Brahmaputra: Tales From the River

An extraordinary portfolio of photographs from a stunning new book portrays a mighty river's journey through Tibet, India and Bangladesh. By Tiziana and Gianni Baldizzone.

Published December 16, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Tsangpo, Brahmaputra, Jamuna. Three names, but a single river. Tibet, India, Bangladesh. Three countries, but a single river. Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam. Three faiths, but a single river.

A mythological source, hidden among the ice sheets of one of the most sacred regions in the world. With a course of almost 3,000 kilometers, it crosses some of the most inhospitable regions on Earth. A disquieting question mark for 19th century geographers: Were the Tsangpo of Tibet and the Brahmaputra of India the same or two different rivers? In the absence of geographical facts, ancient maps traced the course of the Brahmaputra in a very fanciful way, based on legends and stories collected by travelers.

A "Great River," which is the meaning of its Tibetan name. A mysterious river, full of history. A river with many stories to tell.

Stories about the men who came to search for, and discover, this river. About armies who crossed it. About pilgrims who purified themselves in its waters. About the gods who quarrelled on its banks. About savage tribes and tea pioneers. About the otters that fish in its water and the tigers of Bengal. About the ashes of the dead, carried along by the Ganges, and then deposited by it into the Ocean.

The mystery of Brahmaputra has captured our imaginations ever since we first traced its course on an old map that dates back to 1654: Its source was shown as a large lake to the north of Burma. The adventures of Pundit, the "James Bond of geography," sent out by the Survey of India in the 19th century to discover more about it, contributed to our increasing fascination with this river.

We had already encountered the Great River in our earlier trips to India and Tibet, but we had never come close enough to get to know it properly. There was scant information, especially in such regions as the huge gorges carved out by the Tsangpo before it crosses the border into India, which even today remain some of the least explored areas of the world.

In short, the call of the Great River was irresistible.

Taking the explorers of the past as our guides, we set off on our search: from its source to its mouth, from its birth to its old age.

We ascended to its mythological sources in Tibet, where the river is a child. We followed its growth along the fertile valley of central Tibet, where it witnessed the descent of the first kings from heaven and the dawn of Tibetan civilization. Between the towering peaks of the Kongpo where, full of vigor and sheer force, it falls precipitously from a height of over 3,000 meters to 100 meters, without forming the legendary waterfall which the explorers of the early 20th century spent years searching for but never found.

Then on to the valleys south of the Himalayas, through the tribes of the Abor and the thousands of Hindus on pilgrimage, to its mythological sources in India; until, in the plains of Assam, where it assumes the name Brahmaputra as it passes through the tea plantations. We negotiated its waters in Bangladesh, where it flows under the name Jamuna until, tired and heavy-laden with water, it opens out into the Ocean like the petals of an enormous lotus, the Padma.

We have followed its life course and met the people who live on its banks.

And finally to its mouth, the meeting place and melting pot for the religions and cultures of the three countries through which the river passes.

It was a long and arduous journey. Many times we were on the point of giving up the whole venture. It seemed that our project was under some strange curse. It seemed that the genie of the Great River was rebelling against our intrusion. There were continual ups and downs. At times the Brahmaputra prevented us from reaching it, at other times it allowed us to approach its most remote corners. There were times when we lost it and times when we were overwhelmed by its sheer presence.

Over the years the Brahmaputra has become an inseparable friend. With this river we have shared a whole range of emotions and it is to the river itself that we now dedicate this book.

In these pages you will find the stories it has shared with us: about the people of the past who came to explore it; and about the people of the present who live close to it.

This excerpt is reprinted with permission from "Brahmaputra," published by Shambhala Publications Inc. ) 1998 by Editions Olizane, Geneva, and Tiziana and Gianni Baldizzone.

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