Majuli, the land between the rivers.
When I was travelling around the northeastern part of India, I kept hearing about Majuli. People said that it was a beautiful island in the middle of the Brahmaputra river. Being someone who is averse to travelling to these "touristy" spots, I was immediately apprehensive about Majuli. I took it as a personal mission to avoid going to Majuli at all costs.
If I recall correctly, the first time I heard about Majuli was in Guwahati. I was staying at the Gibbon Backpackers' hostel. This was during the peak monsoon season of 2019. The Brahmaputra was about to overflow. A heavy monsoon meant that the river was a huge swollen mass of brown, muddy water filled with frequent and alarming number of tree branches. Just one look at the river got me wondering how any island could survive in the midst of such an angry river. I remember walking back to the hostel in rain. I wondered if Guwahati could survive this, let alone Majuli. Later that day I learned that Majuli was flooded heavily due to the rains and there were rescue operations in full swing.
After a few days I left Guwahati to head towards Kolkata and then to Manali eventually.
Later in 2019, in the month of December, I returned to Guwahati. I was on my way back from the hornbill festival held at Kisama, Nagaland (more about this in another post). I stayed yet again at the Gibbon Backpackers' hostel. I was nearing the end of my travels and wanted to spend more time in the northeastern part of India. I wondered if Majuli was a place I would want to visit. A quick search on Google and I was sold. My next destination was set.
The route to Majuli is via Jorhat. A ferry ride of around 1.5 hours from Jorhat and you land at the banks of the river island. I didn't really know what to expect from Majuli. Somewhere deep down I was expecting it to be a place with lots of resorts and hotels. I believed that a place so well known would be commercialised to the maximum possible extent. The journey from the banks of Majuli to the actual town was on a shared rickshaw. For me this meant that my big 25kg trekking bag became a nuisance yet again. After five months on the road, I had gotten used to profusely apologising to my co-passengers about the bag situation. And it would repeat during the rickshaw ride as well.
The journey to the town center would take around 45 minutes, but the journey in itself had blown me away with the gorgeousness that the island had to offer. I had seen quite a few photos on Google, but it's fair to say the quaint narrow roads, the vast expansive farms, the occasional streams and river tributaries that criss cross Majuli had beaten my expectations. Photos could never do justice to what I was witnessing first hand.
Majuli is quite a place to behold. And I don't mean it in any light way. It has a charm that's probably a rarity nowadays. The town of Majuli (a district in reality) has a very quaint feel to it. Being a place with some exceptional beauty, it's nothing less than a miracle that the villages in and around this town haven't exploded into commercial tourist hotspots. Visiting this island requires a different mindset. It's not your usual hustle bustle of a touristy place. There are no "must see" places here. If you are looking for that, you'll be bored to death within the first few hours. This is more of a place where you take time to breathe and relax. And walk. Or cycle. Or just... be!
After reaching the homestay where I was to stay, I kept my bag down and decided to explore around a bit. I remember walking for over 6km. The more I walked, the more I wanted to walk. There was something about this place! Most of the folks here were either walking or using bicycles. The lesser number of motorcycles made it ideal for walking.
The next day, I decided to explore the cultural aspects of the island. This place is well known for mask making and has many monasteries that are well known for their rich cultural contributions. These are called as Satras. I walked quite a lot on this day. My guess is around 35km in total. I started walking and hopped from one Satra to another. The funniest challenge I faced though was that there were no restaurants or shops along the way. So finding a place to eat my breakfast and lunch turned out to be a pain. The most memorable aspect was that of witnessing the traditional art of mask making. These masks are sold or are used in the traditional festivals at Majuli.
|Traditional clay masks|
Of all the days I stayed at this island, probably the third day is the most memorable one for me. I decided to risk it by listening to Monjit. He gave me a piece of paper and directions on how to go and where to go. He offered me a bicycle to ride around. I instead decided to walk.
I walked a bit to a small stream crossing. Took a "ferry" of sorts. It was essentially a wooden platform of around 5m by 5m which a person would pull to the other side using a rope for a small ticket price. Surprisingly I was joined by two locals with motorcycles on this hand pulled crossing. There was no bridge! The other side of this crossing seemed to be a different life altogether. There were no people in sight. Just farms as far as one could see.
|An hour on this type of road!|
Walking for the next one hour felt like I was all alone on this island. Not another human in sight. No settlements, no motorbikes, no bicycles. Just vast expanses of farm land. All this while I was navigating using directions given by Monjit, the homestay host. They were mostly on the lines of - "go straight and then you'll hit a river, and on right you'll see a village, take a left and go for another hour" types. In short, it wasn't the Google maps I was used to. It was interesting and funny to some extent.
|The legit google maps|
Soon, I came across a dry river bed. And across the dry river bed lay the villages. This is where I finally met some people. Most were working on constructing a bridge. But the technique they were using was quite an interesting one. They would dig a hole, put the wooden pole into the ground and hammer it using a 50 ft long log repeatedly! Essentially like a tent peg, but with a 50ft long, many hundreds of a kilogram hammer. I assumed that these poles would eventually end up with a wooden platform which would act like a bridge.
Many of the folks working around saw me and began to talk to me. Some of them said that their friends and families were working in Bangalore. Most were just surprised that I had walked all the way from the town center. This interaction provided a nice change from the solitude I had experienced before.
These villages were unique. I had noticed the day before that some of the houses near the town were built on stilts. And here in the villages, each and every house was built on stilts. A chap named Vinay from the bridge construction site was going to the next village, he asked if it was ok for him to walk along with me. Soon we started off and he explained that during the monsoons all of the roads would be under water. Hence the stilts. The water rises up to the doorsteps and people use boats to move from one place to another. Apparently most of the houses here own a boat. "There are no roads, it's just water everywhere" he said. The more we spoke, the more I realised that even though "travellers" romanticise this idea of Majuli, the people here really struggle. He said that they can't even go to the town sometimes for months together as the water is high and the currents are strong. In his words "It is a struggle to live here, we are surrounded by rivers that keep rising each year, during monsoons we sit at home with no job as we can't travel to the town for work".
We sat in his village for an hour talking about the life there and the struggles - from immigrants that come and settle to the rising Brahmaputra. The images of the "ferry" crossing and the bridge building came to my mind. The lack of infrastructure is quite appalling. I realised that I had mostly seen dirt roads until now. He confirmed the same. "No road can survive with the water that flows here" he said. A silent realisation that I come from a privileged place hit me.
We spoke a bit more and I decided to take my leave. With my trusty maps, I was about to leave when Vinay told me that I would have to cross a river. Now this wasn't part of the map. Monjit had told me that the river was dry and there was no need for a crossing. But Vinay was 100% sure that I would have to. Then he added - "But there's a naav (boat) there. You can use it to cross. Do you know how to use a naav?". Now this wasn't something I was sure about. But the ego in me made me say that I knew. He looked at me and said he would accompany me and help me cross. Deep down, I was relieved.
A kilometer down the road, we hit the river. Not a strong river, more of a slow flowing but decently wide stream. We searched around for a boat, got one, he rowed me to the other side and without a minute's delay, turned around and rowed back. Just like that Vinay was gone and I was all alone again.
|Yes, the boat was flooding and was tilting towards one side.|
Walking back towards the town center was more of the same solitude I had experienced before. There was a good 4km of blissful walk on the dirt roads with no one around. By the time I reached the homestay, one of the other guests at the homestay suggested we go to a sunset point nearby. It was a bridge I had crossed while I was walking back from the villages. The only real bridge I had crossed that whole day.
As the sun set, we saw fishermen row their boats back from their fishing grounds. We saw that there were a few tourists eagerly waiting for the fishermen to arrive to take photos of their produce and maybe document some of their work. The talks with Vinay reminded me that many of us would never really know what their lives are really like. These momentary interactions and visits leave us with an impression that's only a small part of the reality.
I spent the next day around the town center. Reading, writing, walking. The day after that, I left for Jorhat. There were protests going on in Assam against a controversial bill passed by the Indian government at that point in time. Reaching Jorhat was an adventure in itself. But that's for another day.
Majuli will continue to hold a special place in my travels. Next time I go there, I want to spend more time doing nothing. More time just being there. More time just living.
Following are a few videos that I took along my walks. Enjoy!
Evening walks around Majuli
Art of mask making
Walks around the villages
The trusty boat and the friendly boatsman
A walk in the villages
The gorgeous sunset