Thursday, December 4, 2014


Majuli, near Jorhat in the East of the North East, is the largest riverine island in the world, area standing today at 422 sq. km, (roughly the area of Mumbai, as under BMC) down from 1250 in mid-18th century, as a result of sustained erosion caused by the mighty Brahmaputra. It awaits UNESCO’s World Heritage recognition, which may come posthumously….Majuli will dissolve like the lozenge in your mouth in another 20 years. The word Majuli keeps reminding one of Mauli who drowned herself, mince himself Indrayani Kaathi  at a tender 21 after creating one of the most exiting languages in the world- Marathi! Symbolic…ehh..?!!

The island is home to 144 villages, population being 1.5 lac, comprising largely the Mising and Deori tribes. Lots of Sonowals hail from the island. It doesn’t have a single factory, hence pollution free air is guaranteed. The BTN, our employer, has reached the shores, needless to say…this makes the  taks of exploring the island a part of your duty, a very sweet and enchanting duty at that…. The island is known for Muga silk, the migrant avian life, but principally for the Vaishnavite Sattras (ety.: Chhatra of Chhatrapati fame), which are essentially Mutts. The sect was formed by the immigrant 15th century saint Srimanta Sankaradeva, who introduced Vaishnav to the tribes as a monotheistic form of Hinduism. The heart of the religious life amongst Assamese ‘Hindus’ is not the butkhana, but the namghar, which is an idol-less congregation hall for believers. The namghar priests are called Pathaks (Readers) who will most likely be non-brahmins..hence the devoid of pecuniary interest in idolatry...

As an entrant to the North East in 2010, the challenge before YT was to sort out the mystery of how and wherefore the 1.50 lac denizens took the trouble of  crossing the 8 km wide, 100 metre deep Brahmaputra…The solution to the conundrum lies in the Birbal-Akbar story  wherein someone produces an earthen pitcher say two feet across with a six-inch mouth, an adult pumpkin, say 55 inches across nesting or resting inside…The Emperor is challenged to duplicate the feat, which  smart alec Birbal does in a pumpkin was inside the pitcher from its infancy, and the population was on the territory before the island formed I sayyy….!

Majuli will go The Way of All Good Things… Shankar’s Weekly, founded by the spirited K. Shankara Pillai ‘Dolls’ Museum’,  to coincide with India’s Independence from the British, downed its shutters in 1975 to coincide with the Emergency for obvious reasons. The farewell Souvenir (the yellowing volume with a blue cover is a prized possession) sports a parting shot from Air India in the shape of an insertion that displays Bobby Kooka’s iconic creation, the Maharaja, the heralding lines ominously announcing: Shankar’s Weekly Goes the Way of All Good Things…and ending with the wry and good-humoured line: Straight to a Special Niche in My Heart!  That’s where Majuli will one day end up, unless China damns (sick) the Tsangpo...(Tibetan for B’putra)…he, he, he…

Well, to return to sthayi, Majuli was formed as a result of the Great Brahmaputra Flood of c. 1750. The river split into two formations, the Burhi anabranch and the Lohit or Luit Xuti. The lower confluence Burhi re-united with the Luit Xuti 190 km downstream, creating the island of Majuli. The Luit is supposedly called Zayu Qu in Tibetan, after the Tibetan district over 1000 km away, so far reaching was the Creation!. Subsequently, Burhi confluence became the main Brahmaputra, which is around 8 km wide near Jorhat, from where one catches ferries for Majuli.  

In December 2013 we planned a trip to Roing, AP with Senior and Senorita but due to unfavourable weather conditions had to terminate the effort at Saikhowa National Park, only 85 km  ahead of Roing!  Tinsukia is only 90 km away from the Ledo on the Burma border. The place names here are straight from myths, if not legends- they are however known more by the commercial interests they denote... Ledo Tea quotes at Rs. 70 and “Ledo Road  (from Ledo, Assam, India to Kunming, Yunnan, China) was built during World War II so that the Western Allies could supply the Chinese as an alternative to the Burma Road which had been cut by the Japanese in 1942. It was renamed the Stilwell Road, after General Joseph Stilwell of the U.S. Army, in early 1945 at the suggestion of Chiang Kai-shek” (Wikipedia). Tinsukia to the China, i.e. Tibet border is around 120 km to the Tibetan Zayu district.

Well, it’s December the 23rd of 2013 and we make the Normandy landing in our ferry, which plays host also to our Innova, at around 7 PM (the  service normally terminates at 5 PM). Mince it is already dark, and a gibbous moon greets us, accompanied by Chabiwala Bank staff. The skies are crystal blue and stars twinkle at us garrulously is spite of the bright presence of the moon. In deference to Mom’s wishes, we straight head for the ‘Resort’…

Our living quarters are modest and each family gets a double room, Mom getting a specially appointed little suite! In our entourage are, leaving the two of us, Major Sharma and his family, and Senyor Senior and Senorita. The principle interest of Major and Senior coincides- star-gazing- and they just drop their luggage on their room-mate’s feet and leap for the terrace of the tall building next door, under construction. After a preliminary recce of the skies, the duo throws open the Heavens to the public. Precariously we inch for their perch, and survive the trap laid for us. The sky above Majuli is unlike anywhere else, in fact you are reminded of the synthetic clarity of a planetarium. The astronomy primer for those who came late runs into refreshing hours. If one remembers aright, we are asked to behold star Bellatrix near Orion, Mirach in Andromeda and somewhere in a corner there lurks Jupiter.

Morning, and the Spanish couple (he, he, he…) heads for the South East bank for bird watching, and reports a spectacular catch…After a hurried breakfast in the local bachelor pad, we are whisked to a major Sattra, Gadmur, founded in the 16th century. Till the 19th century the Sattras had no pucca buildings. The sattra  building we visited was originally built by Sri Pitambardeva (1885-1962). Pitambardeva was the physical type, and set much store by fitness and  martial arts. You can see a cache of armaments in the building….The apostles of Vaishnavism were dynamos housing a variety of talent, namely musical, dramatic, terpsichorean…you name it. The song sung by Bhupen Hazarika at his first public appearance at the age of 12 was a borgeet created by Srimanta Sankardeva. In his songs you will find authentic echoes of Sankardeva, Bhupenda used to say. The best known Assamese classical dance Sattriya (Bihu being folk) is also credited to the Srimanta. Now you know why the Assamese are such an artistic community! Let the visuals speak now:

 A video of the present day Gadmur sattra shot by Missus:






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