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Island In The Sun

Friday, June 12, 2015

From its location in the middle of the Bhramaputra river to travelling in an Aerei da Trasporto Regionale aircraft, a trip to Majuli is as unique as travel experiences can be. Verus Ferreira shares notes from his escapade to this river island

When it comes to exploring a new location, there’s nothing better than having a friend or relative who lives in the region that you are visiting. As I discovered on my trip to Majuli, a river island in north-east Assam, a local contact can do you wonders — not only with the nitty gritties of your itinerary, but also with unmasking rare and unknown facets of your destination.

To travel to Majuli, my family and I first reached Jorhat airport in an ATR (Aerei da Trasporto Regionale) from Kolkata, where I was received by my friend, Father Joseph Pallikunnel. An hour’s drive later, we were on the river bank at the Nimatighat Jetty, from where ferries depart for Majuli island. These ferries aren’t like the ones that you see moored at the Gateway of India — these can carry everything from people, cars and bikes, to luggage and even large electronic items such as refrigerators and TVs. You can either stand on the open deck, guarding your inch of space, or make your way to the seating area near the engine, where you can mingle with the locals.

As you set sail from Nimatighat, you will cross a cluster of sun-kissed islands, the largest and most populated of which is Majuli. As our boat steadily hummed its way to the island over calm waters, it was hard to imagine that this peaceful river is the same Brahmaputra that turns into an unruly watercourse, which floods and often results in loss of life and property in Majuli during the monsoon.

Landing on the island shore is like stepping into a dream. From the picture-perfect visuals to the natural environs of this largely unexplored island, Majuli is just what you dream an island would look like. Unfortunately, even though the locale may be romantic, it can’t really be classified as a honeymooner’s paradise — unless of course, you’re willing to rough it out in nature. This is because the island lacks hotels and lodging facilities — knowing someone here is very useful.    

Understanding the culture
A storehouse of art and culture, Majuli is derived from two words — Ma, which stands for Laxmi, the goddess of prosperity, and Juli, which denotes a granary. It’s hardly a surprise that the island treats you to a pollution-free green carpet of the kind that is impossible to experience in any urban centre. The population of the island consists of tribals from communities such as Mising, Deuri and Kachari.

Remember the heavy flooding I was talking about earlier? Were you wondering how the people manage to live on the island? Well, on my hour-long drive to Jengraimukh, I came across the answer. In order to prevent their homes from being flooded, The Mising people, who are the majority here, build their houses about three feet above the ground, on either concrete or bamboo stilts.

The Mising people are of the Mongoloid race and are the second largest tribe in Assam. History and culture aside, the people of this community are the only ones you can turn to for alcohol on the island — Majuli has no liqour shops, but visit a Mising home and you’ll be treated to an alcoholic, welcome drink of rice beer, which is known as Apong in the local dialect. The drink is served to everyone, irrespective of their age or gender. 

The treasures of Majuli
Majuli is the principal seat of the Vaishnavite faith, its culture and its practice. The treasures of Majuli are undoubtedly its satras, which aren’t just monasteries, but centres of traditional performing arts. The first satra was founded during the the 15th century and since then, 65 satras have been built on the island. But, considering the battering that the island takes every monsoon, several of the satras have been moved to the mainland. Only 22 satras remain, the most prominent of which are Auiati, Dakshinpath, Garamur and Kamalabari. We visited Garamur and Kamalabari as well as a museum that exhibits old vessels and precious relics.

Living life the Majuli way
The island has plenty of activities that keep the inhabitants busy and which will provide you with a unique glimpse into rural life on an island. While the most common industry here is agriculture, with paddy being the main crop, fishing, pottery, handloom and boat making are other activities that the drive economy on this island. A trip to Garamur will treat you to a sight of the locals making cane baskets, while at Dakshinapat, you will  can observe the ancient craft of mask making. Today only the devotees of Chamoguri satra practise this in Majuli. Silk weaving is another trade that is popular in Majuli — but it is not as apparent. In fact, I only discovered this on a visit to the homes of the Mising people.

Music and dance play an important role in the life of the people here. Drums and cymbals, along with several other traditional instruments, are used for dances, which are usually performed during the harvest season. Unsurprisingly, there are no restaurants in Majuli — the most you will find is a tea stall in a major village, after much hunting. The staple diet here is comprises of locally-grown, traditional ingredients that are served with thick, fluffy rice. To truly experience the culinary pleasures that Majuli has to offer, you need to visit the local fish markets, where you can check out the daily catch. While river fish is available in plenty here, chicken and pork are also popular delicacies.

No island to match Majuli
Most of us may hold fantastic notions of an island — one that is untouched by commercial activities, with life that is starkly different from what we know it to be. Majuli is an island that is just that! Around 650 sq km in area, it is often tagged as the largest inhabited river island in the world, although that is a hotly-debated topic. But that doesn’t matter. The locals proudly claim that there is no other island in the world that can rival Majuli. And after having visited Majuli, I would certainly agree. Majuli is a welcome break for the tired traveller. Go there once and you’ll want to keep going back.

Plan Your Travel

  • The best time to visit is from October to April.

How to reach Majuli Island

  • First you’ll have to get to Jorhat in Assam. From Jorhat city, you can take a share auto to the Nimatighat jetty. Share autos charge Rs 30 per head, while hiring an entire auto will cost around Rs 250 to Rs 300.
  • Ferries to Majuli island start early in the morning and the last ferry leaves at 4pm. A ticket costs Rs 10 per head.
  • Once you reach Majuli, you can take a local state transport bus or an auto to your final destination. Auto fare starts from Rs 50.
  • To reach Jorhat: You can travel either by train or plane. Jorhat has both a railhead as well as a civilian airport.
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