Cruising down the lifeline of Assam: a wondrous journey through the state’s wildlife, culture, religion, and traditions
Originating from Mansarovar near Mount Kailash, the Brahmaputra takes on the functions of roads and railways in Assam. Live the slow life as you cruise down this colossal river and take in the splendours of Sibsagar, Kaziranga, and Majuli
Grey or green? I’m trying to get a grip on the colour, but can’t. Grey in some patches, green in others, and a weird mix of the two in yet other places along its course, the Brahmaputra is a striking sight. The hills and the placid surroundings add to the ambience, but it’s the mighty river that takes centre stage.
For someone who comes from Gujarat, where the waters of the Narmada have to be brought in to recharge a dried-up Sabarmati, a river like the Brahmaputra is an awe-inspiring sight. I am astounded by its gorgeousness, its bank-to-bank richness. I hear that in the monsoon, powered by water and charged with a current unmeasured, this becomes a river to fear. Then, this beautiful river, the lifeline of the region, brings destruction and damage in its wake.
For now, I continue to be amazed by the Brahmaputra’s gargantuan proportions. One of the reasons the river is so huge downstream is that it is fed by more than 30 tributaries through its length. It originates from Manasarovar near Mount Kailash in the Himalayas, flows through Tibet (where it’s known as Tsangpo), India and Bangladesh, ending up in the Bay of Bengal after criss-crossing a 2,900-km path.
“For most of its length in India, the Brahmaputra serves as an important inland waterway,” the cruise director tells me. As I look around from the sundeck of the 23-cabin ship, I notice ferries, boats, fancy cruise ships, and some crude raft-like arrangements – the river takes on the functions of roads and railways in this region.
Our week-long itinerary promises a peek into the wonders of Assam – the wildlife, culture, religion, and traditions.
We arrive at Dibrugarh airport, drive to Nimati, a four-hour drive, and prepare to set sail. The itinerary includes Sibsagar, Majuli, Bishwanath Ghat, Kaziranga, Tezpur, and ends in Guwahati. Sounds good, but I like my creature comforts.
The stately suite doesn’t disappoint – the plush bed (I have to admit I haven’t experienced a mattress so comfortable and linen so fine) and the running hot water ensure that I emerge from my cabin with a huge smile on my face.
We are off to Sibsagar, once the capital city of the Ahom Kings. The Ahoms, I learn, ruled Assam for more than 600 years and left behind a series of monuments – the most remarkable of which is the Sibsagar tank, which has three temples (the Shivadol, the Vishnudol and the Devidol) on its banks. Darshan done, it’s back to the ship for lunch. Time to set sail for Majuli, one of the main reasons I’m gung-ho about this cruise.
In the bosom of the Brahmaputra, Majuli is the most populated riverine island in India. Known as the cultural capital of the region, the island is home to a population of over 1.5 lakh, including over 70,000 Mishing tribals, and is strongly rooted in Vaishnavite culture. Sankardeva, a pioneer of the medieval neo-Vaishnavite movement, established satras (monasteries and hermitages) here, making Majuli a leading centre of Vaishnava traditions.
When we get there, the easy pace of life in Majuli comes as a pleasant surprise. Disciples in the satras are trained in traditional arts and crafts such as mask-making and boat-building. People continue to use handmade pottery to this day. Pots, plates, and utensils are all handmade and none is the same. In an age of assembly line productions, the pottery is an anachronism – and a draw.
The focal point of all villages is the prayer hall, called a Namghar. “In this age where people are bothered only about the individual, Majuli showcases the importance of community. The Namghar is where they all converge each day,” a villager tells me.
The economy is largely agrarian. I learn from a local that a hundred types of rice are grown, all without pesticides or fertilisers. The varieties include komal saul (can be eaten after popping the grain in warm water for 15 minutes), bao dhan (grows under water) and bora saul (a sticky brown rice used to make pitha).
Fishing, pottery, handloom weaving, and boatmaking are other important economic activities. “The handloom production here is done on a non-commercial basis; it keeps the people occupied. But the weaves are beautiful, especially the colours and textures,” Babbar Basu tells me. We try the local beer, fermented from rice, and end up picking a couple of Mekhla chadars, the traditional attire of Assamese women.
Local legend has it that Krishna and his consorts played at Majuli. Whether that is true or not, the rush at Ras Purnima, in the month of Kartik, has to be seen to be believed. The three-day festival brings together a multitude of people who use song, dance, and theatre to depict the life of Krishna.
A biodiversity hotspot, the island is also home to more than a hundred species of migratory birds, some of them endangered species such as the Great Adjutant Stork, the Pelican, and the Whistling Teal.
With all this, one would expect that Majuli’s on the right path. Sadly, it’s not so, the cruise director tells me. “Regular floods mean the size of the island is shrinking, pushing many of the satras to mainland Assam. Add to that the fact that there hasn’t been the kind of development that’s needed.”
Experts say efforts need to be made to preserve Majuli as a “living museum”. “We need to preserve these people, whose culture remains untouched by the modern world,” Sharma says. Thankfully, a number of local organisations are working to conserve this beautiful island and attempting to conserve the culture and prevent further erosion.
“Majuli is one of the remote areas of the world, one of those places that remain inaccessible,” says Niti Rao, a fellow cruiser who’s doing this trip for the second time. “The religious monasteries devoted to the arts, traditional tribal villages, and old-world feel lure me here,” she says. I can see why. The Brahmaputra has created a haven, one that appears new but is, in fact, age old.
Over the next few days, we visit Bishwanath Ghat, Silghat and Kaziranga National Park (where we spot plenty of Greater One-horned Indian rhinos). The park is home to about 180 different mammal species, including wild elephants, deer, and bison, and a rich variety of birds. On board the ship, efforts are made to educate and entertain every evening – there’s a dance performance one day, a talk on Vaishnavism the other, and a photo exhibition on Assam’s wildlife in between.
However, it’s the river that fascinates me the most, and I revel in doing nothing more energetic than plonking myself on a deck chair and staring at the ripples and the waves. The Brahmaputra is so huge - the average width in the plains is about 10 km - that it never flows through quite the same area. In the last three decades, the river has changed course considerably.
A 2010 study, Hazard, Vulnerability and Risk on the Brahmaputra Basin, states that between 1912 and 1996, 868 square kilometers of land was lost to bank erosion - averaging 10.3 square kilometer of area lost per year. The route is never the same when you set out on a cruise, as seasonal fluctuations mean that islands and sand bars can appear and disappear between two sailings, the captain tells us.
Sitting with the naturalist onboard the cruise, I learn that the Brahmaputra is home to almost 200 species of aquatic vertebrates, mostly fishes. But my day, and that of many others, is made when the naturalist points out a river dolphin seemingly doing somersaults.
On the last day, I decide to check out the spa and head for the pool. Better late, than never, being my motto. I emerge, feeling luxuriant and rested – there’s much to be said for creature comforts in the wild!
We disembark at Guwahati and, like many of my co-travellers, I head off to the airport to board a plane back home. Headphones in place, I’m about to pull my eye mask on and settle down for a snooze when I look out of the window. Quietly flows the Brahmaputra. But I know that mightily flows the Brahmaputra, hiding strong undercurrents under a placid exterior. The lifeline of Assam can be deceptive, but it never ceases to amaze.