It’s 7.45 am and I find myself hurtling down the narrow lanes of Assam’s town Jorhat, to catch the 8.30 ferry from Nimati Ghat to Majuli, the largest river island in the world. A potential UNESCO World Heritage site, the ever-shifting and fairly unknown sandbank is also considered to be the fabled love nest of the gods, Radha and Krishna. 

One of Assam’s best kept secrets, the tiny island surrounded by the mighty Brahmaputra is rich with character. And while it may not be on every tourist’s stop, there are more than enough stories here for the eager traveler.

After purchasing a round-trip ticket for Rs.10, I found myself a seat in the lower-deck. It’s Sunday and the ferry is full. My co-passengers, I find, either have relatives on the island or are making a pilgrimage to the 22 satras on Majuli. A child plays ‘catch’ through the narrow rows of seats while his grandfather fans himself with a newspaper. On the upper-deck, there’s a different scene coming together. Here, people stand with their cars and bikes that are also being ferried along. And curious glances and inquisitive eyes follow me as I point my lens towards my travel companions.

 

On the lower deck of the ferry

 

It’s been an hour and a half, and after a smooth ride along the gentle currents of the Brahmaputra, we spot Majuli’s port. A few families clap, while others prepare their vehicles for disembarkation.

An hour and a half later, we could spot Majuli’s port. Some passengers clapped their hands, apparently on the success of our arrival. Meanwhile, on the upper deck, others prepared their vehicles for disembarkation.

There are numerous cars available at the ferry port for the lost tourist. And with a fairly reasonable fee of Rs. 1,500 for seven hours across the island, you can travel the isle with a local who serves as the best guide. With a lot of broken hindi, a few words of English, and a whole lot of hand actions, my driver Xinghyuk Tsi, was a rather interesting guide across the isle. I was soon passing rows of bamboo plantations, paddy fields, herds of stubborn goats who saw the middle of the road as their permanent home, and children who were more than excited to wave at the sudden outsider.

For Rs 1,500, I hired a car. My driver and guide for the day was Xinghyuk Tsi. Our conversation was riddled with some Hindi, some English, and a lot of gesturing. Soon, we were on our way, passing rows of bamboo plantations and paddy fields. It’s hard to believe that this Utopic land is so close to the bustling town of Jorhat which is packed with buses, cars, and people in every lane and bylane. 

As we drove down the winding roads, I was suddenly greeted with the site of rolling hills at the horizon, covered with a layer of white fluff. Xinghyuk Tsi stops the car at the side of the road points, and whispers- “Nagaland.

As we turned a corner, I was suddenly greeted with the sight of rolling hills covered in white. Nagaland, said Xinghyuk, by way of explanation. 

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Majuli is made-up of an eclectic mix of Hindu Vaishnaviites, indigenous Assamese, and the local Mishing tribe. The state’s pioneering Vaishnavaite saint Shankaradeva, and his disciple Madhabdeva founded 22 satras, or temples that are now a popular pilgrimage spot for followers of the sect. I visited the Dakshinpat, Auniati, and Guagacha satras. Various images of Lord Krishna lined the temple while the ‘namghars’ or prayer rooms housed the priests who happily blessed me with champa flowers and tulsi leaves. Photographed here is the hostel of the priests at the Dakshinpat Satra.

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At Salmora, we found the community of potters who practice a unique form of traditional hand-beaten pottery. Made from multani mitti, pottery is a popular choice of livelihood on the island. Photographed here is an artist sculpting a mask which will be used for the Bhaona, a local theatre form. 

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Kosha Kanta Deva Goswami has been living on the island since 1931 and is the present Satradhikar (religious leader) of the Chamaguri Satra. He organises workshops in mask-making and was presented with the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for his contribution in the field.

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We stopped at a local canteen for a lunch of dal, rice, vegetable and ginger chai. I then requested Xinghyuk Tsi to take me to the village of the Mishing tribe. There are two, Kamalabari and Garamur. Although I visited both, photographed here are scenes from Garamur.

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At Garamur, I was welcomed by sparkly-eyed Juhi, Tarasi, and Anamong with whom I struck-up an immediate friendship. As curious as I was about them, they were fascinated by the fact that I had come all the way from a far off city like Mumbai. A distant land they knew to be the home of Bollywood stars, where Amitabh Bachchan, Shahrukh Khan, and Hrithik Roshan drove in their “badi badi gaadi” or big, big cars. While the the elders of the Mishing tribe spoke no Hindi, the children were fluent as they were recently exposed to the language at school. Over a hot cup of red tea, they excitedly told me about making a trip to Jorhat every two months to watch a film, and were rather disappointed that the only television set in the village had recently stopped working after the heavy rains and flooding across the isle.

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Zsina Bardoloi left her large weaving loom outside her home to take a minute to set her hair. Rather camera shy at first, she graciously allowed herself to be photographed. Seen here, Zsina sits outside her home that’s built on stilts, with bamboo and thatch.

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The afternoon heat and the island’s humidity was enough to leave me rather drained. After a lesson on capturing the perfect photograph from 7-year-old Bini, who disapproved of my every shot, I was invited into her home, into a place where everyday, they walk on light.

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The only ferry back to Jorhat was leaving at 3.30pm. As I made my way through the slippery slopes to the port, I was greeted with familiar faces who had made the morning journey with me. And while I would have preferred to stay on the upper-deck and enjoy watching the ripples along the river, the scorching sun sent me scrambling from a seat on the lower section.

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Leaving Majuli, I thought of the people I’d just met and who saw me off as they would a friend. Vapas aana, they said. Go and come back.  

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