Majuli Island, Assam / by David Johnstone

The (once) Largest River Island on the Planet

Saturday 7th to Friday 13th April 2018

It was suffocating onboard the 20rp, 45 minute ferry crossing to Majuli island, a 350sqkm chunk of land sitting within the mighty Brahmaputra river in upper Assam. It was rammed full of people, vehicles and wares all vying to get over from Nimati Ghat in the south. A growing destination for international travellers, I was still the only foreigner on board but soon made small talk with a couple of blokes before the conversation inevitably turned to politics.

The ferry crossing the Brahmaputra from Nimati Ghat to Majuli

The ferry crossing the Brahmaputra from Nimati Ghat to Majuli

TROUBLE BREWING 

“This place will be at war, in flames soon” a cinematographer, Prayash, said passionately, angrily.

”The Bangladeshi problem in lower Assam?”  

“Yeah” another random lad interjected. “Some places are now 80% Bengali and we Assamese will soon be a minority in our own land”. 

”It’s the fucking BJP (the Hindu-dominated Government) offering them citizenship for votes. They’re undermining everything. If they don’t kick them out there’ll be civil war.” 

”How about Majuli? Isn’t that peaceful? Are there Bengalis there?“ 

‘None, and no Muslims either. It’s a peaceful place.”

Taking a sumo over the large exposed sandbars towards the main administrative town of Garimur where I’d be spending almost a week chilling, I ruminated on a problem I’d heard and read many times since I’d arrived in Assam. Having been to Bangladesh and seen the unsustainable population growth, the poverty, corruption and lack of opportunity it was inevitable that people would flood out of the country seeking work. I’d witnessed it in the coal mines of Meghalaya but here the problems stem back to 1971 and Bangladesh’s independence. The government of the BJP promises a citizenship act, where anyone pre-71 are legally entitled to stay. But, of course, corruption has led to even recent arrivals getting fake papers and, with it, undermining wages so the problems is becoming poisionous. Add to this mix political chicanery and it feels toxic.

My bamboo bungalow at Jyoti’s in Majuli Island

My bamboo bungalow at Jyoti’s in Majuli Island

Jyoti, Moona and Dadul 

After finding I had no room at my preferred guesthouse, I cycled up to a set of simple, bamboo cottages, Jyoti’s House, and found myself a room there instead. Basic but quaint (1200rp), lovely people, close to the ‘high street’ and a little verandah to sit outside on - and I had a good mobile connection. The view was nice too, full of trees and birds and it was a chance to get the binoculars out, watching with Jyoti, the owner and fellow twitcher.

THE BIRDS & THE BEELS

Majuli, once the largest river island in the world, has lost two-thirds of it’s land mass since the beginning of the 20th century, caused by the erosion of embankments upriver created to prevent extreme flooding during the monsoon season when the river distends its banks. The upshot is a backlash from the tempestuous Brahmaputra, eroding most of the area. Surveys show that in 15–20 years from now, Majuli could cease to exist. With a population of 180,000 within 150 villages this is clearly a catastrophic scenario. Rampant deforestation upstream and on the island has a huge impact too.

Despite this, as a wetland, Majuli is a birding hotspot, it’s clear, clean waterways and beels (small inland lakes) home to Lesser Adjutants, Pond Herons, Bitterns, Open-Billed Storks, Ducks, Kingfishers and a whole host of woodland birds from Bee-eaters, Sunbirds and Flower Peckers to Coucal, Owlets and Cuckoo. You pass trees full of roosting fruit bats too. Whist the larger forests have been destroyed and with it the mammals, some tall trees still remain within the ever-present patches of rich bamboo groves and fruit trees festooned with the most fragrant orchids.

The place is full of insects as well as reptiles and snakes. Dusk brings a whole host of characters out to play, from flying ants and beetles to the dreaded mosquito. And lots of them. Majuli is almost pollution-free with very little heavy industry coupled with extreme rainfall.

KARMA SATRA

Majuli has been the cultural capital of Assamese civilisation since the 16th century, the social reformer, Sankardeva, a pioneer of the medieval-age neo-Vaishnavite movement, preaching a monotheist form of Hinduism called Vaishnavism - where as Hindus worship many gods, Majulis worship one, Vishnu - and established monasteries and hermitages known as Satras.  

Bengdnati, Dakhinpat & Garimur Satras

Home to bachelor, celibate and married monks, the Satras, built in the 17th century, exude a sublime serenity, beautifully peaceful and surrounded by lush plantations, forest and beels.

MASKS & FACES

As well as a place of spirituality, the Satras were and still are an important part of cultural life on the island. Bhawna, a traditional form of theatre, is played out with costume, masks and great spectacle.

I had the opportunity to witness one right next to the guesthouse as the local community dressed up to entertain some Assamese students. Subtle, rhythmic dance was followed by a host of masked, costumed characters enacting the epic Ramayana. Moona, the lodge’s caretaker, played his part as a soldier with much gusto, accompanied by the hypnotic sound of drum, flute and singing.

The masks themselves are locally crafted at the Samiguri Satra which I visited on the back of a motorbike as part of a day trip around the island with Dadool, the brother of the guesthouse owner. Made from a mixture of bamboo frame, cloth and cow shit, painted and with moving parts, they certainly add drama and are a little unsettling!

ISLAND LIFE 

The island’s inhabitants are mix of Assamese and other tribals, the most significant the Mising people with their stilted houses. Weaving is practised throughout and many house their own hand-built looms where they create the ubiquitous and utilitarian Assamese Gamusa, a white cloth with red geometric patterns.

Villagers eek out an existence through agriculture and the rich sandy soil produces a range of crops with more than than 100 types of rice grown including the delicious kumol saul which can be eaten without cooking and is accompanied by yoghurt and jaggery (sugar cane).

Villagers at Guwalabari Village

BACKWATERS

It’s always extremely useful to have the benefit of local knowledge and I was delighted to be taken off the main circuit to more hidden and rarely visited gems by both Dadool and Jyoti.

 

They’d barely seen a foreigner before let alone have one sit in their front room

 

At Jalukbari, I was invited in for tea and parata by a family consisting of a grandmother, two aunts and two uncles and three younger sons. They’d barely seen a foreigner before let alone have one sit in their front room and they considered it a great honour for me to be there - the feeling was mutual. I managed to harangue them into posing for some shots for me, no mean feat. 

One fascinating detour led Jyoti and I over the Brahmaputra via a short ‘ferry’ crossing to the Mising village of Dambokial on the northern bank. The whole thing was expertly done, a sturdy, industrious bloke pulling by rope a combination of three canoes tied together with bamboo and wood. The river view, despite the ensuing rain, was spectacular and gloriously clean, filled with cormorants and water hyacinth. 

The village itself was dirt poor. Primitive. No sanitation, no running water and no electricity. A gaggle of sweet but grubby children holding babies in their arms bolted as I approached, a white apparition. They peeked in and out of doorways and windows, howling with laughter, the occasional ‘hello’ thrown in. As soon as I held my camera up they’d disappear into the gloomy interior like jack-in-the-box.

A gaggle of sweet but grubby children holding babies in their arms bolted as I approached, a white apparition


On the way back towards the crossing, I hopped off the motorbike to give a group of boys a lesson in how not to approach a football. Hanging my boots up, we drove back to the guesthouse before the rain and the mosquitoes descended, an aperitif of rice beer before a supper of dried fish and rice.

My time is at an end in Majuli but it’s one of those places that’s so full of tropical charm and serenity one could easily envisage returning. It has a relaxed, backpacker’s feel to it (without the backpackers) and I’m sure it’ll eventually be on the radar of travellers before too long. A highly enjoyable six days.