February 28, 1997  
India Today











Majuli: Island On The Ebb
By Subrata Nagchoudhury

The story of Majuli echoes the land itself, an arduous expanse of shimmering mass caught between the fury and favours of a monstrous Brahmaputra. Growth and decline, hope and disappointment, all play out across the centuries at this world's largest river island in Assam. The river, of course, brings with it a circle of life. Each year brings a frenzied monsoon that swells the water into white foams of rage, eating out huge chunks, forcing people to leave their homes and scurry inland. But as the season changes, the river ebbs and life resurrects itself. By winter, the flowers are abloom, new huts dot the river shores and the forlorn misery, just a few months old, is forgotten. As Indreswar Pegu, a local school principal, says, "Suddenly there isn't a better place to live in."

The story of Majuli -- bound by the Brahmaputra to the south and the Subansiri and Kherketia in the north -- must start with an auspicious day. A day after the monsoon mayhem, when entire villages across its span deck up to pray to the river god. "We try to tempt the river," says the head priest. Tempt him to stop the constant erosion. "Not only of the banks but our culture and our way of life." The prayer is so relevant today, when international experts have launched a project to save this largest island from completely being devoured by a rampant river. It is a solemn occasion, and for a moment in silence, all you hear is the swish of the river water and the muffled thud of eroding banks. Much later, the assembly breaks into song and dance. Up above, the sky is still filled with remnants of monsoon clouds, rays of light snaking in and out of them.

To get to this largest river island, you board a huge ferry from the sleepy town of Jorhat in Upper Assam. The ferry is large, and wondrously wide, packed with cars, scooters, men and material. Running twice a day, up and down from the mainland, it is Majuli's only link with the outside world, its lifeline. The boat traverses about 10 km of river, that takes one and a half hours, before a huge landmass arises out of the water like the back of a tortoise. This is Kamalabari, the southern tip of Majuli.

There are no structures that house people. Not yet. Kamalabari somberly bears the scars of the merciless monsoons across its desolate landscape. A slight increase in the water level, and it gets swallowed by the Brahmaputra -- completely -- as it had happened last July too. Kamalabari right now is a junkyard of dwellings devastated by these floods. Back on firm ground, people quickly get onto their scooters and bicycles, or one of the two ramshackle buses -- the only mode of public transport in the island -- and scurry off, as if escaping the grim reminder of their precarious existence.

It's not easy, to escape reality. As the bus lumbers towards Goramur, the administrative headquarters set up in 1979, it gets worse. Bridges, whatever remains of them after the floods last July, hang in mid-air like rotting carcasses of some ancient monsters. "It's been particularly bad in the past 10 years," says Tarun Baruah, information officer in Majuli and activist of the 'Save Majuli' campaign. "Thousands of huts, acres of agricultural fields, have gone into the river." Majuli continues to shrink, year after year. Official records say it covered 925 sq km in 1971; the Brahmaputra Board, an autonomous Central Government body, says it is 880 sq km now. The Space Application Centre, Allahabad, using remote sensing data, came up with similar conclusions.

They must be extraordinary survivors -- the 1,35,000 of them. Phoenix-like, they rise from the ravages, year after year. Take Pemoy Pegong, a Mising woman whose hut in Kaniajan is the third she's built in two years. "It is a river of sorrow, but it is a river of hope too," she says. The Misings, a tribe from Arunachal Pradesh who migrated to Majuli centuries ago, comprise 40 per cent of the population -- the Deoris and the Vaishnavite Assamese are some of the rest. With 5,000 families, Borpomua in south Majuli has the largest concentration of Misings in the whole of Assam. They exist as a unit, for therein lies their strength. Inside their typical elevated huts, standing on wooden poles, are massive dormitories. There are no partitions among members of the same family, informs Kamala Pegu, gram panchayat of Cherapai. "We like to live that way."

The Misings don't just survive -- on fish, driftwood, rich soil. They live. Like everybody else in Majuli, the Mising too live in an amphibious culture roaming the numerous river channels of the island in their boats. If the Misings warmly greet the visitor with the customary cup of 'apong', the Deoris, a smaller community, offer 'suje', also a rice beer. The hospitality is unadulterated. Little do you realise that many of the granaries are empty. That the floods last July devastated as many as 30 Mising settlements. Or that they have to regain their paradise, inch by inch, from the jaws of the river almost every August.

But of course, not every bit of the island is threatened as yet. The core remains intact. In fact, incredible as it may sound, Majuli has as many as six colleges, 60 high schools, and at least 500 middle and lower primary schools. For the people, education goes beyond the art of reading and writing -- it's almost a life support system. Not only does it generate quite a few government jobs, it is imperative for the invaluable heritage that they have to preserve and pass on. The colourful tapestry of the Assamese past has been carefully preserved in the 20 satras that dot the island. Though there exist other such Vaishnavite monastries in Assam, Majuli remains one of the biggest centres.

Accommodating 40 to 500 disciples each, these ancient buildings pulsate with dance, drama and kirtan, components integral to the satra way of life. It's a peek into the medieval: the big tank, the sanctum sanctorum or 'namghar' at the centre, surrounded by a quadrangle of huts. In each room is a group of abbots, headed by a guru. In the hierarchy, the satradhikari is supreme, followed by the deka adhikari, or heir apparent. Even today, so sacred is the institution to the local Assamese that he takes pride in pledging a son to the satras. "Look at this child, only two and a half years old," says Pitambar Deva Goswami, deka adhikari of Auniati Satra. "His parents have made an offering to us so that the child grows up in an atmosphere of spirituality." Not everyone may agree, though. Jugal Hazarika, a government employee who spent his childhood in one of the monastries, finds in them a "reflection of the old feudal system", on the altar of which parents have sacrificed their children.

True, there's discontent with the institution, but it's only just simmering. Most people, especially the older lot, think that if the island has a social problem, it's the young cynic who's to blame. Says Kanak Dutta, one of the older residents of the island: "The social and moral values are disintegrating. The island was like one big family. Now it's splitting up. Growing exposure to the outside world is gradually eclipsing the importance of the satras." If the satras are indeed losing hold, it is a very gradual process, almost imperceptible. For, when there was a proposal to issue licences for liquor shops recently, the satras put their foot down firmly. The proposal was immediately shelved. 

Despite such minor hiccups, life goes on. In Majuli, the saying goes, "nothing happens until it happens". Which basically means that the average Majulian operates in patience and inertia. Yes, at this juncture, they are isolated, and perched precariously in the midst of the Brahmaputra. Up ahead, looms an uncertain future. Will the constant eroding of the banks finally submerge the entire island? Nobody really has an answer. Some talk about how the Government should build around the banks to save this "cultural heritage". Others talk about building up infrastructure for tourism, ushering in a prosperous era. But all of them pray that the Brahmaputra carries on eating and throwing up land. Acting out an intricate balance as they go on living in a vacuum, caught endlessly somewhere between a turbulent past and the promise of a secure future.

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