Majuli: An Island Too Good To Be True

Majuli: An Island Too Good To Be True
Published: 22nd January, 2016

"Land of the river and whispering wind
Sweet rice and plenty of fish,
Where the sun rises to the sound of hundred birds
And the evenings resonate to the music of cymbals and kirtans."—Sanjay Ghose

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Majuli is not the world's largest river island. However, it is biologically as well as culturally the richest of all river islands in the world. Situated in the midstream of the Brahmaputra river in eastern Assam—with an area slightly larger than Singapore (880 km²)—the island is famous for Neo-Vaishnavite culture which it nourishes since the time of Sankardev (1449-1568), founder of Neo-Vaishnavism movement. In fact, it is the mecca for Neo-Vaishnavism followers and monks (bhakats) who live in monasteries (Satra) and worship the Supreme God of Hindu—Lord Vishnu. Needless to say, Satras play an important role in Neo-Vaishnavism culture. They not only facilitate davotees of God to live in the premises, but to understand the true meaning of God and to spread His message to the world, davotees can perform various religious rituals by participating in cultural and artistic activities, such as playing drama (bhaona) and performing sattriya dance. Today, there are at least 36 Satras in Majuli and most of them are as old as Neo-Vaishnavism itself. Many Satras were established by Sankardev himself and one among them—the Bhogpur Satra which was built in 1528—may still be seen here. Unfortunately, half of the total satras of Majuli has been destroyed by floods over the last several decades. Each year floods wreak havoc in Majuli and cause great damage to the island. Since 1950 the island has lost more than 400 km² of its total land area to the Brahmaputra river. Many people have lost their lives and homes, monks have lost their Satras as well as birds their wetlands. Efforts are currently under way to save the island but many were proved to be fruitless in the past. If proper measures will not be taken to save the island, it could be disappear within the next half century.

Majuli is astonisingly rich in wetland biodiversity. The island supports a variety of birds, fishes, reptiles, amphibians and many species of aquatic animals and plants. More than 250 species of birds have been recorded in the island. In winter, many species of migrant birds visit Majuli and its surrounding areas. Some of the famous winter migrants are— Spot-billed pelican (Pelecanus philippensis), Northern pintail (Anas acuta), Northern shoveller (Anas clypeata), garganey (Anas querquedula), gadwall (Anas strepera), falcated teal (Anas falcata), ruddy shelduck (Tadorna ferruginea), Bar-headed geese (Anser indicus), greylag geese (Anas anser), common crane (Grus grus) etc. A great many endangered birds have also been recorded from the island, some of which nest here— lesser adjutant stork (Leptoptilos javanicus), slender-billed vulture (Gyps tenuirostris) and white-backed vulture (Gyps bengalensis) are a few among them. Pallas's Fish-Eagle (Haliaeetus leucoryphus) has also been seen here nesting but they are not very common. Some other highly endangered birds from the island are— swamp francolin (Francolinus gularis), Bengal florican (Houbaropsis bengalensis) and greater adjutant stork (Leptoptilos dubius).

Image of Auniati Satra. It is one of the famous and oldest satras in Majuli.
Auniati Satra, one of the oldest and most famous Satras in Majuli. Ahom king Joydhaj Singha built it in 1653. The Satra has its own museum which conserves artifacts from Ahom period and a library that displays ancient manuscripts.

Image of Garamur Satra. It is one of the most visited satras in Majuli as well as oldest.
Garamur Satra, one of the most visited Satras in Majuli as well as oldest. It has a museum which displays a collection of Ahom Royal artifacts.

Image of Kamalabari Satra which is believed to be built by one of Madhavdev's ardent disciples, Badula Padma At a.
Natun Kamalabari Satra, this centuries old Satra is believed to be built by one of Madhavdev's ardent disciples—Badula Padma Ata or Kamalakanta.

Image of Sankardev who was a religious leader of the fifteen century, founder of  Neo-Vaishnavism movement, and a social reformer. Through writings he enriched ancient Assamese literature, and created  sattriya dance and modified forms of drama or bhaona to spread the message of God among people. He didn't believe in caste system, which divides Hindu society into classes. Apparently, he appointed some non-Brahmans as head of some of the Satras. His Ekasarana Dharma or Neo-Vaishnavism condemn the slaughter of animals.
Sankardev was a religious leader of the fifteen century, founder of Neo-Vaishnavism movement, and a social reformer. Through writings he enriched ancient Assamese literature, and created sattriya dance and modified forms of drama (bhaona) to spread the message of God among people. He didn't believe in caste system, which divides Hindu society into classes. Apparently, he appointed some non-Brahmans as head of some of the Satras. His Ekasarana Dharma or Neo-Vaishnavism condemn the slaughter of animals.

Sanjay Ghose, born on December 7, 1959, was a social worker who worked among rural poors in Majuli. Ghose, a diehard Majuli-lover, had attempted to construct embankments along the riverbank to stop erosion. He was abducted and killed by local Ulfa cadres on July 4, 1997. People of Majuli still mourn him. Many want to say if he was alive today, he would change the island forever. Image Courtesy: Wikipedia
Sanjay Ghose, born on December 7, 1959, was a social worker who worked among rural poors in Majuli. Ghose, a diehard Majuli-lover, had attempted to construct embankments along the riverbank to stop erosion. He was abducted and killed by local Ulfa cadres on July 4, 1997. People of Majuli still mourn him. Many want to say if he was alive today, he would change the island forever.
Image Courtesy: Wikipedia

Image: A monk is busy drying red-rice in the sun. Red-rice or bao-dhan is water resistant and cultivated in flood-prone areas in Assam.
A monk is busy drying bao-dhan or red-rice in the sun on the premises of Kamalabari Satra. Bao-dhan is water resistant and can easily survive floods. Bao is largely cultivated in flood-prone areas in Assam.

This image of a macabre mask is on display in the museum of Auniati Satra. The traditional craft of mask making is now facing the threat of extinction. Today, in Majuli, masks are only made at Samaguri Satra.
A macabre mask on display in the museum of Auniati Satra. Masks are worn to perform Mukha Bhaona—a traditional form of play and acting in which people wear masks to play the role of mythological and historical characters. Sadly, the traditional craft of mask making and Mukha Bhaona are now facing the threat of extinction. Today, in Majuli, masks are only made at Samaguri Satra.

Image: Passengers sitting on a ferry which is heading towards Majuli.
Majuli is accessible only by ferry or private boat from Nimatighat (Jorhat) and North Lakhimpur and Dhakuakhana. Ferries run every two hours between these places. Crossing the Brahmaputra on ferries can be exciting for tourist.

Image of a wetland. There are hundreds of wetlands scattered all over Majuli, which not only supports variety of aquatic animals and plants, but attract a large number of water birds, resident and migratory alike.
Wetlands make Majuli more beautiful. Wetlands not only shelter fishes, crustaceans and marine vegetation, but attract a large number of water birds, resident and migratory alike. Unfortunately, most wetlands in Majuli are threatened by overfishing, aquaculture and brick kiln industries. Flooding and erosion also posing threats to them. Some of the famous wetlands of Majuli are— Vereki Beel, Chakoli Beel, Daukpara, Kakoikata, Duboritoli, Saru-Kakarikata, Borbeel etc.

This image of a pair of lesser adjutants we've taken with a compact camera from a distance of 30-40 metres from the birds. Thanks to the restriction imposed by Satras against the killing of animals in the island, adjutants are not afraid of people and can be seen freely roaming close to human settlements.
We were able to take this photograph of lesser adjutant storks with a compact camera from a distance of 30-40 metres from the birds. Thanks to the restriction imposed by Satras against the killing of animals in the island, adjutants are not afraid of people and can be seen roaming freely close to human settlements.


We've visited Majuli on December 30, 2015; spent two days on the island—visited some of its Satras, met the monks, watched for birds in the wetlands and ate rice with Assamese fish curry! It was an excellent journey, especially—watched dolphin playing in the water and birds on the sandbars while crossing the Brahmaputra on ferries—was a great experience for us. Majuli is more beautiful than we've imagined it before. It is a heaven for birdwatchers. People are friendly and generous too.

(All photographs have taken with Kodak Easyshare C180, which we've borrowed from our office Consultechs— thanks to Kishoreda!)

Mithu Das