Majuli is enchanting in ways that it calls for us to return, a call to save its soul, to experience it fully in all its forms and fury, in its shapes and beauty.
Its appeal rests as a fractured landmass of persistence, where the human being tries to survive every jolt nature has to give them. Majuli is engulfed in its silence, the silence of loneliness and its silent resilience, a forgotten landmass with a questionable and crumbling future.
On the island we traverse a fading ancient culture, the desperation to be afloat, the human engagement with nature palpable in their routine as they plough the fields, fish and weave traditional clothes which make them feel alive even if for that moment, yet that silence persists, an all pervasive calm before the storm.
Majuli is the largest river island in the world, this riverine island is considered the cradle of the Ahom civilisation and the fountainhead of neo-Vaishnavism.
Organic agro-farming is the mainstay of the island’s economy and primary occupation of most of the 1.70 lakh islanders, mostly of the Mising, Deori and Sonowal, Kachari tribes.
Erosion is causing huge chunks of the island to literally fall off into the Brahmaputra.
The Brahmaputra river, reddish-brown and silt-laden, braided with hundreds of sandbars and islands, snakes its way through a web of channels, creating a terrain of constantly mutating boundaries.
Shrimant Shankardeva, a 16th-century social reformer who preached the monotheist form of Hinduism called Vaishnavism, established monasteries and hermitages known as Satras on Majuli. The island soon became the leading centre of Vaishnavism, the main religion of Assam. There were 65 such monasteries, but only 31 of them have managed to withstand nature’s fury. Even their survival is at stake as the island shrinks and its edges fall into the river.
The island’s landmass has reduced drastically from 1,246 sq kms in 1853 to 421.65 sq kms in 2001, i.e the landmass is down by a fourth, but the islanders forge ahead toiling. Each year the river swells and floods ever so fiercely, leaving a trail of destruction and displacement many times worse than the previous year. Almost each year, the flood affects about 30,000 plus families of 240 villages on the island, crops worth millions, mainly from rice fields on 2,000 plus hectares, is washed away. People quietly rebuild their lives over and over, watching the establishment’s futile efforts to manage the disaster and knowing that they must work with nature, not against it. From the overcrowded ferry manoeuvring to avoid the shifting sands, one sees how the river slices through land, constantly eroding from one bank to deposit on another without design or purpose.
As the river breaks, bonds and binds again and again, so do the islanders.
As an observer, my endeavour is to document the natural patterns of this island along with the temperaments of its inhabitants to showcase an exhaustive array of its ever-changing lifestyle and landscape being designed and re-designed constantly by the mighty Brahmaputra.
Zishaan A Latif.