Monday, 7 April 2008

Life on a Small Island

My accommodation on Majuli was a room in a monastery guesthouse. Majuli is famous for its monasteries: there are 22 on the island, each specialising in a different aspect of Indian culture (learning, music, dance etc). My room had a bed, fan and mosquito net. There was no running water: all water came from a hand pump in the bathroom.

We ate lunch in the monks' hut, where the three of us (myself, my driver and my guide Apu) sat around the edges of the room, on reed mats placed on the mud floor.

Three monks sat with us. The eldest, who was also the cook, had been at the monastery for 60 years, since he was a boy of eight. He sat in the corner, chatted to Apu and gave me a present of a red and white cotton scarf woven on the island.

The second monk was in his twenties. He wore the traditional monks' outfit of a white sari-like garment. His hair fell to below his shoulders and he was bare-chested.

The youngest monk was a boy of no more than nine years old. He stood against the opposite wall to me, hands behind his back, and stared at me. He wore only a length of cloth around his waist. His hair curled under the nape of his neck and he had the face of an angel.

We began with a snack presented on a banana leaf: a small banana and a mixture of rice, chickpeas and sprouting lentils. "This is the meal the monks eat after their morning prayers", Apu told me.

Lunch itself was served on metal plates" rice, dhal, cabbage, potatoes and pickles. The others ate with their hands but the cook thoughtfully provided me with a teaspoon. After lunch, we drank black tea.

After lunch, Apu took me to a tribal village. There were about 20 houses set in a clearing close to a main road. Most of the houses were on stilts. People live on top and cattle, pigs and dogs live underneath.

We acquired a following of children as we walked around, who all jostled enthusiastically every time I took a photograph. The main activity in the village was weaving, by the women who had set up their looms next to their houses.

"These handicrafts are in huge demand. Wholesalers buy them and take them from the mainland. Apart from selling fish, this is the only income the villagers have" said Apu.

Fish, as Apu put it, were the reason that the tribe lived on Majuli. Originally from Nagaland, near the Burmese border, they had come here in the 17th Century because "they like to eat fish".

We stopped to watch the women weaving. They weave lengths of cotton in bright colours with contrasting patterns. One girl was weaving a pattern by flicking threads in and out of the weave.

"They rise at 4am every morning" said Apu. "Then they work in the fields or tend their animals until lunchtime. In the afternoons, the women weave and the men go fishing. They just work, earn, eat. They have no investments. If the river floods the village during the monsoon, they have to rebuild it every year".

We ate an early supper in one of the village huts. Sitting around the fire while a husband and wife cooked dinner, we were joined by 3 old women who sat in the darkness away from the fire and drank rice wine out of metal bowls.

Dinner itself was vegetable stew, grilled fish and red rice. "You will never have skin complaints if you eat red rice", as Apu put it.

We drove back to the monastery in the pitch dark. The sky was clear and there were a million stars overhead. Back at the guesthouse, I wandered around the bathroom in the dark, torch in mouth, pumping water into a plastic bucket to have a wash. The last thing I remember is the sound of the crickets. It was barely 9pm.


Words and Pictures © Louise Heal 2008

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