Above: Lohit River, Parshuram Kund on the right. Photo: Parineeta Dandekar
Assam, Arunachal and the North East India, West Bengal and Bangladesh are riverine entities in many ways. Ancient rivers flowing through this landscape have moulded not only the mountains and the silt-heavy banks, but cultural identity of the region itself. Rivers permeate through the literature, folklore, songs, poems, cuisine, even dressing… Bhupen Hazarika, the Bard of the Brahmaputra, likened the red ripples of the Assamese Gamcha (red and white stole) to the braided filigree of the Red River. When Guwahati University opened on the banks of Luit, Hazarika sang “Jilikabo Luiter Paar”..Banks of the Luit will Shine. Rivers stood for revolution as they stood for Love.. Jyoti Prasad Agarwal wrote “Luitar Parore Ami Deka Lora.. Moribole Bhoi Nai.” (“We are the youth from the banks of the Luit/ We are not afraid of death”). Older poets like Parvato Prasad Baruah wrote entire books full of poems of Luit and today modern poets in Assam like Jeeban Narah link their creative processes inextricably to rivers.
Rivers reside in the people here. The connections are as old as the land.
There is something about the rivers in North East India that belies the stretch of our urban imaginations. They are so utterly un-ignorable. They make their roaring presence a peg around which everything whirls. Large and spectacularly beautiful, with an immense power to flood thousands of hectares of land and eat away the islands that they form and the power to nourish the same land with an untamed fervour.
Several of the rivers, including the three major veins that join to form the mighty Brahmaputra, are free-flowing within India (in upstream Tibet, one of the three rivers, Siang, has some hydropower projects already) to this day. No dam hinders their way, no embankment reigns them, no barrage tells them where to flow. This is unimaginable for our country where most rivers are not only dammed, but dammed so many times that they barely make it to the sea. World over, hardly one third of major rivers retain their connection with the sea without hindrance. Free-flowing rivers are endangered species, threatened with extinction, as rare as the last white rhino. And even in the North East, all of these rivers flow under the shadow of a dam spree, which if materialized, will change a free-flowing, filigree-forming reality into a series of un-flowing storages, emerald reservoirs and bleached rocks.
But that is a story we know. This is not about the dams. This is about the rivers that still flow, defying all our plans, projections and calculations, which still flood and brim over their banks and turn red and brown and yellow in the rains.
Here is a look at River Lohit, which gives Brahmaputra its own name “Luit”. Lohit flows from Tibet into easternmost part of Aruchal Pradesh and flows for about 200 kms in India before merging into the Brahmaputra at the trijunction of Dibru Saikhowa National Park. All three rivers that join to form Brahmaputra: The Siang, Dibang and Lohit manage a fantastic feat… rushing from the Himalayas, they suddenly reach the plains and form a surreal arc where they fan out… from these plains, their identity as rushing, sapphire mountain rivers changes to meandering, even braiding, silt laden rivers which flow in a stately gait and give birth to river islands called chapories in their wake.
Eastern most among the three is Lohit. The name Lohit is linked to the story of one of the seven Chiranjeevees (Blessed with eternal Life): Parshuram. This story is narrated in different forms and ways in different scriptures. It revolves around eternal themes of violence, sin, lust, infidelity, atonement, guilt and renunciation. Yes, a bit dark 🙂 Parshuram, one of the four sons of the Sage Jamadagni agrees to behead his mother Renuka, only on his father’s suspicion. In some versions, this is on the banks of Narmada while others say it was Malaprabha. The act is held to be so blasphemous that the axe with which he beheads her refuses to leave his hand. He travels far and wide, trying to atone for his sin. He comes to Brahmkund, formed by the union of Queen Amogha and Brahma and sees that it is trapped between four mountains. He chips away at the mountains, freeing the river (dam decommissioning was already in vogue :). As the river flows, the axe comes free and he flings it in the river bed. The translucent waters turn brown-red with blood from the axe and his smeared hands.
This is the tale we know, reference of which can be traced back to Kalika Puran circa 6 Century AD. Luhitya is also mentioned in Kalidasa’s Raghuvasam, which will take the name back further 2 centuries. However, many hold that Lohit is sanskritisation of existing Bodo name for the river Lao-Ti. “Ti” or “Di” is a Bodo prefix for water found throughout the state and predates the Ahom rule. Folktales of Mishmis refer to the river as Tulu and here too is a tale where the river is made free from a huge dam, inundating forests and homes.
Six Hydropower Dams planned on Lohit, and their resultant impacts which mainly include complete and drastic change of the flow pattern of the free flowing river, eerily remind us of these Dam Busters. 1750 MW Lower Demwe Dam will result in such drastic flow fluctuations that the river will flood for two hours and will be dry for 22 hours in winter months, destroying the magical and fragile ecology, life and livelihoods of the downstream, which has relied on the river since time immemorial. Thankfully the Forest Clearance accorded to the project has been suspended by the National Green Tribunal following some persistent advocacy.
Days of Big Hydro are also gone, they are no longer viable.
And Assam has seen one of the biggest movements of independent India against destructive dams.
Will all this save the free flowing Lohit?
Parineeta Dandekar, SANDRP, (firstname.lastname@example.org)