Introduction

To put it another way, the history and mythology of Assam is the history and mythology of the Brahmaputra. The river and the region have found mention in the Ramayana and Mahabharata. Assam’s history is replete with stories of war, conquest and reconciliation on the banks of the Brahmaputra, its fertile valley having attracted several invaders to this region. Its lush banks provided the foundation for ancient urban centres and capital cities like Pragjyotishpura, Hatappesvara (or Hadappesvara), Durjjayanagara, Kamrup, Sadiya and Sonitpur.  The powerful Varman, Pal, Kamata, Koch, Ahom, Chutiyas, and Kachari dynasties flourished here. The Brahmaputra and its tributaries acted as a natural demarcation of territories ruled by chieftains.  

In the filigree-like mythic maps of the Brahmaputra basin, legends abound of  kings like Narakasura, Banasura, and Bhismaka, princesses like Rukmini and Usha, sages like Santanu, Parashuram and Basistha Muni, and gods and goddesses like Shiva, Parvati,  Kamakhya, Kama and Krishna.

Equally fascinating is the origin myth surrounding the Brahmaputra or son of Brahma, one of the few ‘male’ rivers -- nad -- in India. In earlier times the river was called  Lauhitya and found mention in early inscriptions and literary texts such as the Brahmavaivarta, Kalika PuranaMatsya Purana, Varaha Purana, Vayu Purana and the Yoginitantra. It was called by other names too, but the people of Assam have their own local names for it -- Burhaluit, Luit, Siriluit, Borluit, Bor nai.  Different tribal communities have their own names for the Brahmaputra as well.

Waves of migration and a composite cultur

The Brahmaputra Valley has attracted waves of human migration from prehistoric times. The earliest people inhabiting this region were the Australoids and the Mongoloids; they find mention in the epics and the Kalika Purana, among others. They were followed by the Caucasoid who came in several waves of migration. The migration of people to Assam, which started thousands of years ago, still continues.

Over time, the intermixing between groups of different stock caused by centuries of living alongside has resulted in the fusion of both cultural and physical traits resulting in the growth and development of a composite culture that is unique to Assam. Contemporary Assam is a melting pot of many  communities belonging to different tribes,  castes, linguistic affinities and  religion. Followers of every major religion in India are found here. There are altogether 15  Scheduled Tribes (Hill) and 14  Scheduled Tribes (Plain) – all of them with their distinct culture, language,  legal system, religious belief and practices, and at different stages of assimilation into the mainstream. Then there are the Tai Buddhist groups and the ‘Tea Tribes’, the latter forming a significant segment  with distinct social and cultural features.

The innumerable river islands or chars formed by the Brahmaputra have also given rise to a unique way of life. It is interesting that, in spite of their vulnerability to flooding and erosion, the chars have been able to attract human settlements, building their entire lives according to the river’s life cycle.  One such island is Majuli, one of the largest river islands in the world and the jewel of the Brahmaputra.  The island is home to many communities; in fact Majuli can be called a mini Assam, with an exemplary history of people living side by side in peace and harmony.

It was in Majuli that the saint, scholar and poet Sankaradeva and his most celebrated disciple  Madhavadeva initiated the Neo-Vaishnavite movement in Assam in the 16th Century, which left a lasting impression on the lives and culture of the Assamese people. Sri Sankaradev’s teaching was simple – to surrender oneself to the one and only Supreme Power (ekāsarana nāma-dharma). The movement was carried forth by his disciples to almost all parts of Assam in the following two centuries; it continues to govern the socio-religious lives of the Assamese to this day. The benign influence of Neo–Vaisnavism has built a society of tolerance and inclusiveness where the rigidities of caste and creed have been reduced to a great extent.

 

Accounts of the people of the river

Since ancient times,  the writings of foreign travellers, administrators and even invaders have unerringly described the grandeur of the Brahmaputra.  Several historical accounts of the region were written in the medieval period.  For instance, Ahom chronicles have references to different tribes, as do later European accounts. These written accounts give an idea of people’s lives in this region in the last 800 years.

But the communities’ origin and presence in this region precedes historical records. In fact, each group/tribe has stories about its origin and migration to this place, and these stories have been transmitted orally down the generations. Many tales speak of the tribes crossing the river and their consequent settlements in Assam’s valleys and hills. After Assam came under the British in the 19th Century, a wide spectrum of people, ranging from  administrators, anthropologists, travellers, medical officers, explorers and missionaries, began to study the region in earnest. Their memoirs, journals, documents and reports provided valuable insights into the region’s geography, history, administration and ethnography.

Travellers passing through the Valley have also sung paeans to the river.  When Mahatma Gandhi first visited Assam in 1921, the Brahmaputra’s beauty moved him greatly, prompting him to write about Assam while sitting on the river bank in Tezpur town.

For  writers, composers and singers in Assam, the river’s moods have provided them just the kind of inspiration they need; in fact it figures in  poems, songs, stories and novels with great regularity.  In this context, the names of Laksminath Bezbaruah, Jyotiprasad Agarwala and Bhupen Hazarika are noteworthy. The name ‘Mahabahu Brahmaputra’ was first coined by Hazarika in his song ‘Mahabahu Brahmaputra maha milonor tirtha; Kata jug dhori aahise prakaxi, Xomonnayar artha.’ in which he  calls the Brahmaputra a  ‘tirtha’ (pilgrimage) located in the  great confluence of different religions, namely  the teachings of  Guru  Sankaradeva and Madhavadeva, Ajan Fakir and Guru Teg Bahadur who had preached monotheism and universal brotherhood.

In another iconic song  inspired by Paul Robson’s Ol’ Man River, Bhupen Hazarika composed the song Bistirno parore where he expressed anger and sadness at the indifference of the Brahmaputra towards  the moral decline and degradation of humanity – ‘Noitikotar skhalan dekhiu, Manabotar patan dekhiu, Nirlaj alash bhawe buwa kiyo?’ (Witnessing the moral decline and degradation of humanity, how do you still continue to flow so shamelessly and nonchalantly). Even the floods of the Brahmaputra inspired him to compose the popular song Luitor boliya ban, toi kun phale dhapoli meliso, hir hir xobole kal rup dhori kaknu bare bare khediso (O frantic floods of the Luit, where are you heading to, with your aghast look and hir hir sounds whom are you chasing again and again). In fact whenever he sang, it was as if the river was inside him and he had become the river, such was the undulating range, force and texture of his voice.

During the freedom movement, the river became an inspiration for patriotic youth. For instance, Jyotiprasad Agarwalla composed a poem/song, ‘Luitor parore aami deka lora moriboloy bhoi nai’ (We youths from the bank of the Luit do not fear death). In a similar vein he says,  ‘Luitore pani jabi o boi, joyare kiriti deshe bideshe, sohore nagare, phuribi koi’ – O  water of Luit, as you flow through  different lands, cities and towns, tell the stories of our victories.

History, tradition, spiritualism, nature, or contemporary songs and stories of love, pain and separation, and folk literature, the river finds reflection in the narrative. Like the river’s flow, the narratives too are abundant. And just as the Brahmaputra continues to flow with the tides of continuity and change, so do the communities living on its banks, for their destinies are intertwined.

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