Majuli, India – “There,” Usha Mahanta points a finger towards the grey, wide river. “Somewhere in the belly of Brahmaputra River is my home,” she says, her voice shaking and her eyes becoming moist.
Her house was a Hindu monastery called Bor Alengi Satra, situated on Majuli – one of the largest river islands in the world and home to about 170,000 people. Usha’s husband, Tirtha Mahanta, was the spiritual leader of the 176-year-old monastery.
But for five decades, the river has been gnawing at the edges of this quaint island, slowly but steadily shrinking it from 1,250 square kilometers to one-third of its original size.
The river swells every monsoon, swallowing large chunks of land.
“I can never forget how hungry the river was that night. It swept away the entire village,” Mahanta says. She could only salvage some age-worn prayer books, tin roofs, bamboo poles and copper plates.
That was June 6, 2011. Since then, the Mahantas have been living in a community hall in an inland village; cane sheets and cloth are used to separate the sitting area, kitchen and bedroom.
Before his death at the age of 74, Tirtha Mahanta said: “I am a broken man. The legacy of my forefathers disappeared in front of my eyes.” He wanted to rebuild the island and requested the government for land. “No one listens,” he said then.
Majuli is located 350 kilometres from Guwahati, the capital of the northeastern Indian state of Assam. The island, with its many paddy fields, hyacinth-filled ponds, horse-drawn ploughs, migratory birds and cotton trees, is also the seat of neo-Vaishnavite culture, a monotheistic offshoot of Hinduism.
Since 1964, people whose land have been lost are living on embankments. Even now there are 20,000 families who need rehabilitation.
“We believe there is divine energy in the pristine air of Majuli that attracts pilgrims and tourists,” explains Bhabananda Goswami, the spiritual head of the Begenaati Satra. He sits cross-legged on a reed mat; bright marigold flowers are neatly arranged on a brass tray.
Since the 15th century, the followers of Saint Sankardeva, who are devotees of Lord Krishna and Lord Vishnu, have been building monasteries called satras. Most of them house celibate monks. Each satra is known for a special craft. The Chamaguri satra makes intricate masks with sun-dried bottle gourd and the bark of the betel nut tree. Auniati makes hand-fans, and Kamlabari makes fine wooden boats.
Once there were 65 satras, but erosion forced 28 to move off the island; many have been damaged and have relocated elsewhere on the island.
Goswami’s satra, renowned for sacred dancing, has lost land in recent floods. “Our situation is precarious. Every time it rains, we start praying to the river to spare us,” he says.
Threat of erosion
In Majuli, everyone tells the story of the 1950 earthquake, which measured 8.6 on the Richter scale. They believe it changed the course of the river and the fate of the island.
“Our parents say the ground shook like reeds in the wind and the river was bellowing. There were deep fissures. The river began inching closer ever since then,” says Diben Saikia, who lived near the bank but had to move inland.
Ananda Hazarika, the head of the geography department at Majuli College, explains, “Brahmaputra is a braided river with interlacing tributaries, unstable bars and chars, or river islands. The earthquake raised the river bed, reducing the carrying capacity of the river.”
However, Hazarika argues erosion is a natural process. Though habitats are destroyed, there is no real loss of landmass. “There is a synchronised process of erosion and deposition. New chars and sandbars appear every time Majuli loses land,” he explains.
Experts are hesitant to call it a direct effect of climate change. Manoj Talukadar, a professor of economics at Cotton College, agrees. “There have been changes in fruiting and flowering patterns, rainfalls have become erratic – but without any long-term scientific study, we cannot attribute it to climate change.”
Environmental researcher Debajit Goswami blames environmental degradation. “Massive deforestation in upstream areas loosened topsoil and increased the sediments carried by the river,” he said, leading to more forceful flow and greater erosion in areas further downstream such as Majuli.
The ongoing construction of a bridge will reduce the flow area of the river, causing the water’s momentum to accelerate and Majuli to further erode, says the environmental scientist.
Irked islanders say even temporary solutions to the erosion, such as dikes and embankments, are never built on time.
In 2010, Manoj Borah filed a Public Interest Litigation against the Brahmaputra Board, a statutory body created by the Indian government to launch anti-erosion projects.
“Since 1964, people whose land have been lost are living on embankments. Even now there are 20,000 families who need rehabilitation,” Borah says. According to official records, he adds, only 500 families have been compensated.
“Ten years later and 100 crore rupees ($16m), what has the board done?” he said, his deep voice taking on an angry edge. The court ordered the chairman of the board to appear in person in April and submit a report by August 27.
In recent months, the satradhikars and their disciples have organised many sit-down protests against the board.
Life goes on
“Wrestling with the river is a way of life,” says Lanita Pegu, who belongs to the Mishing tribe. After lunch, she joins a group of women in a shallow pond. Wearing off-shoulder petticoats tied to their chest, and lips stained red from chewing betel leaves and areca nuts, they catch fish with upturned conical baskets.
“Mishing people are like water critters, we respect the river because without floods there will be no rich harvest,” Pegu explains. They live on houses built on stilts that protect them from floods. When the water rises, they huddle on the roof, along with their pigs and goats, she adds.
As the sun sets, the last ferry departs. The sky turns a majestic red and purple, and the satras prepare for their evening prayers.
Diganto Goswami takes off his shoes and hurries towards a prayer hall. “Majuli is paradise. Everything is perfect – except the fear of losing it,” he says, as the island becomes alive with the sounds of cymbals, chants, claps and the footsteps of the dancing monks.