Deluges eroding the heart of Assam’s culture

Incessant yearly flooding of the Brahmaputra is washing away the home of 'kumar maati'


November 1, 2018

/ By / Kolkata

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Assam floods, circa 2015

Assam floods, circa 2015

The cultural heartland of Assam and the home of the Vaishnava faith – Majuli island is plagued by yearly deluges which leave thousands homeless and scores dead in its wake.

Nestled deep in the state of Assam (north eastern state of India) and located right in the middle of the mighty Brahmaputra river is the ever shrinking island known as, Majuli. Comprising of an approximate 400 square kilometres, it is the home of about 600 odd families who are collectively known as the Salmora community. The tribe is widely renowned for their prowess in crafting the famous Samaguri Satra Mukhasas (signatory tribal masks) and also for their pottery. They use a special type of glutinous clay known as kumar maati (potter’s clay) and they sell their products or barter them for food and essentials in places ranging from Sadia in upper Assam to Tezpur in the lower region. This artistry has become one of their primary sources of income.

The fury of the son of Brahma

The menacing levels that the Brahmaputra river rises to during the monsoon season reflects a plaintive image of approbation and indignation. The north east of India faces a yearly destructive attack of deluges that consumes homes and lives. And yet, the river also known in these parts of the country as Luit, derived from the word lohit, meaning blood, continues to flow with glaring apathy. Last year’s floods alone left behind 85 bodies in its wake as well as stranding about 500,000 people without a roof over their heads. The central government had dispatched INR 2.5 billion (EUR 29.8 million) for convalescence, relief and rehabilitation of the inhabitants. The Majuli island was the place that was perhaps the most heavily affected by the catastrophe.

The 'Kalambari Satra' in Majuli Island

The ‘Kalambari Satra’ in Majuli Island

The face of Assamese identity

A lesser known fact is that the nerve centre of Assam with the region being home to 22 satras, the Vaishnavite (followers of the Hindu deity, Vishnu) monasteries which follow the teachings of 15th century reformer Srimanta Sankardev. The movement aims to unify people from different castes and creeds together for intellectual teachings and discussions. Of the 850 odd satras in Assam, Shankardev is said to have founded the movement with the 65 in Majuli. The island is also the origin point and the epicentre of the annual festival Raas, which is one of Assam’s most pompous festivals celebrating Vishnu and his avatars through traditional theatre and dance. Performers from Majuli are revered across the state and are highly sought after.

Majuli traditional masks

Majuli traditional masks

An existential crisis of unprecedented proportions

The Brahmaputra river floods have been a constant source of misery for the people of the “largest river island” in the world and the constant attack every year has worn down the island in size and in spirit. The immense rate of deforestation in the state which while being a necessity for modernisation has led to a lot of loose soil particles which were once held on by the roots of the jungles. This has resulted in unprecedented rates of soil erosion which in turn causes the flooding. The kumar maati which is used by the artisans of the region is washing away, leaving the islanders without a steady source of income. Of the 65 satras, only 22 remain – the rest having fallen victim to the deluges. The islanders are helpless in the face of the natural calamities.

A political conundrum

The anti-erosion movement is a significant part of the Assamese politics. It was started by activist Sanjoy Ghose and his Seuji Sangha (The Green Club) in the 1990s. Ghosh’s murder in 1997 was linked with the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) whose leaders he had agitated during his reformation movement around Majuli. Rumours were circulating that Ghose was killed by the contractor lobby so that he may not resolve the flood and erosion problem of Majuli permanently. While talking to Media India Group, N.K De – a former resident of the island and a reformer working for the economic development of the island said, “Most of these embankments around Majuli are built not for the safety of the locals but to trap their votes during election time.” According to him, the protection for the people is non-existent from riverbank erosion. Politically and economically, land and land rights are the most significant issues in the Brahmaputra valley because the land itself is disappearing in here due to water-related disasters.

According to De, “Bornadie amader ghar (Brahmaputra is our home) and if they (the government) don’t do anything then it is up to us to take matters into our own hands”.

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