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Quest for Our Heritage Trail, Part I: Majuli

We all know what it is like to visit Assam after you have lived a significant part of your life abroad. The earlier years after leaving homeland the priority goes to ascertaining a secure financial future for the family. Things have changed now but in the 1970s and earlier years one was allowed around £ 3 pound sterling per person and it meant that between my wife and I we came with £7 between us, 3 suitcases and a 9 month old baby. The upshot of this is that visiting homeland frequently was a impossibility. Even when you did, visiting friends and spending time with family always took priority. It, however, did not diminish the quest to pursue the trail of heritage.

After retirement my wife and I started to travel within India and see the places that we had only heard of, now that we could take longer holidays. Thus, in December 2006, we decided to see important places in Assam and that included visiting Majuli, Bordowa ( birthplace of Sankardeva), Hajo and Madan Kamdev. Part 1 is about our visit to Majuli.

Majuli is said to be the largest river island in the world. It is located near Jorhat and at the heart of mighty Brahmaputra. Years of flooding and erosion have altered the size and the shape of Majuli. To an Assamese, Majuli’s significance lies in its unique status of housing several Satras – seat of Vaishnavite culture in Assam. Travelling to and from Majuli is still quite restricted with just one ferry crossing per day to and from Nimatighat. Therefore staying over night is inevitable if you want to see Majuli.

We set off from Dibrugarh on 30th December 2006 to Jorhat. It is my hometown and is full of friends and relatives. Keeping everyone happy by visiting everyone is an impossible task. Therefore, we followed our usual practice of not staying with any relatives or friends to keep the peace but stay overnight at a neutral venue. We made use of the huge but empty house of a friend from the medical school days and drove onto catch the ferry next morning. It was an experience in itself. It was loaded to the full from one end to another with cars, people, their bags, animals, local produce – you name it the boat had it. The front and the back end of the cars hanged over the floor space.

Sitting on the roof of the passenger seating area in open space I could easily visualise the horrified expression on their faces if western style Health and Safety executive ever saw it!!! But the journey lasting for over 2 hours was curiously serene with the wide river that looked more like a sea and its sand banks. We were waved off by several groups who had come for picnic.

Disembarkation was equally risky with just 2 planks bridging the gap between the boat and the high-level riverbank thus creating a steep gradient. Thank God, it passed off without any incident.
The road thereafter was not hard topped. I presumed the floods did not spare the roads. There were houses on either side of the road. I was told later that these were Mising people displaced by floods who were making the best use of any available high ground.                                            

We had booked into a private guesthouse for the overnight stay. The place was modestly furnished but clean. As we registered, the owner dropped the first clanger. Since it was the New Years Eve the chef had gone off on a picnic!!! We looked for somewhere to have some lunch and the only available place did not look quite appetising.

Lesson No.1: make sure that someone will be available to cook your meals or book yourself into the Inspection Bungalow normally used by Government official. There is a resident cook.
We set off to the Auniati Satra believed to be one of the largest. You have to enter the grounds of the Satra bare-footed. That creates a practical problem of the pain of walking on small pebbles. As we walked we saw a man gathering firewood. We stopped to say hello. What followed was display of unbelievable modesty and gentleness that humbled us. He offered to drop everything and show us around. We went to his living quarter that was built of bamboo and reeds and did not have a concrete floor. But it was immaculately clean with an open fire. He had been at the Satra for more than 40 years since he was 9 years of age. His family was displaced by the floods and they did not have the resources to look after him.
Thus he was taken in and there he remains till his “call comes”, as he put it. He insisted that we must have some tea that we declined and then he insisted that we should have Paan and betel nut. We then came across a boy of about 8 who was sweeping the grounds. Once again, he was the epitome of modesty and politeness. He had been there for about 18 months and he appeared to be content with what the Satra had to offer. He was learning to dance (Satriya Dance). He was dedicated to the Satra by his parents at the age of 7 and is visited by his family about once a year.
We were guided to the main centre where the Satradhikar (the Head) received us with immense politeness and dignity. We learnt later that he is a highly qualified man who had a PhD. We then went around the large auditorium that holds cultural and religious functions like evening prayer, Raas Lila, Satriya dances and so on.

Lesson 2: it costs nothing to treat others with dignity, politeness and respect and for peace of mind one does not need material comforts.

The New Year eve party took the form of a singing contest dedicated to finding the “ Voice of Majuli”. It was entertaining. We were towards the backend of the auditorium. A group of local youngsters came towards us and asked, “Where do you come from” to which I said “ Bopai, Aami Dibrugarhar”. Profusely apologetic, they insisted on us sitting down in the front row. The heavy presence of security was quite daunting especially when the power supply got cut off.

The New Years Eve dinner was a take away from the aforementioned “not very appetising place” but we were hungry and relished the fried fish. Sleeping under a mosquito net was a novelty experienced after many years. The lady of the house cooked the Luchi Bhajee breakfast the following morning. We planned to visit another Satra but the condition of the road deteriorated after a few kilometres from where we were staying and we abandoned the trip and headed for the boat to continue our quest for heritage – Bordowa that is the subject of part 2.

What a remarkable and humbling experience – we said to one another on the boat.

Ranjit K Baruah

Ranjit  Baruah was born and brought up in Jorhat, Assam. He is one of 5 children who started Balya Bhavan which was avant-garde in primary school education and was the first ever school in Assam that adopted the Montessory method. He went onto to graduate from Assam Medical College, Dibrugarh and then joined the Indian Armed Forces Medical Services for 4 years. After a short period of employment in the tea industry he came to the United Kingdom and went onto train in Psychiatry at Dumfries, Scotland and then at Canterbury and London in England. He was appointed a Consultant Psychiatrist in Nottingham in 1981 where he still lives with his wife. After holding several offices for the Royal College of Psychiatrists both locally and centrally in London he retired from active clinical practice as a Clinical Director, Rampton Hospital which is one of 3 high security psychiatric hospitals in England being responsible for day today running of some 250 beds. Since retirement he and his wife have spent most of their time in travelling all over the world including regular trips to India.