Majuli Days: Into the great blue yonder, on a jaunt to the world's largest river island
I have been to the middle of the ocean a couple of times, but the experience was not as intimidating as when I was in the Brahmaputra River.
A thick mist hung heavy over calm waters that looked like sheets of cold and dark grey steel. Probably, it was just that time of the day or the year that made it frightening.
The month was November, and it was 7 in the morning. We had reached the southern banks of the river after a very short drive from Jorhat, a city in Central Assam.
Our destination — Majuli, also known as the largest river island in the world. Sand from the river banks stretched out for a few metres away from the dock. We had to take a passenger flatboat that would take us to the island in the early morning haze.
It was too dangerous to venture out due to low visibility. After about an hour and a half, the mist cleared a bit, and we were on our way. We took the highest point a passenger could take on the boat.
Below were people, and a few cars and bikes parked on one side. At first, it seemed like we were going nowhere. Then we gradually saw the sun’s rays.
The mist was dissipating. Before we even realised it, the day was bright and sunny, and we were on the island...
The ‘Mishing’ link
One of the two friends who accompanied me on this trip is originally from the island itself.
Belonging to the Mishing tribe of Assam who call Majuli their ancestral birthplace, he was gracious in his hospitality and showed us around.
Camping near the waters of the river was our plan. One could also stay in guesthouses nearby.
Our campsite was an auto ride of some 5 km from the dock. The entrance was a path between a line of trees that led us straight into a grassy open ground that was fenced with logs.
Our home for the next two days was to be in an Army tent pitched right in the middle of the place. There were wooden cabins in the precinct as well.
Walking near our campsite, we came across two men on their wooden canoe, fishing in a tributary.
They would circle a portion of the water near the banks on our side, dropping their nets meticulously, then pulling them up again, and repeating the same elsewhere.
It was a laborious effort of around an hour, for the 5 to 10 fishes they caught in the end.
After a while, we headed to the house of a family who stayed at a place called Chamaguri Satra.
They have been traditionally practicing the art of making masks or mukuts, using a unique method with bamboo, cow dung and clay.
The family has also set up a sort of a centre to teach people this craft, and also perform plays with costumes and the masks that they make.
Inside a small concrete room whose walls were lined with their work, they performed what seemed like a chapter out of Indian mythology — a battle between the asuras (demons) and the army of monkey warriors, for us and a few other tourists.
Back at camp, three of us were the only guests present. A bonfire was lit. As the night progressed, mist engulfed the entire campsite, and the place looked eerie.
We had asked for the traditional rice beers called Apong. There are two varieties — the Ngoin Apong that is black in colour, and the Poro Apong that is white. We got the former, and this was devoured with some chicken.
We decided on a post-dinner walk near the waters. The moon played hide and seek from the clouds and mist, while the silhouette of the trees nearby became prominent each time its line shone.
Electric mustard garden
Near our camp was a café called the Majuli Cycle Cafe that rented out cycles.
The front opened to the main road, while at the back was a verandah, with a view of rice fields. Coffee with this view, I must say, was special.
We set out on a 25km cycle ride to the ancestral house at my friend’s village called Jengriamukh.
The gravel-laden roads made me regret my decision at first, but we got some respite, stopping to look at the vast rice fields during short breaks.
No sooner had we reached the place, and we set out exploring and trekking. We walked past a mustard field with thousands of tiny electric yellow flowers, crossed a small stream that crisscrossed the rice fields, walked on a meadow with a few horses grazing on them.
My friend had called his mates over to get us another batch of rice beers. And, we decided to take a dip in the river.
Although the waters were not so deep, the sand beneath was loose. Patches of lotus plants grew here and there, and we latched on to them whenever the ground gave way.
After an hour, we sat by the banks of this tributary and drank the local brew. Another group of friends from Guwahati joined us too.
And, soon, we loaded our cycles in their vehicle, and headed back to camp. As the sun came down, and the temperatures dipped again, the mist was back.
Our last night at the camp was a bigger affair with more drink, food and a lot of chatter — bordering from the mindless to the profound.
The next morning, I woke up with a raging fever. We drove to the same dock, and were once again surrounded by the waters of the Brahmaputra.
— Ramzauva Chhakchhuak