[Writer: MAUSUMI CHETIA]
Majuli and her Mising children
DISCLAIMER: Dear readers, kindly note to have leisure and interest in reading the following. Sincere apologies for the length, blame it on the subject.
Most gladly and instantly I agreed, to share my experiences of Majuli island and it’s inhabitants through this e-magazine to a larger audience. However, when the actual chore kicked off, I realized it’s not even half as easy. Mauji and it’s people have been the nexus of numerous folklores, researches, lyrics of bihu naam and so on. For those of us who have been born in the land receive those stories and dance to those bihunaam as we grow into adults. A large chunk among us must have seen it too, in our television sets, during the months from May to September. Not for the best of reasons though. So today, here is a herculean task standing infront of me, to talk about about Majuli, the mesmerizing Majuli.
The Empirically Observed and Scientifically Established Ideas:
Nature impregnates this island called Majuli with multifarious beauty, charms, fresh air and water with bio -diversities. Superficially, it is a capricious place, a place where life is occasionally gloomy; the lives of the island entirely depend upon the gliding nature of the Brahmaputra and its tributaries and the adjacent rivers. However, since the inception of human habitation in this island upto the threshold of the 21st century the indomitable Brahmaputra has washed away innumerable lives and assets of Majuli. Even then generations of habitants foster cravings for living in this remote island. Apart from dealing with the hazarduous and ghastful atmosphere that prevails during every summer and its consequences on the people here, there are other positive and illusory allurements which confine millions of people to this island.
Situated in the remote North-Eastern corner of Assam, Majuli, the largest human-inhabited river island of the world which has a significant existence from various sides – geographical, anthropological, socio-cultural as well as political. It is a subdivision under the Jorhat district. While inundation has been a feature of the island since 1570, the loss of land area due to erosion has been taking place since 1950 (and more rapidly in the recent past). This landmass has a population of about 1.6 Lakhs, majority being tribal. Around the 17th century, the Misings entered the alluvial soil of the Majuli island. Currently around 45000 people of this community are scattered all over the borders and around the island like it’s watchguards. When floods and bank erosion takes place, they are the first people to face it given their proximity to the river. However, they have still been able to preserve their unique identity and traditional characteristics.
Majuli has a very rich heritage and has been the abode of Assamese Vashnavite culture with tremendous option for spiritual and Eco-tourism. The island is a bio-diversity hotspot and has rich ecology with rare breeds of flora and fauna. It is formed by a change of course by the Brahmaputra – has a long and rich history and is considered a centre of Vaishnavite Hindu culture, whose followers worship god Vishnu. The island is home to more than 22 satras or monasteries, many of which house irreplaceable collections of writings, antiques and masks.
In the words of the late development professional, Sanjoy Ghosh:
“Land of the river and the whispering wind
Sweet rice and plenty of fish,
Where the sun rises to the sound of a hundred birds
And the evenings resonate
to the music of cymbals and kirtans.”
Through my lens:
The thirst for exploring this place, breathing it’s serenity and living the company of it’s simple natured peopled never seem to be satisfied enough! Thus, when given the opportunity, I grabbed it. Hence, it was decided that my M.A. dissertation would be based on a study of the issues faced and the coping mechanisms adapted by the Mising communities of the island through erosion and floods. For the first phase of data collection in the early monsoon month of May 2010, this researcher set off on bon voyage to the ever-mystifying land called Majuli.
Sailing off from Neamati to Kamalabari:
The journey day to Majuli began with much confusion and worries. This was because none in Jorhat town (from where ferry to Majuli was to be taken) was accurately aware of the timings and frequency of the ferry services from Neamatighat of Jorhat to Kamalabari Ghat. (Majuli can be reached from two directions of Jorhat and Lakhimpur towns with three different ferry-ghats in the island). However, finally it was found that the last ferry would leave for Majuli at 2pm. During those times from Neamati ghat to Kamalabari ghat, only two ferries were available per day, the number being increased in the season of heavy monsoons. The first ferry had already left in the morning hour. Hence, after waiting for two and a half long hours, overloaded with humans, animals and vehicles, the engine of the ferry finally began to roll.
Although I had visited the island once the year before, the thirst to see and live it all over again ceases to die! As the ferry sailed on the cushion of the mighty Brahmaputra, it seemed as if huge, calm brown waves lended their hands to the ferry to move ahead in the destined path. The Brahmaputra appeared to have grown up in the past 7 months. The river had taken into it’s embrace the tiny “char”s or “sapori”s (small pieces of island) that were visible in the farthest direction visible to the naked eye. It looked like a wide, illimitable field that had spread till eternity. The tranquil wind striking against the face made me realize the freshness of the air. Majuli is the abode of God that is endowed with Nature’s blessings of greenery and serenity all the way; and this journey just seemed to set the stage ready for the same.
The initial steps:
Reaching Kamalabari town from the Kamalabari Ghat has always been an experience one of it’s kind. Packed with an ever-rising population of people, vehicles and goods, the vehicle from the ghat finally reached the market area after about 3 hours the ferry left from Neamatighat. Arrangements were already made to stay in a lodge for the first few days of the period by an acquaintance of my family. My stay was going to extend for a month or more. Hence, after a brief period of hunting, finally my brother (read: the unpaid research assistant) and I were able to find a local family who agreed to accommodate us as paying guests for this period.
Prior to jumping onto the field, I made a visit to the Circle Office of Kamalabari block. Based on maps of the island and interaction with the officers there, few villages that were spread across the three divisions of the island, namoni, ujoni and modhyo Majuli were chosen for my study. After the first week in Kamalabari and around, I headed to Jengraimukh in Ujani Majuli (near Lakhimpur district), one of the three administrative blocks of Majuli sub-division. The study’s final data was collected from the western corner of the island to a marshland area called the “Major Sapori”.
The morning walks to the Refugee villages:
Every morning began by walking to one village in the first half of the day, taking a short lunch break and then resuming the work immediately post-lunch. Some of these villages were situated in the proximity of the river, on roads constructed by the Public Works Department where the Changs had nothing but a few rugged clothes, utensils and it’s residents; few villages were situated in the heart of the island where life is still lived as in the time of Rajanikanta Bordoloi’s Miri-Jiyori; where the sun rises to the men catching fish for the day in the Kherkotia river, women taking out their poultry from their homes, and for the slightly better lot, women preparing their children to attend missionary schools located in the area, opening their rented shops of Mising mekhela-sador and other dresses in the local market place with the men going to their respective services (mostly government). Yet few other villages to reach which one needs to travel in a country boat that carries humans and two-wheelers, counted over 35-40 together! Life clearly, is not half as romantic as is portrayed in this so-called “mystic island”. Gathering avenues of strength for survival is the stage behind the veil of these tranquil, contented faces of the island.
As I was guided by my Supervisor not to find my study’s participants through any organization f the area, I had no options left but to walk straight into the Changs of my study’s participants, ofcourse after receiving their due permission. The first encouraging factor here was the ever-welcoming and lively nature of the people of this community. Across all the three areas, no matter the time of the day I would seek their permission, most would agree instantly with a warm smile on their face; additionally treating us like much-awaited guests.
Another likely cause for getting comfortable with a stranger so quickly is that most inhabitants of Majuli are well-aware of researchers visiting the island for various purposes from different parts of the country as well as the world over. To be precise, it was found that people are well-acquainted with the words like ‘research’, ‘survey’ etc. Few, however, asked if I would be providing them with any financial incentive for their time and sharing of experiences. I was but of course at a loss of words in those times. However, most of the people of Majuli I got the opportunity to interact with, in general were very warm-natured and a helpful lot; be it the participants, the experts interviewed (Principal and Professors of Majuli College, Key persons of Sanjoy Ghose Social Welfare Trust) or the local shop-holders, Satradhikars and the monks, or the local families.
Monsoons knocking at my door:
Although the idea was to finish the study by the first two weeks, it did not turn out as planned. The weather started deteriorating after the collection of about 30% of the data. That year, the monsoons had set forth at an early stage in March. Hence at the start of May, heavy monsoon showers began to cool the temperature down. This also triggered in inundating of the excess water of the Brahmapura onto the banks of the island. Local residents started discussing about the problems awaiting them as in that particular year; floods came before their due time. Additionally, there was news that the transportation (essentially that of ferry-service) from and to the island would be closed down for few days as a result of heavy rains and the consequential erosions of the banks.
Despite of all my honest intentions, I still discovered myself in a dilemma to whether continue with the study or return back to my home (a town in upper Assam which has never witnessed floods) given the adverse situation around. However, gradually the weather gods listened to my requests temporarily and the rains frequented just enough for me to resume back my work.
Living amidst the first wave of floods:
The experience of heavy rainfall and windy storms almost every second night during the monsoon months is a common experience for most Assamese. However, it is hardly of any use when one is in a river island that erodes almost 5-6sq.km every year during this period. It definitely enabled me to obtain my virgin experience of the lives of the people residing in the island, more about the population under my study. This was because they are the one who live in Chang-ghars made out of bamboo houses just next to the river. Thus, this population has higher prospects of being attacked by the floodwater at any point of time. Most Assamese families reside towards the safer insides of the islands and in houses built on the ground (kaccha as well as pakka). However, in no way does this imply that they have never been the victims of nature’s punches.
There were times when the sky would be a clear blue in the morning and we would set off for the day. To our unpleasant surprise, while an interview would go on, suddenly the sky’s mood becomes deceiving and it’s face turns off to a scary grayish black from clear blue. And those deafening windy storms would invite the meandering waterfalls from the heavens above.
During such times, I lived a strong sense of fear within me; added was the responsibility of my unpaid research assistant. Those moments threw on me the possibility of perceiving the difficulty of living in a chang-ghar under such adverse weather conditions. The whole chang would start shaking with the strong winds and heavy drops of rain. Sounds of barks breaking off from the trees, the heavy echoes of flood waters under the loosely tied bamboo-floored chang, trying to put up strong, smiling faces to each other in the long chang lighted by a single candle are images that shall remain imprinted in my memory forever. Surprisingly, when asked about the same to the participants, they would smile and say that although they are scared of losing their lives and property, they have no alternatives to protect themselves from such times. Also they would mention that even if they do get scared at such times, they have become habituated to living through such situations numerous times. The most discouraging observation was that most of the participants under this study lived in kachha or semi-pakka chang-ghars which were most easily at the mercy of the monsoons.
Do the Kings really give a damn?
“Even the current M.L.A. of Majuli , who’s been the representative at the State Legislative Assembly of Assam for two terms now, has shown no concern for this severely flood-hit area’s people. He has neither visited our village nor has met any of the villagers. Our village has not been entitled to any pre-flood relief fund whereas villages at the heart of the island have received such funds for more than once. His car surely blows mud on our changs when they cross this road during monsoon times”
As a study by Das (2007) reported, the demand for Assam’s flood to be declared as a national problem is crucial. This is primarily because it would then imply that all central assistance for structural flood control measures is provided as grant. Currently a major portion of it is received by the GoA as loan from the GoI. For example, from 1974-1975 to 1999-2000, Assam received a total of Rs. 401.03 crores as central assistance for structural measures out of which Rs.390.94 crores was in the shape of loans and only the remainder Rs. 10.09 crores as grants. As can be inferred, the GoI has yet not agreed.
However, it is to be remembered here that flood-management is a state-subject in the Indian democracy. The primary function of the Central government is to avail the financial support which is implemented through a Calamity Relief Fund (CRF) that is based on the recommendations of the Ninth Finance Commission. Including this and the other systemic measures of the central government, the GoA has few measures too. These include the State Water Policy of Assam (Draft) – 2007, the Assam State Disaster Management Authority (under the Disaster Management Act of 2005) and the Brahmaputra Board. One of the primary schemes under execution by the Brahmaputra Board is for the “Protection of Majuli Island”. Acting on the recommendations made by an Expert Committee on the status of the island, the Board had decided on taking up immediate measures for the protection of the island through a Scheme that has also been approved by Government of India at an estimated cost of Rs. 6.22 crore. However, since the inception of this plan in 2004 by the Board, the island has lost more than fifty percent of the habitable landmass. During the last six years the habitable land of Majuli has decreased from 1226 square kms. to 576 square kms. Das (2007) reported that in his memorandum to the Prime Minister on August 21, 2004, the then Assam Chief Minister reiterated that “the tackling of floods and erosion in Assam may be treated as a national problem funded entirely by the Government of India. The Brahmaputra Board, which has failed to make any impact, may be revamped.”
The Bright Mising Smiles:
After every monsoon, the Misings of Majuli begin it’s life from scratch; searching for a new, safer place of survival (example: schools as relief camps, kaccha embankments, newly created chars or chaporis or the islands created within the boundary of the Majuli subdivision), exploring new means of livelihood, attaching new connotations to community living by peaceful co-existence with cross-cultural communities. However, they still continue making efforts to provide their younger generation an essential part of one’s growth- education; along with the ability to preserve their unique identity and traditional characteristics. However, as my study was to find out later, 97% of the participants suffer through tensions, worries and nervousness at all times. A large number of participants have reported of having poor digestion, finding it difficult to enjoy day to day activities and make decisions, experiencing unhappiness and sadness at most times, feeling tired quite easily at all times and also getting scared very easily.
As Pegu (2001) rightly puts it, centuries of experiences of the Misings of Majuli have taught them how to live with floods and erosion. As much as they are devastated by floods, they have also shown invincible spirit and have survived through erosion and floods till date. Some of these ways are their optimistic& buoyant nature, community living through celebration of Mising festivals of Ali-Aai-Ligang, Porag festival, Dobur Puja and so on, residing in stilted houses called chang-ghar to avoid floodwater, strong support network, and keeping a boat for emergency situations (for those at a level of socio-economic advantage)
Calls of a nurtured bond:
The first time I boarded the ferry to Kamalabari from Neamatighat in October 2009, I was thrilled and excited at the thought of exploring this land hidden far away behind the Luit, the second time in May 2010 I was apprehensive along with the sets of structured questionnaires and voice-recorder in my back-pack, when the third time I boarded in October 2010 I knew I was going to take it the fourth time too. One of the primary ethics in academic social-science research is maintaining objectivity with the participants. True, I turned out to be a bad researcher. For, I got emotionally connected to this land, to it’s fresh air, to it’s beautiful people and their endless struggles and means of fighting through. The only regret still dwelling inside after four years of my first meeting with Majuli is to transform this baggage of emotions into a more responsible action for it’s people. Hopefully by sharing my experiences through this article, I am forwarding my first step.
When a community moves in search of a safe place for survival from one embankment to another school with an average of three times a year, they essentially become refugees in their own land. If appropriate action is not taken well-within time, an ever-smiling, peace-loving community called the Misings and the abode of God – the Majuli Island shall erode away into anonymity along with the waters of the mighty Brahmaputra on a quiet dawn; while the likes of us shall continue writing/reading/sharing our experiences of “Majuli – the biggest human-inhabited river island of the world” and watching it’s “news” in our television sets and tablets.
- Chetia,M. “The Misings of Majuli and the Brahmaputra: Effects of Floods on their Psychosocial Well-being”, M.A. Research Dissertation, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, March 2011.
- Chutia and Nath (Ed.), “Souvenir”, Souvenir (Convention on Heritage Conservation: Majuli From 16th. To 20th. January, 2001), Published by The Reception Committee at Majuli Press, Kamalabari, Majuli, 2001.
- Das,H.N., “Disaster Management in Assam”, Dialogue Quarterly, Vol. 8 No.3, January – March , 2007
- N.M., “Impact of Flood and soil erosion on the Socio-economic charachterstics of Majuli Island.Dist.Jorhat,Assam”, TISS M.A. Thesis, 2009
- Ghose, (Ed.), “Sanjoy’s Assam: Diaries and Writings of Sanjoy Ghose”, Published by Penguin Books, New Delhi 110 017, 1998
- Hazarika, A. “Souvenir”, Souvenir (Convention on Heritage Conservation: Majuli From 16th. To 20th. January, 2001), Published by The Reception Committee at Majuli Press, Kamalabari, Majuli, 2001.
- Khaund, G.K., “Krondoxi Majuli”, Article series, Amar Oxom, 2009
- Ministry of Water Resources, “Annual Report”, Government of India, 2003-2004
Phone number: +91 976 828 0630
Email id: email@example.com
 Chutia and Nath (Ed.), 2001
 Ghose, S. (Ed), 1998
 Chetia, 2011, Excerpt from an interview with a 42-year old, state government service holder participant.
 GoA : Government of Assam
 GoI: Government of India
 Ministry of Water Resources, Government of India, “Annual Report 2003-2004”