Cruising the Brahmaputra

The mighty river breaks into the plains of Assam spreading fertility and destruction in its passage. Fertility to enrich the flat fields with humus; destruction when it floods forests and farmlands and villages
Hugh and Colleen Gantzer

The river is the powerful, petulant, whimsical son of the God of Creation. The putra of Brahma emerges in the highlands of Tibet, shoulders its way through a narrow gorge, roaring and laden with silver sand and silt, breaks into the plains of Assam spreading fertility and destruction in its passage. Fertility to enrich the flat fields with humus from the wooded mountains; destruction when its load of silver sand clogs waterways, builds shoals and sandbanks overnight, floods forests and farmlands and villages.

A follower of Shankaradeva wears a mask at one of his monasteries
A follower of Shankaradeva wears a mask at one of his monasteries

We came to this great flowing sea of birth and death, driving in from the Dibrugarh airport to a place on the banks of the river called Neemati Ghat. Here we boarded a canopied tender with its own master, donned orange life-jackets, and chug-chugged across the flowing sea of the Brahmaputra to RV Charaidew. It would be our home for the next week.

A ship on duty is alive. In our cabin we felt the reassuring vibration of its generators, the slow barely-perceptible movement as it adjusted to the flow of the river tugging at its anchors, the soft footfalls of the crew on watch.

Then came the soothing susurration of night-rain whispering us to sleep. The rain had washed the sky clean as we boarded the tender to chug ashore. This was our first day of the discovery of an enormous part of our land which we knew so little about. In this lush, green, terrain rose the monuments of the formidable Ahoms. They had migrated in from China, established their supremacy and their culture, and ruled for more centuries than the reign of the Mughals and British combined. They, apparently, had had no standing army but maintained teams of citizen-warriors, trained as guerilla fighters so skilled that they repelled attacks of the great Mughal forces repeatedly. The efficient Ahoms constructed a great reservoir in their capital, Sibsagar, temples with bee-hive domes, royal stadia to enjoy buffalo-fights, wrestling and other combative sports, and a multi-tiered palace with raised terraces for natural air-conditioning. Sadly, as happens to all dynasties who have ruled for too long, they grew effete and fell prey to the machinations of the British. We returned to our floating home in the afternoon, a little ashamed of our ignorance of these great Assamese people but thankful that we were wiser now.

The next morning, the anchors were weighed, the engines throbbed, water churned in our wake, and our cruise, down the great river, began. Now, new impressions began to crowd in thick and fast.

Visitors have lunch on board of the ship
Visitors have lunch on board of the ship Photos by the writers

Mr Kasem, our pilot, alert as a hawk, standing on the port side of the bridge-deck, reading the muscled currents of the river. Charaidew slows, moves its head a shade closer to the banks, slips past a swirl of bubbling sand marking a newly risen shoal. No satellite would have spotted that as quickly as Mr Kasem's eyes, or reacted as fast as his brain.

We stop. The crew drives special bamboo stanchions into a sand-bank, moors Charaidew.

We put-put ashore then drive through avenues of giant bamboo, visit Mishmi huts standing on stilts. They are the real people of the river, descendants of migrants from Burma, long before it became Myanmar. A pretty girl weaves amid a forest of stilts. We scramble up a notched bamboo 'ladder', are welcomed inside the mat-floored hut. There is a strict protocol of sitting around the fireproofed hearth, the sleeping section is separate, they explain. They smile when we ask them what they will do if the river rises. "What our ancestors have always done. We will rebuild our hut on higher ground and the river will give us freshly fertilised fields!" For all the problems of over-crowding, pollution and crime, our urban dwellers, too, would not like to move out of the big cities. Home is what you are used to.

Our cruise continues with other excursions ashore, other nights aboard, other dinners enriched by shared experiences.

Monks dancing and drumming at a monastery on the Majoli Island
Monks dancing and drumming at a monastery on the Majoli Island

Our visit to Majoli, the world's largest riverine island, is an unforgettable highlight. Here, many centuries ago, a polymath seer, named Shankaradeva, established his humanistic creed shunning priests and sacrifices, expressing his credo of equality in the people's language, stressing the arts as a means of spiritual enlightenment. He was a poet, choreographer, designer, singer, writer, philosopher and far-seeing administrator. His lay followers still meet in nam ghars to discourse, chant, worship and settle their personal and social problems. In his monasteries, they sing, dance, make masks and stage morality plays.

We return to Charaidew and dine on a sandbank for the last night that we are together. Many of us will, probably, never meet again. But all of us, to some degree, have been changed by our shared experience. We have all been moved by the implacable river of life and death, the powerful, whimsical, putra of Lord Brahma.

Trip planner
Four-day sailing sessions in December 2012 start from Guwahati. Guests are picked up from the airport and taken to the embarkation point.

For more information and bookings contact: Assam Bengal Navigation, 3-B Dirang Arcade, M.R.D. Road, Chandmari, Guwahati 781003, Assam. Tel : 9207042330 - 31, 361-2667871 - 72, 73. e-mail - ; assambengal@rediffmail,com