It is a story of two men and five monkeys – five golden langurs. All five are inhabitants of Bhashmachal – said to be the smallest inhabited river island in the world – located in the heart of the mighty Brahmaputra in Guwahati. Cut off from the rest of the world for over 25 days due to rise in the water level, they were literally starving for the past week until the district local administration on Friday sent them food and other essential items.
“The priest and an assistant are the only human beings who live in the island and look after the Umananda Temple located there. Since boats and ferry services have remained suspended for the past 25 days, they ran out of food and were literally starving, until one of them got into contact with us through a family member who lives in the city,” said Kamrup (Metro) deputy commissioner M Angamuthu. He in fact personally took a risky boat ride across the turbulent Brahmaputra on Friday, and took with him rice, dal, mustard oil, fruits and other foodstuff for them.
“Most affected were five golden langurs who have been living in the island and are solely dependent on fruits offered to them by hundreds of pilgrims who visit the island temple every day. But with no pilgrim going there since suspension of boat services, the langurs too were starving,” deputy commissioner Angamuthu, who had taken with him several bunches of bananas and other food for the primates, said.
The island, which has over the years come to be more popularly known as Umananda – because of the Shiva temple situated there – is just a 20-minute boat ride from the Kamrup (Metro) deputy commissioner’s office at Panbazar here. With an area of just about four hectares, the island in the mid-19th century appeared to the British to be of a peacock’s shape, prompting the British administration to name it Peacock Island.
The Shiva temple in the island was constructed in 1694 by Garhganya Phukan Handique, an Ahom official, under instructions of the Ahom king Gadadhar Simha. While the temple attracts large number of pilgrims during the Shivaratri celebrations, the boat ride is an additional attraction. The island once upon a time also had a male hoolock gibbon, which passed away in the early 1990s following old age.
“We are also grateful to two local dailies which had highlighted the plight of the two priests and the golden langurs, which prompted us to swing into action. Going around the island, we also noticed a few patches of erosion caused by the Brahmaputra. We will have to get those repaired once the flood-water recedes,” deputy commissioner Angamuthu said. On Friday, the Brahmaputra was still flowing about 35 cms above the danger level.
In the absence of a direct electric supply line, the tiny temple island fortunately has several solar lamps installed a few years ago. “But for the solar panels, priest Bangshi Sarma and his assistant Khagen Kalita would have not been able to charge their mobile phones and contact the outside world,” Angamuthu said.
The island, which has a number of trees, also attracts a number of bird species especially during winter and spring. A study carried out by Shah Nawaz Jelil of Gauhati University and Pranjal Mahananda of Kalpadroom Foundation from mid-February to mid-April 2014 found 20 species of birds belonging to 17 species in the island. The list of birds spotted included blue-throated barbet, black kite, black drongo, rose-ringed parakeet, white-breasted kingfisher, oriental magpie robin, and rock pigeon among others.