“O Kai” (Hey brother!)… shouted Mr. Payeng as he noticed a stranger pedalling a pink bicycle. I was busy clicking photographs of the emerald green plot of freshly planted paddy. The shout startled me at first and I looked up. He was sitting on the verandah by the side of the small plot of land that he owns. It was barely 8 in the morning but he was already downing bowls of “apong”, rice beer. I gingerly approached him, and introduced myself as just another tourist. He offered me a bowl too and we started talking.
I casually asked Payeng about the resplendent green plot of land by the side of his house little realizing that the innocent inquiry will spark many latent issues. That piece of land, he said, was all he had. It looked fertile now but its survival is completely dependent on the seasonal floods, or the lack of them. As a matter of fact floods are a ritualistic affair in Assam and even more so on the river island of Majuli. If he is lucky, the rain will be optimal and the crops will survive. If the flood returns in its full glory, nothing will remain. The island and its residents are at the mercy of Brahmaputra and its fury.
I expected Payeng to be a benign, pious villager in the land of Satras. But there seemed to be a lot of pent up frustration that he needed to vent and finally found a listener in me. By the time he was through his third bowl of apong, it seemed to me that he had turned an atheist. Poverty frustrates him but he does not have any control over his destiny. His brothers elsewhere even sell the same apong doing a brisk business but in this pious land that is not a business appreciated by many. Eventually I bade him adieu as I had a lot more to see in Majuli.
This brief encounter set the tone for rest of my day in Majuli. The cultural and natural riches of the island are second to none in Assam. But there is a sense of decay everywhere, both natural and psychological. My school books taught me that Majuli is the largest river island in the world and the Guinness Book of World Records has also recognized it recently. But the powerful Brahmaputra has been eroding the island for many decades now, shrinking it bit by bit, day by day. This sense of gradual but certain extinction adds a layer of melancholy over the colourful traditions of the island which has now been declared a separate district of Assam.
On the positive side, tourism has picked up in the recent times. There are cozy resorts coming up along with the influx of western tourists although the tourism infrastructure is nowhere close to the better known tourist destinations of the country. One still has to take a ferry to reach Majuli and the boats often run dangerously overcrowded. Among other things, I also noticed that the locals are open to renting their bicycles to the tourists for a negligible amount. After Hampi, this was the second time I had the joy of exploring a place on a cycle, the ultimate zero carbon transport.
Majuli has been coveting the UNESCO World Heritage Site tag for a while now. So far it has eluded the island, probably due to insufficient articulation of the potential it possesses. In fact, it is one of those few sites that is important both in terms of natural riches as well as cultural capital.
Majuli is not just unique in its setting but is also very fragile in its existence. Basically the southern side of the island is separated from the mainland by the vast and muscular Brahmaputra River while the northern side is covered by a narrower anabranch of the same river. While the rainy season makes life difficult, the winters are pleasant, warm, and ideal for tourists. I landed there on a February morning after a 45 minute ride on the roof of a double-decker motorboat from Nimatighat near Jorhat.
As I landed on the other side, I saw a vast expanse of soft white sand dotted with a few shacks selling basic food and a couple of jeeps waiting in anticipation. I usually don’t associate the word beach with river banks but it indeed looked like a beach. I got into one of the shared cars and within ten minutes it crossed the sandbanks and reached Kamalabari, an urban area inside the otherwise vastly rural island. There are more than two hundred villages on Majuli and a couple of them such as Kamalabari and Garamur can be called towns as most of the government offices, restaurants, and hotels are located in and around these areas.
I took a room in a small, rundown hotel and began exploring. The first thing I noticed was that the island was very rich in terms of avian life. That day and the next day, I kept stumbling on various species like storks, egrets, kingfishers and purple moorhens in every corner of the island. It is not surprising as Majuli is not far from the famous Kaziranga National Park. The river separates them but in the winters it is not unusual for some of the mammals to cross over and the birds of course can visit anytime. Many smaller islands surround Majuli and the most noteworthy among them is the one that has been turned into a forest by Jadav Payeng, known as the Forest Man of India (not to be confused with the other Mr Payeng I mentioned earlier).
But, I was more interested in the countryside and the agrarian life of Majuli. So, I hired a cycle for myself, left the main road for a smaller village route, and stumbled on Mr Payeng mentioned at the beginning. That brief meeting made me a bit uncomfortable. There was a sense of gloom behind the apparently touristy facade. Erosion is not only a problem here but all over Assam. While Brahmaputra was always a powerful river, the severity of the floods have increased after the great earthquake of 1950. Majuli used to be much more stable before that point but since then it has already lost almost one third of its total area. This accelerated pace of erosion needs to be curbed else Majuli might vanish from the map of India one day.
For almost 500 years, Majuli has been the cultural capital of Assam, the largest center of the neo-vasihnavite movement started by Srimant Sankardev. This movement emerged around the same time as some other major progressive reform movements in other parts of Medieval India. From theology to literature, and from music to classical dance, this movement practically formed the core of Assam’s cultural life.
While there are many Satras all over Assam, Majuli has the largest concentration of them. Dozens of Satras still function here as they have existed from centuries. I visited several Satras but I was somewhat wary of the formalities of the large Satras. They are well – maintained and receive a lot of visitors. One can interact with the monks and catch a glimpse of various drama, dance, and musical performances. But I was not satisfied as I needed a smaller, less crowded, and more intimate setting, to have a conversation. So, I rode on.
My search ended at the Notun Chamaguri Satra, a small, almost miniature Satra that I passed by without noticing before coming back to it following the Google Maps. I knew that this was the center of mask making in Majuli and so I wanted to visit it and it turned out to be exactly what I expected it to be.
The family that runs the Satra, also runs the mask making operations. All the family members are accomplished artists and they have been doing it for generations. Nowadays small masks are also sold to tourists as souvenirs but the primary purpose of the masks is to be used during dramas. The faces represent various mythological characters and the actors wear them while enacting various stories.
I met Dhiraj Goswami, one of the family members, who was busy working on a new Ganesha mask. He took some time off to show me around. From ten headed Ravana to Hanuman, and from Jatayu to Narasimha, all of them looked pretty alive and somewhat intimidating too. He told me that even foreign visitors are nowadays visiting the Satra and learning the art. I did see a mask made by an Israeli guest.
The one hour spent at the Chamaguri Satra was by far the most pleasant one. Satras are doing well and tourism is slowly picking up. What was once a community fostered institution has now turned to other means of income to sustain itself. Inevitable, as the community, especially the ones at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum have their own income issues with the Brahmaputra fiercely acting against the island.
The state government has built embankments and strategically placed geobags to prevent the river from eroding the land but this has mostly turned out to be a stopgap measure incapable of standing up to the mighty river. Such constructions generally get washed away every year, only to be built again. Better vision as well as technological innovation will be required to save Majuli from eventual disappearance.
I returned from Majuli with conflicting thoughts in my mind. There was a lot to see and experience but certain grim realities prevented me from fully enjoying the experience. It should be noted that the current Chief Minister of Assam won his election from Majuli. So, a slew of new projects have been announced of late. But can the political capital take on the force of nature? Only time will tell!
Author – Jitaditya Narzary
The author is a travel blogger and blogs at http://www.travellingslacker.com