Magazine article Geographical

Island in the Stream: The Oft-Repeated Claim That India's Majuli Island Is the World's Largest Riverine Island May Not Be True, but with Its Unique Monasteries and Fascinating Tribal Cultures, the Island Is a Beguiling Destination None the Less. It's Just a Shame It's Shrinking

Magazine article Geographical

Island in the Stream: The Oft-Repeated Claim That India's Majuli Island Is the World's Largest Riverine Island May Not Be True, but with Its Unique Monasteries and Fascinating Tribal Cultures, the Island Is a Beguiling Destination None the Less. It's Just a Shame It's Shrinking

Article excerpt

It's dusk, and our long, heavily laden boat slides out into an inky river capped by a fading ochre sky. Among its passengers are villagers, shopkeepers and a handful of mendicants, their bicycles and the odd scooter. I alone have a car; parked sideways, there is barely enough space for it: its bumpers practically overhang the gunwales.

As night falls, our pilots navigate by the glimmer of a faint moon--as well as their experience and intuition. It's a short voyage, just 90 minutes, but here in upper Assam, few treat the Brahmaputra River lightly.

I'm heading for Majuli Island, wrongly billed in numerous guidebooks and in much of the Indian media as the world's largest riverine island. Whatever its ranking in this geographical niche--and the Indian government is probably the most accurate in describing Majuli and its wetlands, sandbanks, countless braids and adjoining tributaries as the world's largest mid-river delta system--the island is shrinking at an alarming rate. Erosion is now threatening the long-term viability of its 150,000 or so agrarian inhabitants and the fabric of a distinctive monastic heritage that was established here during the 16th century.

Eroding away

Majuli lies amid a cluster of tributaries and channels that feed two arms of the Brahmaputra. It's long and flat, lushly beautiful in parts, sandy and bleak in others. Once covering an estimated 1,200 square kilometres, recent satellite images indicate that its area has fallen to between 577 and 875 square kilometres (depending mainly on whether or not its more substantial sandbars are included).

Each year, several square kilometres of the island simply disappear. According to Dr Probhat Kotoky, a scientist based at Jorhat's Regional Research Laboratory, only about 88 kilometres of earthen flood embankments now exist around the island, just over half of what was first planned during the mid-1960s. And while erosion has almost certainly always been a feature of the island, because only a relatively small part of Majuli is suitable for cultivation, its impact is being felt more and more.

Many experts blame Assam's huge earthquake (8.6 on the Richter scale) of 1950, when landslides deposited vast amounts of extra sediment into the Brahmaputra, after which the already capricious river changed course--"abnormally", in the words of one report. Others attribute its shoaling (which leads to channel widening and thereby erosion) in part to the construction of flood embankments and deforestation elsewhere in the region.

Whatever the cause, the Brahmaputra has long been a dynamic, mercurial river. It's continually forging new channels, adopting the former courses of tributaries and, in Bangladesh, it even veered to join the River Jamuna. It remains unpredictable, and for the Assamese during the summer monsoon, its floods are a bringer of both life and death.

For Majulians, however, the great river remains the only way in. We reach the island's southern ferry station--some wood planks pulled across a crudely bevelled shoreline--in darkness. Only later did I see the two-metre-high sandy cliffs that delineate much of the island and make it so erosion prone.

At night, Majuli is a dark place with few lights and frequent power cuts. By day, it's sleepy and bucolic; birds teem around its lakes and paddies, little skiffs ply the waterways and bicycles rule its pot-holed roads. Superficially idyllic, it seems just the place where monasteries ought to flourish and tribal people live undisturbed.

And indeed, Majuli's monasteries, or sattras, are known across India. They were initiated by Sankardeva, the celebrated 16th-century Assamese sage, scholar and writer, who developed a simpler and less ritualistic creed centred on the god Vishnu and his avatar Krishna. A prodigious writer, he created dance-dramas depicting mythological stories and the inevitable triumph of good over evil. …

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