Majuli is the world’s largest riverine island. It is midstream on the River Brahmaputra. When I mentioned this of one my friends who hails from Assam, he said, ‘It used to be much bigger. Much of it has been washed away in recent times.’ Perhaps it is no longer the largest.
In medieval times, Majuli was a popular place for the Vaishnavaites. Many ashrams, knowns as sataras, still exist on Majuli. I am not particularly interested in these sataras but I will see anything the island has to offer. Being somewhat isolated from the rest of Assam, it is said that Manjuli has developed a unique cultural flavour of its own.
I take a bus from my stay at the Kaziranga National Park. I get off at Jorhat. There are days when nothing happens right and everything you do on the road works against you. So it happens that I wander around in Jorhat town thinking I have arrived too early. I might as well take sometime to blog. I haven’t done that for a while. So I sit in an Internet center for an hour. When I come out, I walk to a nearby market and buy a kilo of ripe plums. This is a good place to stock up on fruits which may be expensive on Majuli.
I take a shared tempo to Nemati Ghat. It is a slow journey with frequent stops. Public transport into places away from the main highways is basic and you better have more than enough time on your hands if you rely on them. When I arrive at Nemati Ghat it is half past elevan. I walk down to one of the jetties and enquire if the boat is going to Majuli.
‘Which island?’ ask the boatman. He is busy cooking a meal. It doesn’t look like he and his crew of two are going to be departing anytime soon.
That’s the first surprise for the day. I have not done enough research. Perhaps in ancient times it was a single island. These days Majuli refers to a group of islands. So the boatman’s question is not misplaced.
‘I am tourist. Where should I go?’ I ask vaguely. I am not all that convinced I am going to get a suitable reply.
‘Go to Kamalabari. Most people go there,’ he says. ‘Are you here to visit the sataras?’
I don’t make a direct reply to this question. I ask instead, ‘When is the next boat to Kamalabari?’
‘You just missed it five minutes ago,’ he says pointing to a boat some distance away. I saw this one pulling away from the jetty when I got off the tempo. There is nothing worse than missing your connection by minutes. He continues, ‘The next one is three hours later.’
‘Three hours,’ I say half in disappointment and half in anger at myself for not having got here earlier.
‘How long is the ride to Kamalabari?’ I ask.
‘About 90 minutes.’
This is my second revelation of the day. I had imagined getting to a river island would take only ten minutes at the most. Who could guess it would involve such a long journey? I wait around to see if there is any other boat to any other island. Nothing but the boat to Kamalabari three hours from now.
The jetty at Nemati Ghat is not something you can imagine if you have ever been to pristine islands of the Indian Ocean or the deep blues and sunny sands of the Mediterranean. For one, the day is overcast. It had rained in the early hours of the morning. Assam is generally a place of high humidity and uncomfortable air. If anyone told you that Majuli is a freshwater paradise, it’s hard to believe from what I see at Nemati Ghat. The river is muddy.
Secondly, the place is simply a few poles and wooden planks by the sandy banks of the wide river. Shacks of wood and split bamboo line the banks where the boats tie up. These shacks have asbestos roofing, not nailed or tied but simply weighed down with poles and stones. The shacks are surrounded by murky and stagnant pools of water. Give this place a day or two of continuous rain, it would get flooded but more likely washed away in the current. Dogs wander around picking at leftovers from customers at these shacks. Some of the vendors call out to me for business. I wouldn’t eat here for all the world.
There is not a single place to sit and wait, clearly a clever scheme from the vendors here. I think I will walk around awhile. Perhaps I will skip Majuli altogether. I am not really sure. I start walking back towards Jorhat. People here build their houses of timber, twigs, mud and bamboo. Sometimes the houses seem to resemble Elizabethan constructions of England except that even the beams are plastered over with mud. On one wall, a handloom hangs neatly. In another backyard, I see a woman weaving the traditional red and white gomusa on her handloom. Earlier today on my way to the ghat I had seen some workers busy making percussion instruments.
I see a road heading left at a junction. A decorated gateway welcomes at the entrance with banana leaves, hand-painted pots and tender coconuts. A banana stem stands as a stand for incense sticks. Another stands to hold a hand-painted clay oil lamp. The people here are in tune with nature. Everything they use are from nature and return to nature. There is only a little of plastic, metal or non-biodegradables.
Someone is reciting holy verses. I learn that the Bhagavat-Gita is being recited at the village temple. Probably the recitation is in Assamese. It doesn’t sound like Sanskrit. Small groups of men and women, beautifully dressed in traditional clothes are making their way to the temple somewhere at the far end of the village. I walk behind them at some distance.
It would have been a unique experience to see the goings on at this temple except that for the first time in my travels I feel a little unsafe. The fact that I am carrying my backpack draws a lot of attention. I get frequent stares from everyone I pass. Local boys start joining me in procession. One of them gets curious about the plums in my hand. He has clearly not seen them before. Surprisingly, I bought them only at Jorhat. A man flashes his sharp axe raised high in mid-air. He has stopped in the act of cutting firewood. Questions must be racing through his mind, ‘Who are you? What are you doing here? Why are you walking that way?’
‘I am here to visit the temple,’ I mention in Hindi not knowing if he understands the language. He immediately beams a wide smile and nods. How wrong we can be of people by outward appearances!
A little later I face a tougher challenge. A man is fully drunk. He stops me in my path, ‘Why are you here?’
‘Mandir dekne aaya hoon,’ I make a reply in Hindi.
He is not satisfied. He repeats, ‘Why are you here? I know English.’
‘I am going to see the temple,’ I tell him.
‘I know English. Why are you here? I will call the minister,’ he throws his arms around theatrically in the air. Onlookers gather and I stand on the road surrounded by three men and ten kids. I explain quietly but the man will have none of it. He gets physical. I don’t want to pick a fight. I feel vulnerable. I start walking back to the main road.
I head back to Jorhat and take a room for the night. I watch TV. I visit a local mela in the evening but nothing here interests me. I settle for a nice dinner in the restaurant where I earlier had a wonderful lunch. I quite like Assamese cuisine. I wash my clothes but I am wary of little red worms in the water.