Shrinking Space and Expanding Population: Socioeconomic Impacts of Majuli’s Changing Geography

Avijit Sahay, Department of Geography, University of Allahabad
Nikhil Roy, Department of Geography, Delhi University
DOI: 10.21690/foge/2016.60.3f


The great Brahmaputra River courses through the highlands of Assam, a state in India’s far northeast. On its way south, it slides past Majuli, the largest river island in the world. Majuli is a land of many monasteries—satra—associated with the neo-Vaishnavism movement, an outgrowth of the ancient Vaishnavism tradition of Hinduism, and now a global organization. On a less sanguine note, Majuli is an island of natural hazards. For centuries, the Brahmaputra River has annually flooded the island, but since the 1950 earthquake that struck the Brahmaputra Valley in Assam, riverbank erosion has become the scourge of the land and its people. Because of an unstable river channel, coupled with the large amount of water and silt carried by the Brahmaputra, the river continuously shifts its course. This repeated channel movement has caused large-scale erosion of this grand river island, which is now reduced to one-third of its original area. This study assesses the changes in the geography of Majuli and the impact of these spatial changes on the economy, society, and culture of the island. To accomplish this, we used remote-sensing images obtained from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) and primary data collected through fieldwork.

Granted status as a Cultural Heritage Site by the government of Assam in 2006, Majuli is one of the most populated river islands in the world, covering an area approximately 584 square kilometers and home to 167,304 people (Census of India 2011). It is formed by a branch of the Brahmaputra—locally called Kherkutti Xuti or River Luhit—which separates from the main river, moves north, travels almost 100 km as a separate river, and finally merges back with the main river near Golaghat district.

Majuli is a multiethnic society, yet it is culturally homogeneous. Demographically, it is a mixture of different ethnic groups, such as the Assamese, Mishings, Kacharris, Deoris, and Nepalese, who have migrated to make their home on Majuli. Yet all of these groups have accepted the island’s unique Vaishnavite culture and helped in its preservation, protection, and propagation.

In the fifteenth century, the religious Assamese reformer Shankerdeb started the Vaishnavite cult, also called neo-Vaishnavism, on the island. As time went on, his ideas spread to the whole of Assam. The Vaishnav cult in Indian Hinduism is the worship of Lord Vishnu and his reincarnation in the form of Lord Krishna. A similar cult of Shiva worship is called Shaivism and the two cults have existed in every Hindu society. Shankardeb introduced monastic elements and monotheism into Assamese society, calling this new philosophy Ek Sarna Hari Naam Dharma, literally meaning Complete Surrender to One God (Choudhury 2011). This one God, according to Shankardeb, is Lord Vishnu, and hence the new religious philosophy associated with Shankardeb came to be called neo-Vaishnavism. Neo-Vaishnavism differs from other forms of Vaishnavism in three important respects.

First, while all Hindu societies in India have worshipped Vishnu as well as Shiva, Assam’s extreme emphasis on monotheism means that neo-Vaishnavism has abstained from any reference to Shiva.

Secondly, neo-Vaishnavism is unique in its resistance to idol worship. A neo-Vaishnavite place of worship is called naamghar, as opposed to temples for the rest of India. The word naamghar is derived from the words “naam,” meaning name, and “ghar,” meaning house. All prayers inside the naamghar are in the form of repeating the name of Lord Vishnu (Chaliha 1998).

Finally, neo-Vaishnavism differs from all other forms of Hinduism because of its monastic nature. The core of society in neo-Vaishnav culture is the satra—monastery—that regulates all aspects of social life. In the rest of India, monasteries are called math and serve as refuges for those who have withdrawn from society in search of God. However, in Assam, the satra is deeply involved with the society, not just in regulating the social and religious life of the community, but also in preserving as well as propagating the neo-Vaishnavite philosophy (Baruah 1994). In this sense, the monastic culture of Assam is more akin to Catholic Missions than to the Hindu philosophical currents of the remainder of India.

Figure 1: Dakhinpat Satra (photo taken during fieldwork, 2017).

The first neo-Vaishnavite monastery in Majuli was established by Shankardeb and his student Madhavdeb. Neo-Vaishnavism quickly spread to the rest of Assam and became the major religion of the state. Like most religions, the neo-Vaishnavism of Assam has not remained unchanged over the past 500 years. It has mixed and morphed with many different religious currents all over the state. Yet, in Majuli, isolated from the rest of Assam on its river perch, neo-Vaishnavism has remained in an almost pristine form. This extraordinary longevity was recognized by the state government when the Majuli Cultural Heritage Act was passed by the State Assembly of Assam in 2006, which granted Majuli the status of a Cultural Heritage Site of India. However, this great cultural heritage of India is in danger of being annihilated by the fickleness of the Brahmaputra River.

Flood and Riverbank Erosion in Bramhaputra

The Brahmaputra plain of Assam is one of the most flood-prone areas of the world. At the peak of flooding, the Brahmaputra River is 18 to 20 km wide at the town of Dibrugarh and displaces 2 to 3 million people every year (Hazarika, 2005). On an average, floods affect more than 12 percent of the total geographical area of the state every year (Goyari 2005.).

The Brahmaputra River descends from a height of 2,450 m above sea level in the Himalayas to 135 m in Pasighat, a town in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, within a stretch of two kilometers (Figure 2). As soon as the river reaches the plains, it is joined by the Dibang River in the north and the Lohit River in the south. However, the river does not have a well-developed profile, like the peninsular rivers of India, and therefore, continuously shifts course. In contrast, the Brahmaputra in India becomes an extensively braided river with multiple channels churning around numerous midchannel and lateral sandbars, locally known as “chars” (Goswami 2008) or “chapooris” in Majuli. It also ranks second only to the Hwang Ho, or Yellow River, of China in terms of sediment load. Its heavy sediment load—coupled with a near-flat gradient of 0.1 m/km near the town of Guwahati—makes the Brahmaputra highly prone to flooding. To compound the problem, the Brahmaputra basin receives an annual average rainfall of 230 cm. Consider that Mobile, Alabama, the U.S. city with the highest annual rainfall, gets only 170 cm.

Figure 2: Brahmaputra Entering Plains at Pasighat (photo taken during fieldwork, 2017).

In 1950, the Brahmaputra valley was the epicenter of an 8.6 magnitude earthquake that raised the northeast section of the valley by 3 to 4 meters and caused severe flooding in Assam. Since the earthquake, land along the riverbank has been eroding at an alarming rate. While in the 1920s, the Brahmaputra River occupied an area of 4,000 square kilometers in Assam, today it occupies more than 6,000 square kilometers (WRD 2008).

On the island of Majuli, the Brahmaputra and the Luhit rivers repeatedly change their courses, which has caused the loss of almost one-third to two-thirds of the original area of the island. Almost half of the total cadastral villages of Majuli—107 out of 210—have been partially or wholly lost to the river. According to the data provided by local administration during the fieldwork for this article, from 1960 to July 24, 2014, some 10,139 families have been relocated by the administration, and many more are now living as refugees in camps.

The Changing Geography of Majuli

That Majuli was once a huge island is beyond doubt. Writing his “Report of Assam” in 1853, A. J. Moffat Mills calculated the area of Majuli as 282,165 acres (1,142 square kilometers). A century earlier, John Peter Wade had approximated the dimensions of Majuli as 160 miles in length and about 60 miles in width (about 960 square miles or 2,480 square kilometers). Official figures collected for the census data by the then Government of India show that in 1950, when the Assam earthquake struck the Brahmaputra Valley, the area of Majuli was almost 1,250 square kilometers. However, since the 1950 earthquake, riverbank erosion by the Brahmaputra in the north and the Luhit in the south has led to the rapid disappearance of land.

Figure 3: Erosional work of the Brahmaputra River (photo taken during fieldwork, 2016).

Over the past sixty-six years, a large portion of the island has been lost to the river. However, the exact extent of damage caused by riverbank erosion is debated. The last land survey in Majuli occurred in 1966. Since then, no comparable survey has been done, and the land area data for Majuli provided by different government agencies. However, these various state and central government agencies involved in erosion management have different estimates of Majuli’s area (see Table 1).

Table 1: Estimates of Current Land Area of Majuli
Government Agency/OrganizationArea of Majuli (in square kilometers)
Census of India*584.38
Circle Office of the Revenue Circle of Majuli**764.98
Brahmaputra Board+522.73
Sub-Divisional Office, Majuli#875.00
*District Census Handbook of Jorhat District, Census of India, 2011
**From the Revenue Records of the Revenue Circle of Majuli
+Report on the Protection of Majuli Island from Flood and Erosion, Brahmaputra Board, 2012
#Disaster Management Plan for the Sub-Division of Majuli, Government of Assam, 2010
Figure 4: An eroded cross section of the riverbank in Majuli (photo taken during fieldwork, 2016).

Because of the absence of consistent perspectives regarding Majuli’s area, we utilized remotely sensed images and fieldwork to evaluate the extent of erosion in Majuli. For this study, we have extracted Majuli Island from Landsat images from 1975, 2000, and 2015. From these three images we have digitized the morphology of the Brahmaputra River. Our subsequent maps show the trends and patterns of change that the course of the Brahmaputra has undergone in the past four decades—and the extent of erosion.

Administrative Divisions of Majuli

For administrative purposes, the island is divided into three subdivisions called mauzas1: Ahatguri in the west, Kamalabari in the center, and Salmora in the east. Each of these mauzas is further divided into panchayats2, which are then, finally, divided into individual villages (see Map 1).

Map 1: Panchayat Level Map of Majuli (Extracted from the Disaster Management Plan for the Sub-division of Majuli).

The above map, obtained from the office of the subdivisional magistrate of Majuli, shows the mauza and panchayat boundaries of Majuli. However, since this map was prepared, large-scale changes have taken place in the geography of the island, the most significant of which are in Ahatguri and Salmora panchayats. Immediately after the earthquake of 1950, the Brahmaputra started moving northwards, especially in the western, Ahatguri, part of the island.

Changing Course of River Bramhaputra: from 1975 to 2015

The morphology of Brahmaputra in 1975 has been digitized from a Landsat image from that year (see Map 2).The areas shown within the two red circles are the entire Ahatguri mauza and the western part of Kamalabari panchayat. In subsequent maps of 2000 and 2015 (see Map 3 and Map 4), the river has shifted further to the north, wiping out Ahatguri mauza, and large parts of Kamalabari panchayat.

Map 2: Morphology of River Brahmaputra in 1975.
Map 3: Morphology of River Brahmaputra in 2000.

However, more recently, the river has been eroding land in the northeastern part of the island, which is shown by the red arrows on the maps. This is Salmora mauza. From 1975 to 2000, morphology of the Brahmaputra on this part of the island had not changed substantially (see Map 2 and Map 3), but in subsequent years, the Brahmaputra has also moved perceptibly to the north in the eastern part of the island (see Map 4).

Map 4: Morphology of River Brahmaputra in 2015.

The change in the river’s channel has caused the river to flow through many new areas, increasing the erosional work during these years. The old channel remains dry for most of the year (see Figure 5), but during the rainy season from April to October, the channel is full, like any other stream of the Brahmaputra.

Figure 5: A Dry Riverbed of Brahmaputra (photo taken during fieldwork, 2016).

Loss of Land due to Riverbank Erosion

The above-mentioned change in the morphology of the Brahmaputra has resulted in large-scale loss of land. This loss can be expressed in terms of the number of villages that have been destroyed by the river in the last more than six decades: a total of 243 villages in Majuli, out of which 210 are cadastral villages and 33 are noncadastral villages. The total number of villages lost due to riverbank erosion in different mauzas is shown in Table 2.

Table 2: Loss of Land in Different Mauzas in Majuli (Official Figure as of July 24, 2014)
Mauza Cadastral Villages Lost Partially/Fully Non-Cadastral Village Lost Area Lost (in Hectares)
Ahatguri34/-Data Not Available26955
Kamalabari18/-Data Not Available18759
Salmora15/-Data Not Available7748
Majuli (Total)67/401553462
Source: Revenue Circle, Majuli

The effect of such large-scale changes in morphology of the Brahmaputra is evident in the socioeconomic fabric of Majuli. In 1951, one year after the great earthquake of 1950, the area of Majuli was approximately 1,250 square kilometers with a population of 81,001 (Census of India 1951). In the next sixty years, the population of Majuli more than doubled to 167,304, but the area it occupied has been reduced by two-thirds (Census of India 2011).

The loss of nearly half of the island to the river means that whole villages, along with the agricultural fields, have been washed away. Figure 6 shows an eroded bank where a whole house has fallen into the river and all that remains now is its garden.

Figure 6: A House Lost in Erosion (photo taken during fieldwork, 2016).

On an island that has no urban area (Census of India 2011), and in which agriculture is still the major economic activity of almost all households, this loss has significant social and economic ramifications. Such a scenario, of shrinking space and expanding population, has put great strain on the land and people of Majuli, and this is manifest in the changing land-use and land-cover patterns of the island.

Land Use and Land Cover in Majuli, from 1975 to 2000

Land-use and land-cover maps prepared from Landsat images from 1975 and 2000 clearly show the effects of shrinking land and an ever-expanding population. For the purpose of this study, eight classes of land—fallow land, sand, agriculture, grassland, wetland, water body, forest, and built-up areas (settlements)—have been identified from the two images.

Map 5: Land Use Pattern of Majuli in 1975.

Map 5 shows the land-cover pattern of Majuli in 1975. The areas under settlement (shown as “built-up” on the map), water body, and sand are moderate, and a large part of the island is forested. This landscape of Majuli corresponds with the account of local residents, who remember dense forests, and with historical accounts (Gohain 2006), of forests and wild animals (Nath 2009). However, this situation changed dramatically over the next twenty-five years, as is evident from the land-cover map of 2000 (Map 6).

Map 6: Land Use Pattern of Majuli in 2000.

In 2000, forest cover, once widespread across the island, had virtually disappeared and been replaced by agricultural fields and new settlements. Most of the new agricultural lands are in Ahatguri, while most of the new settlements have developed in central Kamlabari. Because of the continuous shift of the Brahmaputra’s channel, the entire settlement of the mauza of Ahatguri became part of the channel of the Brahmaputra. However, this nearly 12 km channel only contains water during the monsoon rains. For the rest of the year, the channel is mostly covered in sand and crisscrossed by numerous streams coming out of the main river, resulting in the formation of hundreds of sandy islets. These islets are locally known as “chapooris,” and though they are unfit for any permanent settlement, they are used during the dry season for the cultivation of sugarcane and mustard. On the other hand, central Kamlabari is the only place in Majuli that has remained entirely unaffected by erosion, resulting in not just new settlements, but also in numerous refugee colonies that are occupied by villagers displaced because of riverbank erosion on the rest of the island.

Whatever forests remain are concentrated in chapooris and are waterlogged for most of the year, thus prohibiting human habitation. The change in area of different land classes is shown in Table 3.

Table 3: Changing Pattern of Land Use in Majuli from 1975 to 2000
Land Use ClassLand in HectareLand in %Land in HectareLand in %Change Between 1975-2000
Water Body1400.762.0215959.8008.59325.47
Fallow Land13119.1018.9114999.70021.6214.33
Built-Up Area7044.4810.157640.48611.018.46

By comparing the areas of various classes, it is evident that forest, agriculture, and grasslands have declined, and the rest—chief among them water—have increased. This has strained both the ecology and economy of the island. Overall, the 325 percent increase in water and nearly 31 percent increase in sands have come at the cost of 119 villages (107 cadastral, and 12 noncadastral) that have been lost either partially or wholly. The residents of these villages have moved off the island or become refugees and are now living in camps as migrants on their own land. A casual walk along any street in southern Majuli would show hundreds of families living in such camps. The Disaster Management Plan of Majuli provides data for the number of families and the amount of area affected as a result of erosion between 2008 and 2012 (see Table 4).

Table 4: Number of Families Affected by River Erosion (2008 - 2012)
Year Number of Families Affected Area Affected (in Hectares)
Source: Disaster Management Plan for Majuli Sub-Division, 2013

Land-Use and Land-Cover Change in Majuli, from 2000 to 2015

Map 7: Land Use Pattern of Majuli in 2015.

From the above image, it is clear that there has been an increase in settlements across the island. This is due to population growth on a shrinking island. The demand for land in Majuli is so high that even the areas along the riverbank have been used for housing. However, this causes a dangerous situation during the rainy season, when hundreds of small streams crisscross the riverbank, submerging these new settlements. The change in area under different classes for the period 2000 to 2015 is given in Table 5.

Land Use ClassLand in HectareLand in %Land in HectareLand in %Change Between 1975-2000
Water Body5959.8008.595752.68.3-3.48
Fallow Land14999.70021.6211196.216.1-25.36
Built-Up Area7640.48611.0115691.722.6105.38

What is demonstrable is that the greatest change in area has taken place in forests, grasslands, and built-up areas (settlements). Forests and grasslands have increased because the local administration is actively trying to increase green cover on the island to combat soil erosion. Many areas along the bank have been identified for increasing green cover, and from the image it is clear that these efforts have been successful. As discussed earlier, many new settlements have been constructed to house the rapidly increasing population.

The decrease in water is evident where the river has shifted to the south. The old riverbed became dry and sandy, leading to more than a 20 percent increase in area under sand (see Table 5). These dry beds become seasonally active, when the high water volume in the Brahmaputra River forces them to accommodate water branching from the main channel of the river.

The steepest decline in area can be observed in agricultural land, which has fallen by more than 79 percent. This loss of arable land has forced many people in erosion-affected areas to move off the island in search of alternative livelihood opportunities.

The overall changes in different categories of land for the period 1975 to 2015 can be seen in the form of a graph (see Figure 7).

Figure 7. Land Use Land Cover Change in Majuli, 1975—2015.

Economic Impacts of Riverbank Erosion

Majuli has seen continuous human settlement at least since 1228 C.E., when the Ahom King Sukhpa reached its shore (Nath 2009). However, in the last nearly 800 years of recorded history, the occupation structure of the island has seen very little change.

According to the Census of India 2011, Majuli has 243 villages (210 cadastral, 33 noncadastral) and zero urban settlements. This means that the entire population of Majuli is rural, and almost totally dependent on agriculture and allied activities for survival. Thus, while the subsistence technology of the island has remained unchanged, the area of Majuli has changed dramatically. As stated earlier, between 1950 and 2016, the area of Majuli has been reduced by almost two-thirds, and 107 of the 210 Cadastral Villages have been totally or partially lost to the river. Such large-scale loss of land in an agricultural society has stressed the local economy, causing a large number of people to move off the island, and either settle as agriculturalists in nearby districts, seek work in the industrial centers across the country, or become refugees on their own land.

Most people who have lost their land have become internally displaced persons who live as refugees in squatter settlements (Figure 8). These internally displaced persons find work as agricultural laborers under an arrangement in which the laborers are paid half the produce of the land and the owner keeps the remaining half. While such an arrangement provides the displaced persons with a source of livelihood, it is by nature riddled with uncertainties as the owner of the land can at any time dismiss the laborers. To offset this vulnerability, in most of the displaced households at least one person migrates to an urban center in search of a more stable source of income. Generally unskilled, most migrants find jobs as security personnel in industrial complexes or near ATM machines. The erosion of agricultural land in Assam, and Majuli in particular, is contributing to the unplanned and haphazard migration to metropolitan cities of India.

Figure 8: A Squatter Settlement for Environmental Refugees in Majuli (photo taken during fieldwork, 2017).

Social-Cultural Impacts of Riverbank Erosion

The neo-Vaishnavite culture of Majuli is based on the primacy of the satra, or monastery, in social and religious matters. All aspects of cultural life are regulated and organized by the satra, and each and every household of the island is associated with a satra. Traditionally, Majuli has been home to sixty-five different satras (Nath 2009), of varying sizes and number of adherents. These satras have helped in preserving the cultural activities of Majuli, such as the world famous Raas Leela dance, mask making, and boatmaking. In addition to preserving the neo-Vaishnavite traditions of the island, the satras also help in preserving the antiquity of the culture of Majuli by storing and preserving historical documents, manuscripts, and ancient coins (Goswami, 2001).

The loss of land due to erosion has meant that many satras have lost a large portion of their land and have had to relocate. Bigger and financially stronger satras, like the Auniati Satra, have managed to relocate inside Majuli—the Auniati Satra alone has relocated three times in the last fifty years—but many smaller satras either close down or move off of Majuli. Of the original sixty-five satras, only twenty-two satras survive in Majuli today (Sarma 2013). The closing down or relocation of satra off of Majuli symbolizes not just the end of a Satra in Majuli, but the closure of a powerful institution of cultural continuity.

Another impact of closure or relocation outside Majuli of a satra is the feeling of alienation from the neo-Vaishnavite roots for the adherents of such satras. While most of the adherents become associated with some other satra, there are many who still maintain their allegiance to the original satra, even though it means they have to travel off Majuli to take part in the religious life of the satra. As the satras that operate off of Majuli cannot maintain the same level of control over its adherents from afar, the hold of neo-Vaishnavism among them has begun to weaken. This is evident in the opening up of new temples on the island dedicated to Lord Shiva and other Hindu deities, which would have been considered impossible on Majuli even a few decades earlier.


Historically, culturally, and economically, the Brahmaputra can be regarded as the lifeline of Assam. For centuries, the Brahmaputra has been shaping the culture and economy of Assamese society. However, this life-giving river is also a harbinger of disaster. By comparing the morphology of the Brahmaputra from 1975 to 2015, it is evident that the river has shifted to the north in Ahatguri and Salmora. This shift gives rise to changes in lifestyle, and the resultant loss of agricultural land has led to changes in the economic profile of the island. Both of these changes manifest in changing land-use patterns, wherein large tracts of forests and fallow lands have been converted to built-up areas and agricultural fields for resettling those whose villages have been lost to the river.

Riverbank erosion in the Brahmaputra has impacted the island of Majuli in three ways. First, erosion has changed the island’s geography by eroding almost two-thirds of the original area of Majuli. Second, agriculture, which is the primary economic activity of the island, has been disrupted because of land loss, and thirdly, the closing down as well as relocation of satras outside Majuli has the potential to destroy the centuries old neo-Vaishnavite culture of Majuli. Riverbank erosion in Majuli has brought large-scale changes to the geography of Majuli and in the process has modified the island’s age-old society and economy.


  1. Mauza is an administrative subdivision in India used for the purpose of revenue collection.
  2. Panchayat is a unit of self-governing institution of rural India.


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