Deep into western Tibet hangs a tongue of a glacier in the mouth of a mythical horse. And from the horse’s mouth drops a trickle. A trickle that weaves through the cold dry Tibetan plateau, clear blue at times, emerald at others, folding into itself other trickles, and growing… growing. This trickle, born Tamchok Khambab, wears a destiny unlike any other river on earth and will take on many names, and many more personalities on its long way home to the Bay of Bengal.
Exactly 11 years ago, this week in March 2005, I caught my first glimpse of the Yarlung Tsangpo, the “Great River”, and stoked an old dream: to document ancient rivers, from source to sea.
It would take me nine years to summon the will and the courage and plunge into making the dream come true — and begin my journey along this Great River, the Brahmaputra.
I wandered in those intervening years, never far from rivers. Some flowed not over boulders and rocks, they swept silken smooth over lofty trees. Rivers of the sky, rainmakers. Vital to life on earth, these sky-rivers rise from the breath of forests and fall in shiny diamonds to join earth-rivers.
One particular morning in May 2010 stamps itself in memory. In the pre-dawn hours, I climbed the equivalent of the sheer side of a 20-storeyed building, up a climate tower in Malaysian Borneo and gasped.
There, high above earthly binds, my legs tingling from the effort of the climb, my hands numb from clutching the vertical ladder, was a miracle.
Old virgin rainforests below, shrouded in mist-pools, slowly waking, always working. Making water, making oxygen, making life.
The power of water to replenish, the desperate need of all life on earth for this sustenance, the joy of an untrammeled stream, the cool of your foot in it. I once turned over a rock near a stream and shrank back in alarm at the sight of a million centipedes slithering and shivering. Another time, I sloshed across a Western Ghats stream to find fungi that would put giant serving plates to shame. Snails, snakes, beetles, birds, moss, bladderwort, lichen, fungi, ferns, trees, green, brown, bright red, blue. Life loves water.
It was not for these discoveries that I found myself drawn to water-places, however. I wanted to listen. These past years of chasing rain, water, rivers, and streams has all been for the desperate need to listen and learn. To allow myself to relearn an ethic, a way of life that was no more.
A patient life. An unhurried one. A life lived at a natural pace. A human pace. One we seem to have forgotten.
I promised myself at the beginning of 2013 that, as a photographer and a journalist, I would only do slow stories. I’d heard that people in the Thar desert were resurrecting an ancient method of rainwater harvesting. I’d heard that with no irrigation, they could feed thousands.
Curious, I began to go there every month, and spend time with shepherds and farmers, watching seasons change in the desert and falling in step with the desert rhythms. I followed their lives from summer fallows through monsoons and into winter. This was a desert — sand, rock, a few bushes, fewer trees. No snow, no mountains.
Yet, under massive dunes, at the height of a 48°C summer, wells were full. Sans much sky-water or earth-water, the dunes still trickled life underground.
And yes, they could feed thousands with just a few inches of desert rain. All because they have an ethic, where they treat water not as a “resource”, but as life itself.
Early in 2014 I pitched another slow-burn story that I felt begged telling. Rivers. They sustain hundreds of millions of people around the world and are home to a hundred thousand creatures. These veins of a land are also often ground zero for water-wars. Traditional riparian communities and denizens of the river butt heads with the new world as dams, diversions, and canals choke, siphon off, and desiccate their lifelines. Voices get shriller and stakes rise ever higher should a river cross international boundaries.
In this war of needs and wants, who will prevail? At what cost?
I had heard about 160 Indian dams that were going to come up on the Brahmaputra. The Chinese were planning their own on the Tsangpo. I wanted to go back to that river again and watch it all unfold.
I began to document life in the Brahmaputra river basin, along the river’s wild braids as it wove through three densely populated, thirsty, energy-voracious countries.
I wanted to see how denizens of the rivers — human and otherwise — cope with the changes.
The sight of the Mighty One from the air — the photo above — rekindled in me that old flame. There was something about this river, older than the Himalayas, that compelled me to engage with him.
The one overwhelming lesson I have learned in the Brahmaputra basin is that a river is so much more than water. So much more than a waterway. A river is a living, pulsing, morphing organism. And the Brahmaputra, in particular, is as old, wild, rich, and strong-willed as they come. He has the power to flood the basin with life. Thwart him, and he will just as easily douse breath out.
The people who have lived here for aeons have known this. They have respected this. The river is their life. Fish in the river means a healthy river.
But they also know that man has been changing things along the river. Fish are disappearing. I met fishermen all along the basin who can no longer make ends meet. I heard of rivers running dry. Of water unfit to consume. I heard they all eat fish out of iceboxes.
Travelling from Arunachal Pradesh to the Sundarbans two years ago showed me beauty and ugliness.
I have witnessed what thoughtless anthropogenic activity can do to a river. And what a river, in turn, can do to man. This photo above was one of the rudest lessons I learned.
The region you see above was lush paddy fields in June 2014, a desert that July. An old, ill-built, neglected government embankment could no longer hold back a flash-flooding river carrying loose sediment from deforestation and boulder-extraction upstream. It collapsed, and with it collapsed the lives and livelihood of hundreds of people in this area of Assam.
The sand the wayward river has dumped has desertified one of the highest yielding paddy bowls of the area. It will take many years for the land to recover.
“In a sense, Bangladesh is the Himalayas flattened.” ~ Willem van Schendel
Rivers don’t only carry water. They transport vital sediments — which they dump on the plains and make deltas. The Brahmaputra and the Ganges, two mighty Himalayan rivers carry more sediment than any other rivers in the world. These rich fertile sediment deposits sprout into rice, millet, mustard, vegetables and feed the teeming millions of India and Bangladesh.
What you see above is what the river calls home. A delta. This one, at the mouth of the massive Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna is the largest unbroken stand of mangrove forests in the world: The Sundarbans. The one last gift to the land before the rivers empty themselves into the Bay Of Bengal.
And in this riverine gift, lives the hope of a land. For this mangrove is Bangladesh’s first defense against rising sea levels and storm surges.
I roamed around the Sundarbans twice in 2014. Once, enjoying the miracle of life living and adapting to brine, and once, ruing the ruin man has brought upon it.
An oil tanker spilled 350,000 litres of heavy fuel oil into the Sundarbans late in 2014. I rushed to the delta when I heard about it. What I saw painted over precious memories in thick black viscous oil. The worst was not the oil spill itself, but the response to the sullying of this precious liquid ecosystem.
How callously we treat that which sustains and protects us, I thought. Reflecting over the year I have spent on the river system, I have come to believe that often it is not the river that devastates, it is what we do to a river, that does.
My mind goes back to the desert. Where the desert-nomads revere water. They treat it with care. They protect the sources. They tread gently around it. They would never bathe in, or wash clothes in a lake they pull drinking-water from.
My mind also went to one statistic: Wells run dry in Kerala in summer, but not in that village near Jaisalmer. Sky-rivers are kind to Kerala, not so to the Thar. And yet …?
I know I will engage with the Brahmaputra for many years, following its life and the lives of the creatures and people that live with it. I also know that I will go back to the desert, to understand that water-culture deeply. I will go back to Tibet and find that tongue of the glacier which gives birth to hundreds of millions. There are many, many questions in my mind.
My meandering has just begun.
Arati Kumar-Rao is a freelance photographer and journalist based in South Asia. Her interests lie in documenting the changes in land-use over years and its effect on ecology and on the people living close to the land. She posts on Instagram as @aratikumarrao