Over centuries people have learnt to live with rivers. Civilisations grew along rivers. They are inextricable parts of our lives and culture but over the past 150 years this association has weakened. A collection of writings on different facets of rivers
There was a time when there was a river in everybody’s life. Cultures developed alongside rivers. Rivers sustained farmlands; they were home to a variety of fish; they were conduits of commerce and cultural exchange. People followed waterways, from canals to great rivers, to build businesses, communities and new lives. Rivers were revered and feared. The river was a playmate to a child to splash about or joy for a woman after a hard day’s work. A river could also be the unpredictable elder who inspired awe. Flooding at many times turned a harbinger of life and prosperity into a raging torrent that destroyed human lives and ruined crops, leading to food shortages and starvation.
But people learned to live with such vagaries. They learnt about its ebbs and flows. They tried to avoid places where its raging waters would strike, and settle where it would be at its nurturing best. They learnt to make use of the silt left by its floodwaters and to avoid the sand which harmed their crops. But even then rivers flooded, changed courses and wreaked havoc. People learnt to take that in their stride, sometimes with wit our folklore is replete with.
Over the past 150 years or so, this connection has been severed. The change happened sometime during colonial rule. Colonial water planners and water engineers introduced the idea of tapping rivers. Colonial intervention transformed seasonally inundated floodplains into sites for irrigation, involving construction of barrages and weirs. But colonial understanding of hydrology could not come to terms with the idiosyncrasies of Indian rivers. Replete with sand and sediment, most of them refused to flow between banks. Unfortunately, our planners did not take note of this failure of the colonial state when they devised plans for Indian rivers.
At the same time, the people also lost the spiritual connect with rivers. There is probably a river in each of our lives. But it is distant. Today many grow into adulthood without having seen a river in its full glory. Many of the mighty rivers have been reduced to a trickle.
A lot of us still venerate rivers. In fact, the number of pilgrims thronging the sites associated with big rivers, the Ganga, Yamuna and the Brahmaputra, seems to be growing. But there is a discord between such ritual veneration and the ways we treat our rivers. Every pilgrimage adds to the burden of trash on rivers. Many of our rivers have turned into veritable sewers. Some of them are toxic cesspools. We have even lost rivers—we are a generation that has turned flowing fresh water rivers into rivers of sewage and garbage. Today in official documents these rivers have been renamed as drains. There cannot be a bigger loss, a bigger travesty.
In this Independence Day special, we bring this collection of writings to celebrate the river—what it was in our lives and what it must be tomorrow. India’s independence is meaningless if we cannot save our rivers.
My entire childhood and young adulthood had passed in close connection with rivers, so it was like a great viraha (pain of separation) when I found that my marital home did not have a river flowing right next to it. But soon I was introduced to three small rivers flowing nearby. The Chudaman river is also known as the Khadak (boulder) river because its path lies between huge black boulders.
Compared with the big boulders, the tiny river sliding between them struck one as too small, even fragile, but its water was always crystal clear. Diving off one of the boulders into the doh (deep pool within riverbed) was a thrilling experience. A number of village children turned up there to learn swimming. Neither they nor we adults ever missed a swimming pool.
This river flowed in beautiful curves, enriching the farms along its banks. The banks were lush with greenery and its curves created many large and small natural dohs along its course, which held water during the four summer months when the river dried up. One very deep doh, aptly named Junepani (old water), was known to have water right through the summer into the monsoon when “new” water refreshed the river.
Some dohs were reserved for cattle to drink and bathe, some for women. Some of the shallow dohs were ideal for washing linen and heavy drapery like durries and blankets. On sunny days in the sharad (early winter) season following the monsoons, families would load their dirty laundry on bullock carts and go to the river. The accumulated dust of summer and the damp smells acquired through the long monsoon wash off easy in the river, and it is easier to dry these heavy pieces on the sun-warmed boulders than at home. Returning home with stacks of crisp, fresh linen also freshened up the people.
Using the river for daily washing jobs made sense. Washing at home would mean drawing up well water manually. After finishing chores, women would take a laundry basket and make a beeline for the river, trailed by small children. The river, for women, is a cleanser of dirty clothes, refresher of sore body and healer of hurt soul, all rolled in one. Pounding the clothes on stones, rinsing them in the running water, squeezing them out and drying them on the sand, all act as a catharsis against the accumulated hurts of a rough day. Can’t talk back to the mother-in-law? Give her sari a good pounding. Longing to grab that insensitive husband’s collar? Well, do it now! Utensils serve the same purpose. A mixture of sand and mud, and some force, and presto, both vessel and heart are clean!
All this done, women dive into the river. The children have been playing in the river or the sand all along. A little swimming against the strong current, a good scrub with fine river sand, unburdening with friends, and at the end of the long day of work we are again fresh, full of energy, and hungry! I often wonder how much of the unavoidable stress in women’s lives has been absorbed quietly by rivers over centuries. What role do rivers play in giving women the strength to face the odds heaped up against them? My family’s ancestral village of Shendurjana Ghat is flanked by two tiny rivers—the Jivana and the Devana. My husband has many fond memories of the deep friendship between children and these rivers. Since there were hardly any deep spots, children could play there unsupervised. Children spent their entire day, barring school hours, either near the river or in it. Elders would keep a close watch to ensure that no one defecated or otherwise dirtied the river or its bank. “Play” included important learning activities like grinding calcium-rich lime nuggets found in the river to make toothpaste. Then there was climbing on tamarind trees along the river to collect and eat tamarind, collecting gum from babool trees and using it to make kites. Climbing and swimming, skills for which parents pay a packet now, were learnt effortlessly. In the process, children also got lessons in independence, team-work and safety.
Time flew swiftly in collecting colourful shells and rocks and making architectural masterpieces out of sand, watching all the wonderful birds, fish, insects. Boredom, the bane of modern childhood, was never known to the river children. The eyes of adults who grew up beside these rivers light up when they talk about the river. Friendships were formed and forged, and life-and-death secrets shared in the witness of the river. As childhood turned into teenage, the river was around to absorb the intense pain of romantic disappointments. Its assuring touch would wash away the endless intense agitations of adolescence. There was no distress that the sight of the clean, bubbling river could not absorb. No expensive psychiatrists were needed for teen problems. The river was counsellor, loving elder and shrink.
The river was a mother and a bosom pal to women, children, farmers, cattle, birds, insects, animals, all. A visit to the river meant cleansing and freshening up, inner and outer. You went back from the river rested and healed. The only relic of that intense relationship left today is the practice of taking a dead person to the river bank for her final rest.
When I told my sons I was going to write about my relationship with the rivers, they were surprised. What is there to write? And what rivers? They are just dirty nullahs! The truth of this strikes me when I look at those rivers now. Sewage, plastic bags and pigs… What happened to all the small rivers that flowed through every village? First, deforestation has destroyed nature’s source of perennial flow. Second, with forests gone, loose silt has filled up all the life-giving dohs. Today if I dive into the doh where I used to, I will attain swift release through a smashed head.
Then there are the dams that have stopped their natural flow. The Chudaman river has eight dams proposed along its course. Two have already been constructed. At the spot where trees used to lean into the crystal clear water, there is an ugly wall and not a spot of green. The dried up bed of the river is now good only for dumping garbage.
Some 30 years back, these rivers would flow for at least eight months a year. Even when they dried up, there was enough water for cattle and daily needs. Farmers near the river would build small check-dams to irrigate their winter crops. The turmeric crop, for which this region was known, was made possible by the river. Today the flow does not last for even the four monsoon months. The self-sufficient turmeric cultivation is gone, and now farmers have to either invest in wells and borewells for irrigation, or try to earn enough political clout to get dam water.
But more than that, somewhere the connection between river and people has been lost. There is no desire left to connect with the river, to at least protect what is left, to once again build up at least a bit of the great relationship that is lost.
Translated from the original Marathi version by Aparna Pallavi
Six years ago, I took some of the roads and trails that pilgrims on the Char Dham Yatra follow to reach Gaumukh. I went not as a devotee but as a journalist, wanting to see the glacier where the Ganga originates, where Shiva’s locks begin to stream down, carrying the mighty goddess of a river gently to the plains.
I knew that the Gangotri glacier is only one of the sources of the great Ganga. In terms of sheer volume of water, the glaciers and rivers of Nepal are equally important sources. But I felt I could not write a book about the Ganga river basin without laying eyes on the source that most Hindus consider singular and sacred.
I chronicled this trip in the first chapter of my book Dirty, Sacred Rivers. It did not have a title yet; at that point it was far from being a book. But a central question was very much in my mind: why are the rivers of South Asia, so sacred in the minds of Hindus, so filthy and so abused? The question helped keep me focused for five years as I tried to grasp some aspects of South Asia’s water and river crisis.
I went to Gangotri and Gaumukh in September, 2007. There was some rain, a long day and night of it, but not such a deluge as recently fell in Uttarakhand. I enjoyed my visit to the bottom of the glacier because I love walking in the higher reaches of the Himalayas under almost any circumstance. But the sight of Gangotri’s magnificent snout was not the signal event of this foray into the Indian Himalayas. The really riveting experience was on the return trip. As I rode with other tourists, pilgrims and residents in one of the mountain jeep-taxis that ply the rough roads of Uttarakhand, we were twice stopped by landslides.
The late monsoon rainfall had caused sodden earth to slide down hillsides all along the road from Gangotri to Uttarkashi, obstructing the road with piles of gooey mud and rocks—ranging from pebbles to boulders the size of a small hut. The debris was cleared within a few hours, thanks to all the road- and tunnel-building equipment on hand in Uttarakhand. People who live and travel in this region are used to such delays. I have to admit I kind of enjoyed it. The roads are rough, the drivers are tough, the construction guys work fast to clean up landslides so that tourists and pilgrims in jeeps can continue their journey.
Getting stuck in a minor landslide for a while can be part of the adventure for someone like me, a stranger in a strange land; especially when one is pretty quickly freed by intrepid guys on bulldozers. But the memory of those landslides, and of having barely missed being caught under one of them, allows me to begin to imagine recent events. In June 2013 mudslides destroyed towns and people’s lives. Those landslides were magnified a hundredfold, even a thousandfold, over the typical hillslope failures that temporarily obstruct the narrow, winding roads of the Indian Himalayas.
The Himalayas are young and unstable. Some refer to the mountain environment as fragile, but maybe that’s the wrong word. The Himalayas are just doing their thing; they’re busy being the youngest (and the highest) mountain range on earth, going through their own growing pains. Walls of mud cascading down hillsides, rivers jumping their banks or changing their courses. None of this is new; it has been going on for about 50 million years. And now the rambunctiousness of the Himalayas are being compounded by anthropogenic climate change.
What is, perhaps, new is the number of people who frequent the region and the extent of construction in it, and global warming’s effect on the monsoon—altering where rain falls, in what quantity, whether it comes early, or late, or not at all. The heaviest rains in decades this early in the season fell in Uttarakhand this past June. Whether or not the deluge was due to global warming, the “atmospheric brown cloud,” normal variation or some combination of these, coming years are likely to bring more unexpectedly heavy rains.
People venture into this region at their own peril—or they ought to. The first men who tried to get to the top of the Everest knew this. Many of the thousands who now try to reach that summit each year, with all their altitude-subduing high-tech equipment, seem to forget that. Attempting to climb the Everest is relatively easy now: all you need is a lot of money and comparable fitness. But people still die there. Something similar may apply to road and hotel building in Uttarakhand so that thousands of people can reach the four holy spots on the famous Char Dham Yatra. If humans can build or travel, they will, whether it is wise or not. Thus, tens of thousands of people travel up to Kedarnath and Gangotri in buses and jeeps, where once only barefoot sadhus toiled up mountain paths for weeks to reach pilgrimage sites that were meant to be remote.
The Uttarakhand disaster of 2013, the floods in Pakistan in 2010, along with similar events involving wind or water throughout the world are usually called “natural disasters”. Digging a little deeper we frequently find that human error caused, or seriously compounded, the death and destruction that may follow extreme floods.
I also spent some time in Bihar, where floods are almost yearly occurrences. Nepal’s Himalayan rivers cascade down to the Gangetic plain, bringing tonnes of Himalayan sediment along with surges of monsoon rain, all of which once travelled on to the Bay of Bengal. That downrush created Bangladesh and Calcutta. Challenging though it was, people in North Bihar once knew how to live on their land; they adapted to the monsoon rain and silt and used it to grow crops. Then came embankments, the result of engineering dreams meant to control the monsoon and keep people “safe.”
The Kosi flood of 2008 was called a natural disaster after a section of the Kosi embankment crumbled under far less than catastrophic stress. But the catastrophe was not monsoon rain; the biggest problem was that the river was higher than the land around it because sediments had been trapped behind an embankment for almost half a century. And as in Uttarakhand, construction in former channels of the Kosi river was swept away. When an embankment or a moraine breaks, water will find its way into old channels as gravity takes it downstream. Thus losses of homes and lives are compounded.
The government in Uttarakhand seems to be acknowledging that the recent devastation was not entirely natural. Before the death toll was complete, the government banned all construction along the rivers. But if there are no similar floods for five, 10 or 20 years, will people and governments remember? Or, will construction encroach once again on riverbanks and in channels that Himalayan rivers have temporarily abandoned?
All around the world there must be planning for “disasters” that may become regular events as extreme climatic events collide with misguided development. The subcontinent has a very long history, and reason to be wary of what climate change can do. The Indus Valley Civilisation may have declined, or at least decamped, because of shifting rivers and errant monsoons. Back then, there were plenty of good places to move to; it is very possible some of the Harrappan folks settled in the Gangetic plain or made their way up to the Kathmandu Valley.
But there is nowhere else to go now. The subcontinent has much at stake and challenges as great as those of any region on the planet. What happened along the Alaknanda and the Bhagirathi in June seems like a timely warning to reconsider the kinds of development that are safe and sensible in the Himalayas.
Will it be heeded?
In the summer of 1842 a young officer in the English East India Company’s army, Lieutenant Cunningham, was deputed to camp on the banks of the Sutlej river at Wangtoo in the territory of the Rampur-Bushahr state (in present-day Himachal Pradesh). He was directed to keep an eye on the Khalsa general Zorawar Singh whose armies had overrun Ladakh, expelled the Tibetan authorities from Garo and come down into Spiti. The British were nervous that Zorawar Singh will cross the river and intrude into their territory on the eastern bank of the Sutlej. Zorawar Singh never crossed the river and the Sutlej kept intact its reputation of being an important border marker due to the difficulty of crossing its turbulent stream.
However, one morning Cunningham found a caravan of a few dozen mules trundling along the route up from Wangtoo to Shipke. Enquiries revealed that the caravan hoped to go further to Garo and thence to Lhasa, where they were to deposit their wares of exotic birds, spices, forest products and handloom as the tribute of the Rampur king to the court in Peking. This trip was put to a hasty stop by the startled Cunningham, who reported to his superiors in Delhi that the Raja of that hill state claimed that they had sent this tribute to Peking “since times immemorial”.
A few years earlier in 1819, just after David Ochterlony and William Fraser had defeated the Gurkhas and conquered the region between the Sutlej and the Kali from the Gurkha kingdom, the British had organised an expedition to find a way through the mighty Himalayas into Tibet and further into Central Asia and China. In a fascinating account, Captain J D Herbert, who led this exploration, discovers that the Sutlej was the only route possible for armies to move from the “plains of Hindoostan” to the “desolate” lands of Tibet. While he managed to identify a route for the army, he also reported on the difficulties of sustaining an army in the cold desert beyond and, thus, no British army ever traversed this valley. Earlier, in 1808, Captain F V Raper had gone up the Ganges only to find that this valley did not provide a good route into “Tartary”.
The rivers of the Himalayas have fascinated the people of the north Indian plains from antiquity. These mighty streams of water, irrigating their agriculture and nurturing their lives, arbiters of their prosperity, have been deified and have become well known all over the subcontinent, even in far off geographies where they do not flow. The most famous of these today is, of course, the Ganga flowing out of Shiva’s hair. The river is a goddess with the holiest of cities on its banks. The Indus to the west gave the land between the Himalayas and the oceans its name. Bringing up the eastern flank, the Brahmaputra, as the name suggests, is the son of the creator of the world.
However, the Sutlej is perhaps the most unique of the Himalayan rivers. Known to the ancients as Satadru, it is the only river which cuts through the Himalayan mountain ranges to flow from Tibet into the plains of north India, as the British “discovered”. Of the three rivers originating in Tibet the Indus traverses the entire northern aspect of the mountains till it finds a way out where the Himalayas meet the Pamir Knot, while the Brahmaputra flows east till the Himalayas meet the mountains of north Burma before finding a way into the southern plains. The Sutlej, on the other hand, flows through gorges in between the snow mountains of the Himalayas. Other than these three, all the other Himalayan rivers originate in the southern aspect of the snow mountains. (A caveat here about the origins of the Sutlej: while the actual source of the river is Rakshastal lake, for centuries it has been assumed that this lake and its river have their source in the overflows of the Mansarovar lake).
Think about it for a moment. The Himalayas are the youngest and the highest mountain chain in the world and of all the innumerable rivers which flow through it, just one manages to find a channel through this almost impassable massif. Mythology has not recognised this “achievement”, nor has public perception (and perhaps for good reasons because the Sutlej never cradled a civilisation as the Ganges or the Indus or even the Brahmaputra did). However, this geographical freak/feat has given this river and its valley an interesting history.
In the western Himalayas, the Sutlej has been among the most difficult of rivers to cross. When the Gurkha kingdom expanded towards the east in the 18th century, the difficulty of sustaining supply lines over the Sutlej left it vulnerable beyond its west bank and soon those territories fell to the Khalsa who themselves found it difficult to cross this river in the mountains. It was only towards the end of the 19th century that the first bridges to cross the Sutlej came up, but even today roads to cross this river are rare above the Bhakra Nangal dam, the point where the river comes into the plains.
If the Sutlej was a difficult river to cross, it was an easy route through the mountains; perhaps the only route open during winter when heavy snow blocks the passes. For many decades, if not centuries, before the coming of the Gurkhas, Sikhs and British, traders from Spiti, Shipke and Garo (and sometimes as far away as Yarkand) would come down to the Lavi fair, held on the banks of the Sutlej at Rampur in the first half of November, and return with goods they had exchanged with traders from the plains at a time when all the passes had already closed.
In 1855, the road from the foothills of the Himalayas to Tibet was completed. It was the first all weather road deep into the Himalayas built by the British and followed the ridge of the Sutlej river till Rampur and from there it went along its banks right into Tibet. The Hindustan Tibet road, even today in the 21st century, is perhaps the only route which allows the Indian army easy access to the Tibetan border from the plains; perhaps one of the reasons the Chinese army did not enter Indian territory here in 1962.
A little less than a thousand miles long, the Sutlej is one of the punj ab (five rivers) which give identity to that province. The land between the Sutlej and the Ravi has historically been the agri and cultural heartland of Punjab. Today the river has been domesticated. Its dark silver flow was broken by the Bhakra Nangal dam from where it spreads colour to the Green Revolution. Its muddy golden waters now disappear for a stretch of 27 km from Nathpa, where it is diverted into deep tunnels only to flow out at Jhakri through large turbines producing 1,500 Megawatts of electricity. Between Karchham and Wantoo as well it is held hostage in similar tunnels, which generate another 1,000 MW. Thus, from Karchham—the point at which the Sutlej crosses the Great Himalayan Range—to Jhakri near Rampur town, the river is now largely history, the large dry boulders watching the growing traffic of tourist vehicles and army truck convoys trundling up and down a road, where a river once ferried traders from the plains carrying their wares to Tibet.
From the times people began to settle and live in communities, they have chosen river banks and water bodies as sites for settlements. Ancient civilisations grew on the banks of rivers or perennial streams in India, Egypt, China, South America and elsewhere. In many cases, cities continued to grow and prosper, based on roads and markets, despite the rivers responsible for the initial settlement drying up or changing their course.
Delhi—or shall we say the seven Dillis—was located in the plains irrigated by the Yamuna, or the Jamna as it was known throughout most of its pre-colonial history, and its tributary streams. The river divides the present Delhi into two unequal parts, with two-thirds of the city to the west of the river and a third to its east. All the seven cities were located to the west of the river. Why didn’t anyone locate a capital city to the east of the river is a question that needs investigation. To the west of the river the land rises gradually till it meets the outcrops of the Aravallis, while the plains extend almost endlessly east of the river. It was perhaps the combination of a river and hilly prominences not too far away that contributed to the popularity of the area as an ideal location for capital cities.
The hilly prominences of the Aravallis to the southwest of the city were to become the location of two of the first four Delhis—the first, Lal Kot and the third, Tughlaqabad. Ala-ud-Din Khilji’s Siri and Mohammad Bin Tughlaq’s Jahanpanah, the second and the fourth of the Dillis, were located in the plains, relatively closer to the Aravallis than they were to the river.
Lal Kot did not have too much to do with the Jamna in meeting its daily water requirements. The Lal Kot-Qila Raipithora area known as Mehrauli depended on deep wells, step wells, huge rain-fed and stream-fed water tanks and a few streams. Some of the wells and tanks have water even today, perhaps not of potable quality. The many step wells, deep wells, the Hauz-e-Shamsi (built in 1230 CE by Sultan Altamash who ruled between 1211-1236), the Rai Pithora ka talao, (excavated about a decade or so ago and difficult to reach now because of all kinds of obstacles, of undergrowth and clashing ownership claims), the channel of the Naulakha Nala, which now carries the untreated sewage of Mehrauli, had clean water flowing till as late as the mid 19th century. Siri, the second Dilli, the capital of Ala-ud-Din Khilji (1296-1316), met most of its water needs from the Hauz-e-Khas, a huge water reservoir commissioned by the Sultan and filled by trapping rainwater and diversion of a few streams. These streams probably included the two that today run through the IIT campus. The reservoir was repaired by Mohammad-bin-Tughlaq. His nephew Firozeshah Tughlaq also carried out extensive repairs on the site, built a madrasa and commissioned his own mausoleum adjacent to the madrasa he had built on the bank of the Hauz.
The third city, Tughlaqabad, completed in 1321, was closer to the Jamna compared to the other three. An inadvertent contribution to the strategic location of Tughlaqabad was made 90 years earlier, in 1230 CE, when the engineers of Altamash diverted the monsoonal overflow of Hauz-e-Shamsi into the Naulakha Nala. The nala was a tributary of the Jamna and due to this diversion began to have a heavy flow during the monsoons. Some of its overflow began collecting in a depression near the foothills of the Aravallis and over the next 90 years a huge lake was formed. Ghyas-ud-Din Tughlaq, chose this site to build his fortified city in 1321, using the lake as a moat for the south facing wall of the fort.
Ghyas-ud-Din Tughlaq located his mausoleum on an island in the middle of the lake while his son built his fort of Adilabad on a hillock to the south of the lake. The two forts were connected to each other with a road that ran atop a barrage that regulated the overflow of the lake to irrigate the fields near Badarpur towards the Jamna. Traces of the sluice gates and an overflow channel can be seen even now near the south-western corner of the Tughlaqabad fort, a little to the east of the main gate of the Kaya Maya Ayurvedic clinic across the road.
Despite their relative proximity to the river and the lake, neither the fort nor the town of Tughlaqabad appear to have used the water of the Jamna or the lake for their daily use, for there were many reservoirs, kunds and baolis inside the fort city and the town.
Due to large-scale construction carried out in recent times in the Bijay Mandal area it is difficult to hazard a guess about how the fourth Dilli—the Jahanpanah, established during 1326-27 CE by Mohammad-bin-Tughlaq (1321-51)—met its water needs. The Jamna, due primarily to its distance from this area, could not have been a source and therefore, wells, manmade or natural reservoirs, perennial and non-perennial tributaries of the Jamna, including the Chiragh Dehli Nala, across which Mohammad bin Tughlaq had thrown a barrage, and several others that criss-crossed the plains, could have been the sources that met the needs of the population residing within the incomplete walls of Jahanpanah.
The other three Delhis, all built on the bank of the Jamna, do not present us with a different picture. Firozabad or Kotla Firozeshah (1350s-1388), Quila-e-Kuhna (1533-1556) and Shahjahanabad (1640-1857) had their backs firmly turned against the river. They were fortress cities that had their own sources of water that included wells, step wells water tanks and, in the case of Shahjahanabad, a canal or two to meet the daily needs of the residents.
The Kotla of Firozeshah has a huge baoli, which has so much water even today that it is used to irrigate all the lush green lawns and flower beds of the fort. There could have been other wells, step wells and reservoirs that supplemented this baoli, but this is only a guess based upon the evidence found in other fortified cities and forts that preceded Firozabad.
The Qila-e-Kuhna or Purana Qila was located atop a hillock and for that reason taking water from the river, flowing next to the eastern wall would not have been very practical. The Purana Quila Baoli and the large well located next to the Hamam, both of which have water even now, could very well have been the major sources of water for the fort. The rest of the city spread out towards the north and west. The sources of water for the people can only be a matter of guess work because almost the entire area has been built over.
There was plenty of water inside the Red Fort flowing through canals, waterfalls and fountains. There was a Tughlaq period baoli that even today has plenty of water. Outside the fort there was plenty of water in the city. None of it was drawn from the Jamna next door; instead from the Jamna at Hansi and Hissar, 120 km upstream of Shahjahanabad and brought to Delhi through the engineering skills of Ali Mardan Khan, a Persian noble in the service of Shahjahan. The construction of this canal had begun three centuries ago by Ferozeshah Tughlaq. The incomplete canal was repaired by Akbar and Jehangir and during Shahjahan’s time it was extended to Delhi.
Almost every significant temple, mosque and shrine and each mohalla or katra had a well. A few are still in use. The massive baoli in Matia Mahal known variously as Baoli Matia Mahal, Masjid wali Baoli and Banjaron ki Baoli, has so much water that even now the Delhi Jal Board uses its water to meet the water requirement of Matia Mahal and a few other residential localities in Old Delhi. Those who use the name Banjaron ki Baoli for it insist that this baoli was built much before Shahjahanabad and that this place was used for organising fairs and melas in the Pre-Mughal days.
With so much water available within the city, is it any wonder that the water of the Jamna was not tapped for drinking or other purposes? The water from the Jamna at Delhi was used only to fill the moat that ran around the Red Fort and the moat that encircled the city running along the Fasil-e-Sheher, the wall around the city.
The large agricultural populations, fisherfolk, washerfolk and others that inhabited the banks of the river, including those who hung around the many temples, would have depended on the river more intimately as they would do even today. The residents of the cities that grew in this region had little or no daily contact with the river, other than boating across it or cremating their dead on its banks.
It is only in the past 120 years or so that we have begun to draw on the resources of the river, and this time has been enough to kill it. A Delhi Jal Board report on water supply in the city has this to say about the history of piped water in Delhi: “The Delhi Water Works was constructed at Chandrawal with a capacity of 4.5 MLD (Million Litres Daily) in the 1890 and the source of water supply was a row of wells sunk along the river. Delhi’s population then was 193,000. After the Delhi Darbar in 1911, Delhi witnessed an increase in population. By 1912, the water demand had exceeded the capacity and necessitated drawing water directly from the river. In 1921, a raw water pumping station was established at Wazirabad and the water was carried to Chandrawal for treatment, where the capacity was raised to 32 MLD. The population served was 304,000. Since then, the capacity of the water works has been gradually increasing in stages and stood at 159 MLD by 1948.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
During the 1980s I spent a number of years investigating religious meanings of rivers in Maharashtra. I read Sanskrit and Marathi texts, called Mahatmyas, praising the Godavari, Krishna, Bhima, Tapi, Purna, and the Narmada rivers. I spoke to fishermen and boatsmen, to priests of riverbank temples and shrines, and to other residents of riverside towns. I met women afflicted by water goddesses and listened to stories about the marvelous riches hidden in the depths of perennial pools in the rivers. I learned about sin and redemption, drought and flood, famine and prosperity. Yet despite discovering that many people place a high religious value on rivers and their water, I did not find those values translated into a concern for preserving the river’s water or its cleanliness.
I heard over and over again, and learned in many different ways, that most Marathi-speakers, like many others in India, consider rivers to be feminine. The names of rivers are almost all grammatically feminine. Public statues, such as the one of the Krishna river at Vijayawada, represent rivers as women, as do murtis in Hindu temples and shrines. (The most common portrayal of a river as a woman is the little Ganga in the matted locks of Shiva Nataraja.) Stories—such as those about Parvati being jealous of the woman in her husband’s hair—portray rivers as female beings too.
In addition, many rituals dedicated to rivers are ones that are otherwise performed to honour a woman: people in Maharashtra toss haldi and kumkum powder into the water of a river as they would put these on the forehead of a married woman. People “fill the lap (oti)” of a river by putting into it a coconut, grains, haldi and kumkum, a flower, a coin, a piece of cloth for a blouse, and other items placed in a woman’s lap to wish her fertility and happiness. Occasionally people even dress a river in a sari. In September 1988, for example, The Times of India (Delhi) printed a photograph of this rite being performed with the help of boats at a wide part of the Yamuna river.
Finally, there is a hint that rivers are not just feminine in gender but also physiologically female: the mud (rajas) that flows in them at the beginning of the monsoon transforms them into rajasvalaas, menstruating women, and dharmashastra texts warn against bathing in the rivers at this time (as they forbid men to have sex with women who are menstruating).
I also found different kinds of goddesses that people in Maharashtra associate with rivers. The simplest type iconographically are the Saati (Seven) Asaras (Apsaras). Actually, the Asaras are deemed as “parya”, somewhat lesser gods. The Asara, also called Mavalaya (“mothers”), are said to represent certain points of water bodies: certain wells, certain points in ravines, and some spots on the rocky bank of a river. Sometimes the Asaras are completely invisible, while at other times their presence is indicated by seven (or more) red marks made with kunkum powder or red-lead. People who dream about the Saati Asara see them as seven female figures—young girls, or lovely young women dressed in green or white saris, whereas in small metal plaques called taks, they appear as uniform, standing female figures, each with two hands and one head, each wearing a sari.
People who know about the Asara generally fear them as they can cause people to drown, or, more often, cause women to have trouble getting pregnant, to have miscarriages, or to bear children who are colicky, who have trouble nursing or who die young. Women who find out that they have been afflicted by the Asara placate them by placing on the water baskets full of various food offerings, including seven different kinds of fruit.
Related to the Saati Asara is another type of river goddess but she has a much more elaborate system of worship. Goddesses of this type have specific names (rather than the generic “Saati Asara”). They are generally understood to live in rich palaces in the deepest part of a river, but they also have temples or shrines on the banks of the river, with subsidiary deities (their guardians, servants or brothers), hereditary priests and other temple functionaries, an annual cycle of special occasions, and at least one major festival that draws pilgrims from far away. The best example I have found of such a river goddess is Bhivai, who has temples on both sides of the Nira river (a tributary of the Bhima, and, in turn, of the Krishna) on the border between Pune and Satara districts. Bhivai’s home is in a deep pool in the river—a pool so deep that you cannot reach its bottom even if you tie end to end the ropes from twelve rope cots and let them down into the water. Here she has untold wealth, in both fish and gold. People offer first-fruits of the harvest at Bhivai’s temple; they bring their children to be floated on rafts in the goddess’s pool (the goddess gives the children back), and shepherds offer sheep to the goddess by throwing them into the river (they too come back safely to the bank).
The third type of river goddess is found in riverside cities and towns rather than in the countryside, and is worshiped in a more modern, urban style than the others. These goddesses embody a river and are named after it. They are represented by three-dimensional female images made of plaster, stone, or metal, including festival images installed in temporary shrines or carried in a palanquin or a chariot during festivals. Modern-style festivals for these goddesses (including lectures, music concerts, tickets for communal meals, and so on) are held at a number of places, but most especially along the Krishna river, including in seven different neighbourhoods in the town of Wai (Satara District). Here the modern river goddess is Krishnabai (“Lady Krishna”), the goddess of the Krishna river.
Why are rivers represented in female form? And what does the femininity of rivers mean to the people who see them this way? In Marathi, rivers, the Saati Asaras, and the various goddesses who live in or embody the rivers are all referred to as suvasinis. The Marathi term suvasini, which has its equivalent in other Indian languages, is generally reserved for a married woman whose husband is alive. Images of river goddesses are regularly adorned with the wedding necklace and bangles of a suvasini, and the aniconic Asara are offered green glass bangles, the mark of even the poorest bride. The rite of filling the lap, performed to the river goddesses as well as directly to the rivers themselves, implies not only the femininity but also the married, unwidowed status of the person to whom it is done. And yet the rivers, the Asara, and the goddesses who live in or embody rivers hardly ever have a husband in evidence.
Theoretically, rivers that flow into the ocean have the ocean as their husband; and Ganga, who sits on Shiva’s head, is a rival to Parvati—river Ganga’s “husband” is, in some sense, Shiva. For rivers and river goddesses within Maharashtra, though, the husband is implied rather than actually present. No one seems to know exactly who he might be, and no one seems particularly bothered about the question of his identity. When I asked about the goddesses’ husbands, people would try to give me some answer, but my impression was that the question does not normally arise.
Whatever the details of the explanation, the overwhelming evidence is that the rivers, and the goddesses of rivers, are considered suvasinis, even though there is hardly ever any particular husband figure with whom they are connected. In this they are like female temple dancers (devadasis) or prostitutes, or like the heavenly counterpart of such human females, the Apsaras. None of these beings can be widowed because none of them is married to a mortal. Hence all of them are extremely “auspicious”—they stand for beauty, sexuality, prosperity, plenty, and other good things of life in this world.
A story found frequently in the Mahatmyas of the rivers of the Deccan tells about a male ascetic who practises such strict austerities that Indra fears losing his position as the king of gods. Indra sends one of his heavenly courtesans, an Apsara, to seduce the ascetic and rob him of his accumulated merit. The ascetic refuses to be taken in by this trick and curses the Apsara to become a river. She regains her proper form when she flows into the main river in whose Mahatmya the story is told.
Rivers, like Apsaras, are opponents of ascetics. For the people whose ideas I have listened to in my years of research on this subject, rivers stand for and foster this-worldly values such as life, plenty, sensuality, and prosperity. The most basic of these values is food. Rivers’ role in providing food is the foundation, I believe, for the other paradoxical feminine role that people in Maharashtra ascribe to rivers. Time and again, people refer to rivers or river goddesses as “Mother” (“Aai,” “Maai,” “Mata,” and so on). And yet rivers are hardly ever said to have given birth to children. (Ganga in the Mahabharata, who drowns her own children, is the most striking of the few exceptions.) Rather, rivers are thought of as mothers most basically because they provide food. They provide water, which is needed to make crops grow, and hence to feed people, just as mothers provide—first from their bodies, and later from their kitchens—the food necessary to nourish their children and make them grow.
Rivers’ role as providers of food not only explains their being viewed as mothers; it is also, I think, the most basic key for understanding why they should be conceived of as feminine in the first place. Rivers actually do consist of water, which really is needed to make crops grow and hence to feed people. In India, as in many other places, food is a value that is traditionally associated with women: however much the poor men may own the land, plow the fields, and do the shopping or even the cooking, it is still women who are thought of as preparing their family’s meals.
Thus, many people in Maharashtra hold rivers to be extremely important and see them as standing for some of the most basic values of human life. And yet, I found little evidence that people translate river’s connection with these values into a concern for the cleanliness—or even the sufficiency—of a river’s water. When priests of Krishnabai at Wai saw me looking from the beautiful goddess in their shrine to the tangled mass of trash floating on the surface of the nearby river, they understood and laughed at the irony I was seeing. But they have not started a movement to clean up the river, as the parents of babies being “floated” in dry riverbeds have not been inspired by the difficulties in their rituals to start movements to do away with the upstream dams. These meanings of rivers provide a wealth of richness to people’s cultural and religious lives, but they do not thereby inspire people to preserve the richness of the natural world.
I drew my first lessons in study and conservation of rivers from the river of my childhood: the then perennial Arunavati, a tributary to the Adan river that flows into the Godavari. the river flowed through my village of Manora in Maharashtra’s Washim district, silently nurturing the domestic, agricultural and aesthetic needs of the people on its banks.
I remember feeling deep love and gratitude for the river’s presence, and sometimes in the monsoons, even fear. Abode of numerous varieties of fish—whiskered catfish, silvery puntius, snake-like eels, beautiful glass fish and danios, needle-shaped garfish—this river held me in its spell for hours on end. It was an interesting pastime for us children to observe fisherfolk of the Bhoi community fishing intently.
The Arunavati was dotted with many deep pools traditionally named according to their use. There was Bail Powadani, where cattle were bathed; Ganpati Doh, where idols of Ganesha were immersed; Aasara Doh, where the river deity was worshiped; and Kumbhar Gadda, surrounded by a colony of potters. Those pools were deep and bets were cast on who could dive to the bottom to scoop out coins tossed into them during festivals.
Seeing the Adan and the Arunavati after about 25 years is a disappointing experience. As the Manora village transformed into Manora city its population increased. The small streams joining the Arunavati are now filled with tonnes of silt. The river is polluted, there is a steep decline in its water and people of the Bhoi community have shifted from fishing to less dignified occupations. Stretches of the river have become dumping ground for garbage, plastic bags and plaster of Paris Ganesha statues. There is no Bail Powadani.
The most striking change has been the depletion of fish habitats and consequently decline in fish diversity. The deep perennial pools, which were breeding grounds of fish, are now silted and shallow. I remember when I was about five, fisherfolk brought a huge tortoise to the weekly market to sell. The creature was so big that it was walking with a man seated on its back.
I have never seen such large creatures in the river during my career as a fish biologist.
Depleting fish diversity is another concern. Once-abundant local fish varieties are being replaced by invasive, alien species. Fish like the river catfish, Indian long fin eel, yellow mahseer, highbacked mahseer, fish of the Balitoridae and Bagridae families, Garra mullya, black-line rasbora and mola carpet have become fewer. At the same time, there has been a steep rise in the numbers of invasive alien fishes like tilapia, Chinese carp and walking African catfish.
However, there are rays of hope. Decentralised, community-owned, riverine conservation endeavours are showing a way out of the crisis. Communities are now becoming aware of the deteriorating health of rivers and the devastating impact on their lives. A small movement for the conservation of the Adan sub-basin is gaining momentum. I live in the hope that one day I will see my old river again.
Modern town planning has overlooked the role of waterways in shaping urban development. As road transport developed and the motor car became civilisation’s poster boy, inland water transport suffered economic obsolescence and declined gradually. Waterways, whether natural or man-made, were neglected. They often turned into open sewers. Their banks became sites for ugly slums.
Environmental degradation of cities and frequent water-logging of streets have taken our attention back to rivers and waterways. Water authorities in many countries, including India, are now taking up de-siltation projects. But the larger role of rivers and waterbodies in urban life is still not recognised.
Rivers and waterways can have a place in the transport plan of a city or metropolitan area. They should primarily be used for goods’ transport. The essentially slow nature of water-transport means such transport is unlikely to serve the needs of the eternally hurried city worker, except when it cuts considerable distances short—a ferry crossing, for example—or when it combines reasonably high speed with special comfort—a river journey on a motor-boat, for example, can be an alternative to a gruelling land journey.
To be a viable alternative to road-transport, waterways must be planned as a network. The network must effectively connect with origins and destinations of goods traffic. In the past rivers were used to transport agriculture and forest products, minerals, iron ore, coal and sometimes construction materials as well. Many in the business of such goods are sure to find water transport attractive—and more affordable than road transport—even today. But for that to happen the various depots and godowns, wholesale markets and brick kilns, the ports, railway stations and truck terminals have to be linked with water transport facilities. Even today, people peddling a variety of wares take a ferry ride to Kolkata after a train journey to the Howrah railway station from nearby rural areas.
Containerisation—use of containers that can be loaded and unloaded, stacked, transported efficiently over long distances, and transferred from one mode of transport to another— has opened up vast possibilities in freight transport. Containerisation is widely used to transport freight over oceans. But inland water transport is not yet equipped to handle this. Its modernisation requires construction of jetties and crafts equipped to carry containerised freight.
But before all that, we need minimum depths of water. Waterways have to be supplied water at times of the year when levels are low. That means waterways will have to be part of a city ecosystem consisting of lakes and ponds. Smaller waterbodies will be useful in regulating flows of the larger waterways. Untreated wastewater should not be allowed into the waterways.
Once we have all this in place, location of new industrial areas, residential sectors and recreational spaces will be guided by the waterway profile. Strong statutory support is necessary, otherwise all that I have said here will be found only in planning documents projecting great “visions” of future.
The Brahmaputra, in many ways, is a defining feature of Assam. A commonly cited description of the river puts it aptly: “It flows between sandy banks, through areas covered with dense jungle grass, past the homes of wild buffalo, rhinoceros and other large game. From decks of the river steamers, one can see scarcely any sign of population or cultivated areas. A few miles inland, however, the appearance of the country changes, and rice fields or tea gardens appear.”
The Brahmaputra was not always like what it is today. Its shape and courses first got changed several million years ago. By the late Miocene era, 11.6 million to 5.3 million years ago, the course of the Brahmaputra River east and south of the Meghalaya plateau was altered. Geologists believe that this was done possibly by an uplift along the edge of the Assam Shelf.
The Brahmaputra flowing from east to west across Assam does not move alone. It is accompanied by numerous tributaries, hills, floodplains, wetlands, sand bars and highlands in its 724 km journey. The river originates in glacier mass in the Himalayas at an elevation of 5,300 metres and flows at an altitude of 3,600 metres in Tibet but descends to a mere 150 metres as it enters Assam. Here, it is joined by two other mountain streams, Dibang and Lohit.
The distance traversed by the river in Assam, along with the asymmetrical network of tributaries and their floodplain, creates an ecosystem characterised by close interaction between hills, rivers, floodplains and foothills. These tributaries bring water from Himalayan glaciers, rainfall or numerous streams to swell the Brahmaputra. Its north bank tributaries, Dihang (31.63 per cent), Subansiri (7.92 per cent) an Lohit (7.90 per cent), which are mostly glacial and rainfed, contribute the bulk of the Brahmaputra’s water.
The north bank tributaries, like the Subansiri, Jia Bharali, Jia Dhal, Manas and the Sankosh, with their steep slopes, coarse sand and heavy silt load regularly produce flash floods. In fact, the Jia Dhal literally means flash floods. The south bank tributaries—the Burhi Dihing, Kopili, Disang and the Dikhou—behave differently. They have comparatively stable and deep channels, their water carries low silt and their beds have fine alluvial material. Some north bank tributaries like the Subansiri were also a major source of gold till at least the middle of the 19th century and Assamese craftsmen fine tuned methods over centuries to extract gold from sand particles.
The river’s fate is inescapably tied to frequent earthquakes, which bring quick changes in its course. Major earthquakes during the 17th and 18th century altered the Brahmaputra Valley’s river system and brought significant changes in the floodplain pattern. Equally affected were the Brahmaputra’s lower reaches. For instance, the earthquake of 1762, which hit the coasts of Arrakan, Pegu and Bengal, reconfigured parts of both the valley and the Brahmaputra’s course. Earthquakes also raised the surface of the river. For instance, the 1950 earthquake generated a large debris load for the rivers. This brought significant changes in the river’s water-carrying capacity. One should keep in mind that the tectonic activities of the Himalayas and the formation of alluvium in the Brahmaputra valley are closely related processes.
All this means the Brahmaputra has carved and abandoned numerous river courses. It refuses to flow between its two banks leading one observer to comment, “swift, imperious, it hurls down its multi-channelled course, oscillating slightly from bank to bank”. This braided river’s and its tributaries’ channels are continuously multiplying. Often channels are abandoned by the river. The abandoned channels are suitable for cultivation since the soil is rich and the quality of products excellent. The Brahmaputra is also known to migrate frequently from one channel to another.
Violent and active sand
The river and its water have become part of the popular imagination in the region. What did not become part of this imagination, however, was the physical journey of sand carried by the river. The Brahmaputra has carried sand particles as tiny as 0.1mm in diameter and dispersed them into the floodplains since time immemorial. According to one estimate, during floods the river transports 13 million tonnes of suspended sediment every day.
The sand is not only highly mobile but also powerful, violent and active. It can create arable land as well as undermine productive capacity of land. Sediments contain silt with fine micro-nutrients that nourish the soil, and as I will explain later, have been the key to the success of agriculture in the floodplains. But sediments also have coarse sand, which has low clay content, less organic matter and less capacity to retain water. The coarse sand depletes the soil’s productive capacity. Recent studies show how villages in Dhemaji on the northern bank have faced the angry actions of sand. And, it is the water of the river which gives sand its mobility. Not all of the sand accompanies the river till the end of its journey to the Bay of Bengal. Around 70 per cent of it is retained in the channel. This means that the river’s bed can rise over a long period.
Sand bars—called chars—are formed at regular intervals in the river. They are of varying size and nature. Most disappear in the next season but some stay on with complex vegetation cover. Their fluid nature means the chars do not allow permanent habitation. At the same time, people have found ways to cultivate these tracts. Wild animals crossing the rivers sometimes take a breather at the chars.
Flood and agrarian ecology
More than 50 tributaries with high-order drainage feed the Brahmaputra and form alluvial floodplains, playing a defining role in the valley’s agriculture. By the early second millennium, the valley’s agrarian practices were fully tuned to the Brahmaputra’s flooding pattern. Over centuries, peasants learned to overcome the challenges posed by the river and the valley has become lifeline for millions of people. Floods were accepted as a way of life, a fact which did not escape attention of British officials. They often remarked that Assamese peasants considered regular inundation normal and beneficial to the fertility of land. Flood waters left behind nourishing silt (palosh).
But the tracts regularly inundated were covered by tall grass, so the Assamese peasants began depending on the late winter crop. One observer pointed out, “The Brahmaputra and many of its tributaries occasionally overflow their banks, but the area subject to inundation is well known, and the villagers do not attempt to cultivate anything more than summer rice or cold weather crops in these flooded tracts.” These precautions meant that floods did not cause widespread destruction till well into the 20th century. For long, the river, in the language of engineers and nation-builders, remained untapped. But this was actually not the case. The floodwater from the river as well as its network of tributaries recharged the groundwater, replenished the floodplains, supplied distant paddy fields with nutrients and created vast space for varieties of fish to spawn. In the early 20th century the floodplains too were brought under cultivation. These areas became major jute suppliers to Bengal jute mills.
A busy channel
It is not known when exactly boats—in different forms and sizes—began to ply across the rivers. Over centuries local people acquired skills to build boats from locally available trees. These boats succeeded in overcoming winds and currents to make short trips. Long distance river travel was not very common, though. The small tributaries connected floodplains and hills and facilitated trade between them. Small canoes could easily make way through strong currents to reach foothills.
Traders from eastern India frequented the region through the river. In the 19th century officials of the British East India Company and traders from other parts of British India stamped their imprint on this region. Steam boats were introduced in 1847. This helped reduce the distance between Calcutta and Dibrugarh, the easternmost ghat of the Brahmaputra, navigable by steamers. Steamers carried millions to work in the tea gardens and also transported back tea (7.5 million tonnes in 1900) for a booming external market.
Social life of the river
As agriculture flourished in the floodplain, the journey of the Brahmaputra became part of folklore. With Hinduaisation of the valley, the river Lauhitya acquired its present Sanskritised name, Brahmaputra. It also discarded names given to it by tribal people: Bhullumbuthor, Loitho, Ti Lou, for example.
The river was the site of major warfare between the local Ahom and Mughal rulers. The Ahom military, with its strong flotilla of canoes, could resist the Mughal army despite early setbacks. During the colonial period the river drew the attention of the British officials as a possible route to China.
The river is central to the region, its economy and cultural history. Its banks always acted—and continue to do so—as a sacred place for cremation and pilgrimage. To be cremated on its banks was considered a path to salvation. Its different ghats are place of pilgrimage. But this presumed metaphysical purity no more holds true. The basin’s groundwater now frequently reports presence of various pollutants. This, undeniably, is slow poison.
Swedish explorer Sven Hedin, who travelled to Tibet in late 19th century and early 20th century, wrote that the Yarlu Tsangpo, as the river Brahmaputra is known in Tibet, originates in the Mansarovar lake. He was wrong. The source of the river is actually the Chema-Yungdung glacier on the south flank of the northernmost Himalayan range, Kailash. The Chema-Yungdung is 80-90 km from the Mansarovar; the river and the glacier are separated by the Marium La pass.
From its source in Tibet the river takes an eastward course for 1,625 km. Small boats ply in 640 km of this stretch, which at 3,500 m above sea level are the highest navigable waters in the world. At the eastern end of the Tibetan plateau, after passing Tsela Dzong, which lies a short distance from the Indian border at the northern edge of Arunachal Pradesh, the river seemingly gets lost in a labyrinth of steep mountains and deep gorges. It, in fact, passes between the awesome mountain complexes of Gyala Peri (7,150 m) and Namcha Barwa (7,756 m), before pushing southward through the eastern extremity of the Himalayas to enter India at Siang District of Arunachal Pradesh.
Rushing down at a furious speed for 200 km an hour through Arunachal, the river (called Siang by the Adi community and Dihang lower down in the plains) reaches Assam where much of its latent energy gets dissipated. This results in deposition of silt in the valley to which the Brahmaputra gives its name, and in creation of numerous channels, imparting an oscillating, braided look to the river’s waters. These braided channels have an average width of 8 km, distending to 10-16 km during the monsoons. The valley itself is 80-90 km wide. So the river becomes a dominating presence, occupying a tenth of the valley’s area.
Below Dhubri, at the western extreme of the Brahmaputra Valley, the river turns south around the Garo Hills of Meghalaya and enters Bangladesh’s Rangpur District, where it traverses 337 km under a different name, Jamuna, before merging with the Ganga. The two great rivers combine to create the Padma river, which 90 km later joins another major river, the Meghna. The latest entrant to the river system gives its name for the next 50 km journey. The river then breaks up into channels and enters the Bay of Bengal through the Meghna estuary.
Thus the Brahmaputra, with 1,625 km of its 2,880 km span in China, 918 km in India, and 337 km in Bangladesh, is an international river. However, the seminal impact it has on the lives of people in the Brahmaputra Valley is not duplicated elsewhere. For the people of Assam in particular, and the Northeast in general, the Brahmaputra has a nourishing presence, sustaining the culture of the region.
The river-system through millennia has been instrumental in shaping the ethnological profile of the entire Northeast. The Brahmaputra and its tributaries proved to be a conduit for the influx of heterogeneous peoples and a vital agent in colonisation of the hills and valleys and evolution of a composite society. In the past this region was covered by dense forests with impassable undergrowths and swampy stretches. The hazards of traversing were compounded by the presence of wild animals, snakes and reptiles. Rivers were the safest to travel under such conditions and river banks the most congenial places to clear and settle.
Today, the Northeast might seem geographically insular. But it was not always so. It was at the centre of a geographical universe, which had the Chinese empire in the north, Bengal in the south, the Southeast Asian kingdoms in the east and mainland India in the west. It’s location made the region an entrepot of communities with diverse cultural traits. Though Austro-Asiatic branch of the Australoids are considered to be indigenous to the region, it was the sporadic waves of migration of Mongoloid races from Western China that give the region’s socio-cultural brew it’s distinctive flavour. Most of these people came via the Brahmaputra and its tributaries, initiating a cycle of conflict and synthesis.
An exception to this riverine influx were the Ahoms, a Shan tribe from Myanmar, whose migration in the 13th century is a milestone in the region’s history. But soon after they had established a kingdom, the Ahoms began to appreciate that rivers were the life-blood of the valley and trained themselves into becoming expert oarsmen.
At the same time the Caucasoid, or what is loosely termed Aryan, migrants used the Ganga-Brahmaputra route to enter the area and merged with the Mongoloid and Austric population, making the Brahmaputra valley a unique ethnic melting pot. The migrants brought their own culture; these were later impacted by cultural influences from India on the west and China, Myanmar, Tibet and South Asia in the north and east. For instance, many features of the primary festival of Assam, Rongali-Bihu, resemble the spring-festivals of China and other South Asian countries. Also, the surfeit of water bodies, including the Brahmaputra river system, has led to an amalgamation of the hydrologic with the agrarian features of the culture. Two salient examples are the cattle-bathing ritual during Rongali-Bihu, and the “panitola” (ritualistic transport of water from river or pond to bathe the bride) ceremony during Assamese marriages.
There was strife as well. The Aryan invaders used the Ganga-Brahmaputra route to launch attacks on Mongoloid kingdoms, going all the way down to the conjoining of the two rivers at what is today Bangladesh. The Muhammadan invasions in the medieval period, including assaults on the Ahom empire, without exception involved naval engagements. The battle of Saraighat in 1671, in which the Assamese icon Lachit Barphukan inflicted a crushing defeat on the forces of the Mughal ruler Aurangzeb, marked the end of a series of battles on the Brahmaputra. Similarly, when the British arrived in Assam in response to the Ahom monarch’s call for help against the Burmese invader, they did so in a flotilla of “gunboats”. The British help came with a price: Assam was annexed. “The son of Brahma” played a critical role in shaping history again.
The Brahmaputra-Ganga link has also been used by the people of the Northeast to carry on trade with mainland India. There is historical evidence to show that merchants of the region sent huge trading vessels to far off places such as Sri Lanka, sometimes using the accessibility to the sea offered by the Meghna. And with the Brahmaputra forming a kind of corridor through the valley and connecting to “silk-routes” at the extreme east end of the river, Indians could carry trade with China. Missionary educator William Robinson wrote in 1841: “There is an open road from Upper Assam into Burma, and thence into China, by which a considerable trade in Chinese and Burmese manufactures was at one time carried on.”
The ease of commutation by rivers across the length of the valley ensured brisk commercial activity and economic self-sufficiency of the region in the past. The river-link to Kolkata influenced the British decision to erect a tea-empire in Assam as an alternative to China and introduce regular steamer services to transport the product to the London auctions.
The Brahmaputra-Ganga route not only played a seminal role in the gradual Hinduaisation of the Kirata communities in the valley, but also acted as a conduit for Hindu expansionism in Southeast Asia and transference of Buddhism later. The Hindu king Samuda, who ruled Burma in 105 AD, had gone there through the Brahmaputra route. This was also one of the routes through which ancient Indian ideas and literature travelled to Southeast Asia. Mahapurush Sankardev, the great saint-poet of Assam who ushered in religious and socio-cultural revival in the 15th century in the Brahmaputra Valley, used the river routes for his proselytising mission, and chose Majuli, the largest river-island in the world, to set up sattras or monasteries to house his monastic order.
Christianity came to the Northeast with the British via the river route. The first British missionaries reached Assam in March 1836 after an arduous three-month voyage on country boats from Kolkata, up the river Brahmaputra. It took root particularly among the communities living in the hills, and today Northeast India has a large Christian population. However, the river and the valley were a hurdle to the expansion of Islam. By repeatedly repulsing Muhammadan invaders, the Ahom and other tribal groups of the region acted as a buffer to Islamic influence of India percolating through Burma to Southeast Asia by a land route.
These are but just a few of the aspects of the inextricable bond that exists between the river-system and the valley it sustains. In the past the presence of this mammoth river system had resulted in the region retaining its geo-political centricity, political independence and economic self-sufficiency. However, during the colonial period the Northeast 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”, has exacerbated the sense of being cut off from the mainstream, especially since the vital Brahmaputra-Ganga link was severed, leading to an utter dilution of the role of this mighty river.
Today, the waters of the Brahmaputra reflect the neglect. The river, which had, according to a 5th century rock-inscription, been “full of beautiful boats”, lies barren and unutilised. Just a few boats and mechanised ferries ply upon it. On the other hand, the ravage inflicted almost every year by floods has transformed popular perception of the river being a boon to it being a bane. Construction of dams by China on the Tsangpo in the Tibetan Autonomous Region has inserted another bone of contention between the two nations.
There is a folk song that describes the devastation the river Kosi brings periodically to the plains of north Bihar. The story goes that the Kosi, alternately addressed as Dayan Kosi and Koska Maiya in the song, belonged to the Tirhut region in north Bihar and was married into a family in the western part of the state. She had to endure regular harassment from her mother-in-law and two sisters-in-law. One day they exceeded all the boundaries in abusing Kosi. Writer Phanishwarnath Renu who recounts the song in his novel Parti Parikatha, describes the conflagrations as, “a sharp flash of fire in the mound of dynamite. Koska Maharani went mad with rage”.
The abused Kosi ran screaming, shouting, to her parents’ home in the east, her tormentors close on her heels. When she was on the verge of getting caught, Kosi sought help from her brothers and their wives. After they declined, her youngest step sister Dularidai torched Kosi’s tormentors. When Kosi and Dulari looked back, they realised that thousands of people had died and hundreds of thousands of acres of land made fallow. Kosi’s rage turned to guilt and she said that wherever drops of her tears had fallen, the soul of the earth would survive, and after many yugas, every human being would be delivered of sins and the earth would become green and life would emerge in different hues.
Renu recounts this folk song at the beginning of Parti Parikatha, which is also a parable of the post-Independence reconstruction and an allegory to the cultural and social fallowness in the country. The recurring flood in the novel becomes a sign of destruction for the older, decaying world as well as promising a new and greener earth.
Parti Parikatha was published in 1957. Amritlal Nagar’s Amrit aur Vish published 11 years later has a similar allegory: the flooding Gomti brings the world in and around Lucknow crashing down in 1960. Surrounded by flood waters and left alone in their decaying mansion, an old aristocrat and his mistress spend the days taunting each other in the meanest language possible. The decadent world evoked in the novel is in some ways akin to that evoked in Premchand’s famous short story Shatranj ke Khiladi where two aristocrats could fight and die over a game of chess but not raise a finger against the dethronement of their Nawab.
But flood also brings in many other aspects of society into sharp relief, contrasting the rich with the poor, the rural with the urban, the animal with the human, moments of selfless service with self aggrandisement of the worst kind. For some it becomes a spectacle, where people go out boating to “seek the pleasures of flood”. At the same time, many jostle to be rescued by the same boat. Marooned in water, roofs become alternate public spaces for conversation, for exchange of latest information and rumours, stages for children’s plays, spaces for romance and flirting.
Eventually, as Nagar says, floods do not discriminate. “Flood waters (also)....entered the bungalows of the Governor and the Chief Minister,” he writes. But unlike the urban rich, the poor take the calamity in their stride. As a character in Amrit aur Vish remarks, “every third or fourth year, Gomti Maiyya rushes in. Floods have hit us since long and our ancestors always left their homes to seek refuge in some temple or dharamshala or under some tree for six-eight days. They went back when the water receded”. But when water hits the city it becomes news. In Renu’s classic reportage of Patna floods of 1975 in Rinjal Dhanjal, seeing people go in hordes to watch the rushing waters, a rustic man remarks, “When Danapur was getting submerged these Pataniya babulog did not even bother to look back, it’s your turn now.” A body of an Alsatian dog floating on floodwaters becomes the symbol of the flood in the city.
Several kinds of characters populate these descriptions. There is the old bibi who insists on having her last set of paan before being rescued. There are youngsters who put their lives at stake to bring relief to those marooned. The latter group does not comprise official rescuers only, but members of the local youth club, poor boatmen and migrant Sikh businessmen (as in Renu’s piece) bringing fresh food, water and medicines to the needy. The Sikhs figure as rescuers both in Nagar’s novel as well as in Renu’s reportage. Sikh military men in the former and helicopter pilots in the latter evoke positive images of religious identity.
Renu is also “privileged to acknowledge” the relief party of the artists who don’t forget to arrange tins of his favourite cigarettes. But the relief operations also bring in further conflict as the middle class jostles for air-dropped material and accuses the distributors of saving the best for the posh parts of the city. As Nagar says, serving the groom’s party and the refugees, both are thankless jobs.
What emerges is a re-imagined notion of community: a collective enforced by external crisis. This bond also occurs through a collective critique of the way in which apathy and corruption of the political class are discussed, whether that of the “Congressis” (completely without morals), “Jansanghis” (reactionary), Socialists (too busy defining themselves away from Gandhism and Communism), Communists (whose foreign loyalties have blinkered their vision). For many flood also becomes a means for quick deliverance, reminding one of P Sainath’s Everybody Loves a Good Drought. In Renu’s reportage, a character says, “whether the PM is coming or not can be answered by falane sahab, who, thanks to the Kosi Project, has achieved nirvana”.
In all of this, though, the people don’t lose their sense of humour. In Amrit aur Vish, a villager carrying his ailing wife on a cot over his head in chest-deep water defines the moment in these words, “Since morning I have made two rounds carrying children and the luggage. Now, this third time I am carrying my Goddess Mahalakshmi. At the time of wedding her father had worshipped my feet; hence she is taking revenge for that sin sitting over my head”. In flood-hit Patna, the radio, the only connection to the outer world, starts playing “Hum tum ek kamre me band ho aur chabi kho jaye”, right after relaying the news of the flood.
According to Renu, “the announcer is not a professional, but the record he has chosen to play is timely”.
Land and water are so well established as distinct entities that it is difficult to challenge this categorisation. But this categorisation of land and water as two different ecosystems does get destabilised at times. By chars, for example. Chars are little river islands, little pieces of land floating in the space between two banks. In some ways they are land because they are huge pieces of silt and sediment, but then they are also within the river. So chars elude normal definitions of land. And of course, they are not water.
Our knowledge of geomorphological processes of rivers is, at most times, based on research by scholars from temperate areas who studied temperate rivers. But as geographer Avijit Gupta points out, tropical rivers are very different from those in temperate regions. They carry not only water but also huge amounts of sediments and as they get choked with silt brought down by them, they shift and change courses. Tropical rivers are also seasonal, lying quietly, almost devoid of any water, for most of the year and coming to life in the wet season.
In the Ganga delta boundaries of water and land are fluid. The sand and silt accumulate to form chars, usually in the lower reaches of the river, but sometimes in its upper stretch as well. Seen this way chars are products of the river’s natural processes.
However, one can think of chars as products of history as well: of historical ways of managing land and water. Colonial rulers were astounded by the ferocity and utter strangeness of the tropics. The rivers of Bengal, flowing only seasonally and shifting their courses at their whim, were way different from what the Britishers thought about rivers.
The British water planners turned Bengal into a laboratory for river engineering. But they overlooked the capriciousness of the river systems of Bengal and the ecology of the chars.
The colonial state started constructing embankments, which circumscribed the movement of sediments within the river channels and raised riverbeds. The result was more chars.
Chars resist attempts to stabilise them. They can disappear overnight. Char-dwellers have learnt to live with such vagaries. When floodwaters rise, they are ready with their little boats, which can accommodate entire households. The sand islands were historically home to Bihari people who were once fishermen. But once river flows decreased due to dams their livelihoods suffered, and they left. In their place came Bangladeshi Hindu migrants.
The people who live on the chars are desperately poor. They live for the day, ready to leave their homes anytime. They don’t believe in controlling nature. They dance with the river. Their lives are contingent on the flows and ebbs of the river. Their peak and lean seasons are different from those of mainland people. The lean season for char dwellers is monsoons—the peak season for farmers living elsewhere in West Bengal. And during winters, the lean season for farmers in the rest of the state, economic activities in the chars are at their peak.
Char-dwellers are the example that people can live with nature, even when it is not benign. They are the example that people can live with nature even when it makes them vulnerable and poor. Life in the chars makes people resilient to the vicissitudes of nature.
This article is based on a lecture given by the author at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library on July 25, 2013