Sound, fury, song, dance and banquets on the largest river island in India
The rhythmic thump of dhols resounded around me as a group of young women danced in two rows on a stage made of bamboo sticks, whose edges were draped in red and yellow silk. Performing the folk gumrag, the dancers’ hands moved from their sides to their hips, in synchronization with the sound of the dhol, resembling the fluttering of a butterfly at one point and the reaping of paddy at another. Moments later, the troupe paused for a break.
As I looked away from the dancers, I noticed the 100-odd men and women around me for the first time. A red-cheeked boy, who looked like he was about 10 years old, nudged his friend; an old lady beside them nudged another old woman. All of them stared at the large Canon camera around my neck, and at me. Within seconds, all the eyes in the gathering had shifted to me. I stared back, confused. My camera had marked me as an outsider, even though I was from around here.
The days were getting longer in Assam. The early March sun set a little later than 5pm, and a single sweater was enough to combat the slight nip in the air. I had come home from Mumbai after a strenuous year for a two-month vacation, determined to explore areas around my hometown Dibrugarh that I had never seen before. The island Majuli, which lies in the midst of the Brahmaputra river and its tributary Subansiri, had often topped the list, having often featured in local dailies and dinner-table conversations. For years now, raging annual floods had been eating away at India’s largest riverine island, shrinking the landmass to a third of its original size.
And yet, despite the regular devastation, Majuli continues to be home to peoples and cultures that are quite unique. The explorer in me was curious to meet its people and understand how they had sheltered themselves, their island and their culture from nature’s fury.
I drove from Dibrugarh past makeshift markets, small towns and tea gardens to the boat jetty at Neematighat in Jorhat district, where I boarded a ferry. On the 20km-trip across the Brahmaputra, we drifted past deserted sandy banks as the sun reflected off the river’s silvery surface. For the first time, I wasn’t merely admiring the perennial river from a distance.
An hour later, I got off at Kamalabari Ghat in Majuli. But before I could savour the delight of finally arriving at a long-anticipated destination, I was hustled into one of the many shared Jeeps, which screeched across the long stretch of white sand, a cloud of dust blurring my vision.
Within 5 minutes, however, the island looked anything but deserted and sandy. Paddy fields lay interspersed with water bodies, dotted by migratory birds. Men in dhotis cycled to and from the markets, chickens dangling from their handlebars. Fishermen were lugging nets bulging with fish. Muffled songs came floating over a distant loudspeaker. In response to my puzzled look, the driver said that I had arrived in the middle of a festival week.
Fifteen minutes later, after dropping off other passengers in the villages of Kamalabari and Garamur, the Jeep drove me a kilometre further to the eco-property of La Maison de Ananda. Recommended by a traveller friend for its hospitality, its gates opened up to a mowed lawn partially occupied by a small concrete house on stilts, a bamboo restaurant-kitchen, and a thatched hut whose stairs led to a verandah decorated with red and white upholstery. While I was admiring the huts and the quiet wooded bylane that they lay in, caretaker Monjit Risong came up. Over a traditional meal of freshly prepared chicken with bamboo shoots and steamed fish, he familiarized me with the culture of the Mishing people, whose annual harvest festival I had so fortuitously coincided my visit with.
The Mishing tribal people migrated to Majuli from Arunachal Pradesh centuries ago, and now with around 63,500 of them, the community constitutes less than half of Majuli’s total population. Their agricultural and fishing practices require them to live along the river banks and near swamps. In order to deal with the constant flooding, they build their bamboo huts on stilts.
The next day, Risong and I crossed a narrow stream, walking across a wooden plank placed between two boats, to reach a Mishing village called Kartik Chapori (pronounced as sapuri). This was the source of the music I had heard earlier for Kartik Chapori was celebrating Porag, the Mishings’ annual post-harvest festival.
By Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint
Often overshadowed by its popular counterpart Ali-Ai-Ligang, a five-day spring festival to pay homage to nature, Porag is little known in the outside world. And as I later found out, locals were only just getting used to the sight of visitors during celebrations.
A long walk across the village, past the last hut, brought us to the festival ground. A few men sat selling colourful candies, pickles and plastic toys at the entrance. Small makeshift tents that housed the festival feast stood to one side of the stage. The largest tent was occupied by women cooking a pork stew in large steel utensils on stoves and men slicing pork on wooden boards.
The entire village was present together as a community, proudly dressed in their traditional attire: The men wearing overcoats called mibu galuk with dhotis or pants, and women draped in saris and gaseng or waist cloth, with elaborate patterns, all handwoven at home.
In my jeans and sweater, I stuck out, until I decided to start conversing in Assamese. “Would you like to see your picture?" I asked a group of women whose photograph I had clicked a few minutes ago. Their faces lit up immediately. After giggling at their pictures on the camera screen, they steered me towards brimming plastic jugs of the local brew, apong. The light brown, almost transparent liquid made of fermented rice and a number of herbs is a favourite drink during ceremonies. Its sourness lingered in my mouth. A good start towards blending in and being accepted by my new hosts, I assured myself.
It was a little past 11 in the morning and the feast was already on in full swing. A large portion of the funds gathered for the festival is usually spent on the preparation of delicious meals in large quantities. Children sat devouring every bite of their pork stew in the dining tent; behind the tent, five girls practised their dance steps before going on stage.
Within the next few minutes, I had introduced myself to a dozen villagers, been served enough food to sustain me for a week, and gathered numerous stories about my hosts’ lives. I spoke to Noyonmoni Doley, the new bride who wanted to continue weaving when she moved to New Delhi with her husband. I talked to Romen Payeng, the army man who had served the country and then voluntarily retired to spend his time farming and fishing. I chatted with Ratul Mili, a young man and father of two, who juggled his life between family in Majuli and his hotel in Nagaland.
Risong excused himself for a while and returned in a dhoti and mibu galuk to the cheers of his traditionally dressed friends. More laughter, apong and stories followed.
Thrilled with the experience, I gladly braved a long, dirty track with Rajeev Gam, my voluntary guide, the next day, to attend the closing ceremony of the festival in another village, Jengrai Pomua, more than 20km from La Maison de Ananda in Garamur village.
When I arrived at 4pm, the dancers were eating a late lunch in the tent, and the festival was in its last throes. The village head and the chief guest for the closing ceremony, a respected elderly man from a neighbouring village, requested that I stay and take a video of the closing ceremony. I was honoured by the request: I had been here just for a day, and surely this was a sign of acceptance.
After the feast, as soon as I had finished recording a video of the chief guest’s speech, the dance that crowns the grand finale of Porag began. The entire crowd of around 150 people packed the small mud path in front of the festival area. They sang and swayed to the beat of dhols, and marched along with the chief guest all the way to his house in the next village, a kilometre away. I found myself swept along, one with the frenzied crowd.
The next day was my last in Majuli. Just as I was hoping to settle down with a book, Mili, who I had met the previous day, dropped by: It was his cousin’s wedding, and would I want to attend the feast?
It was the thought of pork stew, chicken with bamboo shoots and apong that made me say yes, but at the wedding, the couple wouldn’t let me leave. “Have some more fish curry," said the bride. Every time my glass of apong came close to being half-empty, she refilled it. I stared at my watch. I was worried I would miss the ferry, but the fish curry was far too delicious to refuse.
Then, after one last, longing swig of apong, I was scurrying for the Jeep. By the time I reached the jetty, 3 minutes remained for the boat to depart.
Leave I did, but as the island braves nature’s fury again, I will tune out the news, say a little prayer and recall the happy stories.
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Flights for Jorhat are available from New Delhi and Mumbai, via Kolkata or Guwahati. Round-trip fare for New Delhi and Mumbai starts at around 9,500 and 12,500, respectively. Hire a cab (for 500) from the airport for the 13km drive to Neematighat. Ferries for Majuli leave at regular intervals until 4pm every day and cost 20 per person. After the ferry ride, local buses or shared taxis can be used to reach Garamur village. A private car can be hired for 500.
A stay at La Maison de Ananda (call +91 9957186356 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org) is priced at 800 for a night, for double occupancy.
Eat Assamese or Mishing cuisine at Danny’s Kitchen in La Maison de Ananda. A Mishing Thali costs 250 and includes rice, steamed fish, bamboo shoot chicken, dry fish powder and aloo pitika (Assamese-style mashed potatoes), among other seasonal dishes. Smaller dhabas in Garamur and Kamalabari towns nearby provide basic meals of ‘paratha’ and curries made with bottle gourd, potatoes or other local vegetables.
Opt for boat rides in Luit Ghat for bird-watching or cycle through the villages towards smaller streams to watch the sunset. Visit the many Neo-Vaishnavite monasteries (satras) to learn about Assamese culture and heritage.