In this riveting account of one of the greatest river-systems in the world, we accompany the Tsangpo-Brahmaputra as it emerges from the icy height of Tibet. Its journey through some of the most awesome and inhospitable Himalayan ranges had been shrouded in mystery till unveiled by intrepid adventures during the British Raj. Entering India's north-eastern portal as a mighty and turbulent river, it formed an book seeks to sketch a profile of this fascinating river, and acquaint the reader with the society which evolved on its banks, the heights of civilization it attained and the contributions made by it to the pan-Indian mosaic. Once the stage for epic battles for independence, the Brahmaputra's role and potential in the national economy continue to be immense.
About the Author:
Arup Kumar Dutta from Assam is full time author, writing in English, for adults as well as children. Known for works based on meticulous research and documentation, his books for adults include Unicornis, a comprehensive account of the Indian one-horned Rhinoceros, Cha Garam, a highly readable 'biography' of Queen Camellia, or tea, Hammer Blow etc. Dubbed as 'India's own Blyton', Arup Kumar Dutta has achieved international repute with his books of fiction for young adults. Translated into German, Japanese, Russian, Hungarian, Czech etc., some of these have won awards and acclaim at home and abroad. Two of them have been brought out in Japanese Braille, while three have been made into films. National Book Trust, India has published his A Story About Tea and The Crystal Cave in its Nehru Bal Pustakalaya series.
A river is an apt metaphor for life. It is born wends its way through the landscape of consciousness and dies to mingle in the sea of eternity. Constant change is the rule 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 placid sometimes enraged. 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.
No wonder rivers formed a vital component of the animist’s awe and worship being shaped by the human imagination into living breathing presences. Even the theistic fancy was prompted by residual animism and invested the maternal archetype to rivers. The associations made with the Brahmaputra are naturally paternal! For the people of Assam this river is 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. In a more colloquial intimate and loving way they call it Borluit or Burhaluit. It is the nourishing presence which overshadows all else in the valley and surrounding hills animates the dwellers and lends vibrancy to their day to day existence sustains their culture and shapes their imagination. The Brahmaputra for the people of this region is in fact the very soul of Assam.
Yet the river does not belong to Assam alone. Emerging from the holy Himalayas and flowing as the Tsangpo across the heights of the Tibetan Plateau, it belongs to mystic Tibet. Rushing down in furious haste through deep chasms and narrow gorges as the Siang/Dihang, it belongs to Arunachal Pradesh. The floods and alluvia it brings as the Jamuna have induced the people of Bangladesh to make this river their very own. Above all, the Brahmaputra belongs to entire India, though the nation so far has seemingly ignored this fact. Jawaharlal Nehru, in his The Discovery of India, points out that the Brahmaputra was “rather cut off from the main currents of (Indian) history.” Perhaps this lies at the root of the indifference displayed by the rest of India towards this river. It was not considered a sacred river in ancient India and the various myths investing it with holy stature grew up separately in Kamarupa, as Assam was known in the past. Much has been written about the Indus and Gangetic Valley Civilisations; hardly anything about the age old civilizations which had been erected on the banks of the Brahmaputra.
The indifference extends to scientific and technological aspects too. While in mainland India the hydro-power and irrigation potentiality of even minor rivers have been fruitfully exploited, very little has been done to tame and harness a mega river-system as the Brahmaputra. It was the very last of the major rivers in India to be bridged, the first bridge being opened for traffic as late as 1962. Our ability to manage a river and extract the best out of it depends upon a through knowledge of its fluvial-regime. Thus extensive research on the Brahmaputra and its tributaries is a sine qua non if it is to be tamed and harnessed. But serious and prolonged research by specialists like C.S. Bristow, J.M. Coleman, H. Bremmer, T. Hoffer and B. Messerli has been conducted only in Bangladesh. Not only have there been very few studies on the Brahmaputra in the Assam valley, the hazard management techniques adopted so far to tackle the grave problems of annual flooding has been based upon an inadequate data-base. As Dr. D.C. Goswami, who has devoted a lifetime to the scientific study of this river, puts it “A gigantic fluvial system with unique characteristics of flow, sediment transportation and channel configuration, the Brahmaputra river is close to a virgin when it comes to fluvial research.”
Dr. S.D. Mishra, in his Rivers of India (1970), refers to the irony inherent in this contradiction when he states that “The Brahmaputra, the river normally neglected by most writers, is probably the most significant in the present day geopolitical context.” Greater focus on the Brahmaputra can assist the nation in a two-fold way. The river and its tributaries constitute the most powerful fluvial system in India, endowed with unmatched latent energy which, if exploited, can be of invaluable service not merely to the North-East, but the nation as a whole. Possessing as it does over one third of the hydro-power potential of the nation, its exploitation can revolutionize the power scenario of the country. Yet, in the last five decades, less than 3 per cent of this stupendous potential has actually been tapped!
Moreover, the North-East is politically a hyper-sensitive zone. Colonial exploitation of its resources by the British had impoverished this once prosperous and self- sufficient region; floods of increasing intensity have ensured that the agricultural sector remains perpetually backward. Its neglect during the post-independence era has exacerbated the sense of alienation from the mainstream amongst the people, feeding secessionist aspirations and tendencies. The strategic importance of this area to India’s security and integrity hardly needs to be reiterated. Hemmed in as it is on all sides by foreign countries, forces inimical to the well-being of the nation have found a fertile soil in the North-East upon which to plant their subversive seeds. It has now been universally acknowledged that economic development of the region is the sole panacea through which the feeling of alienation can be removed and the threat to national security be combated.
And the Brahmaputra is the Key to any Endeavour towards this objective. The river-system had been a seminal element in the economic self-sufficiency of the region in the past, enabling as it did a vigorous internal trade as well as external trade with neighboring countries such as Burma, China, Indo-China, Bhutan and Tibet. We must keep in mind that though the Brahmaputra Valley had come within the pale of Aryan Hinduism many centuries ago, it had retained its political independence fill annexation by the British in the early 19th century. The river outlet provided by the Brahmaputra had then enabled the people of the region to embark on trade and cultural exchanges with the Indian mainland, which was another factor contributing to social and economic well-being. Also, the river’s role as a corridor for cultural and trade exchanges between India and the above countries imparted to the North-East a centricity conducive to prosperity. Today, given the political will and interest to harness the potentials of this river-system and eradicate the annual scourge of floods, the Brahmaputra and its tributaries can work another economic miracle for the North-East and offset to a great extent the ominous outcomes of alienation.
However, issues like these are of peripheral concern in this book. Its principle aim is to familiarize readers in the rest of the country with this fascinating river by sketching its profile. Since the book is written with the lay reader in mind, this can by no means be a strictly geographic or scientific Endeavour. On the contrary only certain broad facets have been highlighted, while data and aspects of the fluvial and hydrologic regime, which might be purely of interest to scientists and researchers, assiduously avoided or simplified. Simultaneously, a brief account of explorations in the past to unravel its enigma, and the romance surrounding them, has been given.
An objective of equal importance is to acquaint outside readers with the society which grew up on the banks of the Brahmaputra, the heights of civilization it attained and the contributions made by it to the pan-Indian mosaic. Given the Sheer length and huge size of the river, such a statement needs to be qualified. The Brahmaputra flows through three countries, possessing unique societies of their own with distinct cultures. But the modest mandate of this book entails that it focuses primarily on the Indian section, specifically the Brahmaputra Valley and the hills surrounding it on three sides. In a sense this is as it should be; though the world today knows the entire river as the Brahmaputra, technically only in the Assam section it is called by that name.
Moreover, apart from the hill districts, Assam comprises of two valleys watered by two river-systems—the Barak (Surma) Valley, for obvious reasons, does not figure in this book. Its basic aim is to trace the ethnological evolution of the society (centered around the Brahmaputra) which came into being in Assam, its history and socio-cultural tradition. But, here again, the treatment has to be somewhat broad and rudimentary The history of the Brahmaputra Valley reaches across millennia, with the powerful kingdom of Pragjyotisha ruled by Mongoloid monarchs such as Bhagavatta being contemporary to the various kingdoms which participated in the Mahabharata war. Given this vast range, it is not possible to go into great details. The multiplicity of ethnic entities in the region has endowed both color and intricacy to its culture. The complexity has been compounded by the influences of two great cultures since ancient times, those of India and China. It is impossible to delineate such a complex cultural phenomenon within a few pages. However, considering that the knowledge of the rest of India about the society of this region is woefully meager, it is to be hoped that even this broad treatment will help enhance the much needed national awareness.
Finally, the book also seeks to familiarize the reader with the intimate and intricate manner in which the river is bound up with the geography, society and economy of the North East especially the Brahmaputra Valley. The river and its tributaries find echoes in the culture and ethos of the people their folk lore and literature and in the very rhythm of their lives. A largely rural agrarian society with an essentially hydrologic culture is absolutely dependent on river systems like that of the Brahmaputra for its survival. An appreciation of this reality would I believe give the reader a proper perspective of the role of this river and its potentials.
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