very far from Jorhat. He suggested a good walk along with the River Brahamputra, which was a bird watchers’ paradise. The creeks and water bodies harbor a number of rare and endangered migratory birds like the Pelican, Siberian Crane, Greater Adjutant Stork, the wild geese and ducks. Passing by the huts, we could observe the tribal women giving a touch of their age-old expertise to the weaving of shawls and rugs. Weaving is exquisite and intricate with the use of a variety of colors and textures of cotton and silk, especially, the Muga silk.
Pradeep and Rajeev had already arrived with their Sumo and after a hearty continental breakfast, it was time to say good bye to Haren and his folks. We reached the dock well in time to catch the 12.30 p.m. ferry for Nemati Ghat, unaware that it was already booked by a team of foreign tourists. Left with no choice, we boarded the next ferry scheduled to leave at 1.30 p.m., which thankfully sailed on time. River Brahamputra is flowing quietly and the boat is slowly drifting us away from the shores of Majuli.
Majuli is a dream, a state of mind, yes, it is.
References: Wikipedia, Lonely Planet