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Northeast Today

Majuli: A Heritage Push

Majuli: A Heritage Push
December 19
16:30 2016

November Edition, Special Story, NET Bureau, Nayanjyoti Medhi

Majuli has survived a scare. Now as Majuli enters into the Guinness World Records as the largest river island in the world, there is a realistic chance of it being granted the UNESCO World Heritage Site status. With the change of guard in Assam, the epicenter of neo- vaishnavism is all set to revive its lost glory. Northeast Today reports:

“Majuli is not a sea of problems, it is a sky full of opportunities”

On September 8, Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, the elected representative from Majuli put this out on Facebook soon after inaugurating the river island as the 35th district of the state and the first river island district of the country. The Chief Minister had held, some hours back, a historic cabinet meet at the island where it was pledged that a concerted and all-out effort would be made for conservation and development of the heritage island.

Anyone from the Assam would connect Majuli immediatedly with two things. First, as the heart of neo- vaishnavism and that it is losing out to centuries of flood and erosion. Majuli, declared as the largest river island in the world by the Guinness World Records in early September is intrinsic to the Assamese way of life. As the seat of neo-vaishnative culture and movement, Majuli today is a living embodiment of the monastic roots which shaped the socio-religious fabric of Assam. For, it is from Majuli that 16th century social reformer Srimanta Sankardeva’s message of “Ek Saran Naam Dharma” propagated and defined the way of life for a people considered ‘heathen’ before the advent of the Saint by many historians.

That Majuli is the traditional cultural capital of Assam is acknowledged across the world. At the peak of its time, between the 16th and 19th century, Majuli had atleast 66 Sattras (vaishnavite monasteries) operating from within its confines. These Sattras, other than spreading the monotheistic dharma of Shankardeva also donned the role of institutions of arts and culture. The writings of the saints associated with the “Mahapurukhia Dharma”, the Bhaonas (plays) and Sattriya Nitryas (dances), all of them found prevalence from the river island and today has come to define the cultural heritage of the greater Assamese community as a whole.

The past glory has sadly been not enough to protect the island from the ravages of time and nature. While different governments of the state has tried its best to get a World Heritage Site status for the river island, only about 352 square kilometers of Majuli remains, out of a total area of 1,250 square kilometers at the beginning of the 20th century. Of the Sattras, only 22 survive. The reason for it is one, which again defines the state of Assam. Floods. Located in the middle of the Brahmaputra river near Jorhat, Majuli faces the full ire of one of the great male rivers of the world with deadly consequences. Seasonal flooding of the Brahmaputra and a lack of serious effort to conserve the island has led to severe depletion in land mass and has dealt massive damage to the livelihood of the local populace of majuli. Erosion is eating away the island even as we speak while the people are forced to move inland. With communication to the island restricted to only ferry services, Majuli, the cultural capital of Assam, is one of the more backward constituencies of the state. It would be wrong to say that steps have not been taken to tackle the flood and erosion problem of Majuli. Successive governments have tried various measures to protect and conserve the island, with some level of success. Individual efforts by Majuli residents have also borne fruit to conserve the land mass. Embankments and dykes are in place but cannot hold back the fury of Brahmaputra. More modern scientific techniques have been employed but the will by the Assam government for a comprehensive solution seemed to be absent.

Amidst all this, Sonowal’s push for the conservation and preservation of Majuli brings in a new glimmer of hope among the people of the state and the residents of the river island. Shantanu Pegu, a resident of Majuli says that he looks optimistically on the initiatives by the new BJP government. He adds that Sarbananda Sonowal has fulfilled the long standing demand of making Majuli a district, though major issues are yet to be addressed. He points out that the identity and existence of the people of the island is at stake and hopes that the new government will bring into action the promises it made to protect and preserve Majuli. Pegu says, “We (the people of Majuli) have done all that we ourselves can do for our home. We have built drains and small embankments to check erosion and have resorted to dharnas and protests to highlights our demands and plight. The bridge connecting Majuli to Jorhat, is a necessity. The foundation stone was laid though we have seen no work on that front. We have also heard that no provision was made in the budget regarding the bridge. We expect this government to deliver. We cannot do anything more.”

While a World Heritage Site status would put a new onus on conservation and preservation, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Country Office in New Delhi has taken up the issue of granting World Heritage Site status for the river island Majuli seriously and it is eager to sign a memorandum of understanding with the Assam government to prepare a flawless nomination dossier of the river island for the purpose. UNESCO has also said that it would engage technical experts to examine the draft dossier of the island before giving it a final shape. The UNESCO has previously rejected many nomination dossiers of the island on different grounds including submission of ‘incomplete’ drafts.

The World Heritage Site push is not the only initiative. Soon after declaration of Majuli as a district, Sonowal announced that the government was working on a comprehensive plan for dredging the Brahmaputra with the help of the World Bank and Asian Development Bank to solve the problem of perennial floods and erosion. He has also assured the inhabitants of establishing a rapid action centre under the water resources department to expedite flood management in the island. To improve connectivity, two new buses have been given from Majuli to Guwahahti via Lakhimpur and there is a promise to develop the interior roads and paths of the island. The state BJP government has also proposed to set up a cultural university in the river island while Union Minister Nitin Gadkari had laid the foundation of a bridge connecting Majuli to Jorhat and Lakhimpur, another long time demand of the island residents. The BJP, in its vision document for Assam in the lead up to the assembly elections said that it would identify Majuli as a high priority zone under a special programme to prevent soil erosion. The party also said that onus would be put on promoting the island at all platforms including international ones and special focus would be given to Sattriya music and dance.

In a land ravaged by the demons of corruption and inefficient governance, the BJP government in Assam has a tough task ahead of fulfilling the promises it made to the people of Majuli. Senior journalist Nava Thakuria says that the issues of Majuli, especially erosion and floods, needs a much acute scientific outlook to reach a comprehensive solution. He adds that a concerted effort is needed by the government of the state and the Centre, including study on the entire Brahmaputra system and a boost of resources for implementing the processes. “Majuli is a small point on the Brahmaputra river system. To conserve a single island within a river which flows through three countries, a co-ordinated diplomatic effort is also required. Also to achieve success in the efforts, a large resource base is important and in today’s time, with corruption still rampant, I can only be positive and hope that the present government can stand on its promises.” He also says that the heritage push must be balanced with the push for development as it is important for both to come together in tandem, rather than one dominating the other.

Come November, Majuli decks up for the Raas festival, one of the biggest celebration held in the river island. As thousands of tourists prepare to make their way to the island, the Bhaorias (actors), in the Sattras and local clubs are leaving no stone unturned to perfectly enact the life and times of Lord Krishna, to be showcased during the festivities. The mask makers are also giving the final touches to the traditional bamboo masks. As winter approaches, Majuli wakes up to a new dawn full of promises and hope. The memories of summer, of summer each year, however, remains etched in the minds of the people of the world’s largest river island. They, just like we, can only hope.

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