In the wee hours of a winter morning, I tiptoed towards the verandah on the squeaky bamboo floor of my hut that stood on stilts. Before me, a pretty little pond daubed with hyacinths, rested in absolute stillness. Mist gently rose from its surface and drifted away like floating white spirits. A fragile-looking footbridge stood at the far entrance. Except for the occasional ‘bloop -bloop’ of few fish in the pond, there was not another sound to be heard. Unending stretches of golden paddy fields swayed in the gentle aurora of the morning sun that was rising in the backyard of the ‘Ygdrasill Cottage‘. Dew-soaked cobwebs on weeds and grass shimmered like beautiful diamond necklaces. Underneath the fine layer of mist, a gloomy, yet picturesque Majuli was waking up to the soft golden glow of a godly sunrise.
Majuli is an unruffled river island on the magnificent Brahmaputra river in Assam. It is believed that originally, Majuli was just a long stretch of land in between two parallel rivers. However, due to frequent earthquakes and floods over decades, Brahmaputra moved in southward into the other river, Burhidihing; thus giving birth to the largest river island of the world. Simply put, the topography of Majuli is a concoction of soothing green fields, semi-opaque wetlands and striking landscapes dotted with unspoilt tribal villages.
Renting a bike from Beda, the owner of Ygdrasill; we rode on narrow, unpaved roads cutting through the length of Majuli. We passed brief patches of bamboo canopies and swamps having Chinese fishing nets and canoes scattered by their periphery. (I was convinced that Chinese fishing nets orCheenavalas were only specific to Kerala, until I saw them here too). Tribal bamboo huts built on stilts saved the houses from being washed away in the frequent floods. People were at work in the vast fields already, although no one seemed to be in a hurry. Children played in the courtyards while adorable baby goats bleated around joyfully.
A visit to the Satras : After a simple breakfast of Poori, Sabzi and wheat Burfi at a small local eatery, we reached Kamalabari Satra. Majuli presently has only around 22 Satras or monasteries, of the 65 satras constructed in the 16th century by few saints of the Vaishnavite culture. A Satra is a hub of art, cultural, literature and classical studies for the Vaishnavites of Majuli. Kamalabari translates to “Orange Garden” in Assamese. The Satra had a huge arch at the entrance. To its right was an auditorium where a few Gurus taught classical dance to a group of almost 30 young boys and girls. A long string of rooms attached to a common corridor occupied three sides of the Satra. Every room had a beautifully carved entrance with heaps of harvested rice crops stacked at the doorway. Lads and men in crisp white dhotis; busy in their routine chores, glanced at us with interrogating eyes. At the centre of the Satra, a clean and peaceful shrine rested amidst fruit and flower bearing trees. We relaxed in the sanctity of the Satra for a bit before proceeding to meet an interesting man with an interesting talent.
The mask man of Chamaguri : I could have easily overlooked the Satra if it wasn’t for the spooky mask that hung outside his home. A simple man in his 50’s sat in a white dhoti and vest in the courtyard, engrossed in shaping the tooth of an unfinished demon mask. Sri Hem Chandra Goswami is reputed in Majuli for his expertise in mask making and more so, for his tireless efforts in keeping his family’s age-old tradition alive. I stepped into a dingy room to find myself among a dozen ghostly eyes and monstrous teeth! Around 80 masks of various sizes, shapes and characters filled the room. There were face masks of monkeys, bulls, birds, deities, demons and full-sized body masks of tigers and mythological legends. The most prominent features of all masks were the protruding teeth and bulgy white eyes. The skeleton of the masks is made by weaving straw, which is then coated with clay and dung. A tender bark of a tree resembling thermocol is used for the teeth and mustaches. The masks are let to dry thoroughly before they get painted. Sri Goswami gets visitors from all corners of India and the world; not to mention the dozen trophies and recognition to his credit. Apart from his unmatched talent, I was also greatly moved by the fact that despite of all his achievements, the man has managed to stayed simple, humble and grounded.
Hemchandra Goswami of Chamaguri Satra and his creations..
Salmora, Mishing and Deori : One thing that stood out during my visit to the secluded tribal villages of Majuli was that women seemed to be equal bread-earners of their families. In a village called Salmora, a housewife and her mother-in law molded pots on a small disc rotated by hand outside their small hut. Around 50 pots were neatly arranged at one corner to dry. The lustrous grey clay used for making these pots was collected from the riverbed, a few feet away from their house. Clay is available for free and in abundance to Salmora, since it rests right on the banks of Brahmaputra. Each pot roughly takes ten mins to shape up and approximately three days to dry before making its way into the local market. Pots are made by women, while the men handle the sale. The houses of Salmora dangerously sit on the banks, making its people vulnerable to floods and erosion, however, this proximity is also the very source of their livelihood.
In another remote village called Mishing, every house had a small handloom set up in its courtyard. I was dumbfounded to see women, who barely knew to read or write, operating the loom with ease and perfection. They wove delicate silk and cotton sarees, shawls and traditional wrap-around skirts (Mekhala) with intricate floral and geometrical patterns in beautiful color combinations! Weaving an entire saree or a Mekhala, thread by thread takes upto 3 months and gets sold for anywhere between INR 2000 to 3500 depending on the fabric and complexity of the design. In Mishing as well, women solely executed the weaving while men took the final products to the market. It was amazing to see the dedication of the Mishing women, going beyond the burden of their routine chores and responsibilities to economically support their families; all this with a smile on their faces and warmth in their hearts!
The handlooms extended to other nearby villages too, including Deori. Deori was more remote with houses built amidst beetle nut trees and on taller stilts. The tribes of Deori also engaged in making items like stools, mats and thatches from cane and bamboo.
We spanned Majuli aimlessly throughout the day, passing through alluring panoramas of fields and wetlands. A little before sunset, we stopped on a bridge over a swamp where tens and thousands of whistling ducks, pintails and coots swam and bathed to glory in a hullabaloo of whistles, quacks and splish-splash. On the serene banks of Brahmaputra, the sky had begun to cast shades of brilliant gold and orange as the sun melted over the horizon. A river dolphin dived and encircled the shallow edge while a Majhi (boatman) sailed his last trip of the day on the shimmering waters. In no time, Majuli cuddled silently under the cozy blanket of fog under the twinkling night sky.
There is a saying in the North East that whoever crosses Brahmaputra once, is bound to cross it again, at least 7 times. At the break of dawn, when my ferry left the banks of Majuli, I bid adieu with a secret wish to touch its shore again..
About Majuli: Majuli is worth a visit for its landscapes and tribes. However, tourism barely exists. There are hardly any hotels or amenities.
How to reach: Majuli can only be reached by a ferry from Neemati ghat. The nearest town ,Jorhat, also has an airport. Share autos ply from Jorhat to Neemati. Ferry from Neemati starts at 7.30 am or 8 am (depending on the season) and ply every one hour until 10 am and then at 3 pm. It takes 1.5 hours to reach Majuli. Follow the same route on your way back, however the ferry takes upto 2.5 hours or more while return since Neemati is upstream.
Where to stay: Ygdrasill Cottage is heavenly but economical @ 1200 per cottage. Food extra. Contact Beda on 88767 07326. La Maison De Ananda is another good option and is well known for the delicious food spread. The satras also provide cheap stay. Check http://majulilandscape.gov.in/tourism_stay.php
When to go: Nov-Jan is the best season
How to travel: Rent a bike from your cottage. No other option if you wish to explore the island in limited time.
What to do: Visit a few important Satras as mentioned in my blog above. Don’t forget to visit the mask man of Samaguri Satra. Visit the tribal villages of Mishing, Salmora and Deori. Interact with the locals.
Its also important to do nothing at Majuli and just soak up the surroundings. Sunrise at Ygdrasill is heavenly in winters. Sunset at the view point is a must-see.