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Tales from Majuli, an island on the edge

The people of Majuli in Assam fiercely uphold their centuries-old cultures and traditions even as the Brahmaputra eats away at their island-home every year

brunch Updated: May 24, 2015 14:25 IST
Satarupa Paul
Majuli-Photo-Raj-K-Raj
Majuli-Photo-Raj-K-Raj

"Do you see that sandbar there?" Ankur Das, a 26-year-old majhi, asks me, pointing to a stretch of sandy land in the middle of the mighty Brahmaputra river. "That used to be a village," he says, as I try to search for any semblance of it. Barring some debris that could have been the thatch of roofs, the sandbar is barren.



The ferry undulates slightly as it moves forward into the vast expanse of water towards Majuli – a river island in Assam that has become quite well-known. Its contentious claim to fame – Majuli is the largest river island in the world, and it is shrinking.



"Where have these people gone?" I ask Ankur. "Further inland. That’s where we keep going when our houses get washed away," he says. "I’ve seen the river’s many avatars. In the monsoon, it’ll reach thrice its depth, drowning everything in its way. Visit us a month from now, and it will resemble an angry sea, washing away land, trees, houses and people alike."



Standing on the open deck of the ferry, squeezed between a car, several bikes and sacks of potatoes, I look out at the Brahmaputra spread as far as the eyes can see – gentle, serene, almost innocuous. It’s hard to imagine that the same river is the cause of devastating floods and erosion that batter the island of Majuli.



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Ferries packed with cars, bikes, people and sacks of vegetables ply on the Brahmaputra between the mainland and the island of Majuli."Haven’t you ever thought of moving out to the mainland somewhere?" I ask Ankur. A cool breeze picks up and serves goose bumps on the skin. "Many people do. Some buy land elsewhere and settle down," he says. "Some go to Guwahati or Delhi or other big places to study and work. But if all of us leave, who’ll be left on this island? Who’ll carry forward the old traditions that we have here?"



It is to see this unique milieu of culture that Indian and foreign tourists, scholars and researchers are flocking here; to experience what it feels to be in a world-famous place that might soon not be. This same inquisitiveness landed me in Majuli. I had anticipated its inhabitants living in preparedness for their island to vanish; I had imagined them miserable, scared and constantly brooding.



What I found instead are people who choose to live on in this island they call home, celebrating harmony and peace amongst its many varied communities, and fiercely guarding their very unique culture, traditions and customs.



They together weave a story of survival quite unlike any other – even as the river eats away at their island, eroding away its land and life, and threatening its centuries-old cultures every year, year after year. These are the people of Majuli who see their houses and loved ones being washed away by the gushing currents, yet who courageously, determinedly move and rebuild, move and rebuild.



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The overcast grey sky seems to accentuate the many hues of green on the land. Everywhere you look, you see open fields, sparse forests, bamboo groves and the occasional beel (lake-like wetlands). The air is so crisp, it almost hurts my city-polluted lungs. Majuli is beautiful, overwhelmingly so.



We drive out from Kamalabari, one of the two major villages in Majuli, past the clusters of tiny shops. Several stops for directions later, we reach Dakhinapat sattra – one of the oldest sattras or monasteries on the island that has stood the test of time and nature.



Through the 15th to 17th centuries, Srimanta Shankardev – a Bhakti saint who pioneered the socio-religious movement of Neo-Vaishnavism in Assam – and his disciples established 64 sattras in Majuli, the largest concentration of such monasteries anywhere in the state.

These were centres of excellence where the tenets of devotion to Vishnu were propagated through studies, song, dance and drama. In the hundreds of years to follow, a few of those sattras would be washed away by the river, a few would shift elsewhere, leaving behind only 36. Dakhinapat is one of them.



A large algae-laden pond is surrounded by old one-storey buildings with tiled roofs sloping low, freshly mud-caked floors that cool your feet and never-ending corridors punctuated by decorated doors to simple living chambers. Young bhokots (male devotees) in browning dhotis and patched T-shirts dart past us to play "catch-catch." At the porch, two old bhokots sit reciting verses from the Bhagavad Gita. They deliberate on meanings, and often one corrects the interpretations of the other.



http://www.hindustantimes.com/Images/popup/2015/5/1705brunch-pg9b.jpg"We offer a puja to the Brahmaputra every year to appease it, so that it doesn’t cause destruction to the island," one of them tells me. "It doesn’t listen to our prayers often, but at least it keeps away from us."



He then suddenly asks, "Do you want to see our museum? Earlier not many outsiders came to visit us. Of late though, many people are coming here, several foreigners too. I’m not sure what changed, but all of them seem to be interested in seeing our little museum."

Naren Kotoki is 75 now, but he came to Dakhinapat as a six year old. "Some of the children are recruited by older bhokots, while many are left at the sattras by their own families due to poverty or illness," he says.



The kids help the old devotees with their daily chores. In return, they are schooled in the scriptures and other subjects, songs, dance, drama and yoga.



"Some leave the monastery for jobs or to marry, some like me live on and die here," he says, while briskly walking me to a small, dilapidated, tin-roofed house in the back.



"This is Majuli’s first pakka house, built 200 years ago. This is also a museum of precious relics. I am its keeper and its guide," he says with a flourish.



As the door creaks open, the darkness and dampness inside presses on me. Naren shines a torch on various things, pointing out in a single breath, "These are six elephant teeth. This silver plate is 400 years old. Locks and keys, at least 360 years old."



"These," opening an old chest, "Are utensils made of pure gold." "And that," pointing to a single oil lamp in an inside room, "Has been burning for the last 361 years."



"We’ve been asking for grants from the government so we can renovate this place," he says, as we emerge outside to a drizzle. "Hopefully, with so many tourists visiting, they’ll do something about it."While the museum at Dakhinapat sattra still awaits formal recognition, two cultures that emerged out of sattras are already going places.



Dhiren Goswami, 38, ushers us inside his humble house where his brother Prodip sits crosslegged on the floor, surrounded by masks of Ravana, Parashuram, Marich and other mythological characters. He concentrates hard on perfecting the eyebrows on the mask of Jatayu in his hand.



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The old craft of mask making was once prevalent in sattras across Assam. Today, only the devotees of Chamoguri sattra in Majuli practice it. These masks of various characters from the mythologies are used in stage performances called bhaonas.



These are the famed mask makers of Chamoguri Sattra, and "foreigners flock by the dozens here to see us practise our art," says Dhiren. "They like to buy the smaller masks as souvenirs. You can also find our masks at museums in Guwahati, Delhi and Kolkata. Our father has even been awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for this art."



These attractive masks are made by binding bamboo and clay, and are of different sizes, some facial, some full-bodied. They are worn during entertaining dance dramas called bhaonas that are based on the mythologies and popular fables.



"It was introduced by our Vaishnav guru Shankardev. Once it was prevalent in all the sattras all over Assam," says Dhiren. "But with time it started losing its significance elsewhere. Ours is the only sattra that has kept it alive. It is, after all, our parampara."



Another tradition that has been nurtured in the sattras since the 15th century is the dance form called Sattriya Nritya. Shankardev and his most devout disciple Madhavdev established it with the aim to preach the tenets of Neo-Vaishnavism through music and dance – a language that is universally understood and loved.



"For many centuries hence," says 55-year-old Karuna Bora, one of the most respected proponents of Sattriya Nritya in Majuli, "This dance form remained confined within religious boundaries as the domain of celibate male monks. It was only in the latter half of the 20th century that it started transforming from a medium of upasana within the sattras to a more widely appreciated performing art form for the stage. It is now performed and celebrated by male and female dancers alike."



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Many old devotees in the sattras on Majuli opt for celibacy; they spend their lives reading the scriptures and practising crafts like weaving bamboo products.



In November of 2000, Sattriya Nritya was recognised by the government and enlisted as one of the eight principal classical Indian dance forms that include Kathak and Bharatnatyam, among others. Bora says, "Sattriya is finally going places and people from various places are coming to Majuli to experience it in its original habitat."This throng of tourists to Majuli lately could be attributed to reports in the media which claim that it is the largest river island in the world, and one that is fast disappearing. As it happens, neither of these claims is entirely true.



Majuli Island Protection and Development Council (MIPADC) is an NGO that has been working towards protecting and promoting the island. They were also the first body to prepare a dossier nominating the island as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Officials associated with it say that Majuli is not the largest river island in the world.



Bharat Saikia, general secretary at MIPADC, explains, "In 1950, the area of Majuli was 1250 sq kms. But this total area included the surrounding river, sandbanks and small islets. The actual area of the island itself was 733 sq kms in 1914, according to the Survey of India."



This makes Majuli only a distant contender for the title of the largest river island in the world. (According to Island Superlatives, a website providing information on all the islands of the world, an island on the Amazon River in Brazil holds the legit crown.)



However, Google the largest river island, and chances are Majuli will pop up in nine of the 10 search results. A 2014 paper in the European Academic Research by Jacob Konwar and Deb Kr Chakraborty attempts to justify that by saying Majuli is in fact "the largest inhabited and fresh water island of its kind over the world."



Surajit Jaradhara, coordinator of the original dossier to UNESCO, says, "Majuli is a very special delta island formation in the middle of a river. That’s all. No other adjectives – largest, smallest etc, can be attached to it."



Today, Majuli occupies an area of roughly 650 sq km and it is shrinking rapidly each year. Or so reports in the media would have us believe. A 2008 article in The Independent claims, "...the island could disappear within as little as 20 years." In February this year, a travelogue in The Guardian quoted the same claim.



Several listicles on the Internet even include it in ‘places to see before they disappear.’ But Saikia says, "Majuli loses a lot of land each year when the river floods and erodes the soil. But while it erodes at one place, it also builds at another through deposition of sediments. Yes, the size is decreasing, because the rate of erosion is faster than the rate of deposition. But the island will in no way disappear completely anytime soon."



Yet, the loss to lives and physical property due to these annual natural calamities is immense. And the loss to cultural properties is at times irreplaceable. Jaradhara says, "Majuli has a very specific cultural landscape, consisting of the Assamese population and many other ethnic tribes who have been living in harmony with each other and with nature for hundreds of years, while preserving a very unique set of cultures and traditions." It is this colourful cultural landscape that is endangered by nature every year.



On the banks of a stream that drains into the Brahmaputra lies the village of Sumoimari. From a distance, it looks like any other village on the island.



Look closer, and you’ll see that the houses here are built of bamboo, high above the ground on stilts. Its inhabitants, too, look a little different; while the Assamese women wear light-coloured mekhela-chador, here they dress more vibrantly.



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Mishing women in bright traditional outfits pose for a photo with objects of daily use.



These people of Sumoimari, along with many other such villages, constitute the largest tribal population on the island – the Mishings. Originally from the mountains of Arunachal Pradesh, the Mishing families have been on the island for generations now.



"Earlier we used to live closer to the river and our land would extend from the banks all the way till here," says 60-year-old Hemchandra Kutum, instructor of Mishing songs and dances at the Majuli Cultural Association. "This stream used to be so shallow we could jump across it as kids. Then the quake of 1950 happened. The river changed its course and the stream merged with it, becoming a tyrant and eating up all our land."



He doesn’t brood over it though, and instead calls out to his students from nearby houses to showcase a dance form for us. Traditionally performed during their biggest festival called Ali-Ai-Ligang, it celebrates the planting of the first paddy seeds in spring.



In the nearby village of Bali Gaon, Renu Payeng nurses her infant between rounds of weaving at the handloom. Known as expert weavers, Mishing women learn the craft as children from their grandmothers and mothers. "We mostly weave mekhela-chador or traditional Mishing costumes for our own use, or for gifts. Seldom do we sell anything outside."



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A Mishing woman showing her weaving skills at the handloom.



Renu’s husband is a junior school teacher, and her older daughter studies in Class 4. "The good thing about Majuli is that every kid here goes to school," says her brother-in-law Rongmon Payeng. "My brother studied well and became a teacher, I dropped out of school and became a woodcutter," he laughs.

The village of Salmara with its shabby houses on either side of a narrow, dusty road is hard to reach. But once there, you are greeted by rows upon rows of earthen pots drying in the sun. Its 500-odd families make earthenware without the potter’s wheel, with bare fingers.



Dhira Hazarika, 71 years old, slaps clay on to a small round plate, and shapes it into a pot with one hand while rotating the plate with the other. Pots, pans, oil lamps, piggy banks and other utensils lie around her tiny workshop.



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Dhira may be a small woman with grey hair and a toothless grin, but she’s lived a tumultous life. “My older son was washed away by the river several years ago. People say I had fainted then. All I remember is waking up toothless,” she says matter-of-factly.



“You see how high our houses are built? Even so, the river floods our homes every year. We travel by boats then. In the 14 years that my husband has been dead, I’ve moved house five times. Still, the river won’t stop chasing us.”



On the way back from the potters’ village, we meet fisherman Babul Das who has grown up chasing the river for its bounty. Today, he casts his nets in the waters of Bor Beel – the largest wetland on Majuli. “I love fishing in the big river. But sometimes when the weather is bad, we’ve to fish here... in these swamps,” he rues.



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Fishermen draw their nets and take stock of their evening catch in the waters of Bor Beel, the largest wetland in Majuli.



“My ancestors were fishermen. But I’ve made sure my sons are educated, so they can get better jobs,” he says. “We’re still river people. We love the river despite everything. It waters our farms, feeds our families with its fish. It is so grand to look at too,” he says fondly. “Sometimes though it gets angry and creates havoc. The river created this island, and only the river has the right to destroy it.”

From the travel diaries

Reporting from my backyard

I grew up in Guwahati. The island of Majuli was too close for us to actually visit because, “we can go there anytime.” When I moved to Delhi a decade ago, I forgot all about the island in my backyard. That is, until I came across a Web listicle called Places To Visit Before They Disappear. There it was, between the Maldives and Mount Kilimanjaro: Majuli.



I had to go home.



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When you grow up surrounded by the beauty and vibrant culture of the Northeast, you tend to take it for granted. For me, the big cities formed the stuff of adventures.



It took years of living outside to realise the worth of my homeland. And it took going back, in the garb of an outsider as ‘a reporter from the big city’, to understand it in a new light.



On this assignment, I tried to dissociate myself from my land, and in the process I noticed, the grass (literally) seemed greener, the Brahmputra more brown and beautiful and – even with all the distance – home was more homely.


-by Satarupa Paul

A picture is worth a thousand words


Majuli was paradise. It was one of the most gorgeous places I have photographed. It not just wooed my camera lenses but also made me feel at home.



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Satarupa speaks Assamese, so it was easy for her to communicate with the locals. I don’t understand a word of the language! And yet, the people were so warm, I didn’t felt like an outsider – not for a minute! They welcomed me into their homes and talked to me in broken Hindi. It was touching.



You ought to visit it yourself – and when you do, don’t forget to take photographs!


by Raj K Raj


Photos by Raj K Raj
Follow @satarupapaul on Twitter


From HT Brunch, May 17
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