Ferry down the Brahmaputra

Ferry down the Brahmaputra

livelihood A Mishing woman weaving handloom. Photos by author

We boarded a vessel carrying aboard a motley group of passengers, including a film crew, cars, scooters, cattle, goats, material and even a tractor and a dredging machine. As it sailed out smoothly, I could hear the steady chug of the motor and the waves beating against the hull of the vessel. 

As the ferry sped along the greyish river, the swish of the river water, and the subtle thud of eroding banks added to our delight. Running thrice a day, up and down from the mainland, it is Majuli’s only link with the outside world — its lifeline. Our attention was held captive by the fleeting glimpses of river dolphins flipping momentarily out of the water and vanishing in the eddying, churning waters. Some of the regular passengers sat atop the ferry playing cards and indulging in local gossip while we soaked in the scenery.

Visit to the satras

From a distance, the island first surfaced as a tiny speck on the horizon. Then Kamalabari (the southern tip of Majuli), an arduous expanse of shimmering mass emerged from the water. When the ferry dropped anchor at Kamalabari Ghat, some of the islanders sped off on their two-wheelers, while others scurried off on one of the rickety buses — the only mode of public transport on the island. We hired a cab to take us to some of the Vaishnavite ‘satras’ (monasteries) that Majuli is renowned for.

We cruised past a platter of pastoral  delights —  patchwork of harvested paddy fields, clumps of swaying bamboo, water meadows, fish traps, banana plantations and hyacinth-filled fish ponds.

Bound by the Brahmaputra to the south and the Subansiri and Kherketia in the north, the 886-sq km island in the middle of these rivers in Assam is remote and isolated, distinctly separated from the mainland. It shelters many rare varieties of flora and fauna and is a haven for innumerable species of winged beauties like the stately adjutant stork, pelican, Siberian crane, pond herons, kingfishers  and the ubiquitous egrets.

A ramble through the winding lanes of the hamlets gave us an insight into the fascinating biological diversity, tribal lifestyle and the colourful tapestry of the Assamese past, which is carefully preserved in the 22 ‘satras’ that dot the island. Majuli has developed as the crowning glory of the Vaishnavite culture, with its ‘satras’ serving as centres for dissemination of education and preservation of Assamese arts for harmonious living.

These monasteries, which house priceless artifacts and writings, have existed since the institution of the ‘satra’ was invented in the 15th century by the Assamese saint, reformer and philosopher Sankardev, who eschewed idolatry and the caste system.
The first halt in our island sojourn was Kamalabari ‘satra’. We were ushered into the ‘namghar’ (a large prayer hall), surrounded by a quadrangle of huts or monk’s dormitories and bathing tanks. In the evenings, the ‘namghars’ resonate to the music of cymbals and  ‘kirtans’. The Kamalabari ‘satra’ pulsated with dance and drama of some ‘bala bhaktas’ donning masks. It is more than a temple; a focal point of all islanders who congregate to discuss and decide on matters concerning the village. We had a ‘darshan’ of the ‘satradhikari’ and the ‘deka adhikari’ (white-robed monks)  with a long mane, and astonishing grace. Even today, so sacred is the institution to a local Assamese that he takes pride in offering a son to the ‘satra’.

The ‘satradhikari’ explained how disciples in older times were trained in mask making, boat building and other traditional arts. Each ‘satra’ was known for its particular speciality. For instance, Natun Samugri ‘satra’ for mask making and Kamalabari ‘satra’ for its fine boats. At one stage, Majuli boasted of 65 monasteries; sadly now there are only 22.  Kamalabari was the centre of learning while Garamur was a centre of ancient weaponry. Other important ‘satras’ are Aunati (jewellery and handicrafts), Shamaguri (mask making), and Dakhinpat (dance festivals). At Aunati ‘satra’, we were shown around a small museum with an enviable collection of relics, old Assamese utensils, jewellery, and handicrafts. What impressed us was a mat woven from slivers of ivory.

Indigenous culture

En route, some Mishing children beckoned us to their settlement comprising elevated huts, standing on wooden poles. The Mishings, a tribe from Arunachal Pradesh, which migrated to Majuli centuries ago, comprise 40 per cent of the population of the island. We were escorted into their massive dormitories that did not have partitions among members of the same family. They welcomed us with the customary cup of ‘apong’ (rice beer). Some Mishing women were keen to peddle their woven colourful, sarong-like wraps while children hovered around them. Like everybody else, the Mishing too live in an amphibious culture,  roaming the numerous river channels of the island in their boats.
At one ‘satra’, we watched islanders fashion symmetrical clay pots using only their hands. Perhaps Majuli is one place in the world where the potter’s wheel is not used for making pots. What intrigued us were the exotic pottery products made from beaten clay and burnt in driftwood-fired kilns, using the same technique of the Harappan era. Another fascinating aspect of Majuli is its diverse agricultural tradition, with as many as 100 varieties of rice, all grown without chemical fertilisers or pesticides. We left the island with a heavy heart when we heard of the regular floods, continuous soil erosion resulting in the depletion of its size, and other perennial problems plaguing the island. The only heartening news is that Majuli has been included in the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites. Well deserved.  

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