North East Chronicles: Located in the middle of the mighty Brahmaputra river, the journey to Majuli island is around 2 and a half hours in a noisy ferry. We visited the island on March 22 & 23, 2007 during our North East trip.
At the Nimati ferry ghat, the junction where you need to board a ferry to the island of Majuli, we were told that there would be a delay for about 2 hours. A bandh had been called the day before (which didn’t happen) but people were still under the impression it was on.
We had no option but to sit beside the river side and wait. We got quite a few curious glances from people around : I don’t think they are used to too many visitors in these parts. Someone asked us why we were going to Majuli and seemed rather surprised when we said we were there for a visit.
Majuli, is often called the largest river island in the world. However, one website clarified that it isn’t : it’s merely the largest freshwater island in South Asia.
But the sense of its largeness pervades as soon as you step into the island. Because of the mass, you can’t really make out it’s an island in a river! It has an area of about 1080 sq. kms and is located on the Brahmaputra river. Every monsoon, the island is said to change shapes depending upon the rainfall and the mood of the river. The island is supposedly shrinking. But this doesn’t seem to have made much of a difference to the lives of the inhabitants of the island who go about their daily lives as usual.
The ferry finally arrives and our driver Shaikh expertly manipulates the Indica onboard. It looks like a tricky maneuver but he seems confident. It’s a 2 and a half hour journey upstream and after a while we get tired of looking out into the river and pass time playing dumb charades. The passengers are not too happy with us as we’re making quite a bit of noise, but we’re really too absorbed in our game. And besides there aren’t too many things you can do on a boat going at about 15kms per hour (or whatever that is in knots).
By the time we reach the island, darkness has descended. So except the bad roads, we don’t really get a feel of the place. Our abode for the night is the guesthouse of the Garamur Satra and the care-taker is deeply apologetic as it’s in quite a mess. We manage to settle in and put on the nets to evade scary looking mosquitoes. Dinner is at the Circuit House a distance away and after that we come back and settle in for the night.
Early morning, after a cursory bath (there’s no hot water and the place isn’t too clean either) I walk into the Satra premises where the monks are getting the main area ready for the morning’s â€˜naam’.
Satras are an inherent part of the island’s culture and there are about 25â€”26 remaining now including Kamalabari, Auniati & Garamur. These centres propagate the religious ideology of the Assamese medieval Vaisnavite saint Sankardeva & his disciple Madhavdeva, preaching what is called the Satria culture.
The heart of any Satra is the naamghar where disciples gather to sing and pray. We visited around 4 Satras, each one a little different from the other. In one Satra, the young disciples were busy making masks out of papier machÃ© : these are used in their dance dramas and are an integral part of the way they spread the message.
After visiting about 4 Satras, we proceeded to a small non-descript place on the main road, where besides lunch, several sweets were consumed. After that, it was time to move on and we were back at the ferry ghat for the ferry at 3 pm.
Shaikh was back in business as he maneuvered the boat again on to the ferry and we got ready for the long ride back to Jorhat. There were probably many aspects that we missed out but we were happy that we got a chance to get a brief preview of life in this rather unique island.
Getting to Majuli:
The closest airport is Jorhat. From Jorhat, you need to reach Nimatighat, which is about 20 odd kms away. From the ghat, there are about 2 daily ferries. The best seasons are early on in the year, and the winter time. The summer and rainy months are best avoided. Besides the Satras, you can also explore other communities on the island to get a taste of the culture including the weavers, and the Mishing community, which is said to have settled down here generations ago, originally from Arunachal Pradesh. A guide is always helpful to show you around.