Located on the Brahmaputra, Mājuli is the world’s largest river island. The word ‘mājuli’ or ‘mājoli’ means ‘land in the middle of two parallel rivers’, and is inhabited mostly by the Mising people. They are originally a nomadic tribe of Abo Tani heritage, which, in turn, can be traced to Tibeto-Burmese ancestry.
The island has been a hub of neo-Vaishnavite culture ever since the reformer Srimanta Shankaradev visited in the early 15th century; later it functioned as the cultural capital of Assam.
Many members of the Mising population still practise the worship of ‘Donyi-Polo’ (or sun-moon), an indigenous animistic religion that has a following among other Tibeto-Burmese peoples too in Arunachal Pradesh. Mising is derived from the two words ‘Mi’ (meaning men) and ‘yasing’ (fair or worthy); so Mising means ‘a worthy man’.
The tribe was christened ‘Mising’ by the British, since they were constantly shifting base due to some natural disaster or the other, until they finally settled in Majuli centuries ago. The island is under threat due to extensive soil erosion.
More than 35 villages have been washed away since 1991. Surveys show that in the next 15-20 years, Mājuli may cease to exist.
Prashansa Gurung is a Delhi-based photographer