Majuli Going Under

A culturally unique island is crumbling against the force of the mighty Brahmaputra.

From the ferryboat, the water seems to stretch unendingly towards the horizon – the Brahmaputra looks like a calm sea, its flow so steady that it is barely perceptible. As it proceeds on its quiet course, it is hard to believe the river can actually ruin lives and livelihoods. Having started the journey at Nemati Ghat near the tea town of Jorhat in Assam, we float peacefully for two-and-a half hours to reach Majuli, the world's largest river island. Or perhaps not. That epithet probably belongs to an island in Brazil. Some sources hasten to clarify that Majuli is the largest mid-river island in the world. The title may be under dispute; but what is incontrovertible is that the mighty river's depredations are rapidly eroding the island's soft, silty soil, and soon Majuli may cease to exist.

The island's troubles are believed to have started with the Assam earthquake of 1950. This wrought major topographical changes in the Brahmaputra, bringing the island directly in collision with its ravaging power – resulting in devastating floods almost every year and even more-pernicious erosion. Disturbances in the monsoon cycle and possibly larger volumes of glacial melt, generally attributed to climate change, added to factors such as increasing upland deforestation, has further aggravated the situation. At less than 500 sq km, the island is today a pale shadow of the more than 1200 sq km it occupied 60 years ago. The great river continues to eat away at the island, with the rate of erosion said to be nearly seven and a half sq km annually.

The wearing-away of Majuli, which is Assam's repository of home-grown Neo-Vaishnavism, will be a catastrophe for the state's cultural life. State lore holds that the 16th-century socio-religious reformer Mahapurush Srimanta Sankardev and his disciple Sri Madhavdev made Majuli a base for propagating a more accessible, less ritualised form of Hinduism, popular to this day. They also promoted dance, music and other arts in everyday life. Majuli's satras (Vaishnavite monasteries), sustained by donations in cash or kind from adherents across the state, carefully preserve this heritage. They are homely structures with few artistic or architectural flourishes, in tune with bringing religion closer to the masses. Integral to the island's community life, the naam ghars (prayer halls) of the satras often double as public meeting spaces. Of the 65 original satras, only 22 remain, the others swept away by the tempestuous Brahmaputra or relocated to the mainland.

Among the satras
One of the remaining is the Uttar Kamalabari Satra, where we stay for a couple of nights. The accommodation is basic, and one has to draw water from the single hand-pump by the toilet. But what a privilege it is to be here, to sit cross-legged on reed mats with the satradhikar (head of a satra); to discuss spirituality; to eat simple, delicious meals from massive kah (bell metal) plates and bowls; to watch, in the fading light, the beautiful young monks practise energetic dance steps to skilful drumming. And what fun it is to watch Satya Bora's antics. All of four, Satya is a monk-in-training. He is one of the many youngsters handed over to these monasteries by families who owe allegiance to a particular satra, sometimes because they are too poor to care for their children. In the satras, apart from their spiritual training, the children are sent to regular schools – and, if academically inclined, to college and university. They thus become the carriers of this belief system.

The monks are also taught various arts and crafts as life skills, with some satras specialising in certain arts. The main focus in Uttar Kamalabari Satra, for example, is music and dance. Sri Sankardev himself is believed to have developed most of the musical and dance forms the satras promote, such as borgeet (a devotional song), satriya nritya (one of the eight classical Indian dance forms) and ankiya nat (a form of dance drama whose performance is usually termed bhaona), among others. Pal naam, where devotees take turns in singing naams or devotional songs, can carry on for several days. Ras Purnima, a three-day fest in November, is the best time to sample Majuli's rich performing arts.

Auniati, one of the biggest satras, is known for its paal naam and its well-kept museum, where historic artefacts, jewellery and manuscripts (including an ancient manual on elephant training written on sanchi pat, the bark of the aloe tree) are on display. At the blissfully quiet Garamur Satra, there is not a soul to be seen as we inspect the naam ghar and the Garuda statue in a nearby hut. Statues of this mythical bird are usually positioned at the ready, close to the naam ghar door, or sometimes in a shed just outside – garaged, as it were – for whenever Lord Vishnu decides to mount his bird-vehicle and take a trip. Our enthusiastic young guide, Bedabrata ("Call me Beda"), points upwards: crowding the canopy of a couple of tall trees on the grounds are hordes of adjutant storks, an endangered species, in large nests.

Samoguri is a poribarik (householder) satra, in contrast to most others, which demand celibacy of its inhabitants. Here, colourful masks are fashioned out of bamboo and clay. Many of these are used in bhaonas staged in Majuli and other parts of Assam. Not far from Samoguri Satra – though the distance seems great on the cratered dirt track – is the area called Salmora. This is potter country, with almost every household depending on this art for a living – but there is not a potter's wheel in sight. Here, pots are moulded by hand, using a technique harking back to Mohenjodaro-Harappa, separated by thousands of years and miles. Beda gets a baideu (elder sister) to demonstrate. In a jiffy she turns out a perfectly rounded pot using her bare hands and a small basin.

It is such age-old traditions, as well as the livelihoods of these people, that are now threatened by the pillaging river. Today, it is becoming increasingly difficult for the potters to access the special clay they require.

Mishing story
We wind up the busy day with a walk through the Mishing village of Khitadarchuk. The Mishing, one of Assam's numerous tribal groups, are the largest of the many communities who live harmoniously on this slice of serenity. They are a people who have adapted consummately to a watery landscape, with their chang ghars (stilt houses) made of locally available bamboo and reed. These raised houses keep them dry up to a point; and should the river sweep one away, another can be easily assembled and erected. But the Mishing too are quickly running out of land on which to put up these structures, or upon which to grow crops. Their farming lifestyle is seriously threatened. As we stroll through the tranquil village, however, there is no hint of these dangers: the clacking of a loom is a constant refrain (Mishing women are excellent weavers); bands of children look on shyly; a woman herds her goats and pigs; a group of men wave away the camera – they do not want to be photographed enjoying apong, their local drink.

This serves to remind me that a taste of the brew is on our agenda as well. So, we repair to La Maison de Ananda, a guesthouse with charming cottages – modified chang ghars – built by two visiting Frenchmen and now run by locals. At their kitchen we are soon tucking into Mishing delicacies: namsing (a concoction of dried fish and tomato) and smoked pork, washed down by apong. Apong-ed and well fed, we are in a mellow mood, but Beda injects a sombre note, saying, "This may disappear soon, you know, all of our land, our satras, our way of life. And the migratory birds will lose their resting spots."

With so much at stake, it is no wonder that islanders are desperate to up the tempo of their 'Save Majuli' campaign. There is even talk of roping in a Bollywood star to act as a 'brand ambassador' for the effort. Today, things look especially grim after a second application to UNESCO, for World Heritage Site status for Majuli, fell through this year – allegedly because adequate information was not provided to UNESCO, the application having evidently been done in a rush. The designation would have brought much-needed publicity, funds and perhaps, most importantly, international scientific know-how to deal with the complex erosion problem. Is it possible at all to save this shifting, changing oasis of faith and harmony? Yes, says Professor Dulal Goswami of Gauhati University's environmental-science department. It will, of course, require far more than the sporadic attempts made so far; but it can be done.

As we are leaving the potters' village, a wizened old woman calls out: "Tell the world our story, tell them we need their help." It's a cry that reverberates around Majuli.

~ Rimli Borooah is a freelance writer and editor, currently hill-hopping and experiencing life in different parts of the Indian Himalaya.

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