‘Life is a journey, not a destination.’
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
To paraphrase Emerson’s classic quote, the focus of one’s life should be on the process rather than the result. Travel, in many ways, reflects life. A journey not only takes you from A to B but also becomes an introduction to your final destination.
When I got an opportunity to take a couple of days off, during a work trip to Kolkata, I grabbed onto it and headed straight to Majuli – one of the largest river islands in the world.
The location of Majuli was fascinating in itself, but the journey was half the fun. To reach my guesthouse on the island, I was to take a flight, a boat, change three magics (shared tuk-tuks), and then trudge through paddy fields. All this in one day!
The Brahmaputra that surrounds the island is both a friend and foe for the locals. It makes the soil fertile but swells up during monsoon, flooding practically the entire island. Over the years, the erosion caused by its current has reached an alarming level, to the point the island might disappear in the next 20 years!
And thus, before it vanished off the map, I had to make this journey.
I flew into Jorhat from Kolkata on a crisp winter morning. Lugging my backpack, I boarded a magic and was in the heart of the town within 20 minutes.
Once here, I changed to another magic shared between at-least 14 people rather than the eight it said on the door. A cramped 50-min ride through the green countryside brought me to Nimati Ghat. I was now facing the mighty Brahmaputra and its vast, ever-changing shoreline.
It was from here that I was to take the public ferry across the river towards Majuli (Kamlabari Ghat) with about a hundred co-passengers, three SUVs, and around two-dozen two-wheelers. Everyone was waiting patiently for the ferry to arrive.
But as soon as the ferry docked, an unassuming sense of urgency engulfed everyone around me. There began a mad rush of people to get a seat in the covered lower deck and a scramble to get two-wheelers on the upper floor.
The highlight of the boat ride to Majuli was the loading of the four-wheelers. The driver’s skill to maneuver his vehicle flawlessly on the wooden planks that bridged the gap between the jetty and the boat was astounding. His talent was celebrated, rightly so, with a loud cheer once the car was on the boat.
Under the scorching afternoon sun and the puff of the diesel fumes, I found myself a relatively peaceful corner on the upper deck. As we set sail, I distracted myself with the views over the vast expanse of the river and the many sandbanks. The helmsman skillfully dodged these, aided by strategically placed flags. Although not the most comfortable, it was the best seat on the boat to Majuli.
After docking at the Kamlabari Ghat, another magic ride took me to the village where my guesthouse, La Maison de Ananda, was located. Built by a French couple, it is one of the first guest houses built on Majuli island.
The current owner, Monjit, even before asking my name, offered me a warm ginger tea. It was the assurance I needed to justify the bumpy journey here.
The bamboo cottages here are constructed in the Mishing (local indigenous community) style, on stilts with shared rooms and bathroom facilities. This budget-friendly stay is very popular with backpackers and travelers looking to experience local life. For a little more comfort and privacy, there is a similar-looking concrete hut on the same premises.
Life in the guest house revolves around the main dining area, built entirely of bamboo with an open woodfire kitchen, which doubles up as a fireplace on chilly winter nights. Here, travelers from all over converge, share stories and anecdotes while feasting on simple homecooked food. The local rice beer called Apong is often brewing here.
After the long journey, I was looking forward to spending my first evening in Majuli not doing anything other than watching the sunset from the balcony. However, I was invariably drawn to the sound of drums and scattered laughter that trickled from somewhere close by.
A little prodding led me to a ground where a group of young men and women were practicing a traditional folk song and dance routine for an upcoming competition held at the annual village fair. I became so engrossed in it that I missed the sunset and had to trace my way back to the guesthouse in complete darkness.
After this unexpected cultural encounter, I was quite upbeat about the next day, where I was set to explore the archaic life at the satras (monasteries) and its resident monks. I hired a bike, armed myself with a map provided by the kind people at the guesthouse, and began my solo safari through the intriguing and fascinating Majuli island.
The socio-cultural movement of Neo-Vaishnavism, which was started here around the 16th century by a Vaishnava saint, Srimanta Sankardev, adds an aura of mysticism to the island.
Majauli has about 22 functioning satras where the monks practice Neo-Vaishnavite philosophy through prayers and express themselves through various art forms. The satras are divided into Udasin (celibate monastic order), and Grihastha (liberal, can marry and propagate art).
I began with an early morning visit to the Auniati Satra (Udasin). Named after the elevated land it is located on and the beetle trees it is surrounded by, it is the largest on the island. I reached just in time for the morning prayers at the Namghar (temple) and spent a good part of the hour exploring the campus and the little museum.
From here, the next stop was the Uttar Kamlabari Satra, famed for its dance and drama performances, which its disciples have taken around the world. My final visit on this day was to Samaguri Satra (Grihastha), known for its mask making.
Here bamboo and clay come together to form the decapitated heads of fiery mythological characters. These have been traditionally used for the Raas Leela festival and Bhaona, a street theater festival in many parts of Assam.
The art form has been practiced in the Samaguri Satra for generations and has now incorporated some modern-day innovations like the eye and jaw movement. With the eclectic colours and props, these movements add a touch of realism to the performance, keeping the audience engaged and enthralled.
It was here that I landed myself an invite from Mr. Goswami (the master mask maker) for a dance performance by members of the Samaguri Satra. This was to be at an exclusive private event held for some delegates that evening. Thrilled, I reached the location before time and was pleasantly surprised to get a front-row seat to their animated Ramayana rendition.
The performers took the stage just around twilight, affording a perfect setting for the upcoming visual spectacle. As I waited to immerse myself in the performance, I realized that although my journey through this sequestered little corner of the country was coming to an end, I had finally arrived at my destination.
Photo Credi: Author, Pixabay, and Unsplash