In one of his recent talks, 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 2897 kilometres 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 metres 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 heathy. 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.