Tale of a river

Magical Northeast

Tale of a river

The mighty Brahmaputra, that snakes its way through the northeast of India, is both a nurturing and a destructive force. Hugh & Colleen Gantzer trace the path of this force of nature, and the lives that depend on it.

The unknown lures us. That is the adrenalin high of travel. Starship Endeavour was commissioned to go ‘Where no man has gone before’. Even on earth, however, even in our land, there are places where men have gone, settled, and built thriving old civilisations, but they are still covered in a veil of mystery. The northeast is one of them. We decided to pierce that veil in an unusual way. We planned to discover an essential part of the northeast, the amazing state of Assam, cruising the Brahmaputra on the R V Charaidew.

It was a remarkable experience. We were, naturally, a little apprehensive. As the ferry pulled away from Assam’s Neemati Ghat, and our new riverine home grew in our vision, we had mixed emotions. There, on that anchored river vessel waiting for us, we would feel the delightful frisson of a new travel experience. But the fact that we would be together with a group of strangers gave an abrasive edge to it. We needn’t have worried. When our elegant hostess, Jahnabi, introduced us to our fellow passengers, we realised that they were all well-seasoned travellers: affable and interested, with none of the touch-me-not attitudinal problems of first-time voyagers. Also, our cabin was snug with wide views of the river, the food was delightfully varied, thanks to the innovative Chef Mangal, and the service was unfailingly attentive.

A mysterious race

Besides, we would see new places, meet new people, and that is always exciting. Then, on our first land excursion, from the Charaidew, we came face to face with an unknown part of our history: the achievements of the mysterious Ahom dynasty. We were intrigued and a little irked. The Ahoms had given their name to Assam, but why had no one told us about them? These formidable people, immigrants from further east, had ruled this land for 600 years: more than the combined eras of the Mughals and their successors, the British. In fact, they had succeeded in repelling all Mughal attempts to take over their territory. In Sibsagar, we marvelled at their enormous reservoir, their bee-hive shaped red temples, and their double-storeyed pavilion from where they had been entertained by animal fights and human displays of strength and agility. Obviously, they had been a very cultured race who appreciated the good things of life, apart from being great administrators and warriors. But they had vanished as mysteriously as they had come, leaving only their monuments and their histories, and we didn’t know what they looked like.

The conversation around the dining table that night was animated. Were the Ahoms of Chinese stock? Had they really decided to rely on small bands of guerrilla fighters rather than a standing army? Did their skirmishing-harrowing-vanishing tactics drain the morale of the great, highly organised, Mughal forces, forcing them to retreat? What lessons did their successes hold for monolithic states facing insurgency? Questions sizzled like sparklers but, when they died down, there were still no answers.

River of many moods

The next morning, the Charaidew began to sail down the river. The Brahmaputra, here, was a braided waterway, splitting into a number of channels which separated and merged and separated again creating little islands, and then wiping them out overnight. The currents of the mighty river corded and flexed like powerful, liquid muscles. We depended on the keen eyes and inherited knowledge of our pilot, the slim and alert Kasem. Consequently, we started just after an early cloud-clotted sunrise, cruised through the day, and pegged ourselves securely to the sand banks at dusk. We were all very relaxed, friendly and looking forward to our next inland excursion.

Mist softened the riverscapes at dawn, cooled us with a feather-touch of moisture. Cattle grazed on the lush grasslands. We boarded our ferry, which had been snuggling like an infant to our side, then hopped into a jeep, and visited the serene Mishmis in their settlements lapped by the water. We think of them as the People of the River, with lifestyles perfectly attuned to the vagaries of the powerful, whimsical Brahmaputra. They build their houses of the giant bamboo shading their embankment roads. Their fields spread green over the flood plains, renewed by the silver-brown silt brought down by the river. They weave on looms installed between the stilts, on which they raise their huts. We asked them what they do when the river washes away their homes. They smiled and said that when the river takes land, it often gives it elsewhere on the island. They move and re-build their huts and fields as their ancestors have always done. We wondered if their ancestors had followed the course of the river down from Tibet, adapting to its vagaries down the generations.

That night we spoke about our next destination: the world’s largest inhabited riverine island, Majuli. Here, a charismatic reformer named Sankaradeva had established monasteries reflecting his aversion to idol worship and animal sacrifice and offering a direct experience of divinity through dance, music and art. His opposition to the power of priests had led to his persecution. He had fled to the security of Majuli where his teachings had attracted a growing number of followers.

The next day, touring the lush island, we delighted in Sankaradeva’s uniquely artistic creed. In little religious enclaves, hidden in trees and shrubs, monks danced joyously with drums, a guru and his disciples crafted masks for sacred performances of the epics, and a group of boat builders assured us that their profession had also been blessed by Sankaradeva. He had decreed that monks should support themselves and not be parasites on society. The far-seeing guru had also set up village societies where the serenity of worship merged effortlessly with community governance. It was an appealing, holistic way of life and we had got only a glimpse of the landscapes beyond its alluring veil. Now, however, we learn that the message of this gentle philosopher seer from Assam is spreading slowly out from Majuli and being welcomed all across India.
Clearly, we still have a lot to learn from these alluring lands.

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