Majuli Island A Hidden Jewel Cultural Studies Essay

Rashmi Rekha Baruah

TY B.Sc. Economics

Symbiosis School of Economics, SIU

First ResearchReport Draft


Abstract 3

Introduction 4

Scope and Objective

Research Methodology 5

Society 6

Satras of Majuli 7

Economy 9

Flood and Erosions in Majuli: Some Implications……………………...................11






Report on the socio-economic condition of the famous river-island Majuli created centuries ago by the river Brahmaputra. The cultural capital and the cradle of Assamese Civilization since Vaishnavite movement and the foundation of grand conglomerate of socio-religious institutions called Satras. The work will also look at how flood and soil erosion which poses as the major reason for its imminent extinction is taking a toll on the economic and social life of its inhabitants.


Majuli is a river- made island, largest of its own kind over the world and also a cultural home of Assamese community with all its pride of past heritage and rich culture. The island nurtures a typical traditional social and cultural system that was developed by the Vaishnavaite movement launched by Saint Srimanta Shankardeva in the 16th century. It also has an abundance of rich flora and fauna and beholds the biodiversity including migratory birds, rich forest cover and variety of animals.

Majuli is the land of Satras (monasteries), the social-religious institutions founded by Neo-Vaishnavite preachers that are regarded as the centre for literature and cultivating craft, music and dance (Sattriya dance) and performing arts, such as theatrical performance called bhaona. The satras continues to be the most influential socio-cultural organisations of the land. (Cantlie, 1984) The island over years has become a place of pilgrimage, properly called the ‘Vatican of Hinduism’ due to these large Vaishnava monasteries and Vaishnava gurus. (Nath, 2001)

Majuli is located in north of Jorhat town, Assam bounded by river Brahmaputra on the north and its tributaries- river Suvansiri (also apelled as Subansiri on eastern part and river Kherkutia Suti on the western part. The island has been always prone to large scale erosion and floods since inception and has been witness to the great earthquake measuring over 8.6 on the Richter scale in 1960 that changed the course of the river Brahmaputra and created more havoc in the demographic and topographic condition of Majuli. It has been reduced to 480 square kilometers in 2001 from the original land of 1246 square kilometers in 1950, which was reduced to 924 square kilometers in 1971 and further reduced to 875 square kilometers in 1997. (Sarma & Phukan, 2004) Thus, in course of time the territorial extent of this abode of nature has been reduced to a major extent.

Scope and objective

The scope of the research report is confined to the study of Majuli Island from a social and economic perspective. The study will include the social, age-old cultural and economic conditions of the mixed community of various ethno-cultural groups in Majuli Islands that faces threat from flood and erosion by the Brahmaputra River and also the impact and responses to such natural calamities.

The objective is to study the features of the society in the island in terms of the distinguished culture formed and designed by the satras and their economic and social conditions shaped by geography and religion. Attempt has been made to understand the effect of the natural calamities on the socio-economic condition of the people.

This work is the result of a persistent desire to promote and spread awareness about this "Floating Emerald" in the state of Assam.

Research Methodology

The methodology adapted for this report is to study secondary data from various sources, mostly authentic publications, research papers and articles from website. An interview with the Principal of Majuli College was conducted over telephone who provided with the literature pertaining to the socio-economic condition of the people and also delivered a talk on the prevailing institutions and systems in Majuli.


Majuli Island is the homeland of 1,53,400 people consisting of 79,481 males and 73,919 females, their ratio being 930:1000. (Census of India, Assam, Majuli, 2001). Majuli being encompassed all around by large water body of the river Brahmaputra and separated from the mainland, provided shelter to all immigrants coming from all around as it served as a migration route in the Middle Ages and through this river route different tribes like Mising, deoris, kacharis and Bengalis called Sylhetty who were the immigrants from Bangladesh (erstwhile East Pakistan) came down and settled in the different parts of the Island. Thus, the society of the island presents a diversified representation comprising of people from different caste and tribe. While the caste fraction is composed of Brahmins, Kalitas and other brahmanised communities assuming caste rank; the tribe consists of the Misings, Deoris, and the Kachari elements. (Nath, The Majuli Island: Society, Economy and Culture, 2009)

Misings (earlier known as Miri) are the most numerous tribes in the Island and forms 34% of the total total population strength of the Island and 84% of the total tribal strength. (Bora, 2001) They are the agricultural community in Majuli cultivating mainly ahu and bao rice. They can be classed as nomadic agriculturalists; their chief cultivation consisted of ahu rice, "grown in the banks of rivers, yam of different sorts, Indian corn, chilies, plantains, ginger, melons and pumpkins." (Hunter) But they have undergone significant changes in their socio-economic life in terms of adaptation of settled agriculture and habitation, communicating in assamese language besides their tribal language, change in food habits, dress and ornaments. (Nath, Mising Society in transition) The misings are now the settled cultivators and village dwellers in Majuli.

The Deori tribe forms another significant tribal population group of the Island who are engaged in agriculture. There are there villages inhabited by the deoris in Majuli- Majar Deori Gaon, Sriram Deori Gaon and Deori Pam Gaon. According to last census report, the Deoris form less than 2% of the total population of the Island, and less than 4% of the total tribal strength.

The rest of the populations in the Scheduled tribe category are the Kacharis, a well-known aboriginal tribe of Assam that belongs to the Bodo race. In Majuli, Sonowal Kachari Gaon is the only village inhabited by the Kachari people, which is situated on the extreme south-eastern border of the island on the bank of river Brahmaputra.

Apart from the tribes of Assam dwelling in the island, there are immigrants settlers coming from other parts of the country. They include Nepali, Bengali, the Marwaris snd the Telis. (Nath, The Majuli Island: Society, Economy and Culture, 2009) The topography of Majuli has provided them with opportunities to trade in milk, fish, small business like boat-making, mask-making and to pursue in agriculture.

Among the non-tribal Assamese communities, there are communities from different caste like the Brahmins, the Kalitas, the Koch, the Nath (Katani), the Chutiyas, the Baniyas. The Brahmins form a minor group in Majuli but occupy the highest social and economic position. They are very early group of settlers and are considered as the pioneers who brought brahmanical religion first to this part of the Brahmaputra Valley. There is no village exclusively dwelt by the Brahmins, they are found mostly in the Royal Satras as Satradhikara [1] or Bhagwati [2] or Pujari [3] and in the villages inhabited by the Upper caste Hindus. They are educationally and culturally forward and have a better advantage than any community.

The Kalitas [4] were another early group of settlers and enjoy the highest social status next to the Brahmins. Most businessmen, contractors and service person are from this community and they hold central jobs in the monastic Satras. The (Bar) Kalitas are the most orthodox communities and are concerned maintaining their superior status. The Koches are the next advanced group of people among the castes of Majuli and are considered eligible to be the members of the monastic institutions. They were one of the aboriginal tribes of the Brahmaputra Valley came to Majuli in the middle of the 16th century and were Brahmanised in the late 17th and early 18th century when the neo-vaishnavism culture grew alongwith the satras and proselytized its people. They presently share a major part of the Satra culture. Natha occupy the next status in Majuli and are spread over 20 villages in the middle and the southeastern part of the villages. As per the Anthropological survey of India, it is the ‘least known community’ of the state. (People of India, 2003) Economically, these groups of people are not rich but in the education field they are well advanced. There are other notable caste like Chutiyas, belonging to the Greater Mongolian tribe, who are mostly found in the northern part of the Island belonging to the erstwhile Chutiya kingdom [5] . They were the earliest of the tribes to have converted to Brahminism. (Baruah)

Majuli is thus based on a caste system with the social hierarchy dominated by the Brahmins. The village system of the Island is formed on caste basis and the inter-village relationship is also determined by caste relationship. But the important aspect of the system is despite all differences in caste-tribe compositions, the people belong to a culture that is distinguished by the notion of being "Majulial"- simplicity in behavior and spiritual in living.

Satras of Majuli

The Satra Institution of Assam is associated with the Neo-Vaishnavism of Srimanta Shankardeva (1449-1568), a 16th-century social reformer who preached the monotheist form of Hinduism called Vaishnavism. The Vaishnavite Movement aimed at teaching common man two aspects – belief in and submission to one Supreme Almighty. It attempted to simplify the prevalent complicated system of rituals and practicing non-violence, sacrifice of birds and animals under the canopy of Brahminism. This movement brought in its trail a new horizon to the traditional cultural activities of the people by way of offering simple congregational prayer (Nama Kirtana or kirtana-ghosha) to one Supreme God in the form of Lord Vishnu or Krishna. Music, poetry and dance form promoted the propagation of bhakti and preached the ideal of caste equality and opposed untouchability. [6] Songs composed by Shankardeva, and his disciple Madhavdeva are known as Bargeets which are mostly in the Brajawali language. The next class of music is the Oja-pali which is popular in the Satras. It is a distinct form of dance-music performed in chorus lead by the plai, who is the chief singer and his supporters, pali. (Devi) Another set of dance-cum-choral music performed in the satras by a group of artists called Gayan and Bayan. Gayans sing and the Bayans perform musical instruments like drums called khol and cymbals called tal accompanied by dance. The dance practiced in the satras is called Sattriya Dance, which is a recognized classical dance form now. As an instrument for spreading the Neo-Vaishnavism ideals, Shankardeva introduced drama (nataka) in the form of bhaona to transmit his teachings. Some of the dramas composed by Shankardeva are Kaliya Daman, Patniprasad, Keli Gopla, Rukimini Haran, Ram Vijaya while dramas composed by Madhavedeva [7] are Arjun Bhajan, Chor Dhara Nat, Pimpara Ghuchuwa which are composed in Brajawali language. (Thakur). Apart from performing arts, boat making, mask making, making of embroidered cane-fans are few growing fields that the Satras encourages.

The different major satras present in Majuli are Auniati Satra, Dakhinpat Satra, Garamur Satra, Kamalabari Satra, Chamaguri Satra. The inmates of the Satras are called Bhakats, who are brought up in the celibate life style and are headed by the pontiffs called The Satradhikars. The Satradhikar should belong to Brahman caste and chosen from among the relatives of the existing Satradhikar and he can never be dethroned in his lifetime. There were 65 such monasteries, but only 31 of them have managed to withstand the extensive erosion caused by the river Barhmaputra. (Yashwant)

The Satras have undergone tremendous changes in the present times, mainly due to the changing geographical and environmental conditions, modernization of lifestyle and the rising economic and politicization of the Satra System. However, Satras are still intrinsically interwoven with the life of the people which can be reflected to the extent of shaping the various caste and tribal groups into a compact society with certain fundamental characteristics in terms of religion, culture, food ethics and behaviour.


Geography and economy are complimentary to each other in Majuli. (Nath, The Majuli Island: Society, Economy and Culture, 2009) Mainly based on agriculture, the economy of the island is self-sufficient and subsistence in nature. It is still dependent on the local topographical and environmental condition.

The socio-economic system of Majuli has traces of the paik [8] system in village structure. (Bhuyan) In the medieval times, shifting was the system as land was sufficient in proportion to population. (Hunter) Shifting system has now become obsolete with the growing population and scarcity of land and conversion of land by clearing forests, converting the riverine belts into agricultural fields have reduced cattle farming, number of water bodies and affected the economy in terms of fish and milk trade.

Agriculture had been the mainstay of economy in Majuli and almost 80 percent of the labour force is engaged in agriculture. (Bora, 2001) The moist climate and alluvial soil has been conducive for cultivation of various crops, particularly rice of summer variety- ahu and bao, different varieties of pulses, vegetables, sugarcane, and mustard. Summer variety rice [9] are popular than the wet rice [10] as due to recurring floods the crop yield is uncertain in nature. Rice is the staple food of Majuli but the volume of rice produced in not sufficient to meet the demands. In earlier times, the soil naturally fertile due to annual inundation but floods again poses as the strongest threat to agriculture therefore, building of high embankments all around the island has led to loss of soil fertility and nominal production per unit land. Double or triple cropping pattern has been gradually embraced for the optimum use of the cultivable land and to meet the demands of the growing population. Records says that during the year 2004-2005, out of 56389 hectares of gross crop area, 28452 hectares were net sown, and about 20943 hectares were under double cropping system, while 4294 hectares under triple cropping. [11] 

Beside rice, various kinds of pulses are produced in the island and also other agricultural cash crops like mustard, jute, tobacco, sugarcane. Sugarcane production and its subsequent product jaggery (Gur) stimulated few subsidiary crafts like pottery in Majuli.

There are certain other aspects of economic life of the people of the Island which includes crafts such as weaving, pottery, wood and bamboo work, mask-making, sericulture and also poultry farming.

Pottery is the significant traditional craft practiced in Majuli. The people expert in this craft is called Kumars and they inhabit mostly in the south-eastern part of the Island on the banks of the Brahmaputra as the riverbank soil found in few feet below the surface, as its best source. It is a famous art because it is made from beaten clay that is burnt in ovens fired with driftwood, which is quite similar to pottery making in the ancient Harrappan and Mohanjodaro Civilisation. (Culture of Majuli) But pottery as an industry had been on a declining trend due to small margin of profit and decreased importance in the society. [12] And also this famed pottery industry of Majuli is turning out to be its bane, as cutting of earth for clay is compounding the problem of erosion by the Brahmaputra.

Mask-making is another well-known craft in the Satras for the purpose of using it in bhaona (drama), Ras festivals [13] and also as a source of earning. Chamuguri Satra in particular is famous for their expertise in the mask-making craft. It has been the hereditary craft in the family of Satradhikar of the Chamuguri Satra. Animal and human figures of different forms and colour are depicted on the masks which are made by bamboos and colour made by the craftsmen. Wood, bamboo and cane works are also popular in the Island. Boat making is another craft practiced and pursued in the Island and it forms a part of the river-borne trade since ancient times. Sericulture includes the production of Assam pat (Mulberry Silk), eri and muga and they are known for their quality and design throughout the state. Eri cloths from Majuli are also exported. Fishing is a profession of a significant section of people, mainly the Kaivartas. However, with growing economic need and the revenue and leasing system of the bills and the rivers to the competitive bidders the fish trade is being gradually opened to the members of the other communities.

Majuli has no industry as such and the absence of different avenues of vocation has led to rising unemployment. Educated youths apart from agriculture are involved in teaching in local schools and colleges.

Few semi-urban centres with emerging markets and administrative centres are evolving in Majuli at Kamalbari and Garamur. Commercialisation of art and craft and growth of cultural tourism as an industry will encourage the economic growth. The Satras of Majuli has immense scope to become source of its economic wellbeing. Although the medieval agrarian economy predominantly characterised Majuli but it has undergone changes with the development of transport and communication system, administrative networks, trade, education and culture and has reflected on all fronts- agriculture, land and labour, employment, art and craft and in the living standards of the people. (Nath, The Majuli Island: Society, Economy and Culture, 2009, p. 159)

Flood and Erosion in Majuli: Some Implications

The Majuli Island was created and is surrounded by the river Brahmaputra and its tributaries. It is the largest mid river delta system in the world. (UNESCO). This abode of nature is facing imminent extinction from two most serious problems -

* Gradual Loss of land area due to severe bank erosion.

* Flood inundation

The recurring flood and erosion is likely to submerge the largest fresh water River Island in next 15-20 years. (Island Under Threat)

Annual inundation and erosion has formed a part of its culture now, and has great implications for the social history of the island. It causes consequent reduction of cultivable lands, damages Satras, houses, schools and other institutions and enhances migration of the people and creation of a class of landless poor.

The extent of erosion in Majuli in the past is not known but island which was stretching over a length of about 160 miles, extending in the east up to Baiganmang and west up to Kaliabar in nagoan, has now reduced to 75-80 kilometres in length and and 7-10 kilometres in breadth within a period of two hundred years ( 1800-2000). (Wade)

Hundreds of village, some affluent ones like Salmara, Ratanpur, Chinatoli from the eastern side of the island and the entire Ahataguri Mauza in the west has been washed away. The monastic satras have been eroded and portrays an almost desolate picture in their original seat of settlement. Few satras like Kamalabari Satra, Auniati have been shifted to the mainland.

Measures to prevent flood at its source had been undertaken. Building of high embankments all around and application of modern technology to control and direct the river, supported by the government agencies and NGOs. (Sharma & Baruah, 2007)

Flood and erosion has affected the demographic pattern, ecology and environment, social structure and economic growth of Majuli islands.


Majuli Island is considered as the largest river island in the world which nestles in the lap of the river Brahamaputra. Being the land of Vaishnavite monasteries and isolated from the mainland urban society, Majuli forms a distinct geographical, social and cultural entity with a peculiar value system.

The Satras or monasteries are the treasure house of Satriya culture and the beliefs, customs, functions and festivals of the inhabitants of Majuli are governed by the Satras. But under the cover of a greater cultural identity, independent culture cells exist formed by individuals of specific caste or tribe. Caste prejudices are still inherent on the minds of the people; however there is no notion of un-touchability.

The economy is mainly based on agriculture and a certain degree of subsistence economy exists. Apart from agriculture, people of involved in trade in fish, weaving, pottery, building boats and working on ivory. But such traditional professions are slowly dying for want of innovation and competence. Semi-urban centres and small townships are emerging at Kamlabari and Garamur. Apart from these two places, Majuli is considered as rural area.

In the present scenario, the survival of Majuli is at stake as the island shrinks and its edges fall into the river.