Why Majuli Should Be Declared A World Heritage Site

by Debasish Parashar - May 8, 2016 04:12 PM +05:30 IST
Why Majuli Should Be Declared A World Heritage SiteMajuli

With the Bharatiya Janata Party’s chief ministerial candidate Sarbananda Sonowal contesting 2016 Assam Assembly Elections from Majuli constituency, the small riverine island has again come into national limelight. It is a textbook knowledge that Majuli is the largest inhabited riverine island in the world. Part of Jorhat district of Assam, this small island is a site of Vaishnavite Bhakti tradition, rich ethnic diversity and ecological diversity.

For quite some time NGOs, Civil Society groups, as well as common people, have been advocating for inclusion of Majuli in the list of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites. There have been some hope as well as disenchantment regarding the same but the voices of advocacy have become feeble over time.

UNESCO with a 21 member World Heritage Committee guided by international advisory bodies like IUCN and ICOMOS decides on the sites to be included in the list of World Heritage Sites, both cultural and natural. India already has 25 cultural sites and seven natural sites in the list.

The sites included in the list must exhibit Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) assessed on the basis of certain Operational Guidelines of UNESCO. The potential sites must fulfill one or more out of a set of prescribed criteria. The case for Majuli is quite strong in the following criteria for OUV provided by UNESCO itself:

#1 Bearing unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization.

Majuli is the most prominent site of Neo-Vaishnavite Bhakti renaissance witnessed in the North-Eastern part of India. It shows linkages and popular responses of India’s  Northeast to the waves of Bhakti movement emerging in 15th and 16th centuries. Shankardeva, the pioneer of the neo-Vaishnavite renaissance, preached monotheistic Vaishnavism and established Satras or monasteries for the same. The Satras and Namghars later became the incubators for Satriya dance, drama, music, art and spirituality. In fact, Shankardev met his famous disciple Madhavdev (known as Mani-Kanchan Sanyog) in this islet itself.

The meeting is symbolic because it heralded an era of more egalitarian, inclusive and non-violent Vaishnavite Bhakti tradition of Shankardev in Assam with a marked departure from hyper-ritualistic Shakta tradition of Madhavdev. This unique cultural tradition is still alive on the soil of Majuli. Besides,there are certain civilizational aspects which raise curiosity. For example, pottery made from beaten clay and burnt in fired kilns bears strange similarity with pottery made by people of the ancient Harappan Civilisation.

Pooja at Dakhinpat Satra. (Image: Wikipedia)
Pooja at Dakhinpat Satra. (Image: Wikipedia)

#2 Exhibition of important interchange of human values.

Creativity is the essence of human existence. Rich cultural life of Majuli embodies creativity at its best in its dramatic tradition (Rasleela in Garamur Satra and Kamalabari Satra), mask traditions (Mukha shilpa of Shamaguri Satra), songs (Borgeet written by Shankardev and Madhavdev), festivals and everyday life. Human values of love, forgiveness and non-violence are integral to its cultural life. There is a healthy interaction between castes, between castes and ethnic groups (like Mishing, Deuri,etc), between locals and foreign tourists with rare instances of conflict. Syncreticism, peaceful coexistence and egalitarianism are integral to Majuli’s sociocultural life.

Raas Leela In Majuli (Image: Wikipedia)
Raas Leela In Majuli (Image: Wikipedia)

#3 Exceptional example of traditional human settlement, land-use or sea-use representative of a culture or human interaction.

In an era of intense consumerism and materialism, families inhabiting the Hatis (area of habitation for followers in Satras) lead a decent peaceful life on the land owned by Satras. It is surprising to see people living peacefully in concrete houses with private gardens in front without campus walls or separate entry gates and sharing common access roads. Such sustainable lifestyle adheres well to Mahatma Gandhi’s words “...enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.” On the other hand the Chang-ghars (mounted houses) of Mishings and other ethnic communities inhabiting flood-prone areas of Majuli represent traditional human settlement with indigenous disaster-resistant technology, organic lifestyle and efficient material use.

#4 Exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance.

Majuli has a unique location at the heart of the Brahmaputra. The riverine topography, the Chars (strips of sand and silt deposition) and the flora and fauna add to its magnificence. The sunsets in the Brahmaputra, spells of rain in the green fields and evenings melted in Mishing Chang-ghars offer a visual treat. The surreal nights spread across swamps,marshes and open fields around Dariya-Dubi define coordinates of magical realism. The full-moon nights of Raas Purnima with soothing music from distant Raasleela drama performances have a magnetic appeal for connoisseurs.

Boat to Majuli from Jorhat city. (Image: Wikipedia)
Boat to Majuli from Jorhat city. (Image: Wikipedia)

#5 Ongoing Ecological and Biological Processes.

It is a well-known geographical fact that the Brahmaputra river changes directions and causes frequent floods in its floodplains due to heavy siltation and deposition. Chars are formed in and around Majuli due to changing Brahmaputra. Wikipedia mentions some interesting details:

“Originally, the island was a long, narrow piece of land called Majoli (land in the middle of two parallel rivers) that had the Brahmaputra flowing in the north and the Burhidihing flowing in the south, till they met at Lakhu. Frequent earthquakes in the period 1661–1696 set the stage for a catastrophic flood in 1750 that continued for 15 days, which is mentioned in historical texts and reflected in folklore. As a result of this flood, the Brahmaputra split into two branches — one flowing along the original channel and the other flowing along the Burhidihing channel and the Mājuli island was formed.”

So, not only Mighty Brahmaputra but also seismic activities have affected geological, ecological and biological coordinates of Majuli. Not only its area is shrinking, but many of its biological species are either shifting or dying due to ongoing ecological changes.

Majuli island is shrinking. (Image:Wikipedia)
Majuli island is shrinking. (Image:Wikipedia)

Majuli has become a feeble narrative of pain in recent times. Frequent floods and massive soil erosion have reduced Majuli’s area from 1250 sqkm to 352 sqkm in 2014.

Inclusion of Majuli in the World Heritage Sites list will increase general awareness among citizens, civil society groups and government for better heritage preservation and protection. It will open up channels for greater financial assistance, effective cooperation and expert advice from the World Heritage Committee for the preservation of its unique heritage. It requires strong political will both at the state and the central level. Whichever political party comes to power in Assam after this year’s elections should pursue this goal with utmost urgency and honest commitment.

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