Travel: A river runs through it...

The true governing body of Assam is the Brahmaputra, a vast carpet of water that flows through this beguiling state. Peter Popham takes a ferry across time
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The Independent Culture
The Brahmaputra, the son of Brahma, is the most spectacular river: unfeasibly vast, enormously creative and destructive by turns. No river I have seen so dominates human endeavour, renders human beings so ant- like.

We are in Assam, in India's north-east, and at the height of the monsoon season. Assam, once you get on the Brahmaputra's wavelength, appears in essence to be no more than a broad carpet for this mighty river to roll down - just as Bangladesh, further downstream, is essentially the place where the Brahmaputra explodes.

At Nimatighat in Assam, the river is so wide it appears to have no far shore: it shades into the heat haze where the hills of Arunachal Pradesh, merging into the Himalayas, are a bluish blur. Up in the mountains, the snow is still melting; down here, the boundless channel is roaring along with its cargo of water hyacinth. I have been sitting in a gloomy little tea shop at Nimatighat for three hours: the ferry to Majuli is two hours late. But I am the only person who is the slightest bit bothered about this fact. With the river in spate now, navigation difficult and the normal moorings both here and in Majuli deep under water, a timetable has little meaning.

My reason for wanting to go to Majuli is simple curiosity. It is the biggest riverine island in the world, as prodigious as the river that cradles it: 40 kilometres long by 10 kilometres broad. All of low-lying Assam is at the river's mercy, but Majuli, in mid-stream, is like a village on the lip of a rumbling volcano. All the blessings and the curses will be visited on it. And one curse in particular: every year it shrinks, as Brahmputra eats it away. But likewise, I hope, its beauty will be a sort of distillation of what is beautiful about the rest of the state.

But here I am, peering into the haze, and no ferry comes. Gradually, resignation steals over me as well. Assam is where India turns the corner: the harshness of the plains is just a memory here. The fecund, feminine softness of South East Asia - tropical, fantastically humid, luxuriant - takes its place. But it is South East Asia as it was before the years of rapid growth changed almost everything: up-river Assam, equally remote from the dynamos of Bombay and Bangkok, is economically becalmed. This is a problem for the inhabitants, but an unalloyed joy for the visitor.

Jorhat, the nearest town to Majuli with an airport, is a tranquil place, where the traffic jams are composed almost entirely of high, swaying bicycle rickshaws, a hansom cab married to a Hero bicycle, juddering tenderly as it tackles the bumps. In Jorhat, the biggest crowds are the pensive litigants milling around the garden of the Jorhat Bar Association, just back from the main road. Another attraction is the fish pond, a couple of hundred yards away, where anglers sit all day with their rods in the comatose condition common to anglers all over the world.

Buy a locally made fan in one of the little shops on the main street (you will need it) and one or two other items, and watch the man add the prices in a wobbly column, then wrap your purchases in newspaper with such remarkable slowness that you enter a state of samadhi just watching him.

The inevitable Hindustan ambassador has now brought me from these scenes of bustle down to the riverside. We pass the soaking paddies where the shoots of the new-sprung rice are of a dazzling green and the pretty Assamese cottages, so different from the raw masonry wreckage of village dwellings in the plains. Their walls of woven bamboo are plastered with mud, but thinly and evenly so the structure shows through like ribs, with roofs of feathery thatch, cool verandahs and neat gardens.

I've drained my fourth or possibly fifth cup of sweet, cardamom-flavoured tea when there is a shifting among the shadows in the tea shop: the ferry has been sighted. Churning hard against the fierce current, describing a long curve upstream before coasting deftly down to the bank, is a most peculiar looking vessel: a sort of improvised catamaran constructed of two locally built boats, both of them sharp at prow and stern, with steep, sawn-off bowsprits, welded into one boat by means of a broad cabin which stretches across both of them. The deck, as it docks, is densely packed with people, goats, cows, motor scooters, bicycles, boxes and bags; even a couple of police Jeeps. A couple of planks are thrown between deck and bank, and all stream off.

The passage to Majuli, cutting through the brown, turbid waters, the warm, moist breeze in the faces of those, like me, who choose to sit cross- legged on the iron roof of the cabin, takes an hour. We transfer to wobbly canoes to make landfall, then to a ramshackle bus which takes us to Kamalabari, the first sizeable village.

Like Jorhat, but to a far greater degree, the joy of Majuli for the visitor is that it is cocooned in the past. It is intensely peaceful: one scooter every 20 minutes is as rackety as it gets. So you can walk the narrow sandy roads of the island, raised a few feet above the sodden fields, in perfect tranquillity, admiring a landscape that is a wonderful translation of the English fens to the Indian subcontinent: clumps of mature trees, expanses of water, houses in the distance; more calm, flat water. Today, even the sky, with its massed clouds, would have gratified Constable.

Majuli's claim to historical importance is as a centre of Vaishnavism, the local variant of Hinduism, focused on the worship of Vishnu; there are a number of important temples on the island. The ones I explore are disappointing: rather bald, functional sheds, open at the sides, with iron roofs. My accommodation at Goramurh, the island's biggest village, is worse. I share the small, grim room at the Circuit House with a menagerie of insects and a frog. But Majuli has its rewards, too: the intense peace, the watery fenland landscape, the villagers poling about in boats and the miniature cattle slumbering at the village crossroads at noon. The modern world has yet to intrude.