It was broad, the water level was high and it flowed perilously close to the road leading to Dibrugarh, the tea capital of Assam and India’s tea city.
It was the last week of April. From decades of travel in the region, I knew that the Brahmaputra would attain such heights and width – but only in the May-June period. It was unusual, even portentous, that it had already reached those levels a month earlier.
As is its nature, the river had divided itself into multiple channels, with the main stem a little further away. And in the distance, the blue hills of Arunachal Pradesh towered over this landscape, silently watching.
Parliamentarian and writer Hem Barua had titled his classic 1954 book on his home state The Red River and the Blue Hill, but I think The Muddy River, PA Krishnan’s title for his novel about power, corruption, insurgency, kidnapping and extortion during the 1990s, is a more appropriate description, as it reflects the many issues on, in, and around the river and the valley through which it runs.
Hindu mythology enshrines the Brahmaputra as a male river – the son of Brahma and Amogha, the beautiful wife of the sage Shantanu with whom Brahma fell in love, leading to the birth of a boy who flowed down as water. Shantanu placed the ‘son of Brahma’ in the middle of four great mountains, where he grew into a great lake – the Brahma Kund. Parasuram, so the myth runs, was advised to bathe there to absolve himself of the sin of killing his mother. So that all mankind could benefit, Parasuram took his axe and cleaved a channel on one side of the mountain to allow the river to flow to the plains below.
The Brahmaputra has a uniquely powerful pull on all who have seen it – and much of that fascination stems from its ever-changing, even contradictory, nature. It flows fast and turbulent in stretches – elsewhere, its surface is still, mirror-like – then again it gurgles in eddies and little whirlpools.
On the bank of this moody river, a group of fishermen cast small nets in the shade of an ancient, weather-beaten tree I had seen since I first came to Dibrugarh, in Upper Assam, decades earlier. Stacks of neatly chopped firewood were piled on the sand, just a few metres away from where the water lapped at the shores.
A trademark sight when the Brahmaputra swells and rises is of thousands of clumps of water hyacinths, torn from their shelters in ponds and beels (shallow lake-like wetland), bobbing along the surface, carried along by the restless tide.
That restlessness is emblematic of the river’s nearly 2,900 km journey during which it traverses three countries and changes its name four times. It is the restlessness of a constant jajabor or traveller that reflects its nature – and mine.
It has been many years since I undertook a series of river journeys. I am older now. Although I work long hours and keep reasonably fit, river journeys – particularly on this most turbulent of Indian rivers – are not to be taken lightly. The Brahmaputra is a different entity than its peers and one has to recognise and respect that difference – a lesson ingrained in me since childhood.
Sights and sounds
My first sight of the river was when we travelled from Shillong, the capital of the then undivided Assam, to Guwahati as a young child.
I remember being impressed by its girth, even though at that point it is probably at its narrowest, with a fetching waist. That is why the first-ever bridge on the river anywhere on its course from Tibet to the Bay of Bengal, built around 1962, came to be constructed right there – the width and flow were just right.
I recall the entrancing sight of dolphins frolicking in the middle of the river at Guwahati – today, you have to travel long distances to catch sight of even one, thanks to human interventions and the pollution near the city.
On occasion we would drive from Nogaon, then a sleepy provincial town in central Assam and home to my maternal grandparents, to Tezpur and watch the ferries and steamers carrying people and their bicycles. Today, there are fewer ferries thanks to the new bridges and fine roads that have sprung up to connect the growing populations on either side of the river.
The ferries carry fewer cycles – instead, there are gleaming motorbikes, small and large cars of various makes, and smartly attired men and women (and children) on these ferries.
These are the sights and sounds I am familiar with on a river that has captivated me since childhood, and they are comforting in a fast-changing and uncertain world, markers of an earlier, perhaps gentler time, but also of stability and recognition of the timeless nature of rivers and river journeys.
The Brahmaputra’s main characteristic is its vastness, its immensity. People who see photographs and videos taken from small vessels plying on the river exclaim at its size: “That is not a river, that is a sea.”
It starts as a glacial flow in Tibet, picks up size and heft and speeds nearly 2,000 km across the sprawling Tibetan Plateau. Until a few years ago, this flow was unimpeded; these days the Chinese have built, and are building, dams for power generation, and these dams at critical points are changing the nature of the river and its free flow.
The impacts of these interventions are being felt downstream, but the most critical challenge to the ecosystem of the river is in the Great Bend, the horseshoe-shaped turn that the Tsangpo takes after hitting an obstinate mountain and turning on itself to flow south towards Arunachal Pradesh.
This is where Kinthup, the Sikkimese tailor turned spy-explorer sent by the Survey of India in the late 19th century, located the great falls later named after him, which plunge 200 feet down, giving greater impetus to the Tsangpo as it thunders down the narrow gorge in its journey to Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and eventually Bangladesh before debouching in the Bay of Bengal.
It is here, in the heart of Pemako, the hidden land of heavenly spirits and eternal peace, sacred to Tibetan Buddhists, that energy-hungry China is preparing to build the mother of all dams – one which, when it materialises, threatens to destroy the magnificent tropical and temperate landscapes, a priceless treasure of rich wildlife and extraordinarily rugged beauty that has existed since time immemorial. And what this will do downstream on the Brahmaputra and its companion rivers, already impacted by dams on the Subansiri, Ranganadi and Kopili, is difficult to imagine.
Gelling, on the India-China Line of Actual Control, is the first village to welcome the Tsangpo, which at this point becomes the Siang. It will change its name three more times – to the Brahmaputra, then to Jamuna before uniting with the Ganga in Bangladesh, where the combined flow takes the name Padma, beloved to Bengalis – not least for being home to that sovereign of fish, the silver eelish or hilsa.
Over decades of wandering through these regions, I have come to learn how the river is changing along its course, for better or for worse. On these new journeys, planned for different times this year, I want to explore how it continues to impact the lives of people and communities, ecosystems and livelihoods, incomes and settlement, as well as displacement and migration.
I am no climatologist, but reading and talking to specialists and learning about the science of climate change has made me wonder how ordinary people – particularly those who have lived along the river’s banks for generations – experience these changes. How do they understand it, and how do they plan to cope with the changes that are inevitable?
I know I cannot see it all on this one trip, so I came up with a limited travel plan on this leg that was intended to take me to about 10 districts of Assam. I ultimately manage to cover seven districts, travelling over 1,000 km, on roads and on the river. Later, when I am done with this series of stories, I plan to go to the Siang and its fellow rivers in Arunachal Pradesh.
Co-existing with river
On this journey, I sip delicious smoky apong (rice beer) and eat pork curried in pumpkin and garlic in a chang ghar, a home on stilts. These homes are made of bamboo and hay and accessed via a single, slim log into which small steps, more like notches, are cut to create a “staircase”.
These homes, typical habitat of the Mishing tribe, are cooled by the breeze from the river which flows through the latticed bamboo doors that are almost always open. The floors are a springy, spongy bamboo weave that further aids air circulation.
The homes are usually set some two-and-a-half metres above the land, to protect the family from floods. The bamboo-and-wood huts are built such that they can be easily dismantled and shifted to new settlements when needed, in a way that is impossible for brick and cement homes. This is traditional wisdom at work – over decades and across generations, the Mishing have learned how to co-exist with a turbulent river that can flow placid one day, and swell and flood everything in its path the next.
Beneath the house where I am sipping apong, is a handloom unit used by the women of the house to make the traditional woven cloth of white and bright yellow – a common sight in Mishing homes, and one that contributes to self-sufficiency and also as a source of extra income.
I will get stuck on river shoals, be caught in a menacing thunderstorm, meet villagers of all ages and conditions of life, use a school toilet and see the working of the Swachh Bharat mission, travel on some of the best highways in the country, and listen to Bihu songs at public grounds at midnight.
I will talk with school teachers, farmers, environmentalists, officials, businessmen, contractors, scientists, writers, to try and understand the changes taking place in this ecosystem and its impact on the people. I visit the site of a major oil blowout, study the frequent weather changes and the uncertainty that it has created among people in the Brahmaputra valley, as well as the new economy and the framework of massive infrastructure, driven by urban growth and built on sand.
I start this journey with a sense of uncertainty, even inadequacy – the river is vast, it is moody, it is constantly changing in character, and no one human, on any one trip, can hope to understand and capture it all.
My journey begins in a slim channel. Our boat catches the fast downstream flow and races headlong into the main stem – and suddenly we are in the midst of a vast expanse of water. There is no sign of the banks on either side, and we are the only vessel in sight.
It is daunting, but there is also a feeling of excitement and freedom as the boat takes me away from the toxicity of cities, from the pollution and the politics, and I feel the crackling energy of the river and the wind on my face, and look out at the far horizon where water and sky merge.
It is good to be with an old friend again.
This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.