As the river Brahmaputra flows through Assam, it forms an indispensable relationship with all that it touches and sustains. Photography by Dhritiman Mukherjee
Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Paul Salopek said rivers were “the biographers of landscape”. They are also storytellers and shapers of destiny. They bring with them tales of the lands they flow through, the people living on them, and the creatures — big and small — whose fates are inextricably tied to the moods and changing courses of the river. Rivers bless the lands they flow through with prosperity and fertility, but sometimes they rage and cause destruction and despair.
One such mighty river is the Brahmaputra, which covers a journey of about 2,897 kilometers across three countries. En route, it travels through an expansive terrain — snow-capped peaks, barren Tibetan plateaus, rocky riverbeds, humid plains, dense rainforests, and a mangrove delta that opens out to the sea. The river originates in the Himalayan mountain range in China (Tibet), over 5,300 meters above sea level. Here the river is known as Yarlung Zangbo, Jiang, and Pinyin. From China (Tibet), it enters India through Arunachal Pradesh, but only expands and grows wide once it arrives in Assam. It then changes course to join the Ganges in Bangladesh, where it is known as the Jamuna and Meghna, where it forms the largest delta in the world before merging into the Bay of Bengal. Along its course, the river transforms the lives of all the people and places it flows through.
Brahmaputra’s floodplains change form annually every monsoon. While the flooding of the Brahmaputra is essential to the ecosystem, it also causes large-scale disruption and displacement. “A river changing course is natural and healthy. A lot is said about the Brahmaputra overflowing in the monsoon causing floods. These floods rejuvenate the grasslands around the river. The damage it causes occurs because we have built roads and houses in what is essentially the course of the river. That’s our fault, not the river’s,” says photographer Dhritiman Mukherjee, who first photographed the river in Assam in 2004, and has two books to his name on the subject.
The Brahmaputra makes one of its most interesting journeys in Assam. The river divides the state into two halves, also creating a distinct north and south bank. The tributaries of the north bank descend from high mountains, and travel through rocky terrain, over boulders and pebbles. On the south, it has a flatter trail with deep meandering turns. The Brahmaputra also flows through and is instrumental in the creation of over six wildlife havens in the state.
The river enters Assam from Daying Ering Memorial Wildlife Sanctuary in Arunachal Pradesh, forming north and south banks. Orang National Park, which lies on its north bank and towards the center of the state, is the oldest game reserve demarcated by the British in 1915. It is the only stronghold of the one-horned rhinoceros in the north of the river. The swampy, wooded forest with tall trees and grasslands is also home to leopards, elephants, tigers, barking deer, and a large variety of birds.
On the south bank of the Brahmaputra are the Dibru-Saikhowa National Park, Kaziranga National Park, Pobitora National Park, and the Laokhowa and Burhachapori wildlife sanctuaries. Very rich in biodiversity, Dibru-Saikhowa is one of two places in India that is home to feral horses (the other being Point Calimere Wildlife and Bird Sanctuary in Tamil Nadu). The Burmese python (Python bivittatus), Indian cobra (Naja naja), and Indian rock python (Python molurus) are found in the forests but are hard to spot. However, Mukherjee managed to photograph this Burmese python during the forest department’s rescue and release operations.
Dominated by grasslands, the Burhachapori Wildlife Sanctuary has a healthy population of the Bengal tiger. This sanctuary was on the verge of losing its flagship species — the rhino, buffalo, and tiger — because of poaching and political unrest. Until 1983, there were about 50-60 rhinos here. But at the peak of the Assam Agitation, a political movement, it is believed that 40-50 rhinos were killed or chased away. The Indian Rhino Vision 2020, a conservation program launched in 2005, has been translocating rhinos from Kaziranga and Pobitora to Burhachapori and has revived the rhino population here. The river and its banks connect neighboring national parks and act as a natural corridor for tigers. “Tigers are often seen moving from Kaziranga to Burachapori, or even to the Orang National Park,” says Mukherjee. These tiger pugmarks are a sign of safe movement and hope.
Life along an ever-changing river poses as many challenges as blessings. The Brahmaputra rises during the monsoon and submerges more than two-thirds of life around it every year, including the famous Kaziranga National Park (pictured above). In Kaziranga animals like rhinos cross over to the higher grounds of Karbi-Anglong to escape the floods, but a national highway and tea estates along the route get in the way. Several unable to cross over perish in the floods.
The grasslands of Brahmaputra are home to some endemic species of birds and wild animals. It harbors one of the healthiest populations of the greater one-horned rhinoceros. Wild water buffaloes, Asian elephants, and Bengal tigers are the other large mammals that inhabit the grasslands. They are also home to the only known population of eastern swamp deer. The critically engendered pygmy hog can also be found here.
Dibru-Saikhowa National Park and Kaziranga National Park together comprise about 500 species of birds. These include the endemic and endangered marsh babbler and the Manipur bush quail, which was last seen in 1935 but there has been no photographic evidence of the bird recorded since then. The black-breasted parrot bill (Paradoxornis flavirostris) (pictured above) is a rare bird found only in tall grasslands along the Brahmaputra.
The Assam roofed turtle (Pangshura sylhetensis) (pictured above) is one of the 21 species of turtles found here. The turtle gets its name from the spiked vertebral keel on its back, which makes it look like an Assamese roof. Other species of turtles include the yellow tortoise, Asian brown tortoise, narrow-headed softshell turtle, keeled box turtle, and three-striped roofed turtle. The river is home to the only wild population of the critically endangered black softshell turtle.
Communities along the banks of the river and its adjoining districts rely heavily on it for their means of livelihood and resources. Main professions include fishing, farming, and riverine transport. In the Brahmaputra river system, 126 species of fish have been recorded out of which 41 species are commercially important. Freshwater fish like catfish (pictured above), and carp are mostly commercially traded. There is also the case of unchecked fishing where stray incidents of fishing on canals and streams have been observed. In 2017, rising water pollution followed by increasing muddiness, or turbidity, resulted in a decline in the number of fish caught in Guwahati. Other human-induced threats such as the construction of dams and the use of motorboats for transportation further affect the health of the river.
Several communities and tribes live by the river or have inhabited the river islands. These include the Deori, Sonowal, Kachari, and Mishing (also called Miri) tribes. The Mishing (pictured above) consider Subansiri, a tributary of the Brahmaputra, as their place of origin. Fishing continues to be the main activity of this riparian tribe. Over the years, they have moved on from using traditional tools of fishing such as chaloni — a type of handmade bamboo sieve used to capture fish — to readymade hand and fishing nets. “They often catch the fish between their toes and fish it out with their hands. They spend hours immersed in water to fish,” says Mukherjee.
Brahmaputra’s changing course causes a great deal of erosion in the already dynamic riparian floodplains. New hydroelectric projects like the 2,880 megawatts Dibang hydropower project in Arunachal Pradesh and the building of innumerable dams, will further stress and disrupt the river’s journey. The Brahmaputra is the only source of sustenance and livelihood for many. And it needs our protection.
This photo essay first appeared as “A River that Carves a World: Brahmaputra’s Journey through Assam” (14 Dec 2022) in RoundGlass Sustain – a not-for-profit telling stories of India’s natural world to create awareness, document science, and support conservation.