Or, how the people of Majuli island in Assam are using technology to overcome natural adversities.
“The biggest river island in the world that’s fast receding” was all we knew of Majuli before we visited this island on the Brahmaputra in Assam.
On our way from the ghat to our accommodation (which, after our wonderful experience at the Hornbill festival, we had just left to the people of Holiday Scout to sort out) we crossed swamps filled with ducks, houses on stilts and the golden rice fields, almost ready for harvest.
Rural and eco tourism on the Majuli island
When you live on an island, which is the largest river island in the world, it’s safe to assume that agriculture and fishing would be the primary means to earn a living. But Monjit, the owner of our homestay painted a starkly opposite picture.
His homestay was just a few years old. “As a kid, I used to live by the river bank. We are originally farmers. My father had rice fields. But we are losing these to the river.” Year by year, their land reduced, eventually reaching a stage where it was no longer possible to rely only on agriculture for sustenance. Luckily for him and his siblings, their dad had the foresight to buy some land inland as well. That’s where Monjit runs his flourishing homestay today.
While we were there, we met people from all over the country. A couple from Mumbai, another from West Bengal, a family from Uttar Pradesh. We also met an older couple from Italy, two sisters from Ghana and a woman from the United States. It was a multicultural, multi racial global group, sitting on the bamboo floor around the fire, sipping tea. How did Monjit manage to connect with people from across the world? “I take bookings through the internet”, Monjit said.
The traditional occupations of agriculture and fishing were clearly threatened by the rapidly reducing size of the Majuli island. The remoteness of the state of Assam, where Majuli is located only adds to the problem.
On our way from Jorhat to Majuli, we had seen a large number of Airtel 4G billboards. “Why so many”, we had wondered, faintly expecting to not get the promised speeds (Majuli was, after all, a relatively remote island!). We had been pleasantly surprised to get hi speed internet on the island. And now, after spending a day here, we were beginning to grasp it’s impact.
The people were adapting to the changes presented by nature by adopting the technology. The people of Majuli were using mobile and internet technology to not only overcome the challenges presented by their physical location but also thriving beyond their geographical boundaries.
Monjit’s homestay and eco tourism was just the tip of Majuli’s digital revolution iceberg.
Agricultural innovations on the Majuli island
Being a river island, having the river of Brahmaputra and its tributary Luhit on two sides, meant ample opportunities for watching some mesmerising sunrises and sunsets. We had been told of a certain bridge on a certain stream to catch the best sunrise view. One such morning, we picked up our bicycles (which we had rented from the Majuli cafe operated by the Rootbridge Foundation) and went in search of this bridge. And soon, lost our way. We saw no bridge but in its quest we had entered a tribal community. It belonged to the Mishing tribe, which is the largest tribe on the Majuli island.
Riding on the muddy bylanes we saw the village wake up and come to life. One house particularly caught out attention. A young woman had already set up her handloom and was weaving a chador on it. It’s common practice in the villages of Assam for women to weave their own cloth. This is the first time we were seeing this “home loom” in action. She allowed us to see her weave and even shoot a video.
A poster behind her caught our attention. It said something about an organic farmer’s association and exhibition. We asked her about it, and she pointed us inside. “Talk to my father-in-law.”
He must’ve heard us talk because he soon came out and introduced himself as Mr Komal, a Mishing himself. He had forever lived on the Majuli island as had his forefathers for as long as he knew. He explained that the Mishing tribe were pastoral. And on an island in Assam it meant that rice was their main crop. “The river has posed a challenge for sure, but you have to find a way out.” He also explained that the geographical isolation from the mainland me at that the soil here was different, and richer. It was after all an island of the Brahmaputra, which is rich in nutrients. This meant that the rice here had a unique taste and a superior quality. They also have some rare rice varieties, like the black rice and soft rice (which doesn’t need to be cooked!). “These crops are our heritage. We have to preserve them.”
The only way to sustain the agricultural practice was to find a market and a clientele that would fetch them better returns. He realised the growing need for organic and pure grains among the urban population. He got in touch with companies and today, their rice is stocked in stores beyond the markets of Jorhat which is as far as it reached, earlier.
He gets invited to represent the Mishing tribe at agriculture fairs and expos. He gives talks on growing and preserving this rare and unique crop. Agriculture students from all over the world write to him to learn from him and seek his advice. “Drop in someday for lunch, we’ll feed you the black rice and bamboo chicken, all organic”, he invited us.
Yes, he worries about the current situation, and hopes that experts will find a way to arrest the land reduction. But until then, he is spreading the word far and wide, all from his humble abode on Majuli, about the crops he not just grows, but loves, respects and cherishes.
The art of mask making on Majuli island
When we saw a video shot by one of the guys at our homestay of a “Ram Leela” performance, we knew we had to go check it out. A little away from our homestay, we rented a scooter to visit this part of Majuli.
Alongwith the Mishing tribe, the Vaishnavs constitute a major part of the population of Majuli. Some of the Vaishnav families are into mask making. We visited the home of one such mask making family. “This is what a Gurukul must look like”, was the first thought that crossed the mind as we entered the home. Young guys were painting the faces of the masks. An older guy, who introduced himself as one of the two brothers in family was busy shaping up the face of the mask.
They first make a straw wire skeleton of the face. A mixture of mud and clay is then used to shape the face. This is a critical step and done only by an experienced member, typically one of the two brothers wil take up this task. This is where the ears, lips, nose take shape. The young students then paint the face – everything minus the eyes. The senior artist, who shaped the mask, then draws the eyes.
Masks are usually made of God’s and Goddesses or of the mythological figures. They even write musical plays (called Bhaonas), based on folklore and as per demand perform these plays. They have costumes, and obviously the masks for all the characters, which are played out by the people of the village.
Their father, who passed away recently was a well-known mask artist and had received several awards even from the Assam government. His sons, the two brothers we met are happily carrying this art forward. For them though, mask making is more than an art. It’s a means to keep alive the memory of their father and preserve its legacy. Mask making for them, is worship.
Visitors who come to Majuli invariably visit their home. If it’s a big group, they’ll even arrange for a performance. They are fascinated and take back with them some masks, as souvenirs. This contributes to the expenses of making these masks and running the “Gurukul”. Young students from other parts of Assam as well as other states come to Majuli and spend a few months here. The brothers teach them the aspects of mask making, thus introducing the younger generations, even in other families, to this art form.
But the major chunk of their income comes from cultural institutes in India and abroad. Once word of their father’s accomplishments spread, institutes started getting in touch with them. Slowly these orders increased. They have made masks as large as three feet and couriered them abroad. They receive the order on phone. Payment is made online. “We aren’t sure how it all functions, but everything gets done on the phone. The young boys (their students) help us in these matters”.
Before leaving, we asked them if they were happy with where the art of mask making was and if they thought it will survive. “Only time will tell how long it will survive. We don’t have control over that. But for now, we are happy that people know about it. For now, this art is safe.”
Passion is what drives the artists but its sustainability is dependent on the economics of it. And to hear such assured words from the artists themselves was a wonderful feeling.
Pottery without a potter’s wheel on the Majuli island
The potter’s village named Salmora was further down from the Chamaguri satra that was home to the mask making artists. Salmora was at the edge of the island, and the difference in the economic strata of the people of this village and further inside the island was clearly visible. Everybody who lived here had irrevocably lost their land.
But they had one special skill and that is what they were now relying on for survival. Every household there was a potter’s home. Each home had trenches dig up outside their houses where they stocked the clay from the riverbed. This clay was used to make pots, lamps and plates – everything without a potter’s wheel. This is the first time we were seeing clay objects coming to life, without any external mechanical aide.
Tourism has helped boost the sale of these pots. They are also sold in the main market of Majuli at Kamalabari. The other villages on the island which also get a fair bit of tourist crowd stock these pots. As word of the difficult times of this community in the Salmora village spreads, more and more visitors are making it a point to visit these potters’ homes.
Story of homecoming, pizzas, and fried chicken
We are suckers for local food when we travel. We try our best to eat it, even if it means having to push our comfort zones, at times.
But the cute little store, painted in red saying Majuli fried chicken caught our eye. And when we tasted a piece of the chicken from the friend at the homestay who packed it, we were drooling, alright!
It wasn’t local food, but it was delicious and we couldn’t resist the temptation. So, the next day, after our long cycling outing, we stopped over at Majuli fried chicken for a late lunch. We saw with amusement that he had pizzas and burgers as well on the menu.
“Should we check the pizza on the Majuli island?”, we wondered, jokingly. “Let’s ask him to show us the base first”, we decided, unsure of where the base had come from, how old it was, and basically how good it was. So we asked if we could see the base.
Smack came the reply, “I make the base myself”. We couldn’t quite believe this. On this little (okay, not little) island, far away in a corner in Assam, was this young guy who was not only selling pizza, but making his own pizza base! Well, we had to try this. And are we glad we did! The pizza was lip smacking good! Homemade tomato sauce, vegetables, cheese. And a well cooked base!
It was late afternoon and the place wasn’t too busy. So we got chatting. “Where had he learnt to make the base?” He said he had worked in a lot of places, first in Assam, then even in Mumbai and Bangalore. But he had always wanted to return to Majuli. So when he got married, he didn’t want a long distance relationship. His wife supported him, and together this young couple runs the Majuli Fried Chicken.
After the pizza, we had the burger. We wanted to have the fried chicken (“I assure you, it’s juicier than Kentucky’s”, he told us confidently), but were too full. “I know this, because I have read the reviews online”. He showed us the tens of reviews he had recieved from his customers, all over the world. “When people search for Majuli, these reviews come up in the search and then they make it a point to drop in for lunch and dinner when they visit Majuli.” This popularity means business has been good. But more than, it means being able to build a life in Majuli. It means living in a place that’s always been home. It means not having to raise their little son in a crowded city. It means not having to compromise on the quality of life.
Island life has always fascinated us. We hadn’t expected Majuli to be any different. What we hadn’t anticipated was seeing this sort of a digital revolution taking place right before our eyes.
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