Before leaving for northeastern India, I never thought that with all the land available, we would have ended up on an island. Which island then? In addition to the Andaman and Nicobar islands, which are nearly as Thailand, I was not aware of lands detached from the main body that would be reachable and worth visiting. The plans, however, we know how it is, do not go. And so in the third week of travel I was on an island. But this was not any.
Majuli, meanwhile, is the largest river island in the world and has long been one of the cultural capital of Assam. No white beaches and coral reefs, nothing Mojito or sand castles.
From Guwahati we catch the bus to Jorhat, the center from which sail the small ferry to Majuli, and is a must as well. The journey by bus between Tezpur and Jorhat was beautiful, as they go through various tea plantations and part of Kaziranga National Park, perhaps the most famous attraction of North East India. At some point I see in the distance on the side of the road a jeep parked and the guys who photograph a large animal, which was a rhinoceros! I did not expect, and it was really an extraordinary meeting. After overtaking on one bend after another we get to Jorhat at sunset.
Jorhat attracts tourists with its large plantations of tea. The leaves of Assam tea are the most used for the preparation of chai, the most widely consumed beverage in the country, because these, contrary to most delicate and more expensive varieties as those of Darjeeling tea, it goes better with milk, sugar and spices that balance the bitterness.
However, Jorhat is far from the image of green hills plantations to which we would face later. The center of Jorhat is formed from the intersection of three or four wide roads that cross, on which sit on the floor, every few meters of solidified molasse sellers that attract swarms of hornets. The molasses is a product of sugar cane used as a sweetener, and entire blocks are sold to the weight on the sidewalks of the city in ruins. If no one seems to care about the huge number of bugs that circulate in the air, for the visitor to cross a market is no mean feat.
After holding my breath and exceeding the Hornets, we get to Solicitor Road, a narrow side street on which are four or five hotels. The port of departure for Majuli instead is about ten kilometer away. A tuk tuk takes us to a small ferry at Nimati Ghat. After about standing for a hour and half on this floating platform, we reach the island. It was too late to reach Garamur, the main village, so I decided to stop for the night at Bungaon where there is a family run guesthouse.
The village people were nice and friendly, and despite the difficulties with the language I can at least understand where we were and how to reach Garamur the next morning. The guy insists to show me a Bollywood film in Hindi, but fortunately after a while electricity goes away and I go out of the room to see the stars in the clear night.
This strange island is also famous as a nature reserve, as there is a particular ecosystem that supports many varieties and species of flora and fauna, especially the birds that use it as a base for their migration. The following morning it takes 20 minutes by jeep to reach the village of Garamur, where we find accommodation in a bamboo thatched hut built in traditional style, the only vaguely tourist resort of the island.
Majuli is a bed of green grass that lives mainly on agriculture. A paved road connects the two main villages, but the rest is countryside. Along the river reflect the large nets that fishermen have installed, and some boats get carried away by the current and little else seems to happen. The sun sets on the river changing color and coloring the landscape that make up the rice fields.
At Majuli people do not speak English or Hindi. The most widespread language is Assamese, but the original is the one of the Mising tribe, who moved here before the arrival of the British. The Mising name was given to this people by the British, who after trying to find the semi-nomadic tribes, always ended up being in front of empty territories, failing to reach the community before it would shift and disappear.
For this Missing, has become the official name of this original people from the territories bordering Tibet and Bhutan. The story sounds like an urban legend actually, but like to pass it to true to give a little satisfaction to those who have been colonized for a whole century.
We find the bicycles, the ideal way to explore this flat island. A few days are certainly not enough to know this place as you would like, but pedaling you can cover much of the island's surface. Through long tree-lined streets we move away from the village center and along the most quiet streets we reach the Satra or Xatra, temples that characterize the culture of this place under the jurisdiction of local Satradhikar. Each of these Sattras has countless Vaishnavite scriptures.
Majuli has over the years become the main center of a unique religion that developed in Assam whose 22 Xatras on the island are the heart. The Neo-Vaishnavism, which is actually a kind of reform of old Hinduism, was born around 1500 and is a philosophy that branches classical Hinduism, canceling heavy caste system in India and this makes every man equal, to eliminating any idol through the deification of only Vishnu and Krishna.
At that time they mainly practiced Vaishnavism, Shaivism and the Shakti, and the latter had originated various sects who were not above rituals that also included human sacrifices. In this context Srimanta Sankaradeva began his reform activities and founded the Neo-Vaishnavism, which was designed to be not only a religion but also a moral and ethical code, a way of life, which was to bring together the different ethnic groups of Assam.
Sankaradeva pointed to one God to worship according to the form prescribed by ritual Puranas though sravan, kirtan, singing and dancing, accessible to all irrespective of caste or gender. This move was part of the broader movement called Bhakti movement but differed mainly because it did not provide for the worship of the feminine form of the Godhead or idols.
This led to many Satras, where the priests began the faithful and gave instructions on how to progress spiritually and socially. The main aim of the Neo-Vaishnavism was to make the deity accessible to all, and to accept all even animals and plants as part of the divine creation and the universal religion of love and the divine spirit that is present in us is also present in all life forms.
But the details matter little to those who are not a follower of Eastern religions and objectively even the temples are comparable in beauty to other religious structures in the world. So why visit the Xatra of Majuli? The largest and most famous is the Auniati Satra, which is located about ten kilometers from Garamur, although I preferred the Kamalabari. At about 10 kilometers from Garamur road is the heavenly Xatra of Uttar Kamalabari. The blue entrance arch lead into a peaceful deserted garden, and walking barefoot, we seems to have entered an abandoned place.
Until, approaching the more distant central building rooms, we begin to hear music out from the windows. The sound of a drum becomes stronger, until a half-open door comes as the source. We knock, but the music continues. Pushing the door, we are faced with a group of men in white praying. They invite us with a gesture to sit.
The prayer of the Neo-Vaishnavism has nothing to do with the silent and introspective ritual to which we are accustomed. At Majuli, the prayer is a concert, and a show. Devotion here is represented by music, dance and acting. During our visit a child growing up in the temple is learning to play a pair of bongos to the beat of the teacher.
The atmosphere that is felt in the island is quite particular, as there is a feeling of being far away from the real world. It's really a spiritual oasis, where the world based on selfishness, materialism, exploitation of the weak and the violence seems to belong to another planet and is inhabited by another human race. Everyone is very friendly and smiling and in many villages it really has the feeling of being among friends.
In Satras there is an atmosphere of peace and serenity truly immersive, all are welcome and are places especially suited to meditation. These monasteries are quite strange and very different from other Indian sacred sites as the center is a bare building within, which can recall an industrial warehouse, with basically a simple altar. Typically there is a lot of silence, unless you arrive when the priests perform kirtan.
In the evening we have dinner with the family that prepares the traditional Assamese thali. In the guesthouse there are 5 backpackers, those traveling classic backpackers with the Lonely Planet guide and the apple computer, which here is of little use, as electricity and internet is available only in fits and starts.
In any case, they are nice, especially I make friends with an American Delaware, who was surprised when I tell him I know where it was, although I do not remember the capital, who was going to go in Nagaland and has an Indian girlfriend in Delhi. We were even invited to a wedding. Curiously, the bride arrives at night. We had the bus the next day at dawn and therefore we are not even able to enjoy it!
The sounds in Majuli makes us forget the passage of time and before she knew it, we are left to ride back in almost complete darkness. But even that was a mistake that was worth committing.
Majuli Travel Tips
Guwahati to Jorhat is about 300 kilometers.
With over 1,200 square kilometers of surface area and a population of over 150,000 people, this slice of land on the river Brahmaputra in eastern Assam is separated from the continental ecosystem of India, with its language, religion, ethnic groups and food, that is hard to find elsewhere.
There are 23 villages of three different ethnic groups of Assamese, Deori and Mishing. The Assamese are typically identified as the descendants of the Ahom, then they have the physical features of South-East Asia and speak Assamese. The Deori are a very interesting group and should be the first inhabitants of this part of India.
We really do not know much of this tribal group. They have ancient traditions, who speak an incomprehensible language and practice an ancient religion. The Mishing belongs to the Tibeto-Burmese ethnic groups and are from Arunachal Pradesh. They too are a pretty mysterious group and live by ancient tribal codes of ethics, although now almost all have converted to Hinduism.
The best time to discover it is October or November during the festival of Ras Mahotsav when they celebrate the birth and life of Krishna.
Sibsagar, is about two hours journey from Jorhat. You can visit the ruins of the Ahom era buildings, the dynasty developed between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. See in particular the Rang Ghar amphitheater then the Talatal Ghar, the most impressive of all real monuments. There is also a temple, dedicated to Shiva, considered the highest of many such temples in the country.