Majuli Island: Northeast India’s island escape

Locals of India’s Northeast all spoke of Majuli Island as if it was some incredible paradise that I needed to visit before leaving the region. After leaving Longwa village behind, I decided it was the perfect time for a scenery change and some much needed R&R. And Majuli Island wasn’t too far away, or at least ‘not too far’ in Indian terms, so it became my next destination.

By starting early, I was able to get from Mon in Nagaland to Jorhat in Assam, the jumping off point for the island, all within the day. The next morning, I took a shared tuk tuk to the ferry port and got onto one of the hourly ferries across to Majuli. The ferry was certainly not as bad as what I had had in my imagination, although I’m sure some people would have shuddered at the sight of it. It was an old wooden thing, and cars were driven onto the top of it within centimetres of the edge and it somehow managed to fit over a hundred people inside.

Majuli island ferry

Still, after 90 minutes we made it across to the sandy banks of Majuli Island in tact. I stepped onto the sandy embankment and thought that the island really didn’t seem very appealing quite yet. A shared rickshaw driver quickly grabbed me and I jumped in with a bunch of other locals heading up the main road of the island towards the two main towns, Kamalabari and Garamur.

I got out in Garamur and walked to La Maison de Ananda, a place that came highly recommended online. The friendly host, Monjit, came to greet me after I struggled to work out which property was his as there seemed to be buildings occupying both sides of the street. In turned out, they all belonged to him and he was currently building yet another building down the road. He told me a French couple originally started the place and then when they went back home he was left to manage it. He has since grown the business and now offers expensive bungalows, mid-range private concrete rooms and budget private rooms in a bamboo structure.

I, of course, took one of the budget rooms and was so happy with it, I instantly knew I would stay at least a few days. The place is very homely and Monjit and his family were beautiful hosts. His wife cooked delicious dinners every night, which were eaten in the shared dining room with the availability of local rice beer if you liked.

Satra on Majuli Island

Monjit had his own hand drawn maps that he readily gave to his guests with all the major sights marked on it. The island is most famous for its Vaishnavite temples and cultural centres known as satras. The satras are homes of the traditional rituals, art, dance and theatre of the Vaishnavite sect of Hinduism that has been around since at least the 15th century. Only 20 satras remain on the island, with around 5-6 larger ones being the ones most people visit. They were interesting places, although most were quiet with just a few pilgrims and devotees around.

Satra on Majuli island

The exception was Dakhinpat satra where Depur, a resident monk, greeted me and was happy to show me some of the silverware they use for their rituals and where many of the devotees live on the grounds. He served me tea and rice pudding in exchange for me writing a visitors comment in his beloved book full of other foreigners’ words. It was by far the nicest and most welcoming of the satras.

Satra monks

The easiest way to get around the island was by scooter, which I hired from Monjit. Over the course of one day I was able to visit five satras across the island. It was also the best way to see the more rural parts, passing people as they worked and went about their daily lives. I took many of the back roads on Monjit’s map, which weren’t paved but offered a greater insight into life on the island. Many people had to do double takes when they saw me pass; a foreign girl riding a scooter was not an everyday sight.

The island is also home to the Mising tribe, an indigenous community making up most of the population on the island. They have roots in Mongolia and migrated to India in the 16th century. Their houses are traditionally made from bamboo and thatch and sit high on stilts to withstand the monsoon floods. Many of the Mising women weave traditional garments and fabrics and I saw them working old weaving machines outside their homes.

On one particular day, Monjit told me I should take his bicycle and explore some of the Mising villages on the other side of the island that not many people see. He sat down and drew me directions on his map along with a couple of village names so I knew where to ask people to point me as I went. He instructed one young boy to take me to where the bridge was (my starting point) and I took off on Monjit’s bicycle thinking that it would be a relaxing day, if I managed to follow his map.

Majuli island

I did manage to ride through the first village that Monjit had listed and I passed rickety old bamboo bridges, fields of thick bamboo growing, thatch houses with children playing outside and goats grazing. I rode onwards and inevitably got a little lost. I came to a village that was surrounded by water on the other side and I couldn’t see a way across even though Monjit had clearly said I needed to continue around. I followed a couple of small trails but they came to nothing. After a couple of failed attempts to ask (no one spoke any English), I attracted a group of people around me who just smiled and nodded whenever I said anything. They seemed so curious by this foreign girl riding a bicycle through their village but all we could do to converse was smile at each other.

Water crossing on Majuli island

Soon, two kids suddenly said, “Come,” and I followed them as they took me down to the water’s edge, pulled a wooden boat across and then motioned for me to get inside. There was a group of men on the other side fishing and they pulled the rope that was attached to my boat to get me across. If only I’d known that was how it worked!

I waved to the kids once I got to the other side and then continued on my ride. I came into another village, which when I checked with people it’s name, I discovered I was on the right path. People were extremely curious about me and many attempted conversations in Hindi but unfortunately my Hindi consists of Namaste and Dhanyavaad (thank you) so it was mostly just smiles and nods. Yet, the Mising people were so warm and friendly, one lady even offered me food and water.

Mishing woman
Mishing woman

As I found myself taking another local ‘ferry’ across another inlet, I was almost back to Garamur. I cycled through the final stretch of sand, my legs burning after not being used to such exercise but my face was smiling. I may have struggled to find my way and laughed through attempted conversations with people, but I was so grateful for having seen a part of the island and the Mising community that not many tourists got to see.

When I arrived back, Monjit said, “I was wondering if you were going to call me to say you were lost!”. Well, almost. But it turned out to be my favourite day on the island.

I walked into town to get a much deserved meal and I spotted two young boys walking down the street, one of them smiling straight at me. It was one of the kids who had showed me the boat crossing in the village! How he’d managed to appear in town the same time as me I had no idea, and he was probably thinking it was a miracle I’d managed to find my way back.

After spending some time relaxing on my bamboo balcony and eating the local cuisine of red wild rice and curry, I felt content to leave the island behind. It had certainly been a unique place and I’d appreciated the chilled vibe after spending weeks in India’s chaos. Despite it not being perhaps what most people would expect of an exotic island, I truly discovered it’s appeal and realised why so many had recommended it as a must-see place in India’s Northeast.

However, the island may not be around for all that much longer. It’s estimated that in the past 100 years it has lost over half of its land mass due to erosion. It is considered to be the world’s largest river island but is equally called, Assam’s disappearing island. The erosion is ongoing, although is most prominent during and after the monsoon when the mighty Brahmaputra River rises and it’s current is stronger. There has been some attempts to reinforce the island’s sand banks, however, thus far they have seen little success. Despite, some alling for an end to tourism as a way to lesson the pressure on the land, Monjit said tourism should be part of the solution as the income will help people diversify their livelihood and support themselves through the uncertain future as agriculture is becoming increasingly difficult.

Majuli Island
Majuli Island

Where I stayed

La Maison de Ananda is highly recommended. They have a variety of budget options, offer local food and are super nice hosts with information and advice for your stay. I payed 600 rupees ($AUD12) for a private room.

Monjit also offers scooters to rent for 500 rupees per day and bicycles for 100 rupees.

Where I ate

There isn’t a whole lot of options in town, by far the most popular and best is Ural Restaurant, on the Main Street in Garamur. I ate here practically every day for lunch. The food is very good and they serve the local red rice with their thalis.

How I got in

I came from Mon in Nagaland to Jorhat in Assam. How I did this journey in one day can be read here. In Jorhat I stayed at Hotel Jonata Paradise (beside the bus station), which is a pretty standard budget hotel in India although it’s very reasonable at 600 rupees per night and their thali is one of the best you can eat.

From Jorhat, you can catch shared rickshaws to the Majuli port of Nimatighat from the road just down from the local bus station. Any of the transport touts will point you in the right direction and the rickshaws should have Nimatighat written on the front. It takes around half an hour. Ferries leave approximately every hour from 8am until 4pm but this seems to change frequently depending on the season. It costs 15 rupees per person and takes around 90 minutes.

Sharted rickshaw Nimatighat

How I got out

I took the ferry back to Jorhat and then a train from Jorhat to Lumding where I had to stay the night and catch a train the following day to Silchar (my base for exploring Mizoram and Tripura). For booking these trains I use the ixigo app, which saves a trip to the station to reserve a ticket.

Majuli Island
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