Brahmaputra, the Son of the Creator
Growing up, I always associated the state of Assam (North Eastern India) with the river Brahmaputra, probably because the most vivid news from there that made it to the national bulletins were about flooding of the river during monsoon. I was very excited to see the river when I visited Guwahati recently. The river flows through the middle of the city in an east to west direction, and numerous ferries crisscross its body all day.
Originating in Tibet, the Brahmaputra (called Yarlung Tsangpo in Tibet and Jamuna in Bangladesh) flows into India through Arunachal Pradesh and exits to Bangladesh through Assam. The main river and its tributaries flow through Tibet (China), India, Bhutan, Nepal and Bangladesh, and has one of the highest discharges in the world, eventually flowing into the Bay of Bengal.
Rivers are considered holy in Hinduism and are worshiped as symbols of life and regeneration. While most rivers on the Indian subcontinent have female names, this river has a rare male name – meaning Son of Brahma – in Sanskrit. Brahma, the creator, is the first Lord of the holy trinity in Hinduism, the other two being Vishnu the sustainer/preserver and Shiva the destroyer/transformer.
Of cosmic sperm and a bloody axe…
The mythology of the river’s nomenclature is quite colourful.
Myth 1: It is said that Shantanu, a famous ancient sage began a long meditation in an ashram in this area along with his beautiful wife Amodha. Amodha was so beautiful that Lord Brahma (the Creator) himself became enchanted by the beauty of Amodha and requested her to make love with him. But Amodha did not accept the Brahma’s proposal. However, by that time Lord Brahma had become so excited that his semen discharged at that place. Subsequently, Amodha gave birth to a son and he was called Brahmaputra and took the form of a river.
Myth 2: Another story describes how Lord Parashuram, one of the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu (the Preserver), committed the sin of beheading his own mother with an axe (yeah, that’s a story in itself). So grave was his act that the axe got stuck to his hand, restricting his hands from spilling more blood. Sages advised Parshuram that the only way to absolve himself of the sin was to reverse the act, i.e. use that axe to create life. Parshurama travelled the world and arrived in this region. Hearing people’s cries for help, he cut the face of a mountain using his axe and released the waters in the form of a river, which then gave life to the people, animals and plants of the region. He was forgiven of his sin and the act yielded the river its name as the Son of the Creator.
Myth 3: The Buddhist version is more benevolent. Tibetan scrolls talk about the presence of a great lake in Southern Tibet, and a desert around it that caused much misery and agony to the locals. Answering their calls, an enlightened Bodhisattva carved a deep gorge through the giant Himalayas and made the waters of this glacial lake flow and transform lives of the people on its banks.
Perhaps the least dramatic explanation for assigning a male name to the river was simply due to the ferocious nature with which it gushes down from the Himalayas, keen to marry the river Ganga (Ganges).
↑ Ferries transporting people across the river.
↑ Loading and unloading access is through rickety makeshift arrangements. These constructions provide a good buffer against the river’s surge, but yeah, people do trip.
As used in many parts of northern India, the term ghat or ghaat refers to a series of steps leading down to a body of water, particularly a holy river. Guwahati, the largest city in Assam, is split into northern and southern parts by the Bramhaputra river and has a number of such ghats that also serve as ferry docks for service to points across the river bank.
The Umananda Temple
This 17th century temple dedicated to Lord Shiva is located on one of the smallest inhabited river islands in the world at Guwahati. The island can be reached by ferries calling at the Kachari Ghat in a short ten minute ride across the narrow channel of the Brahmaputra. This temple is one of the biggest attractions of Guwahati and is visited by devotees and tourists alike.
Only a handful of priests and temple hands reside on this island which is also home to the Golden Langurs, an endangered primate species.
Oh, and the priests were extremely aggressive in demanding money.
Guwahati is the largest city in the far north east India and is very well connected to rest of the country by road, rail and air. I flew to Guwahati directly from Mumbai with the intent of exploring some of the city and the adjacent Meghalaya state where the Living Root Bridges are located.
Many devotees routinely visit the Umananda temple first, prior to a visit to my favourite Kamakhya temple of the mother goddess, we happened to take the same route.