Tourism can be a means of livelihood to the erosion-hit people in Majuli, the largest riverine island of Asia. That is, if only the Government gets proactive

As the ferry chugs ahead breaking the grey waters of the Brahmaputra into countless ripples, I peek out, pressing my nose hard against the wooden bar of a tiny window of the liner. Icy winter winds slap my face hard even as I enjoy the fresh air and try and catch a glimpse of the other side of the giant river. In another half hour, I shall be in Majuli, Asia's largest riverine island, ensconced in Assam's Jorhat district.

The thought is gratifying, particularly after the struggle to find the right jetty to my destination, Kamalabari, at Neemati Ghat, the entry point to Majuli from mainland. Old timers remember seeing ships plying from Neemati — the British used it as a port to take away Assam tea — definitely a rare sight in hilly North East India. Alas, after years of Governmental neglect, the ghat is today a slush bowl after a spot of rain. A good part of its approach road is broken, has no signage for the four jetties to help people reach the right corner of the huge island.

Knowing the local language certainly comes handy and here I am in the ferry at last! So are people, including some foreign tourists, jostling to find space to stand among gunny bags, motor bikes and cars. Though there are ferry rates for even lions and elephants on a State Inland Water Resources Board hoarding at the ghat, I see only three reluctant cows being pushed into my ferry and tied to a pole.

The ferry now is inching closer to Kamalabari Ghat and I brace myself to experience Majuli, the seat of Neo-Vaishnavite sattras or monasteries set up by the legendary Assamese reformer Sankardeva in the 16th Century. There is so much to see and learn!

Braced for adventure

Well, for now, I am thanking my stars for bringing my taxi along! The few buses and taxis at the ghat are already filled by the time I touch ground! People in fact, jump out of the ferries even before they are tied to the poles on the bank in order to find a space in the vehicles going to town. The tourists look braced up for an adventure, getting into a hired SUV they have brought along. On what was once a road, my taxi treads on a path piled with layers of dust, passing by rows of makeshift chang ghars (dwellings on stilts) of Mishings, the largest community living in the island for centuries. The river has eaten away their home and hearth, compelling them to stay on the roadside. In my two week-long travels across Majuli, I see this phenomenon everywhere.

I begin the usual way a tourist does in Majuli — visit the four major sattras — Dakhinpat, Bengenati, Auniati and Uttar Kamalabari. In serene surroundings, these are abodes of believers, silently busy in devotion to Lord Krishna. With Brahmaputra eating into their land, most of them are facing an existential threat today. Being granted the patronage of the Ahom kings who ruled Assam for 600 years, these sattras are a storehouse of antics spanning centuries.

Treasure trove

I experience the treasure trove of one such sattra — Dakshinpat. Following the monastery bhorali (store-keeper), a silver-haired Haren Deka, I stand in front of a creaky door even as he carefully turns a rusty key into the hole. “This is the first concrete house of Majuli,” he says, leading me into a musty, dark room, shrouded in mystery, a mustard oil diya lighting idols of Shiva and Parvati made of ivory placed on one corner of the cold floor. With a kerosene lamp, he takes me round the outer chamber of the bhoral, showing me centuries-old pieces of ivory, gold, silver, bell metal, bronze and copper utensils, giant keys and padlocks from the British era, kingkhap (traditional Assamese cloth made of gold thread worn by Ahom kings), wooden poles, spears, swords, shoes made of ivory, giant Tulsi trunks, a palanquin of Ahom kings.

Pointing at a diya in the inner chamber, he says, “It has been burning for 189 years. It is my responsibility to keep it burning.” I want to go near it but I am stopped. “Only bhakats (the monks) are allowed to enter it.” What I see from the threshold are old iron trunks “said to be filled with coins belonging to the Ahom era among other things”, precious utensils and books on rituals made of leaves, wrapped in cloth. “The sattradhikar (monastery head) has the key to these boxes,” he says.

In the outer chamber is Deka's bed. “I left home when I was six years old. Since then, the sattra has been my home.” Often when he enters the bhoral in the night to sleep, he carefully turns the pillow to ensure that there is no snake lying there. “There are a lot of them here; often I find skin shed by snakes under my pillow.” He keeps a bottle of phenyl next to his bed. “I spill some around my bed every night,” he adds, sending a shiver down my body.

A museum funded by Archaeological Survey of India is being built in the monastery to display the riches. Like the other monasteries in Majuli. Alas! If someone had cared to keep this individualistic tradition of the sattras' bhoral alive than just build concrete museums! The Assam Government besides forming Majuli Cultural Landscape Management Authority, has also applied for grant of heritage status (a couple of times before too without success) to UNESCO for Majuli. “An UNESCO team visited this storehouse, told us to keep everything properly,” says Deka, hoping it relents to the plea this time.

Winged visitors

From sattras I shift my focus to Majuli's winged visitors. Over 100 species of migratory birds land here every year. However, there is no official information on them for visitors. In fact, across Majuli, you will struggle to find any signage of tourist importance. The Circuit House, which till recently used to lend rooms to tourists, also have instructions only in Assamese. With Majuli shrinking, most locals have lost their agricultural land, their mainstay. With so much of natural wealth here, it is no great brain wave to see that tourism can certainly be an alternative for them. But the hope here is definitely not kept alive by any governmental initiative so far but purely by private ventures.

There is Me: Po Okum, a clutch of bamboo huts on stilts, made on the lines of Mishing dwellings. Owner Ranoj Pegu has employed four locals to run the show who offers visitors a taste of Mishing food and a peek into the community's culture. Then there is Bamboo Cottage run by Bedabratta Dutta and Jyoti Sarma. The seed money for it came from a Danish tourist they came across in the Kaziranga National Park. Every Sunday, the duo gets out in search of newer spots in Majuli for tourists. “We now know where to sight the best sun set here, the best spot for birds,” says Dutta. Yet another youth from the island started Do: Nyi Po : Lo Okum some years ago on the lines of La Maison De Ananda, arguably the first eco-friendly bamboo cottages in Majuli set up by a French tourist.

All these are a refreshing change from the concrete tourist lodge built by the Government sometime ago, an ugly structure that certainly doesn't go with the natural bounty of the Island. Sudershan Thakur, a local businessman based in Guwahati, who runs the lodge on contract, says, “Till now, many things in the lodge are incomplete.” Thakur is keen to do something for tourism in his native land. “I turned a part of our house into a lodge (Seuz Bilaas). Till then, there were only one or two guest houses in sattras for visitors. Often they would be full.” He also paid for a signboard in front of the Kamalabari police station asking foreign tourists to register their presence in Majuli.

Giving an estimate, Majuli SDO Krishna Barua says, “In 2011, we have received over 2000 foreign tourists and around three lakh domestic tourists during the annual festival of raas.” What they see in the island beyond the sattras is purely based on luck. For instance, spotting traditions, some dating back to ancient India. Like the prevalence of barter system among the potters of Samaguri. They still make their pots without using the wheel, a practice dating back to the Mohenjodaro era.

Recently, the Planning Commission has approved a development project for Majuli. The Assam Government's New Year package also mentions funds for the erosion hit there. One can only hope that the initiatives are felt on ground.

(The reporter was in Majuli recently on Inclusive Media Fellowship 2011 of the Centre for Study of Developing Societies)