Mysteries of the Brahmaputra

The sturdy palace of the mysterious Ahoms of Assam.  

Its name has always intrigued us: Brahma’s Son. So this time, before we flew to the northeast, we decided to decipher it. One belief, we learnt, spoke of a drop of Brahma’s blood falling into a sacred fire. “ From which, by the will of Siva, sprang Rudra, of dark hue, with five heads, 10 hands and 15 eyes. Having seen such a son, Brahma was delighted (but he) said, ‘Why dost thou not also adore me?’ Rudra replied ‘I worship none other than that effulgence from which I sprang!’ Having thus spoken, he departed to Siva’s abode.”

We believe that most such legends contain scientific truths wrapped in easy-to-remember parables. Protected by the aura of sanctity, they are passed unchanged down the generations. Here, the mythic references could be descriptions of five sources (headwaters!), 10 tributaries and 15 glistening peaks in the highlands of Tibet. It could also explain the fact that the son, the putra, of Brahma, the Creator, is dark and turgid with silt, and as destructive as Siva, when it is in spate.

It had just got over its yearly tumultuous phase and was laying down banks of fertile soil, when we encountered it at Assam’s Nimati ghat. Our ferry put-putted across the cocoa-brown river, shouldering aside floating debris, and nestled into the side of Assam Bengal Navigation’s RV Charaidew. This 14-cabin river-cruise ship would be our home, shared with well-informed tourists from Britain, for the next week. We would sail down-river to Kaziranga, stopping every day to explore the lush banks and the hinterland.

That is how we encountered three mysteries of this implacable river. The first was a temple, with an enormous beehive-shaped conical dome, standing beside a vast, man-made reservoir reputedly dug in 1754. “Who created these?” we asked. “The Ahoms,” our guide said. The Ahoms had also built a tall grandstand to view feats of strength between animals and men. Then, on a breeze-trapping knoll, they had erected their sturdy fortress. Sadly, however, they had not left behind a single carving, sculpture or painting to show what they looked like. After holding onto their domain against the onslaught of the Mughals and the British, they vanished. We are not sure if they had come from Myanmar or China and we don’t know where they went. All we are sure about is that they left their silent monuments behind and gave their name to their state: Assam.

The next was a cheerful, riverine tribe living in bamboo huts built on stilts at the river’s edge. The Mishings have adapted their lifestyles to the moods of the river. They farm its fertile flood-plains and raise their herds of pigs between the stilts of their huts where they also set up their handlooms. They climb effortlessly to their huts using notched bamboo ladders, and their hearths lie in the centre of the bamboo-matting floors insulated by a plaster of river mud. “What do you do when the river destroys your huts and fields?” we asked. They shrugged and smiled, “We move to a safer place and rebuild them, as our ancestors have always done!” Some people believe that the Mishings came from Arunachal. We prefer another theory. We believe that that they were, originally, a Tibetan people who have, over the centuries, followed the course of the river, adapting themselves to its vagaries. Today their lives are so closely entwined with the great river that they cannot think of moving away from it. The Mishings are, in every way, the People of the River.

Finally, on the world’s largest riverine island, we encountered a remarkable faith. Here, in 1516, came polymath genius Sankaradeva. Like Gautama Siddhartha centuries before him, he revolted against the self-serving rituals and enforced sacrifices of the priestly class. Fearing that his unorthodox tenets would destroy their livelihood, they persecuted him, forcing him to flee to Majoli Island. Here he established a faith based on artistic expression. He wanted his people, including his monks, to be entirely self-supporting and not be parasites on society. They expressed their worship in dancing, music, songs, poetry, creating masks for religious theatre, and tapestry. For good administration, he established self-governing village societies were everyone met in community halls called naam ghars, without any idols, and under the guidance of a mentor. Here, they resolved their problems, shunning the intervention of outsiders. It provided the ideal of maximum governance, but no government. It continues to serve this purpose, centuries after Sankaradeva conceived it within the moated protection of the Brahmaputra. Now, however, the gradual erosion of Majoli has forced the monasteries to carry their message to the mainland.

Clearly, the river continues to play its finely balanced role of destruction for re-creation.


Getting There: Fly to Dibrugarh and then transferred by road to Nimati Ghat for short country boat ferry to ship. For more information: Assam Bengal Navigation, 3B Dirang Arcade, GNB Road, Chandmari, Guwahati781003.Tel: 09207042330/31 &0361 2667871/72/73. E-mail:

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Printable version | Mar 6, 2021 12:32:20 AM |

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