The afternoon of March 31 found President Pranab Mukherjee on the banks of the Brahmaputra in Guwahati, braving a mild drizzle. He was there to flag off Namami Brahmaputra, a five-day event that has been touted as “India’s biggest river festival” by its organisers – the state government of Assam.

By the evening, the drizzle had subsided. Just in time for the evening aarti where Hindu priests, flown in from Haridwar the previous day, manoeuvred massive metal fire lamps as they offered prayers to the river. In the background, speakers relayed a devotional hymn in praise of the Brahmaputra, sung by one of the state’s most popular musicians, Zubeen Garg.

From a distance, everything looked picture perfect; the lights shimmered on the surface of the river and a cool breeze blew across it.

Credit: Namami Brahmaputra/Facebook
Credit: Namami Brahmaputra/Facebook

‘Brahmaputra is not the Ganga’

Not everyone was impressed. Around six kilometers away, at the Kamakhya Temple on the Nilachal Hills, overlooking the river, Rajib Sarma was watching the proceedings on television. They were being broadcast live on all Assamese news channels.

“What were those priests doing exactly?” asked Sarma, a member of the Bordeori Samaj that runs the temple. “In all these years, I have never seen the Brahmaputra being worshipped like that. The Brahmaputra is not the Ganga.”

Sarma is not the only person to be taken aback by Namami Brahmaputra. In fact, the event courted controversy almost immediately after it was formally announced with a theme song accompanied by two music videos: one in Assamese, and the other in Hindi featuring Amitabh Bachchan.

At the heart of the controversy has been the name itself, which detractors contend is an import from the phrase “Namami Gange” and has very little to do with Assamese culture.

“Namami” is a Sanskrit word which means “I worship thee”. It is often used in the context of the river Ganga. A programme called Namami Gange was launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014 to “accomplish the twin objectives of effective abatement of pollution, conservation and rejuvenation of National River Ganga”.

‘Mainland India’s fantasy of the river’

The theme song and the videos have not gone down well with some sections of the public either. Aditya Khalakahri of the All Assam Tribal Sangha said the videos did not even seem to acknowledge that tribal indigenous people lived on the banks of the Brahmaputra: “The video could have included some stock footage of riverine tribes such as the Misings, if nothing else.”

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Rini Barman, a cultural commentator from the state described the videos as “patronising, Hindutva-heavy fantasia, a series of images that add up to mainland India’s fantasy of the river”.

The video has also spawned a parody by Daniel Langthasa, a musician belonging to the Dimasa tribe in Assam. In the parody, called Namami Brahmaputra Truth Version, Langthasa goes by the moniker of Mr India. He sings that the Brahmaputra has been “hijacked by Hindu Rashtra with badly Photoshopped” visuals. “Don’t forget the tribals,” he continued.

The Bordeori Samaj’s Rajib Sarma was equally scathing: “This the not the Hinduism we follow here in Assam. This is the RSS [Rashtriya Swayansevak Sangh] brand of Hinduvta being forced upon us.”

Kamakhya’s Brahmaputra

So, is the Brahmaputra not worshipped at all in the temple built for the goddess Kamakhya? It is, according to Sarma, but in a very different fashion. The river was an integral part of prayers and its water held an important position in the sanctum sanatorium of the temple.

“Every morning, a mantra is sung in reverence to the river,” he explained. “It is a sedate affair, not the sorry spectacle that the priests created that day.”

According to Sarma, the organisers of Namami Brahmaputra did not extend a formal invitation to any of the priests of the Kamakhya Temple. “Not even the deol [the head priest] was invited,” he said. Only a priest close to the current dispensation was called and asked to perform some rituals, claimed Sarma. “So basically, according to this government, people from outside the state will teach us our customs now,” he said.

But what are the indigenous customs of reverence around the Brahmaputra?

Revered, not worshipped

According to Arupjyoti Saikia, a historian of the river, there were no “spectacular displays of public and community rituals” around the river till around the mid-20th century.

“Historical texts suggest that there was a sense of submission to the river from everyone who had anything to do with the river, which was pretty much anyone living in the region,” said Saikia, who teaches at the Indian Institute of Technology in Guwahati. “However, with immigration from the Gangetic belt, a culture of praying to the river in a public form emerged, with festivals like Chhat Puja and Ashokasthami Snan”, the traditional bath in the river that marks the beginning of Ashtami mela in Kamakhya.

Parvin Sultana, who teaches in a college affiliated to the Guwahati University, said the fact that the river is the backdrop to many mythological stories shows it has always been revered by people in the state. But this deification was alien, Sultana said.

Of evolving cultures

Saikia, however, said that the “process of Sanskritisation” of the river was not new. “Tribal sensibilities around the river have been relegated to the backburner by the caste Hindu Assamese for a long time now,” claimed Saikia. The affluent urban citizens of Assam want to be part of pan-Indian cultural practices and their enthusiasm for Namami Brahmpautra, which stands for exactly that what with the Ganga-esque treatment of the river, is simply a manifestation of that aspiration, said Saikia.

The embracing of festivals such as Dhanteras, which represents an interaction of newly-acquired capital with mainland culture, in large numbers by people of the same class further proves the point, added Saikia.

Amalendu Bhattacharjee, a folklore expert from the state, concurred Saikia: “Sanskritisation of the river is not a new phenomenon, it has been happening for a long time now.” Bhattacharjee said that concerns of the river being suddenly given a Hindu identity is unfounded. “The river may not be deified, but when people bathe take the holy dip during Ashokasthami Snan, they utter a Sanskrit mantra.”

Inscriptions from the Kamarupa era, an ancient kingdom spread across Brahmaputra valley, suggest that the river was worshipped in those times, claimed Bhattacharjee.

The people of the river

Ramdev at Namami Brahmaputra. Credit: PTI
Ramdev at Namami Brahmaputra. Credit: PTI

Khalakahri of the Assam Tribal Sangha said that while cultures evolve, the festival could have been more inclusive. Three rivers – Siang, Dihang, and Lohit – which the tribals have great affection for get together at the Arunachal Pradesh-Assam border to form the Brahmapautra, but that aspect had completely been ignored, he said.

Naresh Kumbang, president of the Takam Mishing Porin Kebang, a Mising students’ organisation, had a similar complaint: “The tribal people form a key part of Assam and its culture, all of us consist Assam together. The festival and its theme video doesn’t quite seem to represent that fact.”

He added: “The Mising community practically lives on the Brahamaputra, we’ve come to Assam through the Siang, so it would have been nice had they acknowledged our presence.”

Hafiz Ahmed, president of the Char Chapori Sahitya Sabha, a literary body representing Muslims living on the riverine islands of the river, said the community was not represented in the river festival at all.

“Our cultural identity is not even recognised,” he said. “People on the chars [riverine islands] face the wrath of the Brahmaputra all the time, but a festival celebrating the river doesn’t even feature us.” Ahmed said this exclusion wasn’t new though, adding that people on the chars have always been unfairly targeted and branded as “illegal migrants”.

In spite of the criticism, the show has gone on. On the evening of April 3, yoga guru Ramdev was the special guest along with Union Minister Babul Supriyo. Ramdev, encouraged by Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal, displayed a few of his signature yoga moves on the main stage of the event.

There were not too many people in the audience to cheer him on, though. Guwahati had been lashed by torrential rains and hailstorms for the past three days. After the drizzle subsided on the first day for the evening aarti, the rains returned again and with a vengeance, almost completely washing away festivities at Namami Brahmaputra.

“Who in their right mind organises a river festival now?” asked a caustic Sarma. “Not someone who knows the old river and respects it.”