Umananda island uncovered
The Umananda island in Assam, which is the smallest inhabited river island in the world, holds people and primates at par.
14 Jul 2013
Umananda, an island of wonders

Not very far from Guwahati city but not too close either, perched on the gigantic Brahmaputra river, is the island of Umananda. It is the smallest inhabited river island in the world and is one with unusual stories beginning with even how it got its name. 

Legend has it that Lord Shiva lived here much to the ananda or joy of his consort Uma, another name for Parvati. Hence the name ‘Umananda’. 'Bhasmachal' is another name for this island and the story behind it goes thus: Kamdev, the God of love in Indian mythology was burned to ashes here when he interrupted Shiva who was deep in meditation;  bhasma’ – destroy, chal’ – place.

There is no dearth of reasons that make Umananda unique but none is, perhaps, as significant as its uncanny ability to sustain one of the most endangered species of primates - the golden langurs. Long considered sacred by many Himalayan people, the golden langurs are found only in parts of Western Assam and the neighbouring foothills of the Black mountains of Bhutan. Popular folklore is that two youth left a pair of these langurs here some 35 years ago and they have since survived. The species, otherwise hostile, has adapted to human beings especially the tourists who frequent the island. Their number increased to 13 at one point of time but only 5 remain now.

Some poetic British officer also conferred it the name Peacock Island because it resembled a peacock's feathers splayed in full view. Umananda stands proudly in the middle of the river Brahmaputra.


 A 10-minute ferry ride from the river banks of the busy city takes you to this island of wonder. When you reach there, time becomes an alien concept. The motor boats are available everyday from 7am to 5pm.


 Most people come to the island to visit its famous Shiva temple, which is considered one of the five principal pilgrim centres (mukhya panchatirtha) of Kamrup. It is one of the major attractions of Guwahati city.



The Shiva temple was built by Ahom king Gadadhar Singha in 1694 A.D but suffered massive devastation in the 1897 earthquake. It was rebuilt later by a local merchant who also chose to inscribe Vaishnavite slogans in some parts. It is believed that pilgrims used to first come to the Umananda temple before offering prayers at the famous Kamakhya Temple.



There are five more temples on the island - the Ganesha, Hara Gauri, Chalantika, Chandrashekhar and Vaidyanath temples. These temples have perhaps kept Umananda from public apathy.



The golden langurs live in groups and are friendly to the people who come here.


They are a leaf and fruit eating species but they equally enjoy cakes offered by the tourists who visit Umananda.


Umananda stands in between North and South Guwahati as the river parts the two. Huge trees, some very old, stand tall covering the robust rocks underneath.



The trees watch over the city, which is growing by leaps and bounds. For Umananda, the grass is not greener on the other side.



But the scene is changing now. “The trees have reduced in number. Earlier, there was only a pathway leading to the temple that was accessible, the rest was forest. Now most of the island can be reached”, says the priest who has lived on this island for over 40 years now. Man always makes ways to find God. Umananda has seen it.



Seventy-one year old Tarun Sarma from Rangia, Assam is one of the few people who stays back on the island after all tourists, priests and shopkeepers leave every evening at five on the last ferry of the day. He is one of the descendants of the Brahmins who were called from Kanauj by King Singha to perform the first puja rituals in the temple. Two other priests and two fishermen remain here.



During the 1-2 months of floods, the Umananda remains totally cut-off as the Brahmaputra is in spate. The people who live on the island survive on the ‘Bhog’ (Prasad) for the day and cook for the nights. Tea shops earn from the tourists who visit Umananda.



As a local proverb has it, 'Burha Luit Pagla Gosainor das, tak tustihle nohoy xarbanas' (Brahmaputra is a servant of Shiva. If he is kept satisfied, all disasters will be prevented); the most devastating of floods that create havoc in Assam each year has never been able to enter the Umananda temple premises. They say, if the Umananda is drowned some day, the whole of Guwahati will be under water.



The footfall of tourists has increased in the recent years since the state Inland Water Transport introduced regular ferries to Umananda. The country boats locally called 'Bhutbhuti' keep the island busy, too. The name 'Bhutbhuti' must have come from the 'bhut-bhut' sound the motor boats make.



It is not surprising that so many people find their way here to experience the sublime tranquility of the place. Love is in the air, perhaps it is an effect of the arrow of love Kamdev shot on Shiva to make him fall in love again. Many couples visit the island in search of some solace. Others enjoy the unmatched beauty of the island from the river banks of the city.



For others who don’t, a glance from afar is soothing enough.



View all photos on Flickr 

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