It was wide, the water level was high and flowed dangerously close to the road leading to Dibrugarh, the tea capital of Assam and India city of tea.
It was the last week of April. From decades of traveling in the region, I knew that the Brahmaputra would reach such heights and widths, but only in the May-June period. It was unusual, indeed portentous, that he had already reached those levels a month earlier.
As is its nature, the river had split into multiple channels, with the main trunk a little further away. And in the distance, the blue hills of Arunachal Pradesh towered over this landscape, gazing silently.
Parliamentarian and writer Hem Barua had titled his classic Book of 1954 in its home state The red river and the blue hillbut I think The muddy riverPA Krishnan’s title for his novel about power, corruption, insurrection, kidnapping and extortion during the 1990s, is a more appropriate description, as it reflects the many issues on, in and around the river and to the valley through which it flows.
Hindu mythology guards 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 like water. Shantanu placed the ‘son of Brahma’ in the middle of four great mountains, where he grew to become a great lake: the Brahma Kund. According to the myth, Parasuram was advised to bathe there to absolve himself of the sin of killing his mother. In order for all of humanity to benefit from it, Parasuram took his ax and cut a channel on one side of the mountain to allow the river to flow into the plains below.
The Brahmaputra exerts an extraordinarily powerful attraction on all who have seen it – and much of that fascination comes from its ever-changing, even contradicting nature. He runs fast and turbulent at times – elsewhere his surface is motionless, specular – then still gurgles in eddies and small eddies.
On the bank of this moody river, a group of fishermen cast small nets in the shade of an ancient, weather-damaged tree I had seen since I first arrived in Dibrugarh, Upper Assam, decades earlier. Piles of carefully cut firewood were piled on the sand, a few meters from where the water lapped the banks.
A characteristic sight when the Brahmaputra swells and rises is thousands of clumps of water hyacinths, plucked from their shelters in ponds and bees (wetlands similar to shallow lakes), swaying along the surface, carried by the restless tide .
That restlessness is emblematic of the river almost 2,900 km journey during which it crosses three countries and changes its name four times. It is the restlessness of a jajabor or constant traveler that reflects his nature – and mine.
It has been many years since I have embarked on a series of river trips. I am older now. Even though I work long hours and keep reasonably fit, river travel, especially on this more turbulent Indian river, is not to be taken lightly. The Brahmaputra is a different entity from its peers and this difference must be recognized and respected – a lesson ingrained in me from childhood.
Views and sounds
My first sight of the river was when we traveled from Shillong, the capital of the then undivided Assam, to Guwahati as a child.
I remember being impressed with his girth, even though he is probably tighter at that point, with a captivating waist. That’s why the first bridge ever on the river anywhere in its course from Tibet to the Bay of Bengal, built around 1962, was built right there: the width and flow were just right.
I remember the entrancing show of dolphins having fun in the middle of the river in Guwahati: today you have to travel long distances to see even one, thanks to human interventions and pollution near the city.
Sometimes we would drive from Nogaon, then a sleepy provincial town in central Assam and the home of my maternal grandparents, to Tezpur and watch the ferries and steamers carrying people and bicycles. There are fewer ferries today thanks to new bridges and beautiful roads that have sprung up to connect the growing populations on both sides of the river.
Ferries carry fewer bicycles – instead, there are shiny motorcycles, small and large cars of various brands, and smartly dressed men and women (and children) on these ferries.
These are the sights and sounds I know about a river that has fascinated me since childhood, and they are comforting in a rapidly changing and uncertain world, signs of an earlier, perhaps gentler time, but also of stability and nature recognition. timeless of rivers and river journeys.
The main characteristic of the Brahmaputra is its vastness, its immensity. People who see photographs and videos taken from small boats plying the river exclaim for its size: “That’s not a river, that’s a sea”.
It begins as a glacial flow in Tibet, gains size and weight, and reaches speeds of nearly 2,000km across the broad Tibetan plateau. Until a few years ago this flow was free; these days the Chinese they have built and are buildingpower generation dams and these critical point dams are changing the nature of the river and its free flow.
The impacts of these interventions are felt downstream, but the most critical challenge for the ecosystem of the river is in the Great Bend, the horseshoe bend that the Tsangpo makes after hitting a stubborn mountain and turning on itself to scroll south towards Arunachal Pradesh.
This is where Kinthupthe Sikkimese tailor-turned spy scout sent by the Survey of India in the late 19th century spotted the great falls that later bore his name, plunging 200 feet below, giving more momentum to the Tsangpo as it thunders down the narrow gorge on his journey to Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and finally Bangladesh before evacuating to 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 prepares to build the mother of all dams – one who, when materialized, threatens to destroy the magnificent tropical and temperate landscapes, a priceless treasure of rich wildlife and stunning rugged beauty that has existed since time immemorial. And what this will do downstream of the Brahmaputra and its companion rivers, already affected by the dams on the Subansiri, Ranganadi and Kopili, is difficult to imagine.
Gelling, on the India-China royal line of 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 Brahmaputra, then Jamuna before joining the Ganges in Bangladesh, where the combined stream is named after Padma, beloved by Bengalis – not least for being home to that fish ruler, the silver eelish or hilsa.
In decades of wandering in these regions, I have learned how the river is changing along its course, for better or for worse. In these new trips, planned for different periods this year, I want to explore how it continues to impact the lives of people and communities, ecosystems and livelihoods, incomes and settlements, as well as displacement and migration.
I’m not a climatologist, but reading and talking to specialists and learning about the science of climate change made me wonder how ordinary people, especially those who have lived along the banks of the river for generations, experience these changes. How do they understand this and how do they plan to cope with the inevitable changes?
I know I can’t see everything on this trip, so I came up with a limited travel plan on this stop that was to take me to about 10 districts in Assam. In the end I manage to cover seven districts, covering over 1,000 km, on the road and on the river. Later, when I’m done with this series of stories, I intend to go to Siang and its similar rivers in Arunachal Pradesh.
Living with the river
On this trip, I sip a delicious smoked apong (rice beer) and eat curried pork with pumpkin and garlic in a chang ghar, a house on stilts. These houses are made of bamboo and hay and are accessed via a single thin log into which small steps, more like notches, are cut to create a “ladder”.
These houses, typical habitat of the Mishing tribe, are cooled by the river breeze that flows through the almost always open latticed bamboo doors. The floors are an elastic and spongy bamboo fabric which further helps air circulation.
The houses are usually placed two and a half meters above the ground, to protect the family from flooding. Bamboo and wood huts are built in such a way that they can be easily dismantled and moved to new settlements when needed, in a way impossible for brick and concrete houses. This is the traditional wisdom at work: over the decades and through the generations, the Mishing have learned to coexist with a turbulent river that can flow placid one day and swell and flood everything that meets the next.
Under the house where I am sipping for a while, there is a handloom used by the housewives to make the traditional woven fabric of bright white and yellow, a common sight in Mishing homes and which contributes to self-sufficiency and also as a source of extra income.
I will get stuck on the river shallows, get caught in a threatening thunderstorm, meet villagers of all ages and living conditions, use the school bathroom and see the work of the Swachh Bharat mission, travel on some of the best highways in the country, and listen to Bihu’s songs on the public grounds at midnight.
I will speak with school teachers, farmers, conservationists, officials, businessmen, entrepreneurs, scientists, writers, to try to understand the changes taking place in this ecosystem and its impact on people. I visit the site of a major oil outbreak, study the frequent weather changes and uncertainty it has created among the people in the Brahmaputra valley, as well as the new economy and huge infrastructure structure, driven by urban growth and built on sand.
I begin this journey with a sense of uncertainty, even inadequacy: the river is vast, it is moody, it constantly changes its character and no human being, during a journey, can hope to understand it and capture it all.
My journey begins in a thin channel. Our boat takes the fast downstream stream and runs headlong into the main stem – and suddenly we’re in the middle of a vast expanse of water. There is no sign of the banks on either side and we are the only ship in sight.
It’s disheartening, but there’s also a feeling of excitement and freedom as the boat takes me away from the toxicity of cities, pollution and politics, and I feel the crackling energy of the river and wind on my face, and look at the distant horizon where the water and the sky merge.
It’s good to be with an old friend again.
This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a non-profit data-driven and public interest journalism.