MYSTERIES AND MARVELS OF RIVER BRAHMAPUTRA

On a first reading of the book “The Mahabahu BRAHAMAPUTRA”, I was left with the happy feeling that Dr KK Dwivedi (hereafter KKD) and his associates have crafted a persuasive narrative, supported by charming photographs which together will surely help every reader better understand the significance of Article 51 A (g) of the Constitution of India, which enjoins that; “It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to protect,and improve the Natural Environment including forests,rivers, lakes and wildlife and to have compassion for allliving creatures.” 

Being an Assam Government sponsored publication, it is natural that both text and illustrations would conform basically to the mandate of the Water Resources Department of Assam. And for that segment of readers, the book is a splendid summation of River Brahmaputra’s history over some 250 years past as also its present day potential and hazards when harnessed to enhance the life-sustaining needs of Assam’s masses. But for the lay reader, the attraction of the book will lie chiefly in the abundance of excellent photographs of peoples, places, flora and fauna of Assam as though anchored to the very physical presence and spirit of River Brahmaputra. But sadly, what was once a flourishing symbiotic idyll for man and all creatures, now appears groaning under stress of burgeoning human populace. For example, look at the size of fishes in Brahmaputra now and the 34 pound Mahseer in the B&W photograph, caught in 1930 by Lieutenant Colonel John Masters who is perhaps better known for his book Bhowani Junction, in time turned into a thrilling Hollywood creation.

Brahmaputra is truly one among the evolutionary marvels of Planet Earth, particularly the geometry of its channel, flowing almost straight West-to-East for nearly sixteen hundred kms till thwarted by a chasm of steep cliffs of the two most beautiful-to-behold Himalayan peaks, Namcha Barwa and Gyala Pari (25,445 ft and 23,470 ft respectively, reverentially believed by the Tibetans to be the nourishing breasts of Goddess Pemako), then it disappears for all intent for about sixty kms into the depths of the world’s narrowest river gorge and on re-surfacing to open vision (hold your breath), takes a sharp turn South to enter Arunachal Pradesh! Another one hundred and eighty kms, it makes yet another dramatic turn but to true West, to enter Assam at Sadiya now flowing almost parallel but in the diametrically opposite direction to its channel in Tibet (creating the alphabet U like no other river of the world. What a River and how exceptionally intricate its geometry!

This is where KKD picks up his pen and wields his cameras in tandem with Dhritiman Mukherjee to showcase the Brahmaputra surging over the next about seven hundred kms which he aptly calls “A Moving Ocean”. But imagine the fancy source of this “ocean” atop the roof-of-the-world, described by the Readers Digest’s “The Great World Atlas” (1960) as “the trickle oozing from the shadow of Mount Kailas is the Brahmaputra or the Maghang Tsangpo, that is, first and foremost the son of Brahma, the Creator of the Universe, one of the most worshipful Gods of Hindu Scriptures.” Around 1992, the Eastern Himalayas had figured in the World’s top ten Hot-Spots of mega-biodiversity and KKD’s narrative shows that Assam had inherited much of that biodiversity. Two of his associate-authors have, however wisely expressed deep concerns of the galloping degradation and fragmentation of this Hot-Spot landscape which is home to wild Cultivars of several rice varieties besides citrous, banana and much else essential for human food-basket. Unfortunately, elected Governments have seldom demonstrated intellectual comprehension to heed such concerns and avert ecological disasters; instead they talk of building 46 dams in the Brahmaputra basin.

Little wonder that India’s second recorded faunal extinction was the Pink-headed Duck whose stronghold, according to EC Stuart Baker’s book “Fauna of British India” was “in Assam, North of the Brahmaputra, mostly in the densest of jungles …flocks of twenty to forty Pink-headed Duck could be flushed..” Similarly, the Sarus Crane, the world’s tallest flying bird was once abundant in the wetlands of Brahmaputra but the species ceased to exist East of Siliguri, post the 1950s. The One Horned Rhinoceros was saved in the nick of time when EP Gee (a tea planter who gave us the first readable book “The Wild Life of India”) took the initiative to bring PM Nehru to Kaziranga in 1954 and succeeded in convincing the Prime Minister for the inclusion of wildlife as a tenet of Government policy in the entire country. But the mystery whether Brahmaputra was Sangpo at the source will be incomplete without mention of an unassuming Lepcha from Sikkim, who over four harrowing years had walked good length of Brahmaputra from South of Lhasa to the Pemakochung Monastery, best described in “Spying For The Raj” by Jules Stewart in 2006; “The shabby figure, clad in tattered sheepskin tunic and worn felt boots, crouched with his gaze fixed on the swiftly flowing current…. Kintup spent the designated ten days by the river bank…..one by one, the especially marked logs were flung into the water. Once the job was done, the Pundit began to follow the Tsangpo downriver, expecting to be across the border into Assam, in British India, within a few weeks. When the Pundit got to the village Damro, which he reckoned was only 35 miles from the border, he took the painful decision to make for Lhasa…. back to his native Sikkim.Finally, on 17 November, 1884…made what he envisaged would be a triumphal entry into Darjeeling. The Pundit’s report was filed away and forgotten, until in 1911, Colonel Bailey and Major HT More shead followed in Kintup’s footsteps and found the whole story was remarkably accurate.”

Ultimately, Bailey succeeded in getting him due recognition as “Kintup of Brahmaputra” first by a cash reward from Government of India followed by a medal from the Royal Geographic Society, London, in 1914.

The book wrongly avers on page 16 that “Ian Baker, Ken Storm and Brian Harvey succeeded in kayaking through the canyon”. To the contrary, Baker states in his book “The Heart of the World” is that in November, 1993 the Japanese kayaker Yoshitaka Takei had perished even in calmer waters, beyond the canyon. And again on 25 October, 1998 a US team led by Lieut Colonel Wickliffe Walker met similar tragedy within seconds of Doug Gordon’s lowering his Kayak. And Baker with teammates had joined the last rites ceremony, performed three days later.

So, let us respect and enjoy the Brahmaputra for what it is rather than tame or conquer it.

Commissioned in the Regiment of Artillery in July 1956,Lt Gen. Baljit Singh, AVSM, VSM, retired on 31 July 1992 after 36 years of distinguished service. A keen sportsman, accomplished writer and noted environmentalist, he is an active promoter of Conservation of Nature, more so within and by the Armed Forces.

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