Discovering Majuli: Insider Tips for Exploring Assam's Unique Gem

Majuli evokes memories of my childhood in Assam—secluded and welcoming. Few places in Assam possess such a nostalgic allure. Majuli, pronounced mah-joo-lee, stands as one of the last bastions preserving tribal and indigenous Assamese traditions in their original form.

Majuli's timeless traditions, serene landscapes, and warm hospitality await those who seek to delve deeper into Assam's cultural mosaic. Whether it is witnessing centuries-old mask-making traditions, indulging in local delicacies, or simply soaking in the tranquil beauty of its riverine tracts, Majuli promises an unforgettable journey that celebrates the essence of Assamese identity and heritage.

Home to 22 satras (monasteries), Majuli serves as a stronghold of Assamese culture. However, some satras have relocated due to soil erosion. Originating in Assam during the 15th-16th century, satras propagate Vaishnavism—a tradition emphasizing equality for all, in contrast to a system that divides society into hierarchical classes.

Surrounded by the Brahmaputra River and its tributaries, Majuli holds the title of the largest riverine island in the world. Life in Majuli appears idyllic, but the inhabitants face hardships due to monsoon floods and silt deposits.

Sunrise in Majuli

Getting There

From any major city in India, fly into Jorhat or Dibrugarh, and on the following day, get an early morning start en route to Majuli. Both Jorhat and Dibrugarh have ample facilities for lodging but don’t expect four-star rated accommodations. Read more about Dibrugarh.

Planning a ride from Dibrugarh or Jorhat to Majuli typically involves hiring a private car. When inquiring about private transportation services, consider reaching out to your hotel or homestay for assistance with arrangements. They can provide valuable recommendations and help facilitate a smooth journey to Majuli.

During the winter months, be careful driving in the early morning fog. Winter temperatures will range from 4˚C to 15˚C. There is no central heating in homes and hotels; layer up for the day. I recommend at 2-3 days to explore Majuli at a leisurely pace. However, if you only have a day to spare, a reliable tour guide can help you to plan and maximize your visit.

Ferry on the Brahmaputra en route to Majuli

Taking the Ferry

To reach Majuli from Jorhat or Dibrugarh by road, your journey begins at Nimati Ghat, where you will catch a ferry. Arrive on time, purchase your tickets  [on the ferry] in advance, and secure a seat, as departures can be delayed. The ferries come in two types: the iron ferry, which is larger, and the wooden ferry, which may feel somewhat precarious to the unaccustomed due to its smaller size.

Inside the wooden ferry, the water level is just a few inches below the window in the lower seating section, creating a sense of height above the river's surface. If you prefer a less claustrophobic experience or feel safer standing, you may opt for the top section of the ferry. Alternatively, the iron ferry offers benches for seating. Keep in mind that these ferries have long intervals between departures, so plan to arrive early at the ghat to maximize your time in Majuli.

If you are staying in Majuli for 2-3 days, consider taking a mid-morning or afternoon ferry.

Driving on the Brahmaputra during the winter months

Driving on The Brahmaputra

The best months to visit Majuli are from November through April, with December and January being the coolest periods. During these months, the Brahmaputra River is mostly dry, facilitating easier access to the island. After your ferry ride, you will need to drive on the dry riverbed to reach Majuli. The riverbed is temporarily covered with dry stubble of rice grass, which helps prevent vehicles' tires from getting stuck in the sand. When the Brahmaputra is flowing at full capacity, your ferry will dock along the banks of the island.

A road in Majuli

In Majuli

Upon arriving in Majuli, you will feel as though you have been transported to an idyllic tribal and Assamese village from the recent past. 

The roads in Majuli are narrow, traffic is light, and pollution is minimal. The Mishing and Deori tribespeople of Majuli build their homes on bamboo stilts, typically near the riverine tracts or wetlands. I recommend a visit to a Mishing tribal village.

Primarily an agricultural community, rice is the main crop of Majuli and several varieties are grown on the island. Kumol saul [tender rice, in Assamese] is a unique rice that is grown in Majuli and can be eaten without cooking. The rice is immersed in warm water for a few minutes and eaten with plain yogurt and jaggery.

Majuli's annual festivals, such as the Raas Leela dance performances and the Ali-Aye-Ligang festival, celebrated in February or March, offer a captivating glimpse into the island's rich cultural heritage. Experience the rhythmic beats of traditional music and witness the colorful festivities that highlight the Assamese ethos of community and celebration.

Migratory birds in a pond in Majuli

Migratory Birds

Majuli serves as a biodiversity hotspot, with its fertile floodplains and wetlands providing an ideal habitat for a diverse range of migratory birds. Positioned along the Central Asia/Indian Flyway, Majuli attracts over 200 varieties of migratory birds during the winter months. Many of these birds choose Majuli as their winter home, while others continue their journey to the sea. 

The Whistling Duck, originating from Siberia, arrives in Majuli between September and October, forming large flocks that inhabit the area until March-April. Majuli also hosts breeding grounds for species like the Pallas's Fish-Eagle. During the summer months, migratory species such as the Hawk-Cuckoo find sanctuary in Majuli's welcoming environment.

Satra in Majuli


Satras in Majuli serve as religious and cultural hubs, conveying the teachings and philosophies of Assamese Vaishnavite scholars and social reformers such as  Sankardev (1449–1568) and Madhavdev (1489–1596). These satras uphold monotheism while rejecting practices like animal sacrifice and idolatry. Additionally, they promote traditional art forms such as music, dance, and mask-making, which play a central role in their cultural activities.

Each satra is led by a satradhikar and features a nāmghar (prayer house), serving as a congregation hall where Vaishnavites recite the glory of Lord Vishnu. Some satras offer basic accommodation and meals, providing visitors with an opportunity to immerse themselves in the daily life of a satra. It is important to note that footwear is not permitted inside the satras.

Inside a namghar in Majuli


A nāmghar holds deep significance in the religious and cultural life of the indigenous Assamese people, serving as the central structure of a satra. In the Assamese language, "nāmghar" translates to "nām" (prayer) and "ghar" (house), symbolizing its role as a place of prayer and communal gathering. Beyond its religious function, a nāmghar also serves as a community hall and a center for training in arts and crafts.

I have personal memories of a nāmghar's importance, as my father, along with contributions from members of the community, built one opposite my childhood home. During the evenings, I fondly recall listening to the music of tals and khols as a group, including my father, practiced gayan-bayan in the nāmghar. From an architectural perspective, nāmghars typically have a rectangular shape with a raised roof supported by two parallel rows of pillars, aligned along the east-west axis.

A large wooden Garuda in a namghar in Majuli


At one of the nāmghars within a satra, a towering wooden Garuda statue stands guard over the premises. Garuda, an iconic figure in various cultures, symbolizes birth and heaven while serving as the adversary of snakes, which represent death and the underworld. In Hinduism, Garuda, depicted as an eagle-like creature, serves as the divine vehicle of god Vishnu. Similarly, in Buddhism, Garuda is recognized as one of the Astasena, or eight nonhuman super beings.

Garuda holds significant cultural importance beyond the Indian subcontinent. It is prominently featured in the national emblems of Thailand and Indonesia, known respectively as Phra Khrut Pha and Garuda Pancasila. In Myanmar, Garudas are referred to as ga-lon, while the Japanese term for Garuda is Karura. In Mongolia, it is known as Khangard. Across diverse cultures, Garuda remains a revered symbol embodying power, protection, and spiritual significance.

A mask being made and left to dry in Majuli


One of the satras in Majuli is renowned for its intricate masks, a tradition dating back to the 17th century. Although the brief lecture and demonstration are conducted in Assamese, I encourage you to attend the session. 

Crafted with meticulous detail, these masks begin with a base layer of bamboo, providing structure for the face. Layers of cloth, dipped in soil from the banks of the Brahmaputra River, are then applied to the bamboo frame. A mixture of cow dung and clay is carefully shaped to give the mask its distinct contours.

Notably, the masks feature beards and mustaches made from jute and are adorned with vibrant vegetable dyes for color. Available in three sizes, these masks play a crucial role in bhaona, a traditional Assamese theater form. What sets these masks apart is their innovative design, allowing them to move seamlessly with the actor's jaws, enhancing performance control during bhaona enactments.

Gayan-bayan performed at a satra in Majuli


A gayan-bayan is a sacred musical performance practiced by Vaishnavite Assamese communities. In this traditional art form, the singers skillfully play the tal, a medium-sized cymbal crafted from bell metal, providing rhythmic accompaniment to the performance.

Meanwhile, other musicians expertly handle the khol, a wooden drum suspended horizontally from their shoulders. The right side of the khol produces a high-pitched tone, while the left side emits a deep bass sound, creating a harmonious blend of rhythms. During the performance, the singers stand behind the drummers, swaying in rhythm with the music, while the drummers play their instruments with precision and grace, often incorporating dance movements into their performance.

View of a satra in Majuli

In Conclusion

As you bid farewell to Majuli, let us remember our role as custodians of its rich heritage, committed to preserving its cultural and natural treasures for generations to come. Majuli is not just a place to visit; it is an experience to cherish and protect—a testament to the enduring spirit of Assam and the beauty of our shared human heritage. Consider sharing your enriching experiences with friends and loved ones, inviting them to explore the island's cultural and ethnic heritage firsthand.

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