[Article] “Finding the mighty Brahmaputra”

Brahmaputra at Tezpur, Assam

The Brahmaputra lay like a blue ribbon winding down the heart of Assam.  Somewhere near Dibru Saikhowa, the Siang, Dibang and Lohit rivers meet to form the Brahmaputra. Upon entering Bangladesh the ‘male’ Brahmaputra undergoes a gender transformation to become Jamuna and further joins the Ganga to become Padma. In the Cretaceous period of the Mesozoic era a sea called Tethys existed between the Tibetan and Indian land mass, which may have been the origin of Tsangpo river and thus formed the Brahmaputra. Arup Kumar Dutta writes in his book “The Brahmaputra” that it is in fact older than the Himalayas.

Ancient myths and legends surround the origins of this river. According to one such myth from Hindu mythology, Brahma and Amogha (wife of sage Shantanu) had a child. The embryo of the child turned into water and became a lake near Mt Kailash, called Brahma Kund. When Sage Parshurama after committing the horrific crime of axing his mother came to Brahma Kund , his sins were washed away and his axe that was stuck on his hand as a curse was let loose. He threw the axe away, which created a gap in the Himalayas through which the Brahmaputra started to flow. The water turned red with blood and the river came to be known as Lauhitya, from ‘lahu’, which means blood. This river we know it today as Lohit.

The tales of British attempts of surveying and mapping of the river are not far from sounding like myths. The recognition of the river on the first British maps of Assam is owed to efforts of Major James Rennell. To trace the course of the river, Rennell made a journey from Goalpara in Lower Assam to the frontiers of Assam covering a distance of 22 miles by river. Though he was not able to enter the Ahom kingdom, he correctly concluded that the Tsangpo joined the Brahmaputra and not Irrawaddy. However he was unable to trace the exact course of the river. How did the west to east flowing Tsangpo, flowed east to west in Assam? The blank areas on the map of Assam were still mysteries for the British Raj.

Umananda island on Brahmaputra at Guwahati, Assam

 Filling these blanks on the map was one of the grandest tasks of British Raj especially because the Tibetan Plateau was highly inaccessible and entry of westerners into the “Forbidden City” of Lhasa was restricted. So in 1861, Indian spies trained in methods of surveying were sent to Tibet. Much of the course of Tsangpo through Tibet was mapped through the efforts of two spies, Nain Singh and Kinthup. Nain Singh was a schoolmaster from Pithoragarh and the later a tailor from Darjeeling. In 1880, Kinthup was dispatched from Darjeeling along with a Chinese lama. However, unfortunately he was sold as a slave by the Chinese lama and his survey equipments were lost. After years of travelling and series of adventures, Kinthup reached the periphery of remote Eastern Tibet. His observations, recounted mostly from memory years later became source of information on the course of Brahmaputra. Until the end of nineteenth century, this part of the world was only known through myths and legends. It was only after the Francis Younghusband expedition of 1903 to Lhasa that much of the secrets of this region were known to the western world. Lawrence Waddell an adviser to the Younghusband expedition wrote a contemporary account titled “Lhasa and its Mysteries: With a Record of the Expedition of 1903-04”. It was through his writings that a clear idea about the river was finally concluded.

Over the years, the river has not only defined the geography of the region but also shaped the social and cultural life of the people; imbibing into itself the joys and sorrows of the population living in the Brahmaputra Valley. Brahmaputra is not merely a canal of water. It is an organic living being which is growing and changing its course with time. While humans come and go, the “Mahabahu Brahmaputra” continues to flow silently. As legendary singer-songwriter Bhupen Hazarika sang:

“Bistirna paarore, Axonkhya jonre

Hahakar xuniu, Nixobde nirobe

Burha luit tumi, Burha luit buwa kiyo?”

(On your wide/mighty banks that are home to countless people

In spite of hearing their anguished cries, so silently and unmindfully

Oh you Old Luit – Luit is another name of Brahmaputra River Why do you/ how can you flow?)

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