Assam, India, majuli

Northeast Indian adventure part six: Majuli island, Assam

July 20, 2016

The last leg of our trip was a three night stay on Majuli, India’s largest river island residing between two channels of the mighty Brahmaputra river. Unfortunately, the effects of climate change have been steadily taking their toll on this picturesque little place. As the river around it has grown, erosion has caused Majuli to shrink. Originally measuring in at 1,250 square kilometres, when measured in 2014, only 352 square kilometres remained. Sadly, with each annual monsoon, Majuli island loses a chunk of precious land and scientists have predicted it may no longer exist in 20 years.

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We arrived at the sandy banks of Nimati Ghat where we would board the ferry which would take us across the river and drop us on the Island after about an hour or so.  None of us had given much thought to what a ferry in this remote part of the world might actually consist of.  To be honest, it’s just as well we hadn’t.

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Majuli_Assam-99After a short wait (and a short photo shoot with some locals), we clambered onto the deck of an ominous looking wooden boat.  It was at this point that we learned we could, for an extra cost of 82 rupees (82p) bring a “Wild animal like tiger, lion etc” onboard.  Alternatively, we had the price list for various other livestock as well as large quantities of milk (2p for 10 litres).

From the deck we watched Tums Top Gear it along some precariously placed planks of wood and onto the boat.  As more and more people, cars and motorbikes made their way onboard, we decided to head inside and find a seat.  From our benches we listened to the sound of spinning tyres and roaring engines that seemed to launch themselves over our heads.  The boat shook and got hotter as more people piled in. There was a small opening in a nearby window providing just enough oxygen and about 5 life rings between a hundred or so people.

Majuli_Assam-100 We were the only four foreigners on the boat and quite clearly an odd sight to the other passengers making the journey with us.
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Fortunately, nobody needed to use any rubber rings and we made it safely to the island.  From the port, we headed to what was to be our home for the next 3 nights, La Maison de Ananda.  It was an authentic experience that we were after and that was certainly what we got.  Up until recently, this place had had no running water. Our room was basic, but just the sort of thing we had hoped for.

Majuli_Assam-24Majuli_Assam-27The kitchen, where we all ate dinner was just gorgeous.  In the middle of the room, a fire burned, while the ladies of the house sat on the floor preparing traditional and delicious meals.

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La Maison de Anand, which was originally built by a French couple is located on the edge of the village, which meant that a short 5 minute walk through the beautiful tree-lined streets took us to a scattering of restaurants and shops.  Although we ate most of our food at the guesthouse, we ventured into the local village for grub a few times.  There was only really one place to eat. Peeling paint, grubby floor and nobody who spoke English.  Generally this combination results in a stonking meal. A thali cost 50p and it was fresh, flavourful and delicious.  When the waitress was in the right mood, we were also treated to free refills.  We didn’t catch the name of the place (or whether indeed it had one), but if you walk into the village, it has big glass panels above it with a huge black “V”.

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Essential watch surgery

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We enjoyed some vegetable pakoda, which seemed to be missing the vegetables. Straight-up batter. No one complained.

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Got an iwatch for an absolute bargain price.

On one of our evening jaunts, the heavens opened.  Without a brollie or a mode of transport, we were about to get drenched. Luckily some locals offered us a ride for a small donation.  As the rain thrashed down, we all listened to Assamese music on full-blast while our new friends sang along, danced and clapped.  The vibe inside that little minivan was electric and just so joyful
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During our stay in Majuli, our dearest Steve celebrated his 30th birthday.  Having not slept the night before due to feeling sick, he took it easy for the day.
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One of the most worrying things about Majuli’s uncertain future is the possible loss of the fascinating culture which is so prevalent on the island.  Most people living on the island belong to the Mishing tribe.  Their ancestors migrated from Arunchal Pradesh centuries ago and brought with them tribal traditions which still remain strong today.  Majuli is also a hub of Assamese neo-Vaishnavite culture, a monotheistic offshoot of Hinduism revered by Saint Srimanta Sankardeva. Many of the satras (monasteries) built by the saint still stand today.  Inside them followers worship Lord Vishnu, who they believe to be the supreme Lord.  

As well as being monasteries, satras are centres of traditional performing art and the walls are often adorned with beautiful artwork. On the morning of Steve’s birthday, we visited the one in the photo below. We were greeted warmly and given a plate of food which consisted of a mixture of raw grains and sprouts.  We sat and nibbled while worshippers recited readings. Peaceful.

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These guys were pretty much waiting to have their photo taken after we left.Majuli_Assam-84

One of the highlights of our visit to Majuli was getting up close to the incredible handlooms which hang below the homes of many of the local people.  Houses on the island are mostly built on cement stilts, to allow the rains to flow beneath them. The family living at our guesthouse even said they sit in their doorway and catch fish from the river that runs under their home during the monsoon!  In the drier months, women can be found below their homes operating these spectacular contraptions, creating stunning traditional fabrics, one thread at a time.  The ladies were so proud of what they had made and rightly so. One by one they began to bring out their finest creations to show us.  We went away with a sari in the most vibrant shade of pink imaginable.

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Once we had purchased our beautiful new garments, we visited a school.  We had initially planned to visit a small museum on the school grounds which was home to various local artefacts, but it seemed rude not to pop in and say hi to the kids as well.
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By the evening, Steve had begun to feel better, which was lucky because there was a seriously snazzy birthday cake waiting for him.  Not only had our host Morjit arranged for someone to catch a boat to collect a birthday cake (totally not a tradition round these parts) from the mainland, he and his family had also bought pirate balloons and used them to decorate the room. SO sweet.

Majuli_Assam-72 Majuli_Assam-71 Majuli_Assam-70We took a tonne of photos during our stay, so will save the save the rest for the next blog…

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