Cycling through the cocooned streets of Majuli river island

Majuli was described by renowned mask artist Hem Chandra Goswami as Ma – Ma Lakshmi and Juli – Bhoral or food storage. Majuli in Assamese means anything which is in-between.

Regarded as the largest river island in the world, the vibrant 540 sq km of land surrounded by River Brahmaputra, is battling survival due to floods and erosion. The status of being the largest river island is also under threat as claims of other ‘bigger river islands’ are being put forth.

My visit to the land of Satras this time was a family vacation.

Here, I want to explore the human aspect of this multicultural land where due to floods every year, a set of 1.75 lakhs humble population faces catastrophe. Human lives and properties are lost. But at the end of it, when the water recedes, the resilience that people of Majuli shows is incomparable. The urge and lust to live always supersedes the drive of nature’s fury.

I being a cyclist made it a point that I carry my cycle while I visited the place recently. I took a ride without any prior planning of the route. Cycling has always allowed me to think over a place, a situation, an environment or a circumstance being a slow-moving commuter. The smiles that I receive, the hesitant approach to ask me where I belong, the reluctant steps to approach and connect tells a lot about the place and its people.

When I took off from the resort (Okegiga Homes) where we stayed at about 5:30 in the morning, I never thought that a concrete painted wall of a government primary school can trigger a thought of a lifetime. The wall was painted with vibrant colours and was of some school going students on a cycle. Maybe a very ordinary painting, but in this hour when we are struggling for sustainable mode of transport, the wall taught me to go back to the basics. It is in these schools we need to educate the forth coming generations to pick up cycling. I thought that moment made me re-think as why people of Majuli have bounced back every time after every calamity. It’s their approach to remain connected to the basics.

From Garamur Tiniali, I started paddling towards Balisapori where I came across a banner with a quote of Sri Pitambar Deva Goswami who was the Satradhikar of Garamur Satra till 1962. The banner was outside the gate of Pitambar Dev Goswami College.

The quote says that we don’t inherit the nature from our ancestors, but we borrow it from our future generation. I was amazed at the understanding and farsightedness of that man. The emphasis on nature and basics of life was so much deep rooted, no wonder all the Satras are a strong institution of art, culture and education for the last 450 years.

By this time, I reached Balisapori and my hunger to know more about the place took me further to a place where I saw a wooden bridge of about 350 metres.

It was a symbol of undaunting spirit of resilience of the people of Majuli. The wooden bridge does take the load of small passenger vehicles and is inspected by the local villagers every morning and evening for any damage so that the repairs can be done on time and to ensure that there is no casualty. I have been told that every year during the floods, the bridge is washed away and after the water recedes the bridge is constructed again by the local people without the support of any agency. The bridge is a lifeline that connects Majuli with Lakhimpur district.

While talking to the local people, I could not find any sense of complain against anyone. Only thing they said “Jiyai Thakibo Lagibo” which means “we have to live”.

During the course of the day, I had the chance to meet Hem Chandra Goswami at Samaguri Satra. Goswami, better known for his art of mask making, is a living legend and has been the custodian of Majuli mask making techniques. At the age of 60, Goswami has the time and courtesy to meet every visitor to Samaguri Satra with utmost humility. We had the chance to strike a discussion on Majuli Satras and the art form of mask making.

As understood, the traces of start of mask making can be clocked way back between 15th and 16th century. The actors of ‘bhawna’ (drama) in the Satras used these masks to express themselves, especially of the characters which were larger than life. We always connect with Lord Rama or Lord Krishna as we see them as humans with super powers. It was easier for the actors to bring the expressions of good and humane, but it was equally difficult to express the characters like Putuna, Surpanakha, Ravana, Garuda, Jatayu and this is the reason why these masks were used to attach life to these characters.

That’s why probably whenever we think of Majuli masks, few masks that comes to our mind are of birds and demons. An hour long discussion gave such insight which will remain with me throughout my life.

Next up for me was the Majuli Cycle Café. It is indeed heartening to note that the Assam government is trying to promote sustainable mode of commuting in the river island and the result is the Majuli Cycle Café. It is a very beautiful set up and they have cycles which could be rented by any visitor by depositing an identity proof and a very minimum amount. The café has books and anyone interested to read about Majuli before visiting the places of interest may visit the café and get some insight.

Majuli Cycle Café is a very beautiful set up. They have cycles which could be rented by visitors

People of Majuli are largely dependent on the ferry service which connects Majuli with the mainland. Most of the amenities for daily chores must be transported from Jorhat and I thought the ferry ride itself is a wonderful example of how people of Majuli adapted to the extreme conditions. The lifeline may look like an experience for all of us who visits Majuli for touring reasons, but it is part of daily life for people who stay in Majuli.

A ferry carrying passengers, vehicles and other necessary amenities to Majuli

As I cycle ahead, I am deeply impressed with the place and its people. The memories shall remain forever. May the spirit of life never die… Let Majuli be in our hearts…

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