HA 015: Majuli

The Disappearing Island

Words and images by Annapurna Mellor | Website | Instagram

“The port has moved again,” says a local on the boat. He’s only been away for a few days, he tells me, yet he looks confused at the empty sandbanks which protrude from the water and create yet again a different arrival home. The murky waters of the Brahmaputra are changing daily, rising rapidly and slowly shrinking the island. I’d heard that Majuli was shrinking but didn’t expect to see the impact so dramatically as soon as I arrived. In the dry season when the water level is low, much of the island actually returns — albeit as soft, fleshy mud which is not much use to the islanders. But when the rains come and the banks swell again, the island shrinks once more — even smaller than the last monsoon season. It is now only a third of its original size.

Nestled on the holy Brahmaputra River in North-Eastern India’s Assam state is Majuli Island — for now, the largest river island in the world. Its river home is legendary, originating in the mountains of Tibet and coursing through the Himalayas, curving down through the Assam valley and still further south through Bangladesh until it merges in the great Ganges Delta with the Padma river to become the Meghna, which finds its final home in the Bay of Bengal. 

Majuli sits in the river’s southwest descent from Arunachal Pradesh. There’s no bridge to the mainland, and the only way to reach it is by a slow, dilapidated boat that makes the crossing twice a day, piled high with motorbikes. If you’re coming from India’s main tourist drag, Majuli is some 2000 km from the Taj Mahal; the remote location and slow, permanently delayed trains of the North East account for some of the reasons why few tourists make it out to this corner of India. Even for those willing to make the trek, however, opportunities to visit the island may be dwindling — Majuli Island Protection & Development Council, a non-profit, predicts that the island may be swallowed whole by the Brahmaputra within 15-20 years. 

The combination of large water volume due to glacial runoff originating in the Himalayas and heavy annual rainfalls, a high silt content, rampant deforestation and lasting impacts on the river valley from a 1950s earthquake make the Brahmaputra’s erosive power particularly strong. Just last year, more than 20 families lost homes to flooding, with many hesitant to rebuild for fear they will simply be washed away in the next year’s monsoon season. Compounding the issue, those affected by flood-induced riverbank erosion don’t qualify for assistance from local or national government programs aimed at natural disaster relief because erosion isn’t defined as a natural hazard under Indian law. Livelihoods, too, are at risk. Agriculture and fishing account for the bulk of the island’s income-generating activity and both are negatively impacted by riverbank erosion. 

Each summer the river swells once again, swallowing large chunks of land and taking over many of the settlements on the island. A handful of initiatives have been put in place by the government to stop the erosion, such as the installation of cost-effective river training elements locally known as “porcupine spurs.” These spurs are a collection of pole-like projections often made of wood or bamboo that resemble a porcupine’s quills in the air and are designed to reduce flow and trap sediment. Determined to protect their island home, however, locals have largely taken matters into their own hands. One such strategy is being spearheaded by Jadav Payeng, known as the Forest Man. He has turned a barren area of the island into a forest larger than New York City’s Central Park. The roots of the trees bind the soil and soak up excess water, which reduces erosion caused by flooding.

Despite the imminent threat by the Brahmaputra, life on Majuli retains a blissful charm, quietly surrounded by nature, spirituality and craft. The island is home to many satras (monasteries of devotees to the god Vishnu) and producers of traditional crafts like paper mache masks, hand-carved pottery and textiles woven on complex looms set up on stilts. Indeed, from village to village, creativity seems to seep from the houses and craft is everywhere.

It’s December, and as the harvest is coming to an end farmers collect the last crops from the fields, children run through the villages and the fishermen take small boats out onto the waters at sunrise and sunset, bringing their fish back to the island's small markets for sale. I know come June the floodwaters will rise once more, bringing with them waves of worry and destruction. It’s devastating to think that in 20 years this unique stretch of land in the Brahmaputra could disappear altogether, along with the unique creativity and culture it holds.