Upon Seeing the Brahmaputra
I have seen great rivers flowing. This one comes from the hills of Xanadu and runs 1800 miles to the sacred Ganges in Bangladesh, then into the world’s largest river delta where the biggest mangroves grow and man-eating tigers prey. Brahma, author of the scriptures, living in the mountains, and his son Putra, have given their strength to this river, the only masculine river in India. He is so wide that it is a mile perhaps to the island in the middle of the river, and on the other side of the island is a channel, perhaps another mile wide. The island is not small. Just upstream is the largest river island in the world. It is 430 sq. km, and it has 22 monasteries. At this point, surrounded by green, there is no civilization on either side. It is a dangerous uncontrollable river: snakes, eels, currents, you could not swim across it, because it’s so wide, and because of the animals. It must be what the Amazon looks like, the Brahmaputra is its Asian cousin, it even has river dolphins. Wildlife-filled jungle borders it on both sides and when the monsoon comes it changes the land so that the river resembles an inland ocean. Now still a few weeks before the rains, it is turgid and opaque, mirroring the gray sky. The fast moving current carries water hyacinths downstream to the bottom half of the one of the largest river systems in the world, then on to the Indian ocean. In this river lies half of India, the human, the animal.
Approaching the Ganga
I felt the holiness rising in the took-took, driving past the lumber markets I later learned existed for the burning of bodies. As we walked to the river I kept getting goosebumps on my head and legs as I received the river’s energy despite the thousands around me bustling, honking, and hawking, calm, happy, somehow peaceful, not in the frantic New York rush hour way. Our cab took us to a tour guide who noted my mustache, which I’ve had since my Indian haircut and shave on the Kolkata street for sixty cents. Raj led us past the tourist market, full of bright lights and cheap clothing, and up a dirt path lined with fruit and vegetables huts, quiet, the energy stronger now– a divine tug and heightened sense of awareness, a metaphysical ringing and relaxation that pulled me closer, slowly past everything quiet and sacred for the holy river, and there, past banyan trees roots’ hanging from the side of buildings, the Ganga flowed its course. Its far bank a sandy desert perhaps a quarter mile wide; it’s low season; during the monsoons the river doubles in size, and there’s also worry that the river is getting smaller, how I’m not exactly sure. The ghat was a steep descent to a landing with another set of steps to a larger landing where hundreds prayed in a variety of pink and yellow and orange, the fruity smell of incense lingered, cows walked on their feces, dogs frightened or excited by the ceremony and the divine energy barked, unsure of what it meant, and long boats waited their turn to ride on the sacred turbid greenishyellow Ganges.
The boat ride at sunset is a bit of tourist hokum well worth it. We bought a plate of carnations and candles for Shiva to send down the river, lighting them and watching them spread one by one into the now black-flowing water. I was reluctant to touch the water but I wanted to commune with it, to feel its holiness. When I cupped it, I could see the greenish color in my hand. I couldn’t remember seeing the color of water in my hands. It was warm and somehow felt sacred. I shook it off. I smelled my hand to see if it smelled like corpses and dirty laundry but it didn’t.
Only the snakebitten, lepers, pregnant women, and children under five are floated down the Ganga, the rest are burned. We rowed north to a crematorium where four or five orange fires lapped, placed variously on the hillside. We wanted to absorb it so our rower slowly maneuvered us into a quiet pool near the other static boats. Now out of rowing position, he sat on the boat’s end and cupped water from the river, gulped it, and splashed the rest on his face. Sunday is a special day for Hindus, as it is for Christians, and the brahmins’ chanting and incense lent a ceremonial flourish to the four men carrying a red-wrapped body on a stretcher into the water for its baptismal death rites before the untouchables burn it. It’s been this way for thousands of years. This the the god’s river, a gift to the people.
I love rivers. Ever since I was a boy learning about the Yangtze in my bedtime story, I imagined exotic waters on the other side of the world. The names– Yangtze, Ganges, Nile— filled me with a wonder– the civilizations they spawned and the idea that behind it all lay the human drive to exploration and discovery. That yen led man to build a crude raft or boat, loaded with provisions, and float the river to its end and god knows what else. It is the same instinct that led Magellan to circumnavigate the globe, the same drive we explain by Pandora’s box. It’s a trust placed in the Self that led these men to find more than was previously thought, that led man to spread to all corners of the globe. The river symbolizes life in its ebbs and flows, its constant moving, speeding and slowing, its path from trickle in the mountains to gushing mouth at its end, where it reminds us that we go with it; as it washes clods and promontories alike into the sea, it takes me and it takes all.