River Island of Majuli Cultural Landscape in midstream of Brahmaputra River in Assam (India)

This work was done during the year 2011-2012 in association with GSVSN Murthy, Conservation Architect, Kshetra Architects, Amberpet, Hyderabad. 

Nomination for World Heritage Site: River Island of Majuli Cultural Landscape in midstream of Brahmaputra River in Assam (India)

State Party                              :           India

State, Province or Region   :           State of Assam, Jorhat (Zilla) District, Majuli (Mahkuma)                                                                 Sub-Division

The geographical region of Majuli lies in the northeast of India comprising of seven states – Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Nagaland, and Tripura; which are a part of the greater Sub-Himalayan region. India’s northeast is a region of mystic splendor and rich cultural heritage spread over a vast area. It is characterized by varied habitat, heavy rainfall, extremely rich biodiversity, mountains and hills, high seismic activity and  a  drainage pattern  marked  by  lateral  valleys in  the  north  and  transverse valleys  in  the  south, dissected by major rivers.

The  island  of  Majuli  is  situated  in  the  state of Assam mid-stream of the great male river Brahmaputra which is one of the largest rivers in  the  world.  It  is  a  part  of  the  vast  dynamic river system of Brahmaputra basin with a total length  of  2,706  km  and  a  catchment  area  of 580,000 sq km. The fluvial landform (a riverine delta) of Majuli Island is a unique geographical occurrence because of the dynamics of the vast river system. The island extends for a length of about 80 km, 10-15 km north-south direction with a total area of about 875 sq km and at an elevation of 85-90m above the mean sea level. It is formed in a stretch of the river where the largest number of tributaries drains out to form their delta on the northern and the southern banks.

Majuli   is   a   region   of   fluvial   geomorphology, which rose from the Brahmaputra basin and in course of time turned into a flat alluvial plain. The island is bound by the river Subanisri and her tributaries – Ranganadi, Dikrong, Dubla, Chici and Tuni etc. on the northwest, the Kherkatia Suti (a spill channel of the river Brahmaputra) on the northeast and the Brahmaputra River on the south and southwest. These tributaries cause flash floods with heavy load of fine silt and clayey sediments. They have very steep slopes, shallow braided shifting channels and a course of sandy beds. Another significant feature of this system is the formation of the islets locally called the Chaporis, around the Majuli Island, formed because of the braiding river.

The north and south banks of the river Brahmaputra have wetlands – a characteristic feature of the hydrology of the system, locally known as Beels and are the breeding grounds of rich flora and fauna unique to this region. All of the above – the river, its tributaries, the wetlands and the chaporis along with the island of Majuli make it the largest mid river delta system in the world.

The island today is separated from the mainland Assam by 2.5 km, and can be approached from Nimati Ghat in Jorhat district to the south of the island by a ferry,   reaching   Kamalabari   in   Majuli.   The other mainland towns in proximity to the island on the north bank are north Lakhimpur and Dhakuwakhana. The island of Majuli today has 243 small and large villages; of these 210 are cadastral villages (revenues generated by the administration and supported with revenue maps) and 33 are non-cadastral villages (villages without revenue maps are mostly resettled or rehabilitated/ shifted due to flood and erosion in Majuli).

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Draft Statement of Outstanding Universal Value

  1. Brief Synthesis

The Majuli Island consists of water and landmass under Majuli Civil Sub-division (core area) and adjunct landmass around its side (buffer area). The river island is an exceptional example of an interchange between geo-hydrological, bio-economical, socio-religious, socio-cultural, spatial and ecological values. The peaceful co-existence of multi-ethnic communities maintaining a symbiotic relation with the natural landscape and ecosystem of Majuli has a direct consequence on the equilibrium established over a span of centuries. The cultural landscape,  ethos and values, of Majuli is a part of the dissemination of Pan-Indian Vaishnavite movement, distinct in the form of worship, establishment of Sattra institutions and their role in the society, vernacular settlements, Sattriya culture and arts. While similar movements blossomed in different parts of India, by virtue of its location and diverse society, Sankaradeva’s Vaishnavism, particularly in Majuli has succeeded largely in keeping with the vision of its founding Saint and imparting to the Assamese society its distinctive hue.

The epitome of the Vaishnava resurgence was the monastic institution called the Sattra derived from the Bhagawata Purana; conceptualized on democratic norms and solidarity of the preceptor (Guru) with his disciples (Bhakats). The Sattra envisaged as a perpetuator of the traditions of fine art and classical learning ritualistically handed down to generations through systematic training. These institutions became pervasive in their influence on religious, social, cultural and economic life of the people. The various forms of performing arts – dance, music, drama, literature, etc., ushered by the Neo-Vaishnavism went far beyond religious movement and gained momentum as a socio-cultural revitalization. The heritage of Majuli – tangible and intangible, with a traditional knowledge system evolved through the man and nature relationship over the centuries, is an outstanding example of a unique living tradition that has sustained despite the vagaries of nature viz. flood and erosion.

  1. Justification of Criteria

Criteria (ii) exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts or town planning and landscape design

The island of Majuli has been a region of confluence of rivers, tributaries, and peoples of various tribes, culture, origin and ethnicity. The diverse people co-inhabited the island and carried their cultural influence and practices.  The Majuli Island manifested the effects of the Vaishnava movement by bringing the whole society together through development of Sattra monasteries that diffused wide where. They were the apex institution to organize and regulate the religious and cultural life demonstrating an exceptional interchange of human values among various inhabitants of the island. During the course of their existence in Majuli, the Sattras have maintained their influence in cultural development. The land grants, in the gradual course of time, have become the property of the Sattras and their disciples.  The inhabitants of Majuli have built their economic, social and cultural traditions around the natural settings subjected to annual inundation. The people on the island are distinguished as tribal and non-tribal, with apparent differences in their physical appearance, the way of life, etc., complemented by a sense of togetherness exhibited in their observance of festivals, religious and cultural practices while maintaining their individual traditional customs and activities.

Criteria (iii) bear a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization, which is living or has disappeared

The cultural landscape of Majuli gained prominence by virtue of its geographical location. The people of Majuli Island have managed to retain the authentic cultural tradition because of its geographic isolation and negligible connectivity with the rest of the state. Neo-Vaishnavism started by Sankaradeva went far beyond religious movement and gained momentum as a socio-cultural revitalization. It brought about a new comprehensive outlook on life with an all-pervasive organizational setup. The Sattras of Majuli have been the perpetuators of Sattriya culture of dance, music, drama, poetry/songs of praise, manuscript writing, and mask making, woodcarving, etc. The cultural traditions are unique in their every respect and singular in the way they were originally contrived. The art forms evolved out of the necessity to bring people under a common forum of religious equality, which was effective in supplementing the faith of Bhakti. These art forms are inherently interconnected, evolved from one and giving origin to another. For example, the musical songs of praise complemented the dance; the dance and music complemented the mythological recreations in theatrical plays performed. This kind of inter-connectedness in the art forms arising in a singular culture is an exceptional testimony of the living traditions of the people of Majuli.

Criteria (v) be an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement, land use, or sea-use which is representative of a culture (or cultures), or human interaction with the environment specially when it has become vulnerable under the impact of irreversible change

The river island of Majuli is a region of fluvial geomorphology, raised from the Brahmaputra basin and turned into a flat alluvial plain in the course of its formation. The management of the natural system on the island, the spatial planning of villages & fields and traditional occupational practices, shaped by religious practices and traditional knowledge systems. Sankaradeva advocated the ecologically balanced doctrine of sustainable development and use of natural resources. The Sattriya architecture of Majuli Island and its maintenance has evolved in response to the natural conditions of the region. The various ethnic groups inhabiting the island applied their traditional building knowledge to the annual flooding of the area. The village architecture reflects the local vernacular architecture manifested in the Sattra following the philosophy of Sankaradeva. The features of Sattra complex are in common with that of an ordinary village household of the island. The location of Sattras and the Sattra region villages are carefully selected, as they are the apex to the identity of the island. Sattras are usually located in prominent geographical areas such as high lands, near the riverbanks, or in the hinterland of the island. Adapting to the local environment for centuries has become the approach of its inhabitants. This situation is quite different from the other parts of Assam, where such kind of constant yearly natural changes are not observed or are restricted.

Criteria (vi) be directly and tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance.

The culture of Majuli is a reflection of a new school of religious thoughts and emergent genres in art and literature of the Bhakti movement in India. The place being an island helped in both – conserving the culture and providing an ideal base for propagation. The great poet and composer, painter, playwright and dramatist Sankaradeva was also a great social philosopher who initiated a distinct order of religion and theology, a social discipline with wider social, political, economic, moral and cultural ramifications. He incorporated a large corpus of music-literary compositions and plays, a theatre forum integrated with music and dance, sculpture and architecture for supplementing the faith. These art forms were instruments in achieving the goal of propagation of Bhakti; and to develop a social change almost unprecedented in the history of Assam. Sankaradeva’s Vaishnava movement aimed at teaching the common people simple ways of living, equality of all men in religion, and practicing non-violence and eliminating the belief in sacrifice of birds and animals largely prevalent in society by the name of religion. Thus, the inspiring force was the harbinger of a new age of the creative resources, to which the apostles and followers contributed with their manifold compositions and other skills.

  1. Statement of Integrity –

The island of Majuli situated in the midstream of Brahmaputra River is one of the largest inhabited river islands of the world. The inaccessibility to mainland worked in favor and prevented modern development, because of which Majuli retained its pristine ecosystem.  The annual cycle of activities on the island is a unique system that embodies traditional knowledge to determine the interaction of the inhabitants with the nature in all aspects. The marshy land and wide spread network of water bodies thrive a diverse flora and fauna acts as home protecting the bio-diversity of the area.  Diverse communities residing on the island maintained their identities through the design of their habitat, occupations and the rituals they follow. Sattras of Majuli Island are inseparable to its identity and hence, it is known as the ‘Land of Sattra’.  They are apex institutions and propagators of rich cultural and social tradition of living with natural heritage in environment sustainably. Another important attribute which is integral to the Majuli cultural landscape is the layer of religious system superimposed by Sankaradeva in the 16th century and which has remained unchanged ever since. The economy of Majuli Island was a continuum of the medieval system of self- sufficiency until a few decades ago, and has continued to a certain extent.

  1. Statement of Authenticity –

The Majuli Island is the centre of the Vaishnava school of worship and the spiritual and cultural capital of Assam. A democratic outlook permeated the entire teachings and practices of the Neo-Vaisnavite faith in Assam. The Sattriya culture emphasized the binding of various ethnic groups that led to the emergence of a unique socio-cultural pattern in Assam, and to a vast region of the northeast India. The impact of which is observed in the living habits, dressing style, food habits, occupation pattern, religious practices, immense value given to natural resources and their adaptability to nature. The Sattras are centers for cultivation of various performing arts – music, dance, songs, poetry and drama that attracted a large audience and promoted the propagation of bhakti to masses. In today’s context, the Sattras constitute the central force in the protection and sustenance of a cultural tradition that originated centuries ago. As an institution, the Sattra is the driving force behind the cultural traditions practices on the island and holds an equally important significance for the people today as it did when first established by Sankaradeva. Majuli presently houses 31 Sattras spread along the gentle alluvial flood plains and water bodies. The Majuli Island represents a remarkable example of man’s adaptability to natural environment and utilization of natural resources sustainably.

  1. Requirements for protection and management –

To integrate development and heritage for protection of heritage resources of Majuli Cultural Landscape Region through education, awareness, understanding of cultural significance and ensuring a sustainable and positive development trend, an act was ordained by the Governor of Assam, Legislative Department in the year 2006. The preamble of the act recognizes the expedient conditions to provide for.  It is enacted in the Fifty-seventh Year of the Republic of India, and called as the ‘Majuli Cultural Landscape Region Act, 2006’. The Act provides a legal framework for protection of the cultural resources of the Majuli Cultural Landscape Region including the Sattras, which are vital contributors to the uniqueness of the Island. The Authority constituted under the Act will particularly deal with the management of the cultural resources through the Management Plan. There are various other legal regulatory and protective designations for the island of Majuli. Under The Majuli Cultural Landscape Region (MCLR) Act, 2006 authority called the Majuli Cultural Landscape Management Authority (MCLMA) and an Executive Group was set up for the implementation of the Conservation and Management measures.

The Majuli Cultural Landscape Management Authority is set up to “…protect the cultural resources, implement the Management Plan, coordinate and monitor the development activities, prepare and modify necessary guidelines for socio-economic and cultural activities, disaster mitigation and risk preparedness for the entire Majuli Cultural Landscape Region.” Through a new legislation/charter for Majuli Island Cultural Landscape Region, the Management Plan is envisaged to resolve the conflicts between cultural resources needs and development pressure. It will establish a symbiotic and sustainable development of the region. The plan sets out clear policies within the context of long term objectives. The management plan is a guide to action and intended to promote the conservation of the cultural landscape and the sustainable socioeconomic development of the local communities. It does so by setting policies for striking the correct balance between conservation, access and tourism and the economic and other needs of the local community and for maintaining the balance once it has achieved, which does not undermine fundamental cultural values.