MAJULI: THE LARGEST RIVER ISLANDMajuli is considered as the largest river island in the world. Like a few other places of India, the Majuli Island in Assam is also a geographically and culturally unknown place with all its pride in past heritage and rich culture. A river-made island, Majuli is the largest of its kind over the world, and it is also the place of numerous Vaishnava monasteries of Assam called Satra that include the most well-known ones of the state. Naturally, its society also has some inherent features of its own, which are reflected in all aspects of its culture.
GEOGRAPHY OF MAJULIMajuli is, first a river-made island, a water-locked inhabited zone and second, it is known as a land of the Satra which has made its life, and culture distinguished from other societies. Being an island cut off from the mainland, its inhabitants had no free contact with the mainstream society in early times nor the mainstream had such contact with it. It is sometimes said that most of the old generation people, born and brought up on the island, did not even cross the Brahmaputra to see the other banks of the great river during their lifetime. This was the situation until at least the sixties and seventies of the last century. The present investigator was informed by a few illiterate women of the island that they had never been to Jorhat, the nearest town on the other side of the Brahmaputra, the last capital of the Ahom state in the monarchical days.
Crossing of the large river in boats before introduction of the steamer services during the British rule was so difficult and discouraging that only a few persons dared to cross the river for purposes unavoidable, who used to offer some puja or prayer and give feast to the neighbors before starting their journey as if that was their farewell function.
As a result, until a few decades ago rural Majuli presented the picture of a medieval society. Old beliefs and superstitions, and blind support to whatever was preached by the religious gurus had kept it unchanging, stagnant society. At the close of the 19th century, B.C. Allen recorded that an old-world air’ pervades the entire island’ indicating that no sense of modernism till that time prevailed over the people.
Majuli being surrounded by water on all sides was a secluded site even before it took the form of a concrete island. It was then a kind of protected sanctuary sheltering varieties of wild animals—elephants, tigers, rhinoceros, and others, and many migratory birds. During the Middle Ages, this topographical situation was taken advantage of by the rulers of the land who sometimes used it as a hunting ground, sometimes like a war camp and sometimes as a place for exiles or punishment.
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POPULATION OF MAJULIBeing an isolated zone with an abundance of unoccupied land, Majuli provided shelter to all immigrants coming from all around since the Middle Ages, particularly from its northern border across the Subansiri river. Originating on the northern hills, this river has served as a migration route since ancient times; and it was through this river route that a section of the hill tribes now known as Missing (earlier Miri) came down and settled in the northern and northeastern part of the island. It was from the north again that large flocks of fugitives from erstwhile East Pakistan migrated to the island and settled in its periphery. Known earlier as Silathiya (Sylhetty) they now form a good segment of its population.
Demographically, the society of the island presents a diversified complex, beginning with the tribes to the highly acculturated Brahmans and the Kayasthas. Among the tribes, the most numerous are the Musings earlier known as Miri. They form, according to the last census report, 34 percent of the total population of the island. Other tribes include the Doris and the Kacharis who together with the Misings form 43 percent of the total strength, while the Scheduled Caste population forms about 15 percent.
According to the census of 1901, the density of the population on the island was 24 per sq. km, which had reached the mark of 362 in 2001. Which was higher than the state average of 340. According to the same census report, it had a population of 1,53,400 souls consisting of 79,481 males and 73,919 females, their ratio being 930:1000. The society of the island could be seen also in terms of various linguistic and religious groups. There are Bengali, Marwari, Bihari, Nepali, and a few Muslims. Thus, the society of the island attracts much attention in so far as its varieties and distinguishing nature is concerned. One important aspect of their system is that despite all differences among themselves the people belong to a culture that is distinguished by what is called MaJulial—simplicity in behavior and spirituality in living.
LOCATION AND EXTENT OF MAJULIBelieved to be the largest river made the island in the world. Majuli, a subdivision of the Jorhat District of Assam today, is situated between 26°-25/ and 27°-12/ North Latitude and 93°-39/ and 94°-35/ East Longitude. Situated at 85 meters above the mean sea level on the north of this island flows the old stream of the Brahmaputra—the Luit or the Luhit Suti with a thin stream of water at present, and sparsely located reservoirs of water here and there creating numerous chaperons in its course.
Its eastern part is called Kherkatiya Suti and the western part is Subansiri (also spell as Subansiri). This part called Subansiri is named after the river Subansiri which is a tributary of the Brahmaputra (Luhit), and which, coming down from the northern hills, has fallen to the great river almost at the middle point of the island. Since the source of the Luhit Suti at its junction with the Brahmaputra through the Kherkatiya Suti has now been blocked by the Government of Assam by building a gigantic embankment across it, this part, till it conjugates with the Subansiri river, is now dead leaving latter to flow alone over the old course of the Luhit covering the part to the west from its confluence.
On the south of the island flows the Brahmaputra proper which was once the course of the Dihing and Dikhow combined. Thus, the two extreme ends of the island—east and west, are marked by the bifurcation and unification respectively of the two channels of the same great river.
There is no doubt that once Majuli island covered a large tract of land. Records show that at the beginning of the 20th century it covered 2/3 of the total area of the Jorhat subdivision of the then Shivsagar District. But, the island has been always prone to erosion since inception with consequent result of gradual reduction of its territorial extent.
This is not only evidenced by a large-scale migration of its inhabitants to other parts of the state, but it has also been testified by growing population density on the island. As found in the state government revenue records, its area which was 1246 square kilometers in 1950, was reduced to 924 square kilometers in 1971. It was further reduced to 875 square kilometers in 1997, and 480 square kilometers in 2001.
It is stated by the older generation there that erosion has become more rampant, and havoc to the island since the 1950 great earthquake. Even at the time of preparation or this work, erosion of the island has been going on posing a threat to the Bengenaati Satra and its neighborhood.
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CLIMATE OF MAJULILike any other places of Assam, Majuli falls within the tropical zone being located within 26°-25/ and 27°- 12/ North Latitude and 93°-39/ and 94°- 35/ East Longitude. But encircled all around by the great water bodies, it possesses a moderate climate, cold from November to February, pleasant in mid-September to October and March-April, and summer in May to mid-September. A cool breeze always submerges it on the riversides, and it is not so rare also in the center.
The climate of the inhabited and lonely places on the banks of the Brahmaputra suits natives and strangers alike. But at a distance from the river, the climate agrees with the natives. It rains for eight months (in the year) and even the four months of the winter are not (altogether) free from rain. Thus, being situated amidst the two great rivers, its climate is pleasant and suitable for all people including the outsiders.
HOTELS TO STAY IN MAJULI* Ygdrasil Bamboo Cottage
* La Maison de Anand
* Okegiga Homes
* Maheswar Land