Majuli, the sinking island in Assam

Home to the Mishing community and many migratory birds, the banks of Majuli Island are being eaten up by the annual floods in Brahmaputra.

I am sitting inside a bamboo hut of the Mishing tribe in Chitadhar Chuk village. The roads have grown quiet and the moon is in full bloom with fireflies buzzing over the rice fields around us. Under the dim light of an oil lamp, my host family is cooking fish over firewood. Today is a happy day for them, as a guest has come to their home. My friend, Kamala Kant Kaman, who is from the Mishing community, is serving rice beer.

Dinner with the Mishing Tribe

He tells me about the Mishing community that migrated from Arunachal Pradesh centuries ago and settled in Majuli Island. They follow the Doni Polo religion, and mainly depend upon farming for their livelihood. With pride, he tells me about the Neo Vaishnavism of Majuli Island and the associated Satras (Monasteries). He is excited and there is a distinct shine in his eyes while he speaks.

He then grows sad. He takes a pause and says,”And one day, all of this will be taken from us by the Brahmaputra.” An eerie silence follows, occasionally broken by the cracking sound of burning wood.

Not far from us, are the banks of Majuli Island that are being eaten up by the annual floods in Brahmaputra. Majuli Island is a wetland that is swarmed by exotic and beautiful migratory birds like Greater Adjutant Stork, Pelican, Siberian Crane, and Whistling Teal.

There are various theories put forward by people on the cause of this erosion. Theories that are mostly influenced by personal interests. While a study by Infochange India, a non-profit organization, says that the island is constantly shrinking and the government efforts are futile, the study by Brahmaputra board says that the protection measures (embankments, porcupine screens, spurs, dampeners) have been very successful, erosion has stopped and that they are now slowly regaining land in Majuli.

The dynamics of the environment in this region are shaken by the massive deforestation in Arunachal Pradesh which lies upstream, and the building of a dam in the Subansiri river. In the haste to save the island, the government has taken many irresponsible steps like building unplanned embankments in certain areas which have restricted the Brahmaputra from its natural flow.

The next morning I hop on a motorbike to actually explore the heritage my friend was talking about. While I am on the way to Samaguri Satra (the mask making monastery), I see rows of makeshift huts along the road. My friend Arup Regon tells me that these people once had villages that now lie on the river bed.

I stand outside the Samaguri Satra listening to the shrill, yet, pleasing voice of a man praying to Lord Vishnu. The pauses in his prayer are filled by the sound of a gong that echoes and fills up my mind right up to its deepest corners.

Samaguri Satra

Samaguri Satra is the home to mask makers. Their masks are extensively used in the annual Raas Leela on Majuli Island that involves plays enacted to depict various instances from the life of Lord Krishna. The owner of this Satra patiently makes a mask from bamboo, card board and cow dung as I sit and watch. His family has been making masks for many generations. There is even a row of certificates on a wall. These certificates have been awarded to the monastery by many organizations around the world. Apart from the mask makers, the island has expert weavers and boat makers. I wonder if their art can get proper feet so that it can sustain.

The Masks of Samaguri Satra

Arup then takes me to a river bank to show a futile attempt to build a gabion. He tells me that there was much media hype when the stones were brought from the mountains of Arunachal. Some work was done, lots of photographs were clicked for the media and then everyone suddenly left. No one has come back ever since. With a sad smile he also tells me that the officials in Brahmaputra Board never come to Majuli. The offices are always empty while the residents wait for the day when their world will be submerged under water. There is a smile on his face. The smile is not of happiness but of resignation and cynicism. The smile shows an acceptance of doom which will come sooner or later.

The Wetlands of Majuli Island

The deforestation in Arunachal is done and the dam on Subansiri River is made. It cannot be reversed. However, measures to protect the island have to be in sync with the laws of nature and not against it if they have to sustain.

While I take the boat back to Neemati Ghat, I wonder if the island is headed towards disintegration. Yes it is, in its current state. Or maybe it is not if the right people come together to work for a common cause.


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