Indo-UK team to preserve cultural heritage of Majuli

World's largest inhabited river island will be turned into a plastic-free zone

Majuli-India's first island district. PTI file photo

In an effort to turn Majuli – the world's largest and oldest inhabited river island located in Assam – into a plastic-free zone, researchers from the UK and Indian institutes have joined hands to implement a cleanup strategy.

Getting rid of plastics is the first step towards a much broader idea of co-creating a strategy to sustain the island's culture and heritage, despite the ravages caused by seasonal floods.

With the funding support from the Department of Education, Northern Ireland, the researchers conducted a pilot project to find out specific scientific evidence and carried out an exhaustive analysis that was shared Majuli residents and officials to develop the survival strategy.

Majuli is a unique site to understand the dynamic relationship between people, culture and environment. It offers insights into the persistence of a cultural heritage founded by Srimant Shankardeva (1449-1568 ADE) based on the clear principles of equality, egalitarianism, and manifested his philosophy in Satriya and Sankari dance forms. As an accomplished playwright, he developed his own classical theatre, music and art and over the years became the precursor of the Bhakti movement in India.

In the middle of the mighty Brahmaputra, the island houses both the tangible and intangible cultural heritage. But they are already under constant threat as they are exposed to recurrent annual and unseasonal floods. This fragile ecosystem adapted to the threats of earthquakes, flooding and erosion over the years. Now plastics have emerged as a new ecological threat.

"Pollution is a growing concern in Majuli, with excess plastic being dumped in the river. We are aiming to initiate a carbon neutral island which will be free from plastics. Over the last six months, our team has been engaging with the district administration and schools in Majuli to implement plastics ban and identify alternative options for the people,” said M Satish Kumar, a professor at the Queen's University Belfast, Northern Ireland, United Kingdom and principal investigator of the project.

The largest inhabited river in the world, Majuli has shrunk by half over the last 100 years due to climate change, rising water levels and earthquake impact. In the mid-19th century, Majuli was about 1,200 sq km in area; now it is barely 400 sq km. There used to be around 70 monasteries called 'Sattras' in Majuli but due to the island shrinking, there are now 22. They keep the age-old Vaishnavite tradition of Assam alive.

"The biggest challenge is single-use plastics like polythene bags and water bottles, which are dumped into the river. We have been working with young people and local artisans to explore alternative indigenous materials that could be used as substitutes for plastics,” he said.

It's not that there aren't any options. Traditional materials such as clay pottery and clay cups are useful as well as gogol indigenous plant-based products for daily household use. Water hyacinths and jute can be used for carrier bags, carpets and other household products. On the plus side, increased use of these products would provide a boost to cottage industries.

"It is important that we continue to look at waste management and landfill sites. But it is necessary that plastics are banned to re-affirm a carbon neutral Majuli and protect the unique heritage of the island for years to come," he said.

The Belfast-based researcher, who hails from Shillong in Meghalaya, told DH that a decision to ban plastics in Majuli is under the consideration of Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal.

Removal of plastics from Majuli is the first step towards what Kumar and his colleagues seek to achieve in the long run – protecting the cultural heritage of Majuli in a scientific manner.

In the pilot project, the team of 20-odd researchers from institutions like British Geological Survey, Banaras Hindu University, Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts, University of Calcutta and several non-governmental organisations collected primary data and finished the baseline work that is required to conserve the heritage.

They carried out primary data collection and listings of 22 Sattras and its influence on the inhabitants of Majuli; developed an inventory of architectural and spatial patterns, identified the list of movable heritage under threat from climate change, create the framework for codification of tangible and intangible cultural resources in existence since the 16th century and prepared preliminary reports on risk awareness profile for the Majuli community and plans for mitigation of risks.

The first part of the work ended in March 2018, but Kumar insisted he would return to Majuli for further work that was discussed with the Chief Minister and district administration. The proposals include the establishment of a global heritage consortium for Majuli, to promote Majuli as a 'Living Heritage' and help establish a World Arts and Crafts Training Centre in Majuli.

 

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Indo-UK team to preserve cultural heritage of Majuli

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