To the island of Majuli through Brahmaputra
As I was trying to find a bit of comfort under the blanket to escape the chilly weather of Tawang, Kishore told me about Majuli.
“It's the largest river island in India, perhaps the largest in the world. We have to visit the place even if we have to change the whole itinerary,” he said.
I just took my head out, look at him and retired under my cosy blanket. He was repeating the same thing even when I woke up after my lengthy sleep. That was how we alighted in Itanagar, the capital state of Arunachal Pradesh keeping aside the rest of the plans.
Majuli is located approximately 200 kms east of Guwahati.
To reach the river island, one has to cross the River Brahmaputra in a ferry from Jorhat town. But to reach Jorhat, transportation is only available from Tezpur in Assam, which means we have to travel approximately 300-350 kms.
According to Google maps, the route to Jorhat was via Dibrugarh covering almost 250 kms. As we were thinking of ways to avoid long-distance travel, an idea struck to cross the Brahmaputra river from the other side to reach Majuli.
Though we checked with a few persons in the town about Majuli and crossing Brahmaputra, none of them were aware of it.
We moved to Badarduva, a town in Arunachal-Assam border hoping to get some information about the island as per the suggestion of few natives, but it was in vain. Those who were familiar with Majuli knew the route via Jorhat. We took a blind decision to go to North Lakhimpur using Google maps. This route via Lakhimpur was not shown in Google maps.
Lakhimpur is a busy town alike other towns in Assam. We spent the night in Lakhimpur and tried to gather information about Majuli from everyone we met. Even Lakhimpur natives were not much familiar about Majuli.
After frequent enquiry, we reached an auto rickshaw stand, where a driver agreed to take us to Majuli for Rs 600. In the meanwhile, around 15 people gathered around us overhearing our 10-minute conversation and helped us by introducing a share auto driver who agreed to take us to our destination for just Rs 30. Immediately, we went to the hotel and returned with our luggage. We took our seat in the auto for the drive.
It was a vehicle in the form of a van and the vehicle had portable seats. Most of the co-travellers were from outskirts. Once the journey crosses half-way mark, mud-paved roads and the meadows started to appear. Waterbodies were abundant in the area. We could see mansions as well as small huts on either sides. After a bumpy ride, we reached Lohit ferry. To cross the river, once has to depend on a boat, which could accommodate one or two motor bikes.
Except us, all those who boarded the ferry were the natives of Majuli or some other island. They treated us very cordially and assured us saying that the boat is safe. The journey did not last more than 10 minutes.
Again a journey was needed from the other side of the Lohit river. We got well acquainted with the natives whilst waiting for the Sumo vehicle. Champak Das, an engineering student from Guwahati and another person working in a hotel in Delhi were among the group.
Each Sumo vehicle carries more passengers than its capacity from one shore to another. We noticed that the houses and shops in the island were in bad shape. There was no bitumen-topped road in that small island. The Sumo reached the river bank and we crossed the river in a boat. Everyone was behaving as if we were long-time acquaintances. They told us about the facilities for food and accommodation in Majuli.
After crossing the river again, we took a Sumo to Majuli. As we travelled 3-4 km, locals and regional towns started appearing.
Majuli was formed as a result of the course of River Brahmaputra. This river island is surrounded by River Subansiri and River Brahmaputra to the north and south respectively. During heavy monsoon, several small islands near by the Majuli will remain inundated. Studies say Majuli will be submerged within two decades.
The island of Majuli is of great importance to Vaishnavites. Majuli was transformed into a pilgrimage centre of Vaishnavites in the 16th century after a social reformer named Shankar Deva build inns here. Accommodation is provided for a meagre amount of Rs 50 or even free in these inns. Majority of the inns are big halls like cinema houses. Those who visits here in buses and vans from far off places prepare food on their own and sleep together in these inns. Apart from inns, rooms and even huts meant for foreigners are available here.
We managed to find a room away outside the town limits located near an inn. Also we found a restaurant half-a-km away which provided food on one condition: orders should be placed an hour in advance. When we returned to our room, it looked scary with grasshoppers and bugs on the walls.
Next morning, we went sightseeing in a bicycle arranged by the inn keeper. A tea seller on bicycle was present in front of the inn anticipating the devotees visiting the inn. There was a shop selling essential commodities for the travellers nearby the inn itself.
We walked along the mud road in front of the inn. Serene villages started appearing as we crossed few the fields and wooden bridges. The local women were busy with their chores. Some were drying pulses, some were bringing food for their family members and the workers in the field. Some women were busy weaving mats. All seemed to be occupied but no one was in a hurry -- enjoying the chores.
Time was almost 9 am and students started showing up in groups as well as single. Except for the lower primary school students, others were going to school on bicycle. The high school girls passed by in groups on bicycles wearing a uniform resembling sari. Some groups had boys too. All of them were enjoying the walk. Me and Kishore wondered how unconventional a school life we led.
As we entered a bridge on the way, we saw women engaged in fishing. Some cast fishing net while few others using a sieve-like material. We went to the shore from there to join others who were waiting for a boat or a raft.
A woman was selling tea and snacks near the ferry. Kids spend their free time playing around the meadow. Few women were sitting there feeding the babies and men continued their wait with cigarettes between their lips.
In the meanwhile, travellers arrived at the shore on country boats. A father and son were making their way to the shore using a bamboo raft sailing on their own.
I collected information about the ferry to Jorhat from an auto driver who reached there by coincidence. He told us about the ferry called Kamalabari ghat and the ferry service timings. The driver also agreed to pick us from our room and to drop us at Kamalabari.
We reached Kamalabari after pretty long journey in autorickshaw through green lawn. As it was the day’s last service, the ferry was overloaded with passengers and vehicles. The passenger seats were covered with a sheet.
Youngsters were travelling sitting on top of it. On contrary to the concept of river, the shore was not visible with so many tiny islands in the unevenly flowing Brahmaputra. The excitement was unbearable. We decided not to miss a single view and stood near the deck.
Hardly 10 minutes into the journey, we realised how stupid we were. The journey across Brahmaputra takes nearly two-and-a-half hours and seats would be occupied prior to the start of the journey.
We saw 10 islands before reaching the shore. The number may vary according to the water level. A small coffee shop is functioning inside the ferry. Every shore which is visible after two hours is looked upon with high expectation by the passengers as well as the natives.
We reached Nimathi ghat and took a 30-minute journey to Jorhat, where share taxis and auto rickshaws were waiting for us.
(Translated by Priyanka Pradeep)