Majuli Island, India

An Island in Countdown

Watching Brahmaputra Pass
Passengers crossing the river Brahmaputra that leads to the island of Majuli.
garuda in prayer
Garuda statue at Garamur Satra.
a convenient islander
Peasant woman collects snails and hyacinths on an island of vegetation.
Samaguri human mask
Priest displays one of the many masks produced by Samaguri Satra.
in the steps of the cattle
Peasant woman leads cows down a slippery trail in Majuli.
The Margem-Rio line
Owner of a boat on the river Brahmaputra.
From Priest to Disciples
Priest of Kamelabari sat in conversation with two young apprentices.
double bridge
Pedestrian crosses a wooden bridge over one of Majuli's numerous river branches.
little yogi
Children learn yoga at Kamelabari satra.
Canoe for 3
Majuli natives navigate the somewhat undefined flow of the Luhit River.
seating places
Full capacity on board the ferry.
a vegetable balance
Balanced fisherman in a narrow canoe on the island's riverside vegetation.
orderly landing
Passengers about to disembark from one of the ferris connecting Majuli to the rest of India.
a hurried trio
Women cross one of the bridges over the Luhit River.
Kalamabari Terminal
Passengers await the arrival of one of the ferries serving the island of Majuli.
Majuli is the largest river island in India and would still be one of the largest on Earth were it not for the erosion of the river Bramaputra that has been making it diminish for centuries. If, as feared, it is submerged within twenty years, more than an island, a truly mystical cultural and landscape stronghold of the Subcontinent will disappear.

From Guwahati, the capital of Assam, that we followed the massive flow and the wide meanders of the Brahmaputra, a few days before discovering its stunning swamp of Maguri Bill.

Not that the date is relevant where we were, but with December approaching Christmas, we were getting deeper and deeper into the snowy winter of Northeast India.

O PN Kaziranga, its single-horned rhinos, elephants, tigers and other creatures of the flooded jungle, had been left behind. When the mysterious Majuli reached our ears, it proved too irresistible. We didn't take long to look for her.

At around one o'clock in the afternoon, we arrived at a shabby wharf. Ahmed, a driver who has been driving us around Assam for several days, gives way to a colleague, gets on a bus and returns home.

We – car included – descend a muddy ramp excavated on the bank of Brahmaputra and board one of the museum-like ferries that sail to the island.

Ferry passengers, Majuli, Assam, India

Passengers on the deck of the ferry that connects Majuli to the rest of India.

The commander whistles for the match. In three strokes, the small ferry detaches itself from the bank and slides along one of the many sandbanks that dot the river at that time of year.

We are in the middle of the dry season. Although vast, Brahmaputra remains a sample of the fluvial colossus that it becomes with the melting of the Himalayas to the north and the intensification of the inevitable monsoons.

From May onwards, this and almost all the sand banks and islands we pass are swallowed up by the river. The same effect, aggravated and dragged over time, makes the Majuli of our destination – by far the largest island in Brahmaputra – gradually disappear.

Natives in Canoe, Luhit River, Majuli, Assam, India

Majuli natives navigate the somewhat undefined flow of the Luhit River.

In 1901, Majuli had 1255 km2. In 1917, with just 751km2 which decreased to 453km2 in 1966 and 421km2 in 2001.

From the turn to the 6.4st century, erosion caused by the brutal flow of Brahmaputra continued, more intense than ever: at a pace of XNUMXkm2 per year, well over 1.77km2 / year that were registered between 1917 and 1972.

As a result, many families had to move to other non-threatened areas of the island. Or abandon it altogether.

To make matters worse, the inhabitants of Majuli have always been considered special in the more or less homogeneous immensity of the subcontinent's Hindus and Muslims. Majuli is home to a population of around 150.000 souls, spread over two hundred and fifty villages and complicated to define in social and cultural terms.

There, for centuries, tribal communities such as the Mising, the Deori and the Sonowal Kachari have coexisted. Others, non-tribal: the Koch, the Kalitas, the Ahoms, the Chutiyas, the Keot, the Yogi etc., etc.

Then, as you would expect in India, there are also the varieties: Jalia Kaivartas (fisherman aborigines), Brittial Banias (merchants, in particular jewelers, goldsmiths and utensil manufacturers) among many others. Among the various tribes, Mising, with over 60.000 members, is the predominant one.

The Misings surrendered to Majuli around the 8th century AD. It is believed that they inhabited the south of the China and the Tibet and that they will have migrated from the shores of Lake Manasarovar, the highest freshwater lake in the world, formed at the source of the Brahmaputra River, the Tibetan glacier of Bhagirath.

From these lands of the Asian roof, the Misings moved to the Indian regions of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. Attached to its waterfront root, thousands of them decided to settle in Majuli. Many, especially in the north of the island, would become Christians.

Passengers await ferry, Majuli, Assam, India

Passengers await the arrival of one of the ferries serving the island of Majuli.

The boat is made to the Kalamabari Ferry Terminal, in practice, a mere wooden grid involving containment bags and equipped with long boards that allow passengers and vehicles to disembark without the risk of collapsing the sand strip that receives them.

A small crowd of natives awaits us which could well include members of the tribes, not the tribes and castes mentioned. Then, as now, we would never know how to tell them apart.

That riverside delegation was made up of residents who came to fetch relatives from the surrounding state of Assam. Others were inhabitants about to travel in the opposite direction.

Serving passengers in general, there was also a "clan" of providential workers who, against small Baksheeshes (donations), they placed a kind of dry grass on more sandy areas and thus formed volatile tracks with several kilometers that drivers had to cover with extra care.

Thanks to one of these lanes, we were able to reach the inner and more solid parts of Majuli and reach the island's state hotel, a complex with several chalets built on cement pillars connected by stairs and walkways, well above the river's then level.

Because of the strangeness and discomfort with which they receive us, we are left with the feeling that they haven't seen guests there for a long time, let alone Europeans.

In any case, with the day about to end, flu and exhausted from the already long journey, we limited ourselves to dinner and leaving the next day as tacked up as possible.

Dawn dawned misty, it couldn't have been otherwise, during the winter and on an island lost in an immensity of river.

Gradually, with the sun forcing its thermal power, the mist opened there. He unveiled the mystical scenarios of Majuli and the first manifestations of his life long out of step in time.

Women on Luhit River Bridge, Majuli, Assam, India.

Women cross one of the bridges over the Luhit River.

We crossed a bridge over the Luhit, a river, like the Brahmaputra born in the Tibet and that to Brahmaputra surrenders. We asked Ranjkar to let us out.

As we cross the bridge, a small herd of cows makes it in the opposite direction. Soon, a hurried trio of women in saris and gaudy shawls pass us and laugh at our efforts to photograph the cows.

We look forward from both sides of the bridge. On one side, a little below, a group of villagers, armed with a boat and large baskets, invests the morning between a peninsula and an islet of hyacinths.

Two women in clothes much smaller than the usual saris and in amphibious mode, extend a fishing net in the short channel formed by the vegetation. Next to it, several others collect snails and hyacinths for baskets placed on the vegetable platform that supports them.

Since 2015, hydroponic agriculture has become popular in Majuli. Fed up with seeing their crops washed away or submerged by Brahmaputra and tributaries, local peasants adhered to the practice of cultivating their own water, using artisan trays of rotted hyacinths that ensure nutrients to the plants sown during at least the monsoon season and of the floods.

Peasant woman, Majuli, Assam, India

Peasant woman collects snails and hyacinths on an island of vegetation.

With the end of the year imminent, we were still five months away from Assam's insurmountable flood. We had time to discover more of the island.

In addition to her unique ethnic and social makeup, Majuli also proves to be a case in point when it comes to faith.

Since the XNUMXth century, the island has remained an ancestral cultural and religious capital of Assam. Around this time, Srimanta Sankardeva, a polymath, poet, scholastic, prophet and social and religious reformer, visited Majuli.

Sankardeva was also a pioneer of the neo-Vishnuite movement, a form of Hinduism that has radically derived from the conventional if only by professing a monotheistic Hinduism in which Vishnu appears as the supreme God and is revered in distinct avatars.

Sankardeva was enchanted by the island. There he founded several monasteries and hermitages known today as satras. At one time, they counted upwards of sixty. Brahmaputra claimed the closure of more than half.

In just over ten minutes, we travel through the almost medieval reality – were it not for motorized vehicles – of Majuli, between soaked rice paddies, stilt villages shared by the simple people of the island, by pigs, ducks, goats, cows and who knows what others animals.

We crossed a gray portico under the gaze of a flock of little marabouts perched in a treetop. Through the portal, we enter the Garamur Satra, one of the four main ones on the island, blessed by a bronze statue of Garuda, the sacred vehicle of Vishnu.

Statue of Garuda-Garamur Satra, Majuli, Assam, India.

Garuda statue at Garamur Satra.

Two of his priests circle the sanctuary. One of them tries to explain to us the unique importance of that place. But the English he uses is very limited. It reduces information to nothing.

Soon, we move on to the next satra, the Kamelabari. We found her in school mode. In an early pavilion, an elderly guru teaches a yoga class to a large group of children.

Yoga class, Kamelabari satra, Majuli, Assam, India

Children learn yoga at Kamelabari satra.

When we enter the oldest and most nuclear space of the satra, we find two buildings, ground floor, long, porched and covered by a common roof made of zinc sheets, some more rusty than others.

There, different priests occupy their own housing units. We found two older ones wrapped in white linen tunics. They don't speak a word of English again.

A few meters later, we bump into another much younger one, accompanied by two young apprentices. They all speak English so, in conversation, we recover much of the lost information.

We ask why satra is so endowed with dry rice. They explain to us that the stored grain is the result of the contribution of the faithful of Majuli, who have long been predisposed to contribute to the support of their religious leaders.

The two young men were on an apprenticeship regime, under the care of the adult priest.

Priest and apprentices, Kamelabari satra, Majuli, Assam, India

Priest of Kamelabari sat in conversation with two young apprentices.

The latter, despite being busy reading any document, never shied away from answering the questions we asked him, always with a smile on his face.

This was followed by Samaguri Satra, smaller, yet one of the most popular on the island, we would soon find out why. This satra was founded in 1663. Since then it has been known mainly for creating traditional dance masks from bamboo, clay, fabrics, cow feces and paint.

As we entered, Hem Chandra Gosvami, the satradhikari (satra leader) and Samaguri's artistic guru is being interviewed for some Indian medium. When he is free from the session, he welcomes us and gives us a tutorial on the art of satra.

When he said goodbye, he left us in the care of a younger religious. The latter is in charge of completing the introduction of Hem Chandra Goswami.

It brings to life the mask of a young woman and another of a monster with sharp teeth. In doing so, even if for just a few moments, he recovers the tradition of Majuli's masked dances and theaters, as old as the island's vixnuism.

Priest with mask, Samaguri Satra. Majuli, Assam, India

Priest displays one of the many masks produced by Samaguri Satra.

It was Sankardeva himself who, intent on unleashing social change, resorted to his artistic skills to convey the message of vixnuism to illiterate and “common” men in India.

Accordingly, Sankardeva wrote short pieces about the life of Lord Vishnu in his various incarnations.

For centuries, these little theaters, called bhaonas, visited the villages and enchanted the residents, but with the passage of time and the predominance of conventional Hinduism, they became increasingly rare.

Today, in danger of extinction, they are a source of national pride, to the point of Hem Chandra Gosvami have recently been invited to display their creations in Delhi at the Republic Day parade.

Seen from the opposite perspective, Delhi will be able to do little to interfere with Majuli's future, be it the masks bhaona or the real life of the island. As so far, it will be up to the all-powerful Brahmaputra, son of Vishnu's creative and destructive incarnation, to decide his fate.

The authors would like to thank the following entities for supporting this article: Embassy of India in Lisbon; Ministry of Tourism, Government of India; Assam Development Corporation.

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