Living Heritage of Boat Builders in Majuli, Assam

The Northeast Dialogue


Boats have always been very important in every civilization, due to which several scholars have focussed on boats and boat traditions of various geographical areas.

Majuli, the world’s largest inhabited river island is located in the river Brahmaputra, the largest river of Assam. Boats play a vital role in the lives of its people, essential not only for fishing, or during floods, but also for trading by river routes.Majuli Island is culturally rich, largely rural and a land of traditional art, skills and practices. Among all those traditional skills, boat making is notable. Expertise of Boat building of some communities of Majuli is considered a living heritage because they have preserved this skill from the time of Ahom rule and are continuing with those skills even today.

During the 3rd and 4th centuries however, trade was carried out with the people of present day Myanmar and East China through the Brahmaputra river route. Boat making is the main occupation of people from Salmara, Borgayon, Nawsali. Boats were stacked there during Ahom period. At present, no boat building is done in Nawshali village. Only Salmora and Borgayan are today boat building villages in Majuli.The tradition of boat making is so much prevalent in Majuli that nearly “3000 families from these villages are dependent on this traditional craft of making boats. Almost every family of these villages have boats in their house. And many of them know the art of boat making.

Among the Satras, “Auniati and Kamalabari Sattra are famous for making good quality boats in the region. Many of the museums of Satras, as in Auniati Satra, boats are displayed in different forms to showcase the culture of Majuli. In earlier times, the Satradhikars used to sail in a type of boat called as Rongkoli nao to collect dakshinas from the inhabitants of Majuli.Of the various villages of Majuli, Salmora and Borgayan is known for its engagement with boat building occupation. The Kumars of Salmora and Missing Tribes of Borgayan are mostly associated with this occupation. A close observation of the villagers reflects that the people of these villages have several customs related to boat building which is associated with their traditional expertise of boat building as well as rituals of their daily lives.

One of the best examples of the use of boat is the Palnam festival of Majuli where a boat is brought from the Namghar to the river Brahmaputra for worship. A common custom for all boat builders is that they worship God Viswakarma and the river Brahmaputra when the boat is first brought into water. A boat builder narrates that they started boat building with the worship of Viswakarma, the divine architect.

For Prasad, they use fruits like coconut, banana, apple, chola, apart from rice, dal, kheer and milk for bhog. After that boat building is started.For the people of Majuli, the river is called as Brahmaputra baba, which assigns the status of a God to the river. When boat builders complete the boat building, the river Brahmaputra is worshipped with milk, rice and banana.In Ashok Astami, a local ritual of Majuli, the mighty Brahmaputra is worshipped. One of the boat builders also talked about Tulsi puja, worshipping Tulsi plant. The Missing boat builders worship Donipolo, where Doni means sun and Polo means moon. That means, they worship the sun and moon.Boats of Majuli, despite being the lifeline communication of its people, have remained isolated from the purview of social-scientists and historians.


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