The in­cred­i­ble shrink­ing is­land

Sail by ferry to In­dia’s undis­cov­ered Ma­juli

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat - RICHARD EIL­ERS

“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.

THE GUARDIAN

A woman crosses a bamboo bridge in Ma­juli, above; fer­ries on the Brahma­pu­tra River, left; and a Hindu clay mask at Sa­m­aguri, be­low left

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