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Majuli's boatmakers pitch in to save Assam's wildlife

Majuli’s traditional boat makers are building row boats to help forest rangers patrol the Kaziranga National Park during floods

28-year-old Kuli Kaman building a boat the traditional way
28-year-old Kuli Kaman building a boat the traditional way

Every year, starting June, Assam is ravaged by floods. The deluge submerges nearly 85% of the 915 sq. km Kaziranga National Park & Tiger Reserve, famous for its one-horned rhinoceroses, tigers and elephants. Through it all, forest rangers continue the search for stranded or injured animals—but they don’t always have enough boats.

This year, hopefully, will be different for some of the forest rangers’ camps in Kaziranga’s western range—an area which leads to 401 sq. km that was added to the park’s territory last August, and opened in November. The objective is to consolidate conservation efforts, linking corridors of animal movement, so it’s only appropriate that it’s also the site for the new boat project. A not-for-profit is working with traditional boat makers on the river island of Majuli to create boats for the rangers there; the first of these was handed over to the Panpur camp last month.

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These row boats, crafted from wood, are entirely handmade. No machines are employed, and the wood used weathers the roiling waters well. The low-maintenance boats, up to 16ft in length, cost around 35,000 to build. But the boat-making craft had been losing steam—till now.

It all started when a team from the NGO Assam Investment Advisory Society visited the park’s western range in December. The society is active in the area, supporting River Journeys and Bungalows of India Pvt. Ltd, which runs an eco-resort, The Wild Mahseer, in Balipara, 30km from the range. “A lot of animals travel from Kaziranga to this side as well, especially during the floods. And last year, our chairperson, Ranjit Barthakur, visited the area to understand the ways in which the society could contribute to ecotourism there,” says Nitu Kumar Kalita, a member of the society.

The boat being handed over to forest officials
The boat being handed over to forest officials

The forest rangers told them they needed boats for patrolling during floods, in addition to essentials like solar lights. So, the team approached the Mising community in Majuli to create boats for the camps in the area—these would be both cheaper and more eco-friendly than diesel boats.

“During the floods,” says forest range officer Debojit Saikia, “each camp is submerged in nearly 10-15ft of water. On normal days, the stretches which used to be covered on foot or in jeeps have to be navigated via boats. This can’t be done just in one nauka.” In the coming days, the newly acquired boats are expected to help not just in patrolling but also in tourism. For, though a jeep safari starts just 100m from the camp, there is a river in between. “Tourists from the Panpur area can also be ferried to that area by boat,” says Saikia.

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The project, it is hoped, will instil a sense of pride in youth from the boat-makers’ families. Generations on Majuli have been constructing these small boats, which “can navigate any river in spate across Assam and can hold eight passengers and two oarsmen”, says Kalita. But boat makers, upset at being known as nauka mistri rather than craftspersons, began switching to diesel vessels, moving away from their age-old profession.

The boat that has already been handed over has been crafted by Kuli Kaman, 28, and his father Mandeswar Kaman. Kuli usually works with bamboo and wood to make utility items. In an effort to engage youth, the society and the implementation agency, Maati Community, approached Kuli for the project. His father was allowed to guide him on the design and techniques, but he was to give actual shape to the boat.

Traditionally, these vessels are made with Azar wood, which can weather the most tumultuous of waters. “Outside of Majuli, it is quite expensive to buy Azar. But here everyone plants these trees,” says Kuli. Earlier, a single piece of wood would be used to make a boat. While this practice is rare now, some of the older boat-making wisdom is still in play. For instance, only traditional instruments such as hacksaws, blades, chisels and rivets are used in the construction.

“Two of my elder brother’s sons have now expressed an interest to learn the craft. They will be assisting me. Most of the Mising youth from Majuli head to cities and towns for work. But those who stay back should learn boat-making as floods are part of our lives, and at that time these country boats form a link between the island and the mainland,” says Kuli.

The camp boat stands out not just for its fine craftsmanship but also for its artwork. Contemporary artist Bhargab Dutta Phukan has translated the beauty of the water lily, or bhet phool, on to the boat. The flower is particularly significant in Assam—some parts are used in medicine, others are popular as a snack with children. There was a time when the state had wetlands covered in water lilies. With construction taking a toll on wetlands and water bodies, these plants are no longer as common as they used to be.

Phukan, 22, a fourth-year visual arts student in Kokrajhar, wanted to evoke an association with the Assamese countryside. “I don’t like to display art in museums or galleries. I like to express my ideas outside the white cube space. And hence a boat was a perfect medium...,” he says.

The society will be collaborating on boats for other parks as well. “We are also close to the Nameri National Park, which faces the same problem during the floods. After we deliver three-four boats to camps in the western range of Kaziranga, we will extend the project to Nameri and other national parks,” says Kalita.

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