As Assam hosts Brahmaputra Pushkaram, can the festival truly encompass the river's multiple meanings?
There are many images of the Brahmaputra we carry; however, these fade and figure in different ways — from the oral to the written, from poems to prose, from a song to a canvas.
The social meaning of a river changes over time; new myths and meanings become attached to it, while those from our memories are washed away.
There are many images of the Brahmaputra we carry; however, these fade and figure in different ways — from the oral to the written, from poems to prose, from a song to a canvas. My memories of the Brahmaputra River don’t fit the piped water of the cities or the ditch.
The memories of people living on the north bank of Brahmaputra are tied to crossing the river in a ferry, the TATA 407 vehicle or jeep jouncing and slithering in the mud to reach the ever-changing riverbank, the dust that is immediately airborne, filling the window glass and settling on one’s clothes and nostrils.
Today, bridges have taken over those modes of transport. Bridges such as the Bhupen Hazarika Setu are the new pilgrimage sites in Assam. The use of new infrastructure over the river changes our notion of time: time in the context of waiting for the vehicle, for the boat, for the fried fish, of the goods unloaded from the bus to the boat and back, of running in the sand to catch a seat, of being stuck in the middle of the Brahmaputra in winter as the river dries up.
The bridge gives a new sense of crossing the river. Yet ‘crossing to the other side’ remains entangled in a myriad emotions and experiences. Are memories different from experiences? This infrastructure changes our consumption choices and people travel from afar to ‘see’ the bridge over the river, or watch a river festival. There is a certain ‘moral economy’ to that act of watching which also gets imbibed in our everyday vision. The consumption of infrastructure and festivals is also a reciprocation of them being ‘gifted’ to us. In this confluence, the river becomes a site of pilgrimage, pride, home or of loss.
When our governments become merchants, water is sold to giant corporations and the money-hungry. When the river is reduced to a festival, other cultures and memories gets washed away — because certain cosmic elements of water are given primacy over the other.
The Brahmaputra’s history is as present in the Kaibarta community in Assam as it is in the statue of Lachit Borphukan and his army. Water recedes into public policy and the textbook of development, which doesn’t carry an ethics of preservation or cultural sensitivity. It only understands the language of the money and the market.
Every year the Brahmaputra floods the valley in Assam, and my village too. It can wash away cattle, cover the paddy field with silt and bloat government documents which decide the fate of someone’s citizenship in Assam. It also gives and creates something new — the char-chaporis. It is also a site of cultural and literary production, from the radiant Jyotiprasad Agarwala to Miyah poetry, whose creative beauty and protest touches water in many ways.
The Brahmaputra and its many tributaries are a lifeline for thousands of people in Assam and have never been associated with fixed Hindu rituals or mythology. It is seen as a source of fertility; named after the Hindu god Brahma, it is one of the few masculine rivers in India. With the celebration of the river festival Namami Brahmaputra in 2016, we saw a distinctive attempt to lean towards a Hindu representation and celebration of the river. The celebration was an allegory at its best. Namami left some distinctive meanings and markers. It also left images that will translate to singular meanings and memories of the river.
The Pushkaram River Festival, a 12-day event which commenced on 5 November in Guwahati, is an initiative of the Assam Government. It was reported that about 50, 000 sadhus will participate from outside the state, and that the festival was expected to attract lakhs of people. The Pushkaram festival has a cycle of 12 years and is celebrated across 12 rivers in India; the Brahmaputra is one of them.
We ought to celebrate different cultural practices and beliefs, but certainly not at the cost of making one dominant over the other. Assam’s obsession with the river festival suggests an attempt to create a certain mnemonics and cultural hydrology in the state with standardised, sanitised and homogenous myths and meanings of the river. It tries to tie our images and perceptions of the river to one anchor. Multiple meanings, struggles, cultures and memories associated with the river are washed away in the name of a carnival.
The writer is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at the National University of Singapore. He tweets @char_chapori.
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Assam University's former professor of environmental science Dr Abhik Gupta said hill cutting and deforestation, along with climate change, compound flood problems