The Brahmaputra — “soul” of Assam
A river is an apt metaphor for life. It is born, meanders through the landscape of consciousness, and dies to mingle into the sea of eternity. Constant change is the way of life and a river is constantly changing; the water it carries is never the same, the face it presents is always different. Unlike hills and mountains it is not inert and immobile; there is life and dynamism in its flow. Sometimes it is calm, at other times angry. And, like life itself, its death is a beginning in the most sublime sense, a recurrent and cyclic regeneration of generations, a looking forward to a future which leaves behind yet embraces the past.
This is why primitive man, prompted by animistic beliefs, shaped rivers into living, breathing presences, gave them human names, viewed them with reverence and worshipped them. Later, despite the advent of rationalism, most of mankind continues to hold them in awe and invests the maternal archetype to rivers. The associations made with the river Brahmaputra, which flows through the Indian State of Assam are, for obvious reasons, paternal. For the people of Assam this river is Burhaluit (old man Luit) or Baba Brahmaputra!
The figure conjured up is that of an old, bearded patriarch, sanctified by millennia’s wisdom, guiding the destiny of the people of the valley and hills since primordial times. For the people of Assam in particular and the North-East in general this mammoth river is the nourishing presence which overshadows all else in the valley and the surrounding hills, animates the dwellers and lends vibrancy to their day to day existence, sustains their culture and shapes their imagination. No aspect, geomorphic, historic, ethnic, political, religious, commercial or cultural, has remained untouched by the overwhelming impact made by it — little wonder that the Brahmaputra is referred to as the “soul” of Assam.
The Brahmaputra — profile of a river
The Brahmaputra, with 1625 km of its 2880 km length lying in China, 918 km in India, and 337 km in Bangladesh, is an international river. Its source is the Chema-Yungdung glacier on the south flank of the northernmost Himalayan range, Kailash, at an elevation of 5150 metres. The Chema-Yungdung is 80-90 km from the Mansarovar Lake; the headwaters of river as well as the glacier are separated from the lake by the Marium La pass.
From its source in Tibet, where it is called the Tsangpo, the river assumes an eastward course across the Tibetan Plateau, the most remarkable aspect being that 640 km of this length is navigable — at 3,500 metre above sea-level, this is the highest navigable waters of the world, with small, box-like boats plying upon it. At the eastern end of the plateau the river passes between the mountainous complexes of Gyala Peri (7150 m) and Namcha Barwa (7756 m), and makes a dramatic U-turn before pushing southward through the eastern extremity of the Himalayas to enter India at the Siang District of Arunachal Pradesh.
Rushing down at furious speed for 200 km through Arunachal the river descends to Assam where much of its latent energy is dissipated. This results in deposition of silt in the valley which creates numerous channels, imparting an oscillating, braided look to the waters. These braided channels occupy an average width of 8 km, which distends to 10-16 km during the monsoons. Considering that the valley is hardly 80-90 km wide, by occupying over one-tenth of its span the Brahmaputra indeed becomes its dominating presence as it wends its way for about 700 km through Assam.
Below Dhubri, at the western extreme of the Brahmaputra Valley, the river turns south around the Garo Hills of Meghalaya, and enters the Rangpur District of Bangladesh. This stretch, till it merges into the Ganga 337 km later, is called the Jamuna. The combined flow is called the Padma till, 90 km later, it meets another major river, the Meghna. From then on it retains this name for 50 km more before breaking up into channels and ending its long journey by debouching into the Bay of Bengal through the Meghna estuary.
The epitaph, “mighty” Brahmaputra, certainly suits this river, for though it may not be among the longest, it certainly is one of the most powerful in the world. One reason for this is the fact that as it makes its way across the Valley it is fed by numerous tributaries, some of which are as large as the Tsangpo stem which descends from the Tibetan Plateau. For instance, at the very commencement of its journey across the Assam Valley, at Kobo near Sadiya, two other major rivers, the Dibang and the Lohit, join it in a spectacular confluence. These two are, technically, tributaries, yet they are major river-systems on their own. The Lohit, for instance, has its source in a 6,614 high peak called Yoko lying in China, and is fed on its way to the confluence by numerous rivers, some of these like Kundil and Noadihing being extremely big rivers themselves.
In fact, the Brahmaputra during its course through the valley is fed by no less than 57 tributaries on its north bank and 33 on its south. The principal north bank tributaries include Subansiri, Jia-Bharali, Manas etc. Most of the north bank tributaries descend from great heights and contribute to the enormous latent energy prevailing in the Brahmaputra currents. Among the north bank tributaries the Subansiri is the largest. Called the “river of gold” in ancient times, it was renowned for the gold particles yielded by the sediments it carried. The south bank tributaries, such as the Noadihing, Disang, Dikhow and Dhansiri, are smaller and less powerful. But, because they too have intricate webs of tributaries and sub-tributaries, they add enormously to the volume of water carried by the primary flow.
Add to this the fact that the Himalayas through which the Brahmaputra and many of its tributaries flow displays a high degree of lithological erodibility, it is no wonder that the Brahmaputra ranks very high among the major rivers of the world in terms of discharge and sediment yield. In terms of discharge at its point of debouching it is placed fourth in the world after the Amazon, Congo and Yangtze, while in terms of sediment yield it ranks second in the world after the Yellow river.
The Brahmaputra — facilitator of trade
By facilitating trade and commerce, rivers have always been vital economic assets for any community and the Brahmaputra was no exception. Since time immemorial it and its tributaries had been acting as channels for commercial exchange in three ways — trade with neighbouring countries like Myanmar, China, Tibet and Bhutan, with mainland India, and internal trade within the region and with the hill-tribes.
In the past internal trade was not wide-spread, cattle being one of the few items subjected to large-scale trading. Though the various ruling houses minted coins, these were primarily used for external trade and the barter system was in vogue. However, vigorous localised internal trade was carried on in haats or weekly markets, where villagers would gather to exchange surplus products. Also, the valley had a long tradition of bartering goods with the tribes living in the surrounding hills, as well as with Bhutanese traders, in markets situated at dwars or passes, of which Shatdwar or seven-passes was the most well known.
Assam did not have a well-defined trading class, but folk-lore does mention the presence of saudagars, or river-merchants, in Assamese society, who would send their flotilla of huge trading vessels to mainland India. But, in general, import and export in the valley was carried on by traders from mainland India. The westward Brahmaputra-Ganga link was a natural outlet, while access to the sea was provided through the Meghna. Assamese craftsmen were renowned for producing exotic items using ivory and cane and silk varieties such as eri, muga and pat, and these along with gold, musk, aloe wood, pepper, spikenard were exported and salt, saltpetre, sulphur etc. imported.
The presence of the Brahmaputra-Ganga link in the west and connecting land “silk-routes” in the east facilitated age-old trade with China, Myanmar and possibly other realms of South East Asia. One of the most exciting finds of the Ambari excavations at Guwahati is what is claimed to be 1st century A.D. Roman pottery which might prove that ancient valley civilisations like Pragjyotisha had contact with the Romans and that the Brahmaputra valley was a corridor through which Rome carried on trade with China.
The Brahmaputra — the alternative tea empire
Till the 19th century China had been the only country to cultivate and manufacture the most popular among hot beverages — tea, whose botanical name is Camellia sinensis. From 17th century onwards European traders began to import tea from China; though tea did not catch the fancy of Europeans, the British took to the beverage like fish to water, and a lucrative “home market” was created. Thus, in the early 19th century, when political developments led to the possibility that China might stop exporting this valuable commodity, the British frantically set about erecting an alternative tea empire of their own.
Assam was absolutely suited to this endeavour. The tea-plant was discovered to be growing wild in this region. Equally pertinent was the presence of a navigable river across which the finished product could be transported first to Kolkata and then on to England. In fact, Brahmaputra was involved with every aspect of the Indian tea industry since its inception — key individuals responsible for its successful genesis, such as Robert Bruce and Charles Alexander Bruce were trader-adventurers who traversed the Brahmaputra-Ganga route. Similarly, the Scientific Commission set up by Lord Bentinck to explore the feasibility of growing tea in the valley, had had to make an arduous voyage by country boat by the same route.
The very first consignment of 46 chests of “Assam tea” travelled on country boats to Kolkata and finally by ship to London auctions on May 8, 1838. Since then, despite many ups and downs, the Indian tea industry has not looked back, with areas such as Dibrugarh, Jorhat, Lakhimpur, Darrang, etc. becoming centres of tea cultivation and manufacture. Indian tea travelled from the Brahmaputra valley to Cachar and Bengal, including the famous tea growing areas in Darjeeling, and Nilgiris and other places of India and abroad. Today, the picturesque tea-plantations of Assam with their quaint, British-era bungalows, continue to make the best teas in the world and provide employment to lakhs of people. Moreover, the belated emergence of small tea-growers is all set to bring about a definitive change to Assam at the micro-economic level.
The Brahmaputra — sustainer of ecology
The Brahmaputra river-system is the dominating factor influencing the ecology and climate of the valley and surrounding hills. A soil rendered perennially fertile by the river-system and a prolonged rainy season has ensured the existence of an amazing range of flora and fauna. From savanna grasslands to sub-tropical and tropical forests, the region is blessed with a variety of ecosystems. Despite huge shrinkage in forest areas due to thoughtless human intervention, Assam today continues to rank high among States with forest coverage.
In the pristine past Assam was renowned as a paradise for wildlife and no other part of India could boast of such varied faunal and avian presences. Rhinoceros, elephant, wild-buffalo, mithun (bison) Royal Bengal tiger, leopard, black-panther, wild cat, civet, hyena, jackal, hoolock-gibbon, golden langur, capped langur, monkeys etc. were present in large numbers, as were the barking deer, hog-deer, swamp deer, sambar, musk deer, takin (ox-goat) etc. The bird presence included varieties of cormorants, darters, egrets, herons, pelicans, wild ducks and geese, storks, teals, kites, eagles, moorhen, jacanas, doves, parakeets, kingfishers, drongos, quails and so on. The diverse venomous and non-venomous snakes included pythons, cobras and king-cobras, banded kraits and bamboo-snakes.
Tragic destruction of forests and wildlife was witnessed particularly during the British era, when thousands of acres of forestland were cleared to set up tea plantations. British planters and administrators hunted down animals in their thousands, so much so that while some species suffered extinction, others were taken to the brink. Little wonder than that Assam has some of the most endangered species of fauna in the world, as contained in the Red Data book of International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, like the Great Indian one-horned rhinoceros, pygmy hog, golden langur, white-winged wood duck, freshwater dolphin and the gharial.
Today, the remnants of wild life population in Assam survive precariously in numerous wildlife parks and sanctuaries, each sustained by the Brahmaputra and its tributaries. Wildlife preserves such as the world-famous Kaziranga National Park and Manas National Park, as well as others like Dibru-Saikhowa, Orang, Nameri, Pabha, Sonai-Rupai, Laokhowa, Pabitora etc. are invariably located on the flood-plains of the Brahmaputra or its tributaries, and prove to be attractions for tourists and wild life lovers.
The Brahmaputra — cultural amalgamation
The absolute dependence on the Brahmaputra river system had led to an amalgamation of agricultural and hydrologic facets to the culture in the valley. Rituals involving water-bodies mirror this. The pani-tola ceremony during Assamese marriages can be cited as an example. During a marriage women of the household make periodic and ceremonial trips to the river-bank or water-tanks to fetch water with which to bathe the bride and groom. Folk songs, called biya-nam are sung in chorus by them on the way, accompanied by uruli, a peculiar form of ululation.
An important asset of an agricultural society is cattle which earlier used to denote the wealth of a family, and these are endowed with importance. Thus, during Rongali-bihu, one day is devoted to them, called garu-bihu or cattle-bihu. On this day domestic cattle are taken to the river bank, rubbed with turmeric and black-gram paste, and bathed. Children sing:
Lao kha, bengena kha,
Basare basare barhi ja,
Maak soru, baapek soru,
Toi hobi bar garu.
(Eat gourd and aubergine and grow from year to year. Your mother and father may be small, but you will grow up to be a big cow).
Another illustration of the merger of the agrarian with hydrologic is community fishing in shallow water-bodies. For a society in which fish is a primary source of nourishment, catching them assumes ritualistic significance. Moreover, numerous rural beliefs are centred on fish. Professional fishermen sing songs in praise of a river or a water-body called machmoriya geet, similar to songs sung be boatmen, which are called naoriya geet. There is a tradition amongst the people of offering prayers and oblations to water-bodies before commencing community fishing. Fish is also traditionally gifted on important occasions such as marriage or birth of a child. The above are but just a few instances of the intimate relation which the people have with the Brahmaputra river-system and the merger of the agrarian and hydrologic in the culture of the valley.
The Brahmaputra — trade potential
In the past the presence of this mammoth river system had resulted in the North-East in general and Assam in particular, retaining its geo-political centricity, political independence and economic self-sufficiency. During the colonial period the North-East was reduced to being a remote outpost of Britain’s vast Indian empire, a peripheral position it retains even today. The creation of East Pakistan (later to become Bangladesh), and the Northeast’s tenuous link to mainland India through a narrow “chicken-neck”, had exacerbated the sense of being cut off from the mainstream, especially since the vital Brahmaputra-Ganga link was severed.
The link had been used from time immemorial to carry on trade and commerce with mainland India — when this arterial route was cut off, a bottleneck was created with the rest of the country, contributing to economic, trade and commercial stagnation. Fortunately, the realization that the North-East must be opened out both to the east and west if the sense of alienation is to be combated has sunk in. As we know, the Look East Policy, now rechristened as the Act East Policy, envisages land connectivity between the North-East and nations of South East Asia. The ongoing projects to construct a trilateral highway connecting India, Myanmar and Thailand, and a great Asian highway linking SAARC and ASEAN would when completed provide the connectivity so essential for creating development opportunities for the North-East. Measures such as Asia Free Trade Agreement will also help in boosting trade with neighbours and bring about political and economic centricity to the region.
It has also been politically acknowledged that a seminal key to the economic rejuvenation of this region lie in restoring the severed water communication link through Bangladesh as well as creating scope for greater and more sustainable use of the Brahmaputra and its tributaries for commerce and communication. Steps at the political and diplomatic level are being taken to enhance land and water communication between the two nations, including usage of facilities such as the Chittagong port to enhance greater use of inland waterways. Such developments will not only increase future trade prospects for the North-East, but also provide a raison d’être for corporate houses in mainland India to set up industries in the region so as to have closer access to markets in South East Asia.
The Brahmaputra — tourism potential
Occupying as it does almost one-tenth of the Brahmaputra valley’s width, this river lies at the core of any tourism strategy that may be envisaged by the State Government or private entrepreneurs. Unfortunately, the tourism potential of the Brahmaputra has not been adequately exploited so far. Since almost every facet of interest to tourists is either intimately connected to or are located within easy distance from the river, the obvious need of the hour is to create more tourism-waterway circuits instead of highway circuits. This would enable a tourist not merely to savour the thrill of a cruise across one of the most powerful rivers of the world, but also experience the diverse experiences Assam has to offer.
Because the Brahmaputra is navigable throughout the entire stretch from Sadiya to Dhubri, it is possible to traverse the course over water, facilitated, if required, by land-water connectivity. For example, majority of the wildlife reserves for which Assam is noted are situated on the flood-plains of the Brahmaputra and can be brought within the ambit of a waterway cruise. This will have the added advantage of offering accessibility to the minor yet equally fascinating wildlife reserves which do not have requisite tourist accommodation infrastructures, the cruise-boat being the alternative.
Similarly, many of the attractions for religious-tourism are located upon or beside the Brahmaputra, including the renowned Kamakhya temple set upon the Nilachal hill. Of course Majuli, the seat of the Ekasarana Namadharma faith propagated by the Assamese saint Mahapurush Sankardeva, is a river island of the Brahmaputra and its sattras or monasteries would offer fascinating insights to tourists about the religious-cultural traits of Assamese society. The tourist who is interested in features such as tea-gardens or spots of historical interests like Sibasagar will find these located at a convenient distance from the great river.
Simultaneously, there is a greater requirement for exploiting the tourism potential of the tributaries of the Brahmaputra, some of which are major river-systems by themselves. Apart from the main river itself, these too offer prospects for water-related activities such as adventure sports, white-water rafting, angling, bird-watching etc. In a nutshell, every aspect having tourism-potential is related to the river Brahmaputra and can be exploited by both the public and private sectors.
The Brahmaputra — an asset for cultural transference
Formerly, because the North-East, in particular the Brahmaputra valley, was a meeting ground for cultures of India, China, Tibet, Bhutan, Myanmar and South East Asia, they had been strategically placed for economic prosperity and cultural development. But today the region has been reduced to an eastern outpost, at the periphery of mainland affairs. The shift also has psychological implications and lies at the root of many problems of the region, especially the sense of alienation gripping the minds of certain segments of society leading to negative developments such as insurgency.
The alienation has been exacerbated by the incomprehension bordering on neglect displayed by people of India towards this segment of the pan-Indian mosaic. It is a sad reality that the rest of India knows very little about the diverse religious, societal and cultural influences which had in the past impacted upon the communities here. The diverse ethnic composition and welter of communities also make it difficult for people from outside in comprehending the common psyche of the societies of this region, and displays even less concern as to what goes on here. As it is, the culture of this region is incredibly convoluted.
However, it is expected that the opening out of the North-East towards both west and east through the Act East Policy and augmenting communication links with neighbours like Bangladesh as well as mainland India will serve to once again re-establish the area’s geo-political centricity by re-converting it into a corridor for cultural transference which it had been before being colonised by the British. It may be noted that if various ethnic groups had entered the valley in ancient times or if diverse faiths like Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Jainism, Sikhism etc. had taken root here, it had been the Brahmaputra which had facilitated these. Similarly, by acting as an asset for cultural transference in the past, it had helped in creating a vibrant society, it is expected that converting it once more to such an asset would assist in removing the cultural stagnation, as also help in familiarising the rest of India with the cultural ethos of this region. A river-related mega-event like Namami Brahmaputra, by showcasing the rich cultural diversity of the region, is a salient example of how the Brahmaputra can be used to facilitate such an objective.
The Brahmaputra — river of hope
Dhanikah, shrutiya, rajah, nadi, vaidyastu panchamah
Panch yatra na vidyate tatra basam nakaryeta
(One should not chose to live in a place which does not have prosperous citizens, learned and wise individuals, a good king, a river and physicians — Chanayka).
In placing a river among the five essentials, Chanayka in his Arthashastra highlighted the vital role played by them in bringing about prosperity to a region. A river does this by not only providing immediate requirements of life, but also acting as channels for communication between different parts of a region and other cultures and people, and by facilitating trade and commerce. This is even truer for land-locked, mountainous regions without outlets to sea-routes.
Thus Assam in particular and the North-East in general are indeed fortunate to have a dynamic and powerful river-system like the Brahmaputra and its tributaries. It is the aqueous bond that knits together the people of the hills and valleys, gives them a shared identity and shared past. The Brahmaputra is also a river of hope, for the future of the region is dependent on fruitful harnessing of the river-system and its utilisation.
The bard of the Brahmaputra has immortalised the aspirations of the people in his lyric:
Luitor bheta bhangi Pragjyotishat boi
Jeuti nijarare dhaar.
Shata shata bontire gyanar dipalire
Jilikabo Luitare paar.
(Piercing the barrier of darkness a stream of light will flow through Pragjyotisha. Earthen lamps will illuminate the banks of the Luit with hundreds of earthen lamps of wisdom).
Yes, the pall of darkness now shrouding the Valley would surely lift one day and a thousand lamps will once again light up the banks of the mighty Brahmaputra. This is a dream to be cherished not only by the people of this area, but the rest of India as well.