Majuli Red River Blues

The world's largest riverine island in Assam is a fragile, but beautiful, gem
Majuli Red River Blues

The story of Majuli, the world's largest riverine island, is ofepic proportions. Things happening hugely, suddenly with nature rushing through processes that usually take millennia and forcing people to do what they do bestadapt. In 1691, a great flood washed all over Assam, leaving behind a mess and the beginnings of a brand new island. The red, sea-like Brahmaputra had changed course, slicing Majuli away from the landmass and squeezing it from the other side with its tributary Kherkutia, a process finally completed by later floods. And in this heaving, tumultuous process adding a tiny new line to the quotidian vocabulary of the people lets take a boat home. Perhaps because our island was born of a deluge, as children growing up in Majuli we prayed fervently each year for an almighty flood. For us it was the harbinger of all kinds of adventure. Then we could live on boats for days while our houses were submerged, temporarily occupied by fish for whom we could cast long lines. The school, needless to say, would be closed and we would spend the days swimming miles and miles on the swollen river, or taking boats towards the distant paddy fields with slings and bows in hand to shoot some birds that were delicious. The evenings were dark and romantic, with the swish of water and the sound of a Mishing boy playing a flute on a far-off boat. But what I remember most clearly are the phoenix-like people of Majuli. Year after year, the river eats away more villages and homes. From an area of 1,255 sq km in 1901, it has got eroded to less than half that by 1990. Add to this the meagre developmental activity, thanks to incredible official apathy towards the island. But through all this, Ive never seen Majuli compromising its cultural richness or its spirit. The Mishing tribals have retained their ceremonies and their wonderful music. The satras (Vaishnava monasteries)facing the same threatstill keep up their traditions and their festivals alive. The river changes its course at will, but life in Majuli follows the same, stronghearted rhythm. My only fear is that if nothing is done about it, Majuli might just disappear.

Things to See & Do

Thats the reason why you should go there now, while Majulis cultural and natural diversity still survives. This riverine island is mostly rural it is home to over 240 villages with a rich mix of different tribes and communities. Majuli is not a fully developed tourist spot yet, so this means your holiday will be filled with unusual experiences. Be it living in a tribal village and eating off the river (the fish is delicious) or staying in the customary confines of the satras. Base yourself in Kamlabari town, the most tourist-friendly area, or in Garhmur. Though taxis can be hired, private transport might be expensive. You can also hire a car at Jorhat and then bring it across to Majuli by boat. Buses ply regularly to all areas, but roads in these parts can be bad.

The Satras
The satras in Majuli predate the birth of the island. In the early 16th century, the great Assamese Vaishnavite reformer and saint Srimanta Shankardev established the first satra at Belguri, the western part of Majuli, which no longer exists, having been washed away due to erosion. Soon after, other satras started coming up. Land was easily available, the Ahom kings were generous patrons and there was water aplenty. Over time, Majuli became the hub of these unique cultural monasteries. Even today, all the satras follow a well-defined administrative structure, with the Satradhikari as the supreme

guru, with many others performing designated tasks. How egalitarian or feudal these systems are is another matter. Its been alleged that they discriminate against women and people of lower castes in assigning roles in the hierarchy and allowing entry into the sanctum sanctorum.

The Jewels Among The Satras

Dakhinpat Satra, established in the 17th century, is best known for its unique Ras Leelathe famous cosmic dance depicting Lord Krishna dancing with the gopis. The performance (in October/ November each year) is rich, literally, with both Krishna and his brother Balaram wearing crowns of real gold and silver respectively, and Krishnas flute being of an impressive caratage too. The chief attraction is the stylised dance of the gopis that is so extraordinary that people from various parts of the country and abroad attend. From Dakhinpat Satra also originates a fusion of Devdasi and Satriya dance elements called Natua. Another artistic masterpiece at its best here is Ojapali, a highly evolved dance form that is dying in most other parts of Assam. Dakhinpat Satra is a storehouse of valuable assets and jewellery from the royal Ahom days and many ancient manuscripts. They are displayed during festivals and important occasionsa sight never to be forgotten. Dakhinpat Satra is an hours bus ride (20 km) from Kamlabari via Nimati. There is also a ferry from Nimati Ghat which takes about 11/2 hrs. It leaves Nimati Ghat at around 9 am and returns at around 3.30 pm.

Auniati Satra, half an hour by bus from Kamlabari, is home to around 400 devotees, followers of the Udaseen Pratha of Madhabdev, which demands celibacy from its adherents. In case you are here in October/ November, dont miss the annual Pal Naam, a religious ceremony in which prayers are offered for four to five days without a break. It takes the flavour of a mass festival, attracting hundreds of people from all over who pray for days and nights on end. At this time, the monastery looks heavenly, lit up by diyas through the month. A unique dance form called Dashavatar Nitya also originated in Auniati Satra. A performance depicting the ten avatars of Vishnu, together with the rhythm, music and the atmosphere it creates will transport you to another plane altogether. Auniati Satras puppet show is also quite extraordinary.

At the Garhmur Satra (6 km from Kamlabari), the Pal Naam goes on for only 24 hours. The satra, also known for its Ras Leela, has many ancient items in its safekeeping, including a huge wooden pair of Garuda birds and ancient, embellished utensils made of silver and copper. Look out for the beautiful sculpture at the batchora, the main entrance.

Although it was once displaced due to soil erosion and lost many manuscripts of historical and cultural importance, Kamlabari Satra still has a lot to offer to Majulis cultural richness. Its Ankia Naata drama performed in the original Brazawalli language used by Saint Shankardevis renowned. The Saali Nitya, another beautiful dance form originated here.

The Bengenaati Satra, about 8 km east of Kamlabari, is famous for its Natua and Ojapali dances. Its collection has a beautiful umbrella made entirely of gold. The satra is quite a wonderful sight during its unique Fakua festival, which is somewhat similar to Holi.

Shamaguri Satra, 12 km from Kamlabari, is widely known for its masks, which are made out of wood, bamboo and cane and are used in various forms of drama all over Majuli.

Tip If you are not in Majuli during festival time and wish to see a dance performance, a request to the satradhikari, at any satra usually does the trick. Similarly, you can request permission to see some of the old art works in the satra collections

Other attractions

A visit to Kumhar Gaon (very close to Dakhinpat) is a must, if for nothing else, just because in this entire village of potters not a single one uses the wheel. The people here are extremely skilled at fashioning symmetrical clay pots using only their hands. While in Majuli, ask around if any village is having a bhaona performance. This is rural religious theatre that takes its stories from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Puranas. Its held annually but at different times of year, depending on convenience.

The Mishing Villages
Though a visit to Mishing villages is rewarding at any time because of the tribes rich and vibrant culture, they specially come alive during two famous festivalsAli Aai Ligang, celebrated during the sowing season, and Parag, a harvest festival. Dancing is the chief expression of exuberance, which may or may not have been induced by generous quantities of apongthe famous Mishing rice beer.

Tip To arrange a visit to far-off places or tribal villages, seek the help of professors or students at the Majuli College in Kamlabari. You can also speak to the sub-divisional officer, next to the Circuit House in Garhmur. The KD Memorial Information Centre near the SDO (Civil-Administration) office can be contacted for trained tourist guides

You can pick up mirizim, a fantastically warm shawl woven by the Mishing women in colourful designs. The best place to buy this is the market in Jengraimukh, the most densely concentrated Mishing area in Majuli (2 hrs by bus from Kamlabari). The Integrated Rural Artisans Development Organisation at Jengraimukh offers various Mishing garments. The elegant bamboo and cane fans made by the residents of Auniati and Kamlabari Satras are good souvenirs, as are the wooden bamboo masks of Shamaguri Satra. The artisans also make special ones on order. Pottery would be the obvious buy from Kumhar Gaon. If you are in a search of the perfect pillow, try google, named so because it is made of an indigenous grass of the same name. It is extremely comfortable.

The Information

Getting There
Air Nearest airport Rowriah Airport, Jorhat (36 km), connected to Guwahati and Kolkata. But Guwahati Airport (348 km/8 hrs) has more reliable connections with Kolkata and Delhi
Rail Nearest railhead Jorhat
Road The 303-km drive to Jorhat from Guwahati is along the well-serviced NH37. From Jorhat, drive to Nimati Ghat (13 km), then take a ferry for a 1-hr ride to Kamlabari Ghat on Majuli Island. The ferry is large enough to carry at least three Sumos across as well

Where to Stay
A stay at a satra might offer an unusual experience. Plus, there arent too many other options. Theres high demand for the satras come festival time, so contact them beforehand. Rates are per bed per night and the rooms have a common loo. The most comfortable option is the Circuit House, provided its not overrun by government officials. Try the Nautun Uttarkamlabari Satra Guest House (Tel 03775-273392 Tariff 600-800). The Government Circuit House (Tel 274439 Tariff 90-250) is in Garhmur and has 8 rooms. Mou Chapori River Resort (Mob 09435051717 Tariff 800-1,000) is located on an island, approached from Nimati Ghat. A nice, clean new option is the Mepo Okum Resort (Tel 09435657282 Tariff 1,200-1,500), which has 8 rooms and a dorm bed for 200 per person.

You can also stay at a number of options in Jorhat. The Tourist Lodge (Tel 0376- 2321579 Tariff 800-900) has 12 rooms with attached bathrooms and a dining room. The Thengal Manor (Tel 033-2229034 Tariff 5,600-25,000), also in Jorhat, is a heritage property and an excellent stay option. Jorhat also has two circuit houses, which can be booked through Assam Tourism. Hotel MDs Continental (Tel 2300430-31 Tariff 2,200-7,500), a 3-star property, is 7 km from the airport, and has a multicuisine restaurant, a lounge bar and a gym. Hotel Paradise (Tel 2321366 Tariff 660- 1,760) has a restaurant and bar, plus all the basic facilities.

Where to Eat
Visitors wont find a lot of variety in Majuli. However, there are a few small restaurants in the main markets of Kamlabari, Garhmur, Jengraimukh and Ban-Gaon which offer filling, well-cooked mealsrice, fish, meat, roti, sabzi and the like. At Jengraimukh, you must certainly try the local pork preparation called gahori. The Mishing and the Sonwal Kasari tribes make it really well, and traditionally it is had with apong, the rice beer. Many different kinds of rice cakes, called peetha, are also prepared in Majuli. Some are cooked in bamboo canes, and some boiled after being wrapped in leaves. They are usually eaten with Majulis famous curd. Be warned though. Because the cattle here feeds on the extremely rich grass that grows on the island, the curd made from that milk is so creamy and thick that if you dont wash them well, your hands will remain sticky all day Place your order in advance as restaurants here arent used to walk-ins. If you are visiting Majuli for just a day, it might be convenient to carry food with you.

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