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North East Chapter 4 - Majuli Island

by Payel Kundu on March 09, 2018
Majuli

The first time I was introduced to Majuli, it was through a picture I saw somewhere. There was a local man standing with his oar on a small boat and driving it through a pond full of pondweeds. The plants were glossy green, the water reflected sunlight and the picture seemed just perfect. What I immediately found interesting about this place was how beautiful it was despite its simplicity. Or rather it was beautiful because of its simplicity. It was a village in India, it could be any village in India – almost untouched by tourism it flaunted a rural lifestyle wrapped inside its scenic beauty. And that’s what I wanted to find when I planned my trip. Needless to say, I was more than satisfied. 

To read the detailed story on how I reached Majuli, check out my previous blog

 

Experience at Ygdrasil Bamboo Cottage

Bamboo Cottage
Track leading towards the cottage

The sun had fallen behind the trees on the western horizon, but the world wasn’t completely swallowed by darkness yet. The car that just dropped me took a left turn ahead and disappeared behind the trees. Silence took over as the last sound of the car faded away in distance. I dragged my tired body to the other side of road and took the small path downwards to where my hotel should be. Ahead I could see a bamboo bridge and the outline of cottages on the other side. There was no sign of life apart from a man standing awkwardly on the bridge. As I approached I noticed a confused expression on his face. Or was he reflecting mine? Hesitantly I notified that I had a booking with the hotel not knowing if he was a staff or I was about to get robbed.

He took the voucher from my hand and now with more relaxed and confident demeanour started leading me towards my cottage. We crossed the bridge in silence as it swayed under our feet with every motion. I tried to convince myself that it was more stable than it looked. It definitely was. On the other side there were two or three cottages and an empty area in between, used for dining purpose. But none of these were mine and so we crossed this area and went ahead on a small path.  This path was only a little wider than the ones farmers use to walk around across farmlands. On our right I could see a pond with very low water and the main road beyond it, at a slightly higher level. On our left there was a vast field (currently having no corps) bordered with some distant trees. The remaining cottages were placed beside this path facing the pond and having their backs towards the field. As I looked at them I was simply delighted to be able to live there, in one of those beautiful huts in such a perfect location.

Pond
View from the cottage porch

Mine was the second last cottage, which seemed perfect until I entered. I don’t know what I had expected, but I was disappointed after getting a glimpse of the inside. It was a rugged cottage, made of bamboo, plain and simple. There was no form of luxury inside and at some level it lacked comfort as well. There were two single beds, made of thick bamboos, two single mattresses were placed on them with one pillow each. A rough looking table, made of bamboo again, was placed in between the beds. On the other side there was a steel almirah. Fortunately there were sufficient blankets stuffed inside the almirah, else the cold nights would be unbearable. Biggest problem I found was the toilet, which could be accessed only from the backside balcony. This meant every time I needed to use the toilet at night, I would need to venture out into the cold night first.

Bamboo Cottage
Enjoying the evening at cottage

After dumping my bags inside I sat on the front porch, sipping on a tea that I had ordered and wondering if I have made a mistake by booking this place. When the last bit of light disappeared and cold started to spread, I slipped inside and settled myself on the bed surrounded by pillows and blankets.

At around 8 o’clock someone called for dinner from outside and with a well grown hunger inside I quickly got ready to go to the dining place. I understood the bamboo walls didn’t do much to prevent cold with their innumerable holes, but still it was much colder outside. I put on my jacket, a hat and a full pant to venture into the night and even then I shivered along the whole way. It felt a little better when I got close to the dinner place.

Cottages
Field behind the cottage

The kitchen was a semi open area with a roof and wall on one side. The dining was outside under the sky, but the heat from the kitchen combined with a fire lit outside made the place quite warm. There were more hotel staffs now and a lot of guests as well. Some of the guests were roaming in tshirt and shorts which made me feel both embarrassed and annoyed. Later when I was returning to room, feeling a little healthier after a hot delicious meal, I saw the last two cottages sitting in middle of thick white fog shining by the light from the little bulb above. This made me feel a little better about myself.

Cottages
Cottages viewed from my room
Tea at Cottage
A hot cup of tea and the beautiful morning

It wasn’t until next day afternoon when it hit me what I was able to experience at this cottage. As I roamed around in the interior of the island, I found villagers living in bamboo huts not very different from where I was staying. Most likely I was experiencing more privilege with my thick blankets and a toilet just outside the door. But otherwise it was as close to living like a local as possible. How else could someone experience Majuli better than this! Experiencing the cold nights wrapped inside a blanket, shivering as you go outside, listening to the muffled sound of a faraway song in the evening and waking up to quiet morning filled with numerous bird calls was definitely a unique experience and one that I would cherish for long.

 

Cycling around the island

“But I haven’t cycled in ages” – the thought popped in my head a few times. And it was always countered with a simple “but the roads… those beautiful roads!” So like most humans do, I ignored reasons and excitedly went ahead and rented a cycle for the day from my hotel (100 bucks per day). It was an old-fashioned ladies cycle, over used by the look of it, but it seemed it would work just fine. I dumped my camera and a few essentials in the front basket and started off towards the main road. I couldn’t dare driving on that fragile looking bamboo bridge. So I walked the cycle up to main road before riding it. The road near my hotel was in pretty good condition. So the ride started out well - driving down those smooth roads, passing fields and trees and occasional ponds was quite fun. At least for some time.

Majuli Map
Came across a map of Majuli

I needed a general direction to go towards. So I had enquired at my hotel about all the Satras. Basis a strong recommendation from my hotel staff and a misunderstanding on the distance (it was much longer than what I had understood at that point), I had decided to make Samaguri Satra as my destination. As per my understanding it was 8 km from my hotel, meaning 16 km up-down. That would be a perfect amount of cycling to enjoy the island.

Bridge
A bridge I had to cross

After crossing a bridge across a pond (or a river?) and riding for a bit I reached a bit of a busy area – a market place for the islanders. Here the road got quite bad. I took a left turn as per the direction I was told and went ahead in even worse roads. The road was rough and broken, wide enough to accommodate one car somehow. The ride was bumpy. Sometimes the road had slopes on both sides and the houses were built down the slope with only their roofs above road level. Sometime it had bamboo trees on both side blocking my view from anything beyond. And once in a while I would pass by a vast field with cows and cranes alike strolling around. Once in a while young boys from the village would shout hellos at me, sometime in a friendly way and other times not so much. Once I stopped and asked a guy for direction. He looked very excited to be asked any question by a tourist. He told me I was in the right direction, but a long way from destination. I assumed his idea of distance might not be accurate, but boy was I wrong!

Kids
A Satra kid and his friend from village, oblivious to the difference in their lives ahead
Rural
Some random landscape on my way

It was only at 11 am, after cycling for almost an hour, did I have the thought that it should’ve been 8 km by then. I checked map for distance from hotel to where I was and it was little less than 10 km. I was still standing in a road full of bamboo trees and no Satras in sight. I couldn’t figure how I could have understood him wrong. But well, I definitely did. I had previously looked for Samaguri Satra in map, basis how it was told to me, and was not able to find. I tried again, no luck. Then all of sudden I noticed “Chamaguri Satra” on map. I remembered how a particular letter was pronounced “S” in Asamese and “Ch” in Bangla. I made the connection and figured this was my destination. But alas, I was still 5 km away from there. My expression was “Shit!” What was I to do? Go back 10 km with no achievement? Or go ahead 5 more km and writhe in pain afterwards? I chose the latter. So ahead I went, through the bamboo trees and broken roads. Found what I set out for. And last but not the least, felt that damn leg pain throughout the evening.

Cycle
The blessed cycle

 

Chamaguri Satra

It appeared suddenly and unceremoniously on my route. An arched gateway was standing at the right of the road with the writing “Shree Shree Chamaguri Satra” on it (most probably in Asamese, can’t remember). I stopped my cycle and asked the only person visible if this was it. He was a teenage boy doing some work around and he excitedly answered that it was. Nowhere did we use the name of the place to ask or answer the question. But I felt like it was understood correctly.

Masks Masks
A room full of masks

A middle aged man emerged from the first house on the left beyond the gateway and summoned me inside with an expression of delight on his face. It was a house with only one long room made of brick. Inside, the walls were covered with various type and size of masks. At one corner there were two big idol, possible made in the same manner with bamboos and clay. They seem to be the Gods they worshipped given the flowers and incense at their feet. They had human body four hands and face of an animal – Narasimha. I went around the room to take pictures of some of the better looking masks and look at the certificate of awards that they have posted here and there.

Idols
Narasimha - the God worshipped at Chamaguri Satra

The man spoke and explained the process of mask making, a little of their lifestyle and a few awards of recognition they have received in past. What set them apart from other Satra is that they were allowed to live a married life unlike others. You could tell from the way he spoke that he was proud of his art, which made him look innocent like a child. Even though the art was quite impressive, I felt a bit disappointed to have come all the way for a room full of mask. To compensate for this I asked if anything was for sale and I bought the smallest mask I could find in the room. I came out and asked if there was anything else to see around and they didn’t seem to know. So I left and started to ride back the way I came. But even now I am not sure if a room full of mask was everything there to see in the Chamaguri Satra. (I am seriously still confused. So please leave a comment if you have any helpful insight)   

Man in mask
The creator himself in his mask

 

Kamalabari Satra

When you plan a trip to Majuli, you will be told to visit the Satras. But the question is, what the hell are Satras? So this is what I understood from my visit. Satra, actually pronounced more like Khatra in local language (Uses the letter Ksh like in Kshatriya), are a bit like a Buddhist monastery, but for Vaishnavas. Just like a Monastery people of various age groups live in this place, worship their Gods and follow a lifestyle as per their religion. Most Satras also require their inhabitants to maintain celibacy throughout their life, except a few like Chamaguri Satra.

Kamalabari Satra
The facade of Kamalabari Satra

Uttar Kamalabari Satra was situated only 2.5 km from my hotel and was also very close to the market area (even though I took a long way to get there). It felt like a perfect example of what any Satra would look like. It wasn’t very big in size - almost of the size of a school campus in fact. There was a big temple located centrally and the halls with rooms for residents were all around it. Even though I found a touch of commercialization outside the gate with a few shops selling handicrafts and souvenirs, inside it maintained a very quiet and peaceful atmosphere. We were allowed to roam around freely, but I didn’t find many residents out and about. Only in the temple I found a priest (or something alike) helping out visitors with their prayers (delivering mantras to chant). It was a pleasing experience to visit this place and I felt a bit saddened that I wasn’t able to visit any other Satras in the island.

Kamalabari Satra
Corridor around the temple area
Kamalabari Satra
A seperate bulding inside the Satra

 

Birds of Majuli

Majuli is a paradise for bird lovers. My experience at Nameri wasn’t so good with birds, Majuli definitely compensated for it. The pond in front of my hotel was full of herons all through the day. There were occasional cranes and kingfisher as well. There were also Drongos and Doves and Wagtails and Mainas and a few birds I didn’t know name of. I took picture of a few of them, but some were too fast for me.  

Drongo Kingfisher
A Drongo sitting on electric wire One of the many Kingfisher spotted
ducks
Ducks swimming in a pond
stork
Open bill stork
birds
A crane, a heron and a bird I am yet to id - do help (bee eater?)

 

Sunset from the cottage

I read that the sunrise and sunset could both be marvellous in Majuli. Unfortunately, first morning of my stay the eastern sky was cloudy blocking the sunrise. And the second morning was extremely foggy (It’s a different matter that the fog itself made for a wonderful experience). However I was lucky to catch an elaborate sunset sitting on my cottage porch on the second evening. The sun set behind the main road across the pond. But from that angle it looked like a line of trees instead of a road. The sky was very clear. So over half an hour time I could see the sun slowly moving downwards and when it finally reached the edge of the world it faded and disappeared into nothingness. And I captured in camera as much as I could.

sunset
Sun setting behind the road and the trees
sunset
The moment before it faded into nothing

 

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