Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Messing About on the River

There was barely room to move on the ferry to Majuli Island. Our car was sandwiched between two others on the foredeck, and motorcycles surrounded us all. There was no chance of opening the car door, so I wound down the window, levered myself up and sat with my legs in the car and my arms resting on the roof.

I had a good view. The main channel of the river was so calm that it was hard to see the flow: the plant life on the surface gave it away, but it looked more like a body of water on the move than a flowing river. White sandbanks litter the river now, but in a month's time the monsoon will begin and they will be submerged. For now, the ferries to Majuli have to navigate their way between these sandy islands.

Majuli Island stretches for 90km along the Brahmaputra in Assam. No more than 10km wide, it is the world's largest river island. It is home to 22 Hindu monasteries and 200,000 people, of whom 40% are tribal.

We turned off the main branch of the river and down a waterway between two sandbanks. A young boy lept onto the bow and grabbed a 15-ft long bamboo pole with which he steered us along the channel. It was a slow process: although Majuli is barely 2km from the mainland as the crow flies, the trip took 2.5 hours.

Once we rejoined the main channel, Majuli was in sight. Suddenly the foot passengers emerged from a cabin and, before the mooring lines were even tight, grabbed babies and bags and jumped from boat to shore to board the waiting buses. The buses started up and they vanished in clouds of dust

We had to wait rather longer. First the motorcycles were wheeled down two wooden planks, then the cars followed. It was painstaking work, driving a car across planks of wood and up a steep muddy track.

There are no permanent moorings or jetties here. This part of the island is underwater for four or five months of every year, so what would be the point in building any?

Words and Pictures © Louise Heal 2008

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