One of the great rivers of Asia, the Brahmaputra commences its 3,000-km journey to the Bay of Bengal from the slopes of Mount Kailash in western Tibet. As Tibet’s great river, the Tsangpo, transverses east across the high-altitude Tibetan plateau north of the Great Himalayan Range, carving out myriad channels and sandbanks on its way. As it tumbles from the Himalayan heights towards the plains of the subcontinent it twists back on itself, cutting a deep and still unnavigated gorge, until finally turning south it emerges in Arunachal Pradesh as the Dihong. Just beyond Pasighat, it meets the Dibang and Lohit in the north-east state of Assam (India) and finally becomes the Brahmaputra.
India’s North East is one of the few regions in the world where communities live close to nature, nurtured by ancient tribal knowledge systems. More than 70 per cent of Assam’s population depends on agriculture and forest resources for its livelihood. But the region’s environment and an entire way of life are endangered by a long history of acute underdevelopment and violent conflict.
Most of Assam’s population lives in the Brahmaputra River valley – a river so wide that its far bank cannot be seen in places. The river’s tributaries feed production of the local crops, especially rice – the staple of the region. This is one of the rainiest places on earth. Each monsoon season, rains of up to 118 inches create floods on the Brahmaputra, washing away stretches of highway and causing wildlife to flee low-lying forest areas for higher ground.
It is over 50 years since the last daily passenger boat from Calcutta travelled through Assam along the Brahmaputra River with a mixed complement of tea planters, forest officers, soldiers and magistrates. This trip recreates the romance of that classic journey.
Majuli Island has been the cultural capital of Assam for the past five hundred years. It has also been the cradle of Assamese civilization. Although the exact origin of Majuli may be a point of contention, written records are found of the visit of Shankardeva, a social reformer, during the 16th century. He promulgated a form of Hinduism that was also called vaishnavism. He established monasteries or hermitages that were called satras. These satras became the hub of culture, art, religion and lifestyle. Even today these satras preserve antiques like
weapons, utensils, jewelry and other articles of cultural importance. The tribal folk culture of Majuli is also intersting. These include the Mishing tribes from the state of Arunachal who have migrated here many centuries ago. In addition, the
inhabitants also include the Deori tribe. These people have an ethnic culture, music and dance forms untouched by modernism. The handloom work of these tribes is famous, and pottery is made in Majuli from beaten clay and burnt in driftwood-fired kilns just the way it was done in the Harrapan Civilizations.
Since the atmosphere is washed ever so often by the rains and also perhaps because there are no industries or factories, Majoli is blessed with a totally pollution free atmosphere. A large number of migratory birds visit this island.
The Vaishnava Sattras (monastic orders)
In the 15th century, a saint by the name of Sankardeva took shelter in Majuli and spent a couple of months at Beloguri (in west Majuli) which was a place of glory for the historic and auspicious. He established the first Satra or monastic order on the island, and from it grew sixty-five “Sattras” which propagated ethics and socio-cultural ideals. But at present there are only twenty-two Sattras in Majuli. The others had to be shifted to other safer places due to devastation by floods and land erosion.
A Treasure House of Performing Arts
These Sattras are a treasure house religious and folk music and dance: “Borgeet”, ‘Matiakhara’, ‘Jumora’, ‘Chali’, ‘Notua’, ‘Nande Vringee’, ‘Sutradhar’, ‘Oza-Pali’, ‘Apsara’, ‘Satria Krishna’, ‘Dasavater’ etc
The Majuli Sattras along with Kuruabai Sattras exercise tremendous influence on the life of the Assamese people. They are even to-day the glorious religious institutions of Assam, and are not only the seat of religion, learning and education, but the very centre of traditional cultural activities like dance, drama, music and religious recitals.