The island of Majuli is a paradise seated in the midst of two channels of the Brahmaputra river. Located in Assam, the river island is a snapshot of idyllic beauty with glittering beaches and lush greenery, but behind its scenic majesty things are far from peaceful. Every monsoon, the 2900 kilometre-long mighty river floods and ravages large portions of land that remain underwater for months, erosion causes major chunks to just fall off into the river, taking along with it people’s homes and crops. There was a time in the mid-19th century when Majuli was a contender for the title of world’s biggest river island being an estimated 1,200 square kilometres in area; today, it lies as barely 400 square kilometres, less than half of what it used to be. It’s predicted by the Brahmaputra Board’s
report that at this rate the island is likely to fully submerge within the next 20 years.
’Not without our culture’
Climate change has resulted in fluctuating temperatures and unpredictable monsoons, the intensity of the floods increase with each passing year, and with it, so does the frequency and resulting damage. More than 67 of the 243 villages are affected by this, and it’s not just people’s land and homes that are at risk, the one-time incredible biodiversity is also diminishing. Majuli is the cradle of cultures and crafts in Assam; the hub of Neo-Vaishnavism, a monotheistic offshoot of Hinduism that was initiated around the 15th century by Srimanta Sankardev, a religious and social reformer, and his devoted disciple Madhavdeva. Together they built Satras to spread their message, many of them that still stand today and continue to uphold the colourful heritage of Assamese culture. Satras are more than just Vaishnavite monasteries, they are religious and educational institutions, as well as centres of various art forms including the traditional performing arts.
For example, the traditional masks that are worn during dances and dramatic performances are made at the Shamaguri satra. Founded by Niranjan Pathakdeva, the Auniati satra is famous for ‘Paalnaam’ and apsara dances, and houses an array of ancient artefacts, jewellery and handicafts. The first satra was established in the 15th century and over the years the number grew to sixty-five, but today there remain only twenty two satras on the island. Many of them shifted locations because of the extensive erosion that’s wreaking havoc across the land.
Every year like clockwork, as Brahmaputra journeys from Tibet and onto the Bay of Bengal it swells unleashing chaos across the land as portions of it are swallowed up. The villagers volunteer to redesign the banks of the islands, construct raised tube wells to ensure safe drinking water, build embankments and roads. When that gets washed away, they pick up and move, and continue to piece their homes and life together again and again. Efforts have been made by the government to try and arrest erosion as much as possible. Embankments were built which sometimes backfired as instead of preventing erosion it ended up facilitating it; geo-bags were installed and many schemes have come up to better the situation but unfortunately not much has changed. “If you don’t let the river flow, it will find its way somehow,” Jamini Payeng comments, as stated by India Water Portal. Jamini is an award winning handicraft artist and activist who supports families affected by erosion, especially women, by training them in weaving and tailoring in Majuli.
The Carteret Islanders in the South Pacific Ocean, off the coast of Papua New Guinea, were officially evacuated in 2014 making them the world’s first refugees of global warming. It was predicted that the island would be completely submerged by 2015, and hence, they have been displaced from their homeland. Ghoramara has already been tagged as a ‘sinking island.’ The question that now remains is simple--is Majuli to suffer the same fate and lose its ancient cultures and customs to the wrath of Brahmaputra? Only time will tell.