A fine catch on a foggy Majuli morning

1 Oct 2018

The Brahmaputra River originates in Tibet, in the northern Himalayas. Passing through Tibet into India, it ultimately empties into the Bay of Bengal via Bangladesh. En route in the Assam plains it splits into two channels, and when those two channels re-converge after about 100km (62 miles), they’ve left behind a little piece of island magic called Majuli. (Not so little, actually: depending on whose measuring tape you use, Majuli is the world’s largest river island.)

Around Majuli and its wetlands, the glacier-fed Himalayan waters are rich and fat with dozens of species of freshwater fish — mostly carp and catfish varieties. So it’s no surprise that for the local people — about 160,000 on the island in all, in about 150 villages — fish and fishing is a big part of their lives and livelihoods.

We friended up with a family from one of the local tribes, the Mishing people, and got ourselves invited to spend a day with them. With cameras, of course.

… by the time the sun was a finger-width above the horizon we were shooting in light-fields of gold.

Rising well before dawn on the chosen day, we woke to a Majuli enveloped in a thick blanket of river-smoke. Cold water and warm air combined to give us all the fog effects we could have hoped for, and over slow water it makes the proverbial smoke-and-mirrors magic. In the predawn, the light was a gossamer-delicate pastel glow. And as the sun crept over the horizon, we started to see fragile pinks and transient lavenders, and by the time the sun was a finger-width above the horizon we were shooting in light-fields of gold.

River-smoke burns off quickly in the hot Assam sun, so we didn’t have too long. We scurried about on boats and on foot, sometimes waist-deep in the Brahmaputra. The fishing community on Majuli have a couple dozen different kinds of fishing techniques, from small cast nets and baskets to the big deep nets mid-river, the latter reminiscent of the Chinese fishing nets so iconic of Kerala 3,500 road kilometres to the south. You can see some of the results in the slideshow.

In a recent post on Majuli’s monasteries, I reflected on the sense of permanence one gets when travelling and shooting in India. Ironic, that. Because also on Majuli is plentiful evidence of natural impermanence. Over the centuries the Brahmaputra has repeatedly wandered from its course, fraying into river braids that re-combine decades later only to fragment off again. Annual monsoon flooding also makes land erosion a huge problem for Majuli island: it’s already lost somewhere between half and two-thirds of its area and some forecasts see the island pretty much gone in 20–25 years unless huge erosion defence works are carried out. This ‘vanishing paradise’ thing isn’t theoretical: of the 67 monasteries that once called Majuli their home, two-thirds have already relocated off the island. Permanence is impermanent after all.