The incredible shrinking island
Sail by ferry to India’s undiscovered Majuli
“WILD animal like tiger, lion etc — 82 rupees,” said the ferry ticket board. Around $1.70 to bring Tigger along for the ride seemed pretty good value to me.
I had no elephant with me. And I was not carrying a 10-litre bucket of milk (bringing that would have cost me 5c). As it was, the equivalent of 30c bought me a ticket to Majuli island.
Majuli lies in the Brahmaputra River, in the remote state of Assam, northeast India. It took my girlfriend and me more than 24 hours to get from Kolkata to the ferry dock on the sandy river bank near the city of Jorhat. Sadly, there was neither elephant nor tiger on board, just motorbikes roaring up steep planks and on to the ferry’s tiny deck. Cars followed, their wheels spinning in the sand, until they were propelled aboard, rocking the ferry violently. About 150 passengers were squeezed in below deck. I eyed the four life rings nervously.
The ferry chugged across the river, passing boats that were even more comically overloaded than ours. Majuli appeared after an hour, looking barely more substantial than the sandbanks that dotted the river.
We grabbed a shared taxi and I tried to talk to the man next to me, but he looked at me blankly. Only when we approached Garamur, one of the island’s two big villages, did he smile and announce, “you have reached your destination”, in his best satnav-ese.
There had been no other westerners on the ferry but tourists are starting to discover Majuli, staying in a handful of guesthouses. Our beautiful bamboo hut at La Maison de Ananda, on the edge of the village, had electricity, but no running water — we got used to energetically working an iron hand pump. Hot water came from a wood fire in the kitchen hut. Local fabrics decorated the bedroom and a poster of David Beckham, in his bleached Essex pomp, dominated the bathroom.
Majuli is as flat as a chapati, making it perfect for exploring by bicycle. We ambled along quiet roads shaded by bamboo trees and passed through villages of the Mising people, the biggest tribal group here. It was harvest time and rice was drying in front of stilted huts between which pigs snuffled. Women broke off from working on handlooms to stare, and children ran after us.
Everything looked peaceful, but life here is unpredictable, unnerving and even dangerous, because Majuli is disappearing from under the feet of the islanders, fast. Every monsoon, the Brahmaputra takes great bites out of the island, swallowing many homes. Much of the land disappears under water for months. In the mid-19th century, Majuli was about 1200sq km in area and was a contender for the title of world’s biggest river island; now it is barely 400sq km, and surveys predict that it will disappear within 20 years.
Projects to stop erosion eat through dollars almost as quickly. It’s not just homes that are at risk — Majuli is the seat of neo-Vaishnavite culture, a monotheistic offshoot of Hinduism. Since the 15th century, the followers of local saint-scholar Srimanta Sankardeva, who venerate the god Vishnu, have been building monasteries, or satras, here. There used to be more than 60, but the greedy Brahmaputra has closed more than half of them.
We stumbled across a small satra near our guesthouse one morning and were beckoned into the prayer hall, where 20 people sat on the polished mud floor, watched over by a giant statue of Garuda, the eagle that carried Vishnu down from heaven. Prayers, led by a man with a pair of cymbals, started as slow chanting then accelerated and intensified as the sound of the cymbals rose from a tinkle to a crash before falling silent again.
An hour’s bike ride took us to the satra at Auniati, established in 1663 by the king of Assam, which accommodates more than 400 bachelor monks. We arrived at noon and all was quiet, except for a small group of monks having a heated debate about their lunch options.
Many of the satras are centres for art. We cycled on to Samaguri, which makes masks for dances and dramas. The walls of the workshop were lined with colourful but macabre masks of animals and humans. One young monk, dressed in a woollen tank top, put on a mask of a young woman and struck a coquettish pose. The character came to life in an instant.
Some satras, such as Uttar Kamalabari, can put visitors up in very basic rooms for a few dollars. It would be a chance to see temple life close up ... but the balcony of our hut was too tempting.
Regular power cuts often meant having dinner and rice beer by the kitchen fire, reading by candlelight and an early night. That was just as well because I was woken at dawn each day by a horn blast nearby. On our last morning, I decided to investigate and followed the sound into the courtyard of a neighbouring home. In a building the size of a garden shed a man sat alone in his personal prayer hall. After sounding his horn, he moved on to drums and then cymbals as he chanted softer, then louder, slower, then faster.
As I walked back to the guesthouse, I couldn’t help hoping that his prayers included a plea to Vishnu to save Majuli from the Brahmaputra before it is too late.
A woman crosses a bamboo bridge in Majuli, above; ferries on the Brahmaputra River, left; and a Hindu clay mask at Samaguri, below left