Majuli: A Waterway to Heaven

On the world's largest river island, a sect of Neo-Vaishnavites has invented real happiness. To find them is to find home.  
A direct transfer by ferry from Jorhat is the safest route to Majuli. Photo by Daniel J. Rao/Shutterstock.com.
A direct transfer by ferry from Jorhat is the safest route to Majuli. Photo by Daniel J. Rao/Shutterstock.com.

Nobody should go to Majuli the way I did. Any sane and reasonable person should take the safe route—direct passage by a comfortable fast ferry from Jorhat on the southern bank of the turbulent Brahmaputra. Alas, I am not that guy, and never have been.

When the Satradhikar (monastery head) of the renowned Uttar Kamalabari Satra telephoned me with an invitation to experience the Bihu harvest festival with him, I was on the northern bank of the river in Lakhimpur, the “gateway to Arunachal Pradesh”, and immediately ignored all the advice everyone had given me. Instead, I decided it would be a waste of time to drive most of a day to make the river crossing from the opposite side. After one (suspiciously overeager, I realised later) taxi driver assured me he’d take me directly to my destination, and had pocketed his fare, we sped bumping and scrambling up precipitous dirt roads, then right down to the riverside.

Careening wildly through slush, we closed in on a flat patch where a knot of Mishing tribals was packing densely onto a tiny vessel, just a few planks lashed together over two canoes. Even from a distance, I could see the little platform already crammed with men, women, children, goats, bicycles, huge baskets of produce and bales of cloth. This obviously wasn’t my ride. It didn’t have place for another person, let alone the vehicle. So I got out to ask about ferry timings, and started to wade ankle-deep towards the crowd, which swivelled en masse to watch my approach. Then I heard the taxi start up again, and turned to see it screeching away. My suitcase was deposited in the muck. The last shout I heard from the scoundrel who abandoned me was “Majuli that waaaay.”

Krishna stories are central to the religious and artistic practices at this monastery, where bhakats or monks also use song, dance and drama to popularise their sect leader’s teachings.

Krishna stories are central to the religious and artistic practices at this monastery, where bhakats or monks also use song, dance and drama to popularise their sect leader’s teachings. Photo by Vivek Menezes.

I looked at the Mishings, and they looked delightedly back at me. It was late afternoon, and the sun’s rays slanted molten gold. I was wearing a linen blazer and trousers, penny loafers oozing mud, and by my side was an oversized shiny Samsonite. It felt uncannily like I was in a Wes Anderson movie, with Bill Murray about to amble onscreen alongside.

Tearing myself back to reality, the only option that made sense popped into my head. Obviously this was time for retreat. Use the mobile phone. Call the hotel to send over another taxi, make yourself comfortable on the suitcase, and wait. Unfortunately, as already pointed out, I am not that guy. Instead, with a host of Mishings riveted wide-eyed by my every move, I carefully folded away my jacket, and packed up my shoes, hoisted that absurd giant hardtop onto my shoulder, and trudged to the waterline. It was only then I discovered no one spoke English or Hindi. There was no way to communicate with anyone in sight.

In any other place in the world, this is the point where you should panic, and I would profitably take to my heels, sprinting backwards through the mire as fast as my bare feet could carry me. But this was Assam, home of the most gentle and hospitable people I’ve ever encountered anywhere. Over a decade, I’ve returned repeatedly to the magnificent Brahmaputra valley and its peerlessly lush surroundings, for long periods of time, by myself and with family. It is never enough. I always crave more. This time, the draw was three separately powerful attractions that converged on Majuli. Bihu, which expands to a month of revelry. Uttar Kamalabari Satra, the most storied of the clustered monasteries which together comprise the “holy seat” of Assamese identity. But most of all it was the irresistible lure of the world’s largest river island, incalculably totemic because of my ancestral roots.

My branch of Menezes is all diehard river island people. We come from ancient Divar in the Mandovi, right opposite the old capital of the Estado da India Portuguesa, which was the first European colonial foothold in the subcontinent in 1510, and the last one to be decolonised in 1961. Typically Goan, we currently live scattered around the world in half-a-dozen countries, but the riparian homeland’s hold is unabated. At least once a year, we flock back to gather as a clan in its blessed confines. My grandfather, the late poet, academician and translator Armando Menezes insightfully wrote, “If you happen to be born in sight of a river—and how many of us have been!—or born and bred on an island, as I was, the river runs in your veins as if it were your very heart’s blood.”

A Krishna painting marks the Uttar Kamalabari Satra’s entrance.

A Krishna painting marks the Uttar Kamalabari Satra’s entrance. Photo by Vivek Menezes.

My languid Mandovi is a diminutive second cousin to the torrential Brahmaputra. And Divar is merely thimble-proportioned compared with Majuli. But there is still enough resemblance to create an ample zone of comfort. So just like that, the inadequacy of language on my adventure across the Brahmaputra was dismissed as unimportant, with smiles and gestures and considerable hilarity about the inappropriateness of my suitcase and clothing. No one understood anything I said, except for the magic words “Uttar Kamalabari”, but that was enough. I clambered aboard, confident everything would work out in the end. From my shoulders to others, that ridiculous bag found its place. After some shifting and shuffling, room was made for me in a scrum of Mishings, each one gazing into my eyes with friendly intent. Then the engine started, and we parted from the shore, towards the smouldering sunset. A river dolphin surged next to the prow. Elation flooded my spirits. Next stop, Majuli!

After bitter accusations and counter-accusations about data fudging flew back and forth between India, Brazil and the U.K., the Guinness Book of World Records finally certified Majuli as the world’s largest river island in 2016. It used to be 50 per cent larger just 30 years ago, but continual erosion reduced its size to a still-gargantuan 880 square kilometres. For some perspective, there are 24 sovereign countries smaller than Majuli, including economic superpowers like Singapore and Bahrain. You could add up the entire land mass of Liechtenstein, Malta and the Maldives, then include some clones of Monaco and Nauru, and it still wouldn’t equal the dimensions of this immense, spectacularly fertile isle. It is unquestionably one of the natural wonders of the world.

Rather remarkably, Majuli’s culture is every bit as distinctive as its ecology. This is because of Srimanta Sankaradeva, the polymathic 16th-century saint-scholar and reformer who is central to Assam’s religious and cultural history, and was based there throughout the most productive period of his life. This Mahapurush initiated iconoclastic neo-Vaishnavite, Buddhism-inflected Ekasharna Namdharna, which quickly spread to influence most of the Brahmaputra valley. Similar to Bhakti movements triggered in other parts of the country by Kabir, Basava, and Ramananda, he assimilated individuals from all castes and faiths into his order, stressing only Satsanga (assembly of devotees), Nama (chanting as the main means of prayer), and the use of song, dance and drama to explain and popularise his teachings.

Freshly cut vegetables, for instance, are skewered and hurled at cows.

Freshly cut vegetables, for instance, are skewered and hurled at cows. Photo by Vivek Menezes

Today, the job of preserving and promulgating Sankaradeva’s legacy is primarily left to bhakats (monks) living in satras (monasteries) spread throughout Assam, with the greatest concentration in Majuli, where there are 22. Some allow married men and families, but several others persist as “bachelor” institutions where young boys (including little babies) are committed to the order, to grow up in the monastery confines. By far the most famous is Uttar Kamalabari Satra, which single-mindedly focuses on Krishna-centric sattriya arts (which are an acknowledged Indian classical form alongside Bharatanatyam, Kathak and Odissi). From infancy, adherents train many hours a day to master singing, dancing, playing flutes, cymbals and drums. It’s very much like an Assamese Julliard, but no one ever graduates. These lives are entirely dedicated to drama. Obviously, the minute this fact was communicated to me, I knew I had to go.

Forty long minutes put-putting through fading light in the ocean-vast Brahmaputra, under the unblinking close inspection of a great number of friendly Mishings, and finally an undulating dark line appeared on the horizon. My companions stirred to collect their belongings. Majuli! Yes? No. All the heads around me wagged negative, everyone grinning extra-widely at the latest antic of their pet nincompoop. With expressive hand gestures, and the use of my pen and notebook, they made me realise this was yet another island to traverse. When our boat jerked to a halt, all those smiles were instantaneously replaced by expressions of grim determination. As one, the tribals streamed onshore to race each other towards a distant banyan tree where a single battered Sumo was honking madly. Hopelessly late, I picked up my accursed suitcase and lagged behind.

Yet again, the boundless Assamese welcome. Though his vehicle was jammed past bursting, with at least 10 people standing on top, the driver got them to pull my bag up, and slid me next to him in the front seat. He casually reached between my legs to the gear shift, and we slowly ascended the clay moonscape to the road ahead. Assamese love songs blared. The driver’s hand now shifted companiably to my knee. In this twilight intimacy, we drove slowly all the way across—I still don’t know the island’s name—to a narrow rivulet. Now the entire Sumo chorused happily “Majuli”. Shaking both my hands at the same time, and refusing to let me carry my own stuff, a full dozen Mishings escorted me onto the first and only hand-drawn ferry boat I’ve ever seen in my life. I could see millions of fireflies dancing in the gloom of the far shore. A magical, heart-stopping moment, it felt like I was about to enter the Garden of Eden.

Cricket, like elsewhere in India, is also all the rage here, and young monks often enjoy a game or two in the fields. Over 100 varieties of rice are grown in the fertiliser-free paddy fields of Majuli.

Cricket, like elsewhere in India, is also all the rage here, and young monks often enjoy a game or two in the fields. Over 100 varieties of rice are grown in the fertiliser-free paddy fields of Majuli. Photo by Vivek Menezes.

If green can be described as devastating, earth-shattering, that is what you see in Majuli. There are so many incredibly lush and verdant places in India—it’s hard to beat my Divar for one—but this accumulation of Brahmaputra silt is completely off the charts. It is a biodiversity hotspot like no other, home to hundreds of species of birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish. All that rich alluvial soil supports a riot of agriculture, including 100 varieties of rice, like komal saul which gets ready to eat when simply wetted, and the baodhan varietal that grows entirely submerged. At island crossroads, local farmers heap small piles of their produce for sale. Every single fruit and vegetable gleams lusciously, like a jewel. There are no duds, not even one. Forget Tuscany and Provence, I’ve never seen better produce anywhere in the world.

My first night at the Uttar Kamalabari Satra proved unnerving. I turned up in the pitch dark, wheeling an expensive suitcase as though disembarking at Heathrow. At that hour, the monastery glowed full medieval, with dimly lit deserted corridors ringing the namghar, or community prayer hall. But there was a generous welcome from Sri Sri Janardhan Dev Goswami, the imposing young community head (I later learned we are exactly the same age). Previously briefed by an Assamese eminence who had arranged the introduction, I called him by the honorific ‘Prabhu’, and reached for his feet (not going all the way, as non-bhakats can’t touch members of the order without necessitating them to bathe again). Then I was led to the guest house, and left alone with some rotis and vegetables.

Dawn rises velvet in Majuli, in a babel of bird calls. Even as roosters crowed the day open, I made my way toward the namghar, and the strains of a strong, melodious male voice. The bhakat was alone, oblivious to my presence, lost in music. His magnificent vocal instrument pleaded and cajoled, aching with feeling. The sky outside lightened from purple to azure, as I sat transfixed by his virtuosic, unforgettable performance. This became daily routine at Uttar Kamalabari, where these genius artists are adept at slowing the passage of time, and make miracles happen the way other people slap together sandwiches. Still dumbfounded by what I was witnessing on that first morning, there came a rapid pattering of little feet, and a score of almost unbelievably beautiful long-haired little boys were shepherded in. Their sopranos too filled the air. These were the masters of the next generation.

As though Majuli isn’t other-worldly enough, the social culture of Uttar Kamalabari throws up yet another dimension. The monks act female roles, and live together in an atmosphere that feels distinctly beyond gender. They are also limitlessly friendly and welcoming, almost unnervingly so. When Michael Palin visited to film one of his shows, he noted, “In most institutions, no matter how benevolent, you feel like an outsider looking in, but the special quality of Uttar Kamalabari is that everyone, from the young boys to the grey-haired older monks, has gone out of their way to include us… It seems a place of rare and genuine happiness, where the hardest disciplines are artistic rather than religious, and the goals are more concerned with fulfilment than denial. I catch myself thinking it’s too good to be true…”

Krishna Leela (right) is a big deal at the monastery and artists (left) deck up for it. Photos by: FO Travel/Alamy/Indiapicture

Krishna Leela (right) is a big deal at the monastery and artists (left) deck up for it. Photos by: FO Travel/Alamy/Indiapicture

Similarly, I grew exceedingly comfortable in the satra surroundings, as the connection between me and the bhakats blurred to something like unconditional love. The littlest ones trailed me around like my own sons. I was invited into their rooms, fed fruit and innumerable pithas, with cups of ginger tea. After some days, the monks became concerned that I was probably wasting away without access to my normal Goan diet. So that same evening I dined in current satradhikar Sri Sri Janardhan Dev Goswami’s chambers. The living deity cooked and served me a delicious fish curry with his own hands, accompanied with sensationally fragrant rice of a rare variety that grows only on the satra’s fields.

By this time, there were no boundaries between us. We spent long hours discussing his world, and my own zigzagging life which led me back to my ancestral Goa. Goswami had also travelled widely for performances. And so we found many more similarities between our lives than you might imagine, an unlikely, uncanny bond grew between us. Despite radically divergent upbringings, our perspectives were identical on most matters. His aspirations for Majuli and Assam were a mirror image of my own west coast game plan. Thrilled at the prospect, we decided to find a way for him to visit my home (that same December, Goswami led a troupe of performers to the Goa Arts + Literature Festival).

No meat, no alcohol, no women, but I have still never experienced such pure overwhelming joy as at Bihu in Majuli. Dazzling smiles permanent on every face, as young bhakats sought blessings from their elders. Of course they blessed me too, first each grizzled long hair, and then the beatific Goswami too. He loaded me with gifts: the satra’s mind-blowing komal rice to be eaten like cereal after adding milk, handwoven mats made from indigenous reeds that are the springiest substance I have ever encountered, and an exquisitely carved Garuda, which sits guardian to my writing desk. We both knew the time had come for me to leave, but it proved astonishingly hard to tear myself away. It’s a very strange thing. I’d journeyed thousands of miles away from everything I know and love, only to find home.

  • Vivek Menezes is a writer and photographer, and founder and co-curator of the annual Goa Arts + Literary Festival. He lives next to Miramar Beach in Goa, with his wife and three sons.

Psst. Want a weekly dose of travel inspiration in your inbox?