Arrangements were made by the Principal of the PTC through the SP, Jorhat to visit Majuli. I was accompanied by the SI in charge of the Neamati Police Outpost to Nimatighat to take the ferry to the Island. There was just enough space to drive the car on to the 8.30 am ferry, which was filled to spill with passengers, over 50 2-wheelers, provisions, light cargo, et al. I was warned by a senior colleague that the ferry services are operated by rickety, dilapidated boats. The one I was on was okay. The fact that it requires skill and good knowledge of the currents of the river was brought home by the sight of a ferry stuck on a mud bank. The Brahmaputra is an awesome river. Majuli is the largest river island in the world and is densely populated. The formation of the island is attributed in different legends to the propitiation efforts of King Arimatta and Saint Parashurama. The shifting course of the awesome river erodes the banks constantly; some residents claim that 30% of the Majuli landmass has fallen prey to the vicissitudes of the river in the last 50 years. This statement is proven by the fact that there were about 65 Satras at the time of Independence, which is now down to less than two dozen, due to the erosion.
The ride to Majuli took slightly over an hour. There were two sets of commuters totally focused on their game of Rummy. Watching a couple of hands being dealt, I could make out that these were hardcore card aficionados playing for low stakes. Not many on the ferry were tourists, even though this is the peak tourist season. I was also told to look out for passengers jumping off the ferry as it nears the berthing ghat. This habit of the locals prompted a senior bureaucrat to record on file that if an airfield is provided in Majuli the locals will jump off the aircraft before it lands; the proposal to provide an airport in Majuli was shelved on the basis of this record! (This story was provided by my railway colleague and friend, JD Goswami). Driving the car out had to wait till all the 2-wheelers were taken off the ferry. The crew members provide the ‘value added service’ of driving out the motorbikes from the ferry over the steep and slippery incline at no extra cost. These guys do it very skillfully and competently. Off loading the bikes from the roof of the ferry is a sight to watch.
The SDPO of Majuli spared the services of two constables to visit the Auniati and Uttar Kamalabari Satras. The Auniati Satra was the first one established in 1653 by the Ahom King Jayadhwaja Singha upon his conversion to Hinduism. A Satra is a monastery for Vishnu worship (in his avatar as Krishna) and a repository of art and culture. A form of neo-Vaishnavism was formulated by the 15th century Assamese philosopher and social reformer Sankardev eschewing the caste system and idol worship. The Satra combines the twin elements of religious instruction and residential formal schooling. The monks in the Satras remain unmarried and each Satra is a self contained community that looks after its requirements. The Auniati Satra is the largest and the richest Satra in Majuli. It boards nearly 450 monks. The monks come from among orphans, relations of monks or those who get the ‘calling’, between the ages of 5 and 12. The Auniati Satra has been a trailblazer in many respects. In 1871 the second Assamese newspaper, ‘Assam Bilashini’, was published from this Satra, using a printing machine brought to the Island by the Satradhikar Duttadev Goswami. The present Satradhikar (head of a Satra), Dr Pitamber Dev Goswami, is the first Satradhikar in Majuli to be awarded a Doctorate. Just outside the Namghar (prayer hall) of Auniati Satra is a huge log of wood that is said to have come floating in the Brahmaputra more than 250 years ago when the monks prayed for a suitable support for the Namghar. The Satra also has a well kept Museum with Ahom artifacts and a few rare manuscripts. The Auniati Satra has been relocated 5 times in the past years due to erosion.
One of the original inhabitants of the Majuli Island is the Mising tribe. Their main occupation is fishing and weaving and the houses are made of woven bamboo mats and put up on stilts. In the space below the house, in the vacant area of the stilts, they either rear pigs or use it as storage. I took the return ferry at 1.30 pm, which was overcrowded and took 2 hours. I am sure some bright spark will soon find an opportunity for entrepreneurship to sell refreshments and snacks during the long journeys back and forth on the ferries. While returning to the PTC I tanked up fuel to facilitate an early morning start for Kohima tomorrow.