Majuli- The River Island on the Brahmaputra

Sailing across on river Lohit, Majuli, Assam - Lohit river and the Brahamaputra flow around Majuli giving the island its name (centre ). This river is a birders paradise. Thousands of birds flock here including migratory in the winters. (Sanjay_Austa)

Sailing across on river Lohit, Majuli, Assam –  This river is a birders paradise, Majuli

(The travelogue appeared first in Mail Today, Sep 2014.)

Majuli, in Assam, is touted-in the media and tourist brochures alike- as the largest river island in the world. It is not. The Bananal Island in Brazil is much larger at 19,000 square kilometers. Majuli, is infact shrinking. It has shrunk from its original 1250 square kilometers to an area of only 421 square kilometers today. Year after year the waters of the Brahmaputra close in on the island swallowing acres of land, inch by steady inch.

The tribals, who form the majority of the island’s inhabitants, like to shack up near the shore. But they have had to withdraw their bamboo stilt houses further and further inland every year.

But Majuli does not need trumped up statistics to enhance its status. It is so spectacularly otherworldly that you feel you are in a different country altogether. Which is saying a lot, because North East itself is so out of the world in every sense of the word.

The Majuli romance begins right at the outset- with the ferry ride at Johrat. In fact, for a long time afterwards, it remains the most memorably part of the Majuli visit, despite its cultural and scenic wonders.

Dance and song, On the Brahmaputra, Assam. But its the women who have all the fun. They are sequestered in the lower berth of the ferry where they sing Assamese songs and dance away. (Sanjay_Austa)

While their men play cards women dance and sing in the lower deck of the ferry, Majuli

This was true for me especially because I chose to hop on a local ferry instead of hiring a private motorized boat. For twenty rupee, at Jorhat, I was herded in with the   fishermen, traders and tribals -people who sail everyday between the island and the mainland- carrying with them their goods and land transport; their bikes, their cycles and some their cars.

As soon as we set sail, the men arranged themselves in groups between the cars and bikes on the ferry’s roof, to play cards.

However, its the women,  occupying  the lower deck, who have all the fun. They sing and dance lustily to popular Assamese songs in gay abandon. The card- playing men on the roof, well within ear-shot, played on undistracted. The song-and dance routine is evidently a regular feature on the Majuli ferry.

The might of the Brahmaputra becomes evident in this one hour upstream journey to Majuli. I marvel aloud at the river’s expanse. “This is nothing. During the monsoon you wont see the coast at all”, a local near me exclaims. Even then, travelling in December as I was, I could not see the coast at places. The river was swollen. The setting sun dazzled the waters, merging land and water in its reds and oranges. You could just as well be on a vast ocean.

Music and dance at a Satra in Majuli, Assam- . Dance and music are an integral part of a child's education at the Majuli satras. Here small boys doing a classical dance routine to drums and percussion. (Sanjay_Austa)

Dance and music are an integral part of education at the Majuli satras, Majuli

With my camera shutter busy, I stuck out as the lone tourist. But I imagined Majuli would be brimming with sightseers. But I was mistaken. I seemed to be the only stranger on the island.

At the government-run Circuit House, where I made reservation, I was treated as a VIP. The cook, the manager, the waiter- the three regular employees-came to receive me at the gate. Perhaps they mistook me for a government official. Perhaps they were just grateful for the lone tourist deigning to show up.

The Satras where I headed to early next morning wore a deserted look. The Majuli Satras, or monasteries, established in the 15th century, are quite unlike conventional hermitages in that their reputation and identity is more cultural than religious. Students have come here for centuries to learn a variety of arts including dance, music, theatre and mask -making. All these art-form survive to this day along with the age old monastic rituals – the hard discipline, the prayers and the celibacy.

There were said to be 65 Satras of which 22 survive today. Among them Daksinpath, Garamur and Auniati are the more famous ones with more monks and more cultural activities.

Tribal houses in Majuli River Island. (Sanjay_Austa)

Tribal houses in Majuli, Assam

The senior monks were only too happy to show me around taking me into their private quarters and organizing impromptu dance recitals for the benefit of my camera. I am hindered by language, as the islanders barely speak Hindi – but my taxi driver is all too happy to double up as translator.

Shuttling from one Satra to another we drive on the road built along a levee looking over large tracks of wetlands populated with a smorgasbord of birds, both migratory and indigenous. The wetlands, covered with a thin layer of algae, are negotiated by farmers on a canoe. Buffaloes with their long sweeping horns,  lie neck deep in the waters chewing cud.Under the wooden bridges, the fishermen stand on boats casting their nets.Elsewhere women, with their saris tied around their ankles, harvest paddy.  It is an idyllic world, where you in the car,  feel like an intruder.

Whether Majuli will go underwater due to geological reasons- Majuli after all came into existence due to the change in the course of rivers -or because of man’s meddling, is yet unknown. But what is sure is that with Majuli will go an unique tribal civilization we ever knew.

Inside of a tribal's hut in Majuli Assam, India (Sanjay_Austa)

Inside of a tribal’s hut in Majuli Assam, India


Fishing in the shallows, Majuli island, Assam, The fishermen fish everywhere in Majuli. These two were fishing under this wooden bridge. (Sanjay_Austa)

Fishing in the shallows, Majuli island, Assam,


Threshing and grinding the grains,Majuli, Assam. Running the bullocks over the grains is common and remains the most effective way of threshing grains in most parts of rural india (Sanjay_Austa)

Threshing and grinding the grains,Majuli, Assam.


Long way across the watery fields, Majuli Island, Assam, Small rowing boats are docked everywhere in this swampy island overflowing with Brahamaputra waters for most of the year. If you need to get further afield these boats make for a good transport (Sanjay_Austa)

Farmers row these canoes to reach their fields, Majuli, Assam


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