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Majuli may soon turn World Heritage Site

The world's largest river island in Assam may soon become a World Heritage Site.

india Updated: Nov 11, 2005 17:44 IST

The world's largest river island in Assam may soon become a World Heritage Site with UNESCO sending an expert team next fortnight to ascertain facts, officials on Friday said.

The Government earlier this year proposed to UNESCO that it accord international recognition to the island of Majuli, 350 km east of Guwahati.

"A team of UNESCO experts are arriving Majuli on Nov 22 to assess the Indian government's proposal for declaring the island as a World Heritage Site," Assam's Cultural Affairs Minister Hemoprova Saikia said.

"We are hopeful of getting a positive response from the expert team."

Sri Lankan archaeologist Jagat Weerasinghe heads the UNESCO team to Majuli and is accompanied by officials of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).

"Majuli deserves to be listed as a World Heritage Site for its great cultural landscape and hence New Delhi's decision to send a detailed proposal to the UNESCO to list it as a site of outstanding universal properties," the minister said.

Majuli with a population of about 150,000 people once covered a prosperous 1,500 square km that was dotted with Hindu monasteries. This was sometime before India's independence in 1947. Today, its very existence is in danger as the island has reduced to half its original size and is prone to extensive flooding and erosion.

The threat to Majuli's existence began in 1950 after a severe earthquake shifted the riverbed and caused massive silting that in turn led to heavy river erosion, especially during the rainy season.

"Majuli is facing extinction with the island shrinking rapidly due to excessive flooding. The Indian government would be bound to take measures for protection of the island if it is declared a World Heritage Site," said MP from Assam Arun Sharma.

"Not only will more international funds come in, but we expect to get help from experts worldwide how to save Majuli from the wrath of the annual flooding if UNESCO lists the island as a heritage site."

The Assam government on its part would soon be enacting a law to declare Majuli a 'culturally protected site' to protect the island from extinction.

Majuli has remained the cultural capital of Assamese civilisation since the 16th century with the visit of the social reformer Sankardeva, who preached a form of Hinduism called Vaishnavism and established monasteries and hermitages known as 'satras' on the islet.

Monasteries apart, Majuli is known for its exotic pottery products made from beaten clay and burnt in driftwood-fired kilns.

Sociologists have stressed on the preservation of this unique art form and the people of the island whose culture and dance forms are untouched by modernism.

"Despite virtually being cut off from the mainland, the islanders of Majuli have been able to preserve its distinct identity and hence its uniqueness," said Annanda Hazarika, a college teacher in Majuli.

Hundreds of tourists and researchers have been flocking to the island in groups. "This is an amazing place where people live in the midst of the tempestuous river and yet maintain their distinct cultural traditions without any dilution," Andrew Wilson, an American anthropologist, said after a visit.

"Majuli is a virgin island and has the potential to offer tourists a lot."

First Published: Nov 11, 2005 16:02 IST