Before i started my journey into North East India, I was told by many to visit the land of SANJOY GHOSH- Majuli! sanjoy ghosh was a man who lived, worked and died in Majuli for his outstanding work with the talented MISING tribe (The Misings or Mishings are an Indo-Mongoloid group of people who migrated from the eastern Himalayan regions in Tibet). his goodwill among the MISINGS couldn’t go well with the ULFA goons and he was shot dead by them.
Then I read about Majuli being the biggest river (Brahmaputra) island in the world
N then I heard about the annual floods that wash away this beautiful island every single year vis a viz flood politics.
I knew one day by some stroke of chance I will be there…
I was in Mokukchung, Nagaland when I finally managed to get a right contact to get into majuli- kumarbari. For that I had to take a shared sumo from mokukchung to jorhat (assam) and join Iva (who later will turn out be my majuli hero) in jorhat. Spend the night at her small one room, (a single bed in one corner with kitchen on another room).she insisted on sleeping on the floor while she made sure I stay comfortable throughout the night sleeping on the bamboo “chatai” which incidentally helped me not feel hot at all through that very hot and humid jorhat night.
We were to leave next morning by 10 to go the ferry station to kamlabari and then get into a bus to get to kumarbari where I was going to spend my next 13 days…
the journey took much longer than expected- after changing 2 auto rickshaws (a luxury IVA thought), 1 man pulled rickshaw… 3 km of walk… n then 1.5 hour long journey on the ferry…
Ferry Ticket to kamlabari
IVA, my majuli hero n her aunt
my co passengers… very intrigued by this FOREIGNER
by the time we reached Kumarbari, it was pouring and we knew we had quite a bit of walking to do with our huge bags before we get to the bus station…
it was harder than I thought… the kachcha roads were slippery and I had never seen that kind of rain…
it was fierce!
Somehow we managed with a help of few people n got to the bus station.
Felt like a journey home!
my first impression of majuli… n its was more… much more beautiful than I thought… didn’t know at that point of time that it’s actually so tragic.
Brahmaputra just across the place I was staying…
Village bowaris after their bath at Brahmaputra
I saw Brahmaputra and right in front of that was a small bamboo hut… that was where I was asked to get down… IVA’s place… where I stayed for the next 13 days and evolved n changed everyday… kumarbari has no electricity, only bamboo houses on stilts, what I didn’t know was that I will be bathing and washing my clothes at Brahmaputra as well…
It was a big family I stayed with 5 bowaris (sister in-laws), 6 brothers, ma, baba, their kids, 6 unmarried sisters and a lot of neighbours living in the same compound…
Misings live in thatched houses raised on bamboo stilts , called Chaang ghar which means house on stilts . Under the raised structure they keep their domestic animals .This chaang ghar helps protect themselves from flood as they are forced to live at the fertile banks of rivers, agriculture being their main occupation.
Majuli house where I spent 13 days.
Day 1: I thought the bamboo would crack and I will fall n die.. day 5: I was walking without holding things for support. Day 12: I did bihu. Day 13: I went down those 2 steps crying… knowing I m going to miss this family.
My bowaris.. who loved me so much… buhari on the extreme right, wanted me to teach her English. We didn’t know each others language but we connected.
the hard-working house maker… she was never seen without doing something important… inspiring in a way!
apun bowari is my super favourite. We could laugh all day.
And as they say to everything nice… I say “I dun” too!
The kitchen of the household and the food I ate… there was always so much food for me.. whether family ate or no…
My first attempt at washing clothes at Brahmaputra n the smart Iva practises her newly learnt camera tricks on me who taught her. Washing is easy but what got really complicated was bathing wearing a mekhola and changing in and out of your clothes in broad day light in front of the whole village n the mighty Brahmaputra… I was a serious disaster with the whole family n the neighbours and the neighbour’s neighbours all collecting there to look at me bathing… wasn’t a very exciting experience but I learnt my lesson.. DON”T ACT CUTE WHEN U R FEELING STUPID!! Every one thought I was liking the attention!
Iva immediately took me for a village tour introducing me to almost everyone we saw…
these houses and the flight of 5-7 stairs leading to these houses have religious and social beliefs and practices attached to it. A guest is accepted or a new bride only becomes a part of the family when led up the flight of stairs.
many years went into deciding a script for Misings- roman or assamese or at some level devnagari… still many a books/ papers are published using both scripts… though amended roman script was announced as the official Mising script in 1978… debate still continues
making her morning doze of tamul (betel nut, generally raw) n paan. Mising or rather a typical north eastern meal is concluded with Tamul
first thing that you notice on majuli streets is that its the women who run the show. they seem to be doing all the work, while most men either while away time playing cards or doing mundane jobs at home!
This is the family that eat what they grow (mustard, pulses, maize, vegetables, tobacco, bamboo, rice, tamul (supari)), wear what they weave, n live in the house that they made themselves. because that is all they can manage. So if the crop goes bad the family is left with nothing but to cut their pigs/ poultry at a much lesser cost. (poultry/pigs live right below their bamboo platform you see in the photos. You can actually see pigs/ poultry running n making noises right below you. Quite a turn off for the appetite of a vegetarian like me)
I saw one of those days… when the patriarch ordered to cut off Rani- their oldest pig. That’s because the annual floods were acting up and had ruined almost all their crop.
It must have been a gory sight for I was asked to stay indoors… later I saw blood n remains n lots of sullen faces trying to forget what happened.
That’s how the first day went.
Day 2 started with a plan of action… I woke up to the sound of the whole family doing their household chores… making local rice beer apong, cleaning the house, weaving, making eri yarns, doing repair jobs, making food…
Didi cutting bananas grown at home to take for sale.
master weaver, didi
Iva washing the eri shawl with reetha soaked overnight
bhaiya doing minor repair work in the house
what was most interesting was that everyone seemed to be looking forward to some big occasion…
Today the patriarch’s brother who lives in the same compound finished making his house… so there was to be a feast!!
PORK, RICE n APONG.
The new house…
APONG- rice beer, Fully fermented over a week now ready for feast
And Father waiting for his share of apong and the feast to begin
What followed was a silent festivity eating n drinking apong and people going back to their houses after that.
That day the daughter of the house looked very pretty dressed up for the festivities… suddenly she fell sick n started screaming and throwing things…
A pooja was performed later to appease the Goddess “devi” who had possessed her. She had done something wrong by looking pretty and getting a lot of male attention.
this was also taken care of by going to the traditional religious schools in ASSAM, called SATRA ( Majuli satras, being the abode of the ahomiya neo-Vaisnavite culture are the most worshipped and respected)
The daughters of the family accompanied me while the daughter in-laws stayed behind to take care of household chores… i thought it was unfair and raised my disapproval for the same.. apun bowari silently told me not to react to it because this is what is followed here… daughter-in-laws have little to be rewarded for all that they do for their husbands’ families…
me with my majuli family dressed up to go to SATRA
Guess Majuli wasn’t very different from other places in india in their treatment to women even though women are the ones handling not only the household chores but also the economics/ finances of the family.
I was getting more and more intrigued by the mekhola chadors everyone was wearing… I had heard Misings are master weavers but now I could see it..
Women walking on the road with umbrellas in their hands, doing household chores, with looms in every house… suddenly I was face to face with the rich textiles that everyone keeps raving about… the beautiful weaves by the misings…
mising design on eri, shawl more than 50 yrs old. this tradition of weaving with cotton on eri is almost dying in Majuli
traditional ghai design
mising weaves are so complicated that it is impossible to weave without a meticulously marked graph
but what I didn’t realize while admiring these gorgeous weaves is that an ugly synthetic yarn had completely taken over cotton yarn. Cotton has disappeared from the face of north-east india.
Could it be because cotton plantation was discouraged in massive way by the state govt.s to bring in synthetic/ Thailand/ dulia yarn?
Now the condition is so bad that I had to go door to door looking for cotton n there was none…
They don’t like cotton anymore coz bad quality cotton with bad dyes was introduced to shut up people asking for cotton to be brought back.
One wash of these cottons and the colour comes off. Plus they are more delicate to weave so no one wants to work on cotton anymore.
That’s when I realized the seriousness of the situation… and that’s when I traveled from one village to another sensitizing villagers about the hazards of using synthetic and how cancerous it can be and encouraging not only good health but trade and commerce by producing cotton… villagers were initially very reluctant but talking to them with examples and advance money for orders to be woven on cotton helped and finally we found a team that was ready to help me bring back cotton in majuli to start with…
handloom shop run by Kamini, the pink dupatta made it to the collection not only because its beautiful but also because that was the only ready cotton piece she had then, thank you Kamini for promising me to make more!.
In these 13 days that I spent alone with this Majuli family, I was loved, taken care of and at some level completely pampered. They were my family suddenly.
It wasn’t a group against a group… it was me with a new family! And that is what makes my trip to this beautiful place so amazing…
My farewell with this family was bihu by my lovely angels… the one in front is Apun’s bowari’s daughter and is going to an english medium school. i taught her how to say “I am a very smart girl” and go tell that to her English teacher. she came back home jumping from her school that her teacher quite liked what s he told her! She’s apun bowari’s everything… and all she wants from her life is to be able to educate her daughter properly and be able to make her independent. SHE DOESN’T WANT ANOTHER CHILD.
These 2 girls would stick to me the whole day and cried when I was leaving… I was touched… I was leaving a new-found family behind…
The reward the girls got for their lovely performance was cup- a noodles… their first taste of noodles ever!! N they ate it so adorably with their hands… my camera battery died while clicking their photos when they were dancing… n there was no electricity to charge it and chronicle this absolute cuteness!!
Another beautiful thing that happened just before i left… all the bowaris got together and searched for everything cotton that they had ever woven… they wanted me to choose from those and take with me as their token of love… i was TOUCHED! what touched me the most was what apun bowari said.. “thailand yarn ka to bahut mekhola chador hai… par tum to cotton hi lega… agli baar aur cotton weave karke rakhega”- ” there are many mekhola chadors woven with thailand synthetic yarn that we have at the moment but you will only wear cotton… so next time you come we will make sure there are options of cotton weaves to choose from”
somewhere… i had achieved little of what i wanted… they were interested in weaving/ wearing cotton! this little step taken by them… came as a big relief!
Iva told me 20 days after I left that house that kumarbari is washed away by the annual floods and the people are in the process of rebuilding their broken houses n spirits to make them strong enough to survive year by year…
travel back to jorhat… a 5-6 hour journey to jorhat through Dhemaji district took about 19 hours and many different modes of trasportation: bus, naav- small make shift boats to cross flooded areas… behind bikes… autos… open gypsies… sometimes walking quite a distance… this picture was taken at a place 2 km away the ferry station. just 2 days back it got flooded… some the houses disappeared with the water. the transportation came to a halt… our sumo in the picture could not go any further.
Majuli, just before i left… showing signs of flooding already
the last Majuli road i walked on… Iva taking the lead…
this almost relaxed afternoon for these women that soon turned into a tragic tale of putting together their broken lives and houses.
The things that we read in papers and books of poverty, callousness of government, corruption, I suddenly came face to face with them in majuli- with flood politics, corruption on behalf of govt. officials who think they own the place, bank managers’ favouritism to the families and friends, extreme poverty and helplessness.
I will keep going back to Majuli, ALONE so I can be with my people again and work with them, for them and fight against the govt. officials who think its their birth right to exploit their own people. I am not going to let this happen to Majuli, the place I love, n the place I wish to protect!