Cry me a River : Monks of Majuli

The Monks of Majuli River Island

The river wind, on a cold January morning did bite. I was covered from head to toe with all the latest riding gears but still could feel the biting wind as I rode my motorcycle from Jorhat town to Neemati ghat, the boarding jetty point to Majuli River Island. I had to catch the 8:30 AM ferry to cross over the Brahmaputra River. I was working with a Norwegian production house on a documentary film on Majuli River Island and needed a recon trip before we started shooting in November. I would be spending the next five days on Majuli River Island. I have been gracefully hosted by Haren Narah, who owns the Mepo Okum rural stay there. Narah is connected politically in the island and is from the local Mishing tribe. Not that politics was in my mind but he certainly is a great host, always.

Monks performing 'gayan bayan' dance at the Uttar Kamalabari Sattra in Majuli
Monks performing ‘gayan bayan’ dance at the Uttar Kamalabari Sattra in Majuli

The formation of Majuli River Island

The river island was formed over the years as part of the Brahmaputra river changing course. Although frequent earthquakes contributed to this phenomenon, the primary reason was the annual floods. Majulii is a hotbed of fertile topsoil from the mountains. A farmer’s haven and heaven. With more than 250 species of migratory and resident birds, Majuli is what they called a ‘biodiversity’ hotspot. There was a time; it was a single guy’s dream from Assam to find a bride from Majuli Island. The women there were considered some of the most beautiful in Assam. They still are, but weather battened. Unfortunately now, the very thought of traveling to Majuli is considered cumbersome by the local mainlanders. Once the deltaic island in the world, with an area of 1256 sq km, it is now just 515 sq km. Locals predict that the island will vanish in the next 15 – 20 years.

The MV Mahabaahu , a luxury river cruise moored near Majuli island
The MV Mahabaahu , a luxury river cruise moored near Majuli island

The Monastic way of life in Majuli Island

Majuli’s quest with tranquility is deceitful. Of the original 65 monasteries built to advocate the Vaishavaite sect of Hinduism, only 21 remains. The monastery known as “Sattras” takes us to a society where the community and the monastery are interdependent. The community provides the physical needs and the monastery suffices the spiritual need. Mahapurush Sankerdev, the founder of the Vaishnavaite sect in Assam, systematically established a parallel religion through his creative communication, prose, poetry, dance, art, paintings, and music. He very well utilized the tools of Hinduism to create a breakaway faction, filtered of orthodoxies; Vaishnavism was professed to be a common man’s religion.

“Kukura, Srigala, gardabharo,atma Rama Janiya Sabako Kariba Pranama”

This translates to ‘Dog, fox and donkey,all have the soul of god;knowing that greet every being respectfully’

mahapursh sankerdev

‘Vaishnavism’ and its tryst in Majuli

Majuli famed for its historic 16th-century monasteries, its rich progressive culture and tradition, all propagated by a monastic way of life, is at the mercy of the Brahmaputra River, which is taking away sections by sections every year. Majuli being an island was immune to the influx of other communities and religion. And hence, the Vaishnavaite system was able to flourish unhindered. In the island, its position was unchallenged for centuries. But if the island disappears, it would mean a total exodus of the sects’ roots. Vaishnavism, although it has spread to other parts of Assam and India will always be overshadowed by the bigger religions and in due course be affected by modernity. Moreover, bigger fishes are floating, amalgamation in due course of time is unavoidable. The need to preserve Majuli is important from the environmental perspective, but is equally critical from the cultural point of view. 

Finished mask at the masking sattra in Majlu Island
Finished mask at the masking sattra in Majlu Island

The very essence of life in a ‘sattra'(monastery) is simplicity and is defined by the cadence of agriculture and spirituality. Life in a ‘sattra’ is designed to live in isolation. The education system although revolves around religious scripts has also embedded modern subjects. Some of the young monks are learning new languages other than local Assamese and English.

Vaishnavism as an extension of Hinduism

With a young monk at one of the mmonasteries in Majuli River Island
With a young monk at one of the mmonasteries in Majuli River Island

Although ‘Vaishnavism’, propagated as a common man’s religion it has some questions unanswered. The primary god being Krishna, a name synonymous with love and the primary theme of the religion is equality and love. But traces of its parent religion, Hinduism remains. The high priest in the monasteries ‘guru’ as they call has to be someone born from the upper caste of Hinduism. There are certain restrictions on people from lower castes and tribes qualifying as ‘bhakts” or students of the institution. So the chance of culture, if shifted to mainland Assam, has a chance of being completely annexed into Hinduism. Already the monasteries are facing threat from Christianity on the island. Substantial numbers of the local Mishing tribal population have converted. Another thing that serves as a dampener is the non-acceptance of women as nuns in the monastic system. Unlike Buddhist monastic life, which is also an offshoot of Hinduism, Assam’s ‘Vaishnavism’ does not have a female version.

Gayan Bayan artists in Majuli from the monks
Gayan Bayan artists in Majuli
Young Monks at the monastery in Majuli river island
Young Monks at the monastery
Finished mask at the masking making monastery in Majuli river island
Finished mask at the masking making monastery in Majuli

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The environmental issue of Majuli Island

Experts warn that by 2040, as more violent floods of the Brahmaputra river torment Majuli, the entire island will be wiped away. The Brahmaputra and many of India’s other major rivers are reliant on the snow and ice from the Himalayas. An increase in melting means more water in the short term, its arrival uncontrolled and severe. The problem with Majuli is no one knows what to do and the whole conservation process is relying on short term, ineffective solutions.

An evening view from a ferry over the Brahmaputra river as we go from Majuli River Island
An evening view from a ferry over the Brahmaputra river

The government is trying to control erosion by installing porcupines and geo-bags and raising embankments. This curbs the flow of the river, thereby bringing in sand instead of fertile soil. Moreover, the construction of concrete river embankments is speeding up the flow of the river, making it more dangerous when the water levels are high. The Brahmaputra river in Assam has become an obese boy who stops hitting the gym. It is becoming wider and its dept is decreasing.

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A Mishing Tribal hut built on slits in Majuli island
A Mishing Tribal hut built on slits in Majuli

Upstream and downstream human encroachment along the river has also contributed to the catastrophe. The human population in the Brahmaputra valley is increasing and eating away into wetlands. With every rainfall, the island loses a bit of itself.

Young monks playing football after a prayer session in Uttar Kamalabari Monastery
Young monks playing football after a prayer session

The inhabitants of these, all-male, monasteries in Majuli River Island face an uncertain future. Each year new monks, as young as four years old, are inducted. As they spend the days praying, singing, dancing, playing football and volleyball, acceptance of the future as it comes is a part of life. When you go to Majuli, you do not go there on a sightseeing tour. You go there to experience its tryst with art, its pursuit of culture, its unique biodiversity, and its old-world rustic charm. All these experiences positioned hand in hand with modern life, have a familiar hope, and a common pain, the annual avalanche.

Published by Bearded Traveling Soul

My name is Amitabh Sarma and I am a storyteller. People fondly call me the “traveling pundit”; I humbly present myself as the “bearded traveling soul”. I appreciate you taking some time to read my experiences and in case you would like to stay connected, please do get in touch through my social media profiles. Stay Blessed!

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