A place of unparalleled beauty and tranquility in India, Majuli Island is not surprisingly one of India's top off the beaten track destinations. Step back in time where people lived off the land in tight agrarian communities. This is the world’s largest river island, nestled amidst the mighty Brahmaputra River.
From its sandy banks, Majuli Island is over 420 square kilometers in size, although it is shrinking due to erosion. During the monsoon season, the island shrinks to less than half its size. And, if the ecological reports are to be believed, in 20 years this farming community will have given way to the environment completely and cease to exist. So, there’s no time to waste if you wish to see this highlight of the North East region.
Where is It?
Majuli Island is located in the state of Assam. Situated in the Brahmaputra River, it is 20 kilometers from the city of Jorhat and 326 kilometers from Guwahati. Majuli Island is accessible only via a one-hour ferry ride from the tiny town of Nimati Ghat (about 12 kilometers from Jorhat).
There are two towns on the island, Kamalabari and Garamur, and many little villages dotted throughout the landscape. Kamalabari is the first town you’ll encounter, about 3 kilometers from the ferry and Garamur just a couple of kilometers further away. Both have basic provisions available.
From Jorhat, you'll need to proceed to the ferry departure point at Nimati Ghat, which is about 20 minutes from the center of town. To get there, it's cheapest (although not the most comfortable!) to take the bus or shared auto rickshaw. Otherwise, be prepared to pay 500-1,200 rupees for a private auto rickshaw or taxi.
Ferries leave Nimati Ghat numerous times a day. According to the most recent timetable, there are hourly departures at 8.30 a.m., 9.30 a.m., 10.30 a.m., 1 p.m., 2 p.m., 3 p.m., and 3.30 p.m. From Kamalabari Ghat on Majuli Island there are return departures at 7 a.m., 7.30 a.m., 8.30 a.m., 10.30 a.m., 12.30 p.m., 1.30 p.m. and 3 p.m. The frequency is less during the monsoon season and if the weather is bad there won't be any services at all.
A ferry ride costs 15 rupees per person, one way, and an additional 700 rupees if you want to take your car. It's a government-operated service, so don't expect anything luxurious (the ferry is just a big wooden boat with benches). A car is advisable as there is limited transport to get around the island, although renting a bicycle is a feasible option once you’re in town. At the suggestion of Kipepeo, a helpful North East India Tour operator, we arranged a private vehicle with prices starting from 2,000 rupees per day for vehicle and driver.
If you’re planning on taking a vehicle do call up the day before and book to ensure they save you a spot. Bookings can be made in Assamese only, so get a local to help you: Ferry Manager +91 9957153671.
If you don’t have your own vehicle, you can jump on one of the packed buses or shared auto rickshws that greet the ferries and will take you to Kamalabari or Garamur. They won't drop you to where you're staying though. Alternatively, private jeeps are available for a few hundred rupees. To cut the cost, you can choose to share them with other travelers who may be going your way.
Jorhat is accessible by road and train. Bus services go regularly to and from major towns in Assam including Guwahati, Tezpur and Sivasagar, as well as Kaziranga National Park. There is also a Shatabdi train service (12067) from Guwahati to Jorhat that leaves every day except Sunday at 6.30 a.m. and arrives in Jorhat at 1.30 p.m. If you’re driving, the roads to Jorhat aren’t bad. Thanks to the new highway from Guwahati, it is possible to do the journey in about six hours.
There's also a daily non-stop flight to Jorhat from Kolkata traveling on IndiGo.
When to Visit
Majuli Island can be visited all year round, weather permitting. The best time to go there is during the winter, between November and March, when water levels have receded and birds have migrated to its shores. During the wet season (from July to September) much of the island disappears under water, but it is still possible to visit, although getting around may be challenging in parts.
What to See and Do
Tribal and farming communities inhabit the majority of Majuli Island. Hire a bike and enjoy the picturesque views of rice paddies, small villages and roads lined with bamboo archways. On the roadside watch villagers practicing the ancient craft of hand looming that the region is famous for. You can also purchase the brightly colored textiles at local road stalls.
For many Hindus, Majuli Island is a pilgrimage site. Peppered with 22 satras, you can visit each of these on the island or select just a few. A satra is a Vishnu monastery where teachings, plays and prayers are conducted. The satras are centered around a large hall where the activities are held. Some of the oldest satras on Majuli Island were built in the 1600s and are still in use today, albeit a little worse for wear.
The largest satras include Uttar Kamalabari (near the town of Kamalabari), Auni Ati (about 5 kilometers from Kamalabari) that is the oldest satra and Garmur. There is also a museum at Auni Ati that you can visit from 9.30 a.m. until 11 a.m., and noon until 4 p.m. (10 rupees Indian or 50 rupees for a foreigner).
Stop by the Chamaguri Satra, a small family satra, and watch them make traditional masks depicting characters from the Ramayana and Mahabharata that are used in the plays performed there. While the plays and dances are performed at the satras, these are done at specific times for religious purposes and are not generally a daily event nor open for tourists.
Majuli Island is also popular for bird watching. The wetlands house migratory birds during winter, with bird watching a popular past time between November and March. Birds that can be seen here include pelicans, storks, Siberian cranes and whistling teals. There are also plenty of wild geese and ducks traversing the roads and wetlands. There are three main areas for bird watching on the island; the southeast, the southwest and the northern tip of the island.
There are two major festivals on the island that you can attend.
The Majuli Mahotsav is a local festival that celebrates the island. It is held in January in the town of Garamur. You can mingle with locals, check out local dances, watch tribal women prepare local delicacies and pick up some local crafts. Handloom textiles in bright colors and bags made from bamboo are some of the items to look out for.
Ras Mahotsav is a Hindu festival held around November, during the full moon in the month of Kartik. It celebrates the life of Lord Krishna with dancing that goes on for three days. Pilgrims flock to the island at this time to celebrate this festival, making it a great time to visit.
While the festivals are interesting, Majuli Island is really about getting back to nature and experiencing farm and island life the way it has been for years. Take it easy and enjoy the relaxed pace of life here, there’s little need to rush.
Where to Stay
Places to stay on Majuli Island are scarce, but Piran from Kipepeo put us in contact with his friend who runs what is probably the best one there. La Maison de Ananda (the House of Happiness) has a wide variety of accommodations, ranging from traditional bamboo huts on stilts to air-conditioned rooms in a new concrete block. It's quaint and peaceful. The amenities in the bamboo stilt huts are basic but very comfortable, and hot water is available by bucket 24 hours a day. The huts are priced at around 1,800 rupees per night for up to three people.
The owner Jyoti and manager Monjit are very helpful. Plus, they have scooters and bicycles for rent. You can order a delicious and filling tribal thali for dinner, and even watch the ladies preparing it in the inviting kitchen.The tribal thali costs 350 rupees per person. Wash it down with local rice beer.
It is possible to stay at some of the satras, but these are generally meant for pilgrims and the facilities are very basic.