With the Bharatiya Janata Party’s chief ministerial candidate Sarbananda Sonowal contesting the 2016 Assam Assembly Elections from the Majuli constituency, the small riverine island has again come into the national limelight. It is textbook knowledge that Majuli is the largest inhabited riverine island in the world. Part of the Jorhat district of Assam, this small island is a site of the Vaishnavite Bhakti tradition, rich ethnic diversity, and ecological diversity.
For quite some time NGOs, civil society groups, as well as common people have been advocating for the inclusion of Majuli in the list of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. There are many hopes attached to it but there has been a lot of disenchantment as well and the voices have become feeble over time.
UNESCO, with a 21 member World Heritage Committee guided by international advisory bodies like IUCN and ICOMOS, decides on the sites to be included in the list of World Heritage Sites, both cultural and natural. India already has 25 cultural sites and seven natural sites in the list.
The sites included in the list must exhibit Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) assessed on the basis of certain Operational Guidelines of UNESCO. The potential sites must fulfil one or more out of a set of prescribed criteria. The case of Majuli as a World Heritage Site is quite strong if weighed against the given criteria. The case for Majuli is quite strong in the following criteria for OUV provided by UNESCO itself:
Majuli is the most prominent site of the neo-Vaishnavite Bhakti renaissance witnessed in the north-eastern part of India. It shows linkages and popular responses of India’s northeast to waves of the Bhakti movement emerging in the 15th and 16th centuries. Shankardev, the pioneer of the neo-Vaishnavite renaissance preached monotheistic Vaishnavism and established Satras or monasteries for the same. The Satras and Namghars later became the incubators for Satriya dance, drama, music, art, and spirituality. In fact, Shankardev is said to have met his famous disciple Madhavdev (known as Mani-Kanchan Sanyog) in this islet itself. The meeting is symbolic because it heralded an era of a more egalitarian, inclusive and non-violent Vaishnavite Bhakti tradition of Shankardev in Assam with a marked departure from the hyper-ritualistic Shakta tradition of Madhavdev.
This unique cultural tradition is still alive on the soil of Majuli. Besides, there are certain civilisational aspects which raise curiosity. For example, pottery made from beaten clay and burnt in fired kilns bears strange similarity with pottery made by people of the ancient Harappan Civilisation.
Creativity is the essence of human existence. The rich cultural life of Majuli embodies creativity at its best in its dramatic tradition (like Raasleela in Garamur Satra and Kamalabari Satra), mask traditions (the Mukha Shilpa of Shamaguri Satra), songs (Borgeet written by Shankardev and Madhavdev), festivals and everyday life. Human values of love, forgiveness and non-violence are integral to its cultural life. There is a healthy interaction between castes, between castes and ethnic groups (like Mishing, Deuri, etc.), between the locals and foreign tourists with rare instances of conflict. Syncretism, peaceful coexistence, and egalitarianism are integral to Majuli’s sociocultural life.
In an era of intense consumerism, families inhabiting the Hatis (area of habitation for followers in the Satras) live a decent peaceful life on land owned by Satras. It is surprising to see people living peacefully in concrete houses with private gardens in front without campus walls or separate entry gates and sharing common access roads. Such a sustainable lifestyle adheres well to Mahatma Gandhi’s words, “…enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.” On the other hand, the Chang-ghars (mounted houses) of the Mishing and other ethnic communities inhabiting flood-prone areas of Majuli represent traditional human settlement with indigenous disaster-resistant technology, organic lifestyle, and efficient material use.
Majuli has a unique location at the heart of the Brahmaputra. The riverine topography, the chars (strips of sand and silt deposition) and the flora and fauna add to its magnificence. The sunsets in the Brahmaputra, spells of rain in the green fields and evenings in Mishing Chang-ghars offer a visual treat. The surreal nights spread across swamps, marshes and open fields around Dariya-Dubi define the coordinates of magical realism. The full-moon nights of Raas Purnima with soothing music from the distant Raasleela drama performances have a magnetic appeal for connoisseurs.
It is a well-known geographical fact that the Brahmaputra river changes directions and causes frequent floods in its floodplains due to heavy siltation and deposition. Chars are formed in and around Majuli due to the changing Brahmaputra which are of a transient nature. Wikipedia mentions some interesting details, “Originally, the island was a long, narrow piece of land called Majoli (land in the middle of two parallel rivers) that had the Brahmaputra flowing in the north and the Burhidihing flowing in the south, till they met at Lakhu. Frequent earthquakes in the period 1661–1696 set the stage for a catastrophic flood in 1750 that continued for 15 days, which is mentioned in historical texts and reflected in folklore. As a result of this flood, the Brahmaputra split into two branches — one flowing along the original channel and the other flowing along the Burhidihing channel and the Mājuli island was formed.”
So, not only the mighty Brahmaputra, but also seismic activities have affected the geological, ecological, and biological coordinates of Majuli. Not only is its area shrinking, but many of its biological species are either shifting or dying due to ongoing ecological changes.
Majuli has become a feeble narrative of pain in recent times. Frequent floods and massive soil erosion have reduced Majuli’s area from 1250 square kilometres to 352 square kilometres in 2014. The inclusion of Majuli in the World Heritage Sites list will increase general awareness among citizens, civil society groups and governments for better heritage preservation and protection. It will open up channels for greater financial assistance, effective cooperation and expert advice from the World Heritage Committee for the preservation of its unique heritage. It requires strong political will both at the state and the central level. Whichever political party comes to power in Assam after this year’s elections should pursue this goal with utmost urgency and honest commitment.