We often do not register the presence of a river in our life unless faced with severe ecological events like floods and erosions. These cataclysms force us to recognise our non-human “interlocutors” such as is the case with the Brahmaputra valley today, almost compelling us to question: has the river been a sort of eavesdropper on our activities all along? Amitav Ghosh writes in The Great Derangement that it is always possible that we are being “thought” of by other entities as well. But can the river really think of us? Does it really create spiteful floods and erosions to discipline us from time to time?

Whether or not the river thinks or acts is still impossible to determine. What is possible, however, is to take a hard look at the nature of its very existence, just like we often do with human beings. Brahmaputra by Jogendranath Sarma is a very timely book that does just that. As we grapple with high-priority ecological challenges like floods and climate change in the Brahmaputra valley region, this book finds a way to explore humankind’s deeply-embedded relationship with the river. Written in Assamese, the vital text draws on a holistic documentation of the river, ranging from its mythological etymology and historical treatment to current river-human entanglements.

Besides plotting the river in geo-archaeological and geo-morphological terms, Sarma, being an applied geologist, draws from eclectic sources to configure the river as a structural whole. Some of the discursive contents of the book deserve particular attention from readers.

Mythology and etymology

The Brahmaputra is not only referred to in oral tales, but also finds mention in several written scriptures, Sarma writes. The name Louhitya, later the Brahmaputra, is first mentioned in the Mahabharata’s Sabha Parva as the place (not particularly the river) of the “mlecchha” (possibly implying the original ethnic inhabitants such as the Bodos, Kacharis and Dimasas of Assam) king. Similarly, the Markandeyapurana also refers to the name in the context of a dwelling place, while the Vayupurana elevates Louhitya to a place of pilgrimage. Kalidasa’s Raghuvansham, written during the fourth century, describes the ancient king Raghu’s adventures across the Louhitya in the state of Pragjyotish (present day Assam). In the Manusmriti, Louhitya is replaced by Drishadvati (for the river) and Brahmavarta (for the place).

The Padmapurana tells the story of the birth of the river (Brahmaputra) as a result of the union of the ancient sage Shantanu and his wife, Amogha. The river gets its name from the brahmabirjya (the sperm of the Hindu god Brahma), which is said to have acted as a catalyst for the conception. But it is in the text Kalikapurana, likely to have been composed in Assam around the sixteenth century that the term “Brahmaputra” first finds mention.

A unique form

Having laid down an etymological explanation, Sarma further describes how the Brahmaputra, with its origin in the Tibetan Himalayas, is a classical example of a braided river, but stands apart as a unique entity. While rivers generally assume a braided shape after their descent to the plains, the Brahmaputra has a well-knitted, braided pattern even amid mountains as high as four thousand metres. Most of the tributaries of the Brahmaputra also flow in the opposite direction of the source river, once again a deviation from convention. The river’s braided course has given rise to unique land formations in the river known as chars – the sandy islands formed by the accumulation of silt, pebbles and other sediments between two courses of the river. Although these chars are dangerous – frequently and adversely affected by floods – they have been inhabited since around the nineteenth century.

The origin of the river’s braided pattern and high volume of sediments dates far back, Sarma explains. In the past two million years, the planet has been witness to four ice ages, the last of which waned only about ten thousand years ago. Because of intensive ice aggression during these times, the Tibetan plateau produced mammoth quantities of residual sediments that subsequently began to flow along with the melted ice. The presence of these large amounts of residual dregs like dense sand and stones in the valley also actuated the Tsangpo River in Tibet, the source of the Brahmaputra, to assume a braided shape in the high terrains. There are also two other recurrent reasons for this sediment production – the practice of jhum or shifting cultivation in the southern hilly regions of the valley and the rampant annihilation of forests for human habitation.

The world’s largest river island

The shape and flow of the Brahmaputra and the swathes of land it encompasses have experienced substantial alteration over the centuries. In the seventeenth century, Sarma writes, the river flowed along with the Suvansiri towards what is today the world’s largest river island, Majuli. In those days, the Dihing river, a tributary of the Brahmaputra, flowed almost parallel to the Lohit and united with it near the village of Lakhau. The broad strip of land lying between the Dihing and the Lohit Rivers was known as Majali, which simply means a wide area between two flowing rivers. Even during Mir Jumla’s invasion of Assam in 1662, the strip of land went by the name Majali. It is believed that the actual formation of current-day Majuli happened in 1750, during two terrible floods called “Shaka” and “Shakini” that continued for fifteen days, causing heavy inundation in Assam. It was a phenomenon completely unlike what usually happens with the temporary chars on the Brahmaputra. Perhaps we can speculate that the river was thinking?

Floods and erosions

Written records suggest that heavy floods along the Brahmaputra date back to the year 1241. Floods back then were a moderate menace, occurring at irregular intervals. But after massive earthquakes in 1897 and 1950 caused a phenomenal change in the geography and demography of the region, floods have become a regular event in Assam. The book gives detailed statistics of deaths and casualties resulting from the flooding of the Brahmaputra since 1962 – Sarma writes that the flood of 1988 stands out as the most lethal of all. Most recently, in 2017, floods affected 5.5 million people and resulted in 160 casualties.

Understanding the history of the river helps comprehend why floods are so frequent. Construction of dams is leading to collection of water in the heart of the river, while the riverbed gets shallower, unable to contain the natural flow of the river. This has been compounded, Sarma writes, by persistent land erosion that is pushing the river off course as it transgresses its northern and southern banks.

While there are many other books that zoom in on a singular aspect of the river, they prevent unfamiliar readers from knowing the river as a whole entity. Brahmaputra not only distinguishes the river that holds a unique position in the world, it also provokes us to learn, like the anthropologist David Harvey writes, of our social relations with nature. Because I, for one, can only suggest that rivers do think and act.

Dhrijyoti Kalita is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Asian Languages and Literatures at the University of Minnesota.