About Majuli Island

Majuli Island: A Historical Perspective

A island in the great Brahmaputra in its upper region, till recently a part of the Jorhat District of Assam, Majuli is now a full-fledged district of the State with nearly 2 lakh population (1,67,204 with a density rate of 300 per sq. kms. as per 2011 Census record) and about 500 sq. kms in area. Once a large island -as large as to measure about 160 miles in length -from Tekeliphutarmukh in the east to Kaliabar in Nagaon in the west, and 16 miles in breadth, at the maximum, by the close of the 19th century, it has ever been a beautiful landscape with numerous river channels -dead or alive, ponds and swamps, flora and fauna and many other geographical and topographical distinctions and varieties. Known primarily for its Vaishnava culture and the satra institutions, it was here in this beautiful historic island that the two great Bhakti saints of Assam Mahapurusha Srimanta Sankaradeva and his disciple Mahapurusha Madhavadeva met each other in the village of Belaguri Dhuwahat as early as the early 16th century. They preached their gospel here for more than a decade establishing the centres of their activities and common prayer halls (namghar), practicing nama-kirtana, performing bhaona and composing literary works. It was from here again that the great saint Srimanta Sankaradeva propounded his theory of non-violence saying that if by doing violence to the animate world one goes to the heaven, who else is going to the hell? Taking this inheritance into account the Ahom rulers later began to patronize their movement and made the island a centre of devotionalism by establishing a number of satras and facilitating them to propagate bhakti. These satras upholding the bhakti tradition left by the duo (the moni-kancana as distinguished by the hagiographical literature) still form the special feature of the socio-cultural life of a large section of its people. It is on the strength of this cultural heritage that Majuli was proposed to the UNESCO by the national Government to be enlisted as a world heritage site in the cultural landscape category.

Already a homeland for the Deuris and the Kacharis, two aboriginal tribes of the Brahmaputra Valley, the island experienced the flow of the Mising tribe towards the close of the 18th and early 19th century from across the old channel of the Brahmaputra –the Luit, who began their settlement almost over the entire northern fringe of the island along the sides of the old river channels. Their number gradually grew and by the mid-20th century it increased to comprise about 70 per cent of the total tribal population of the island, whose strength, at present, stands at about 46 per cent of the total population of the island. The rest are caste-people including some Bengalis- chiefly the erstwhile East-Bengal immigrants, the Marwari traders, and others. The significant aspect about these people is that not only by sharing a major part in the total population strength of the island, they have also played major role in shaping the life and culture of the island. Hard working and agriculturist by vocation, and expert in the field of various forms of art and craft, these tribes, particularly, the Misings govern a large part of the economic life of the island at present. But the most significant aspect of these people rests in their colourful cultural life noticed in the pristine character of their belief, customs and rituals, rich oral traditions, and  above all, in their way of life. 

Although it is not clear as to when this historic island was formed, mythical narrative brings its antiquity back to the remote past. The medieval historical documents clearly mention it to have existed at least by the early 16th century by its historic name MAJULI, if not much earlier. The process of its making and unmaking however remains continuous. Similar to its role in the making of the Bhakti Movement, Majuli also had been a part in all the major historical developments of the State since the known past: the Ahom polity and administration, the 18th-century civil movement in the form of the Moamariya revolt, the Burmese invasions, the British rule and the Freedom Struggle, and the like, till present times - the ‘Assam Movement’ and after. Having suffered from geographical isolation and cut off from the mainland Assam for centuries due to its being a mid-river island, Majuli remains an independent society by itself since beginning maintaining its own social, cultural and spiritual air and identity. As a measure to end up a part of this long suffering the island was declared by the Government of Assam as a district on 8 September, 2016 with its headquarters at Garamur, the place where the great embankment called Lahdoi Garh built by the Ahom King Pratap Singha in the year 1603, came to an end, and where King Jayaddhvaj Singha (1648-1663) established the famous monastery known by the name Garamur Satra.  Home to five Degree and ten Senior Secondary Schools (Junior Colleges) at present with about a hundred High Schools and high literacy rate -more than the State rate, Majuli, like any other isolated medieval agrarian society, was a land of mass illiteracy; and, as late as the early 20th century rarely someone could dare to attend a higher education institution across the large channel of the Brahmaputra so that the first ever Graduate of the island could not be produced earlier than 1920. It is in the light of this cultural and intellectual background and growing trend of literacy and education that the Government of Assam has rightly established the state’s first and the only Cultural University in the island in the year 2019. 

Most people here are Vaishnava by faith in the tradition of the two Mahapurushas who had left a great cultural and spiritual tradition in the island. The namghar and satra, and bhaonaras-lilajanmastamiphalgutsav, the Ali Aye Lrigang, and a few other festivals are the major institutions and festivals of the people of this island besides Bihu, the national festival of the Assamese people irrespective of caste or tribe affiliation. An out and out agrarian society, Majuli does not have any industry of its own making its inhabitants largely dependent on agriculture and a little amount of trade. However, it boasts of its traditional craft of pottery cultivated by a small part of its population inhabiting the south-eastern part of the island on the bank of the Brahmaputra, of the traditional art of mask-making for which the Chamaguri Satra as a centre of the craft is well-known, of the art of rearing mulberry silk and producing its silk by a section of its people who cultivates it as their profession, and of a few other crafts like boat-making, making of the cane-fans with floral designs, wood work and so forth.