A Ferry and Memory: Majuli, An Experience in Contradictions

I recently took a trip to Majuli—the world’s largest river island in the middle of the Brahmaputra—and every minute of the day-long trip was remarkable. I took a ferry down to Majuli from Jorhat—an hour-long journey on the massive river, heading downstream. The river is miles wide, and you can’t help but be in awe of the sheer amount of water that surrounds you, imagining how this mighty river must appear in the monsoon as it calmly reclaims the land that we’ve built upon. The placid surface belies the whirlpools and devious currents, that make any attempt to swim in it futile. At the end of the ferry ride, I embarked on the almost-white sand banks of the island and took a cab into the city on a dust track, worn heavy by the circular journey of the cars that ferry passengers into and from the city everyday.

Tales from Majuli, an island on the edge
A House in Majuli | Picture Courtesy: Manasi Bose

Majuli was an experience in contradictions. The city centre bustles like any other small town in India. But as you go deeper, you find yourself amidst houses built entirely of bamboo, up on stilts as protection for when the river makes its journey inland every year. And yet, these bamboo houses, which have no locks and no furniture, have a Tata Sky dish on the roof. The underneath of the house, which is shady and provides shelter from the summer sun, is used for housing livestock, or a weaver’s loom, depending on what that family is engaged in.

I had the pleasure of being invited into one of these houses by a family who were part of the Mishing Tribe (one of three tribes that inhabit this island). The bamboo looked brittle but the owner told me it would hold up even if someone jumped on it (a theory I did not test, but I took them at their word). The traditional drink here is a rice beer, which is drunk by young and old alike and is known to have health benefits. It is offered to guests the same way we offer guests tea in North India, and tasted amazing.

A House in Majuli | Picture Courtesy: Manasi Bose
Woman showing the process of brewing beer| Picture Courtesy: Manasi Bose

The rice beer (the consistency and taste was more like a wine, but they call it beer) is the local brew—the island is otherwise a ‘dry area’, in that there are no liquor shops.

The beer is made with fermented rice water through an intricate process. Rice is boiled in water and left to ferment for five to six days. It is then dried out and ground into a powder. A hundred and one herbs are gathered from the forest, dried, ground and mixed with the rice powder and rolled into ladoos. These herbs provide the flavor, the health benefits and the ‘nasha’ to the drink. Separately, more rice is boiled and fermented, and this ladoo is crushed into the water and mixed, and then stored in a matka, ready to serve. When serving the drink, there is further preparation. This mixture is poured from the matka into a pail of fresh water. The moist rice is then scooped out onto a sieve placed over a bowl, and squeezed so the fresh water mixes with the fermented mixture in the bowl below. The beer is now ready to drink, and is ladled into cups and handed out.

While traditionally the process involved 101 jadi-booti, today, with deforestation and environmental changes, only one-fourth of these herbs are found in the forest, and are used in the process of making the beer. A testament to the cost of modernization that these villages have received.

The wine was served in little bowls, as I sat on a bed made of bamboo in a house made of bamboo. Then we drove away in our cab back to the centre of town, and I watched the buildings change from stick to cement—less practical in a flood, but more in line with a city’s infrastructure. A traffic post, earlier manned by a policeman directing traffic, now housed a goat who had decided that it provided a comfortable nap spot—traffic coordination wasn’t his priority. We drove back down to the ferry for another ride on the Brahmaputra, longer this time as we went upstream against the current, and the sun set on Majuli.

By Manasi Bose

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