It was ostensibly designed to promote the river, but the Namami Brahmaputra festival in Assam has succeeded in opening the floodgates to ancient questions of culture and identity.
“Namami Brahmaputra” sounds very Sanskrit and Hindu. In Assam, which has long had mixed feelings about the Indian mainland, this prompted at least one prominent writer to wonder when the river came to be called the Brahmaputra. The answer reveals something of the complex, contested history of the Assamese identity.
One River, Several Names
It is commonly said these days that the river originates in Tibet and flows there as the Tsang Po before entering India, where it becomes the Siang. This is incorrect; the Tsang Po is only one of many tributaries of the river.
The Brahmaputra comes into being in the vast water world near Dibru Saikhowa national park, at the foothills of Arunachal Pradesh, where the Siang, Lohit and Dibang meet. It flows from there to the point in Bangladesh where it meets the Ganga.
The river goes by many names. It is called the Lohit or Luit, after its other major tributary.
The name comes from the Sanskrit Lauhitya, a name found in the Mahabharata. This is also the name common in contemporary popular culture, for instance, in a celebrated song by the great singer Bhupen Hazarika, based on the Mississippi ballad ‘Old Man River’. He calls it the Brahmaputra in another celebrated song, ‘Mahabahu Brahmaputra’.
The Mishings, the only tribe in upper Assam that traditionally lives near the river, call it the Aane, which is the name the Adi tribe of Arunachal Pradesh uses for the Siang. The Bodos call it Burlung Buthur.
Tradition of Cultural Assimilation
The origin of the name Brahmaputra most likely goes back to a mention in the Kalika Purana, a text dated to the 9th or 10th Century. At that time, the Brahmaputra valley was part of the Kamarupa kingdom. This kingdom extended over the area from Sadiya, close to where the Brahmaputra begins, down to the Karatoya river in present-day Bangladesh, when the Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Hiuen Tsang visited there around 643 AD. This is recorded in his account of his stay in the court of King Bhaskarvarman at Pragjyotishpur, where Guwahati now stands.
A set of six copper plates with inscriptions from King Bhaskarvarman’s time were found in 1912, in a village called Nidhanpur, Sylhet in Bangladesh, which was part of Kamarupa in ancient times. These inscriptions record the king’s renewal of land grants to 205 Brahmins. The language of the inscriptions is Sanskrit. The language of the common people then was Kamarupi Prakrit, from which Assamese and Bengali are believed to have emerged around 1000 years ago.
This becomes relevant to the present because of a Tai Ahom revivalism that identifies the Assamese with the Ahom dynasty that ruled upper Assam for six centuries. The founders of this dynasty came to Assam from the Shan hills on the borderlands of Myanmar and China in 1228. They gradually adopted the local culture, language and religion.
This process of over 750 years of cultural assimilation is one that separatists are keen to reverse. It is perhaps not a coincidence that Paresh Barua, the fugitive chief of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA), was last traced to the area around Ruili in China, on the country’s border with Myanmar – the same place that the first Ahom king Chaolung Sukapha is believed to have come from originally.
Distinct Ahom Identity
There are Tai Ahom chauvinists, who consider the Assamese language to be a pidgin, and hold that the only “pure Ahoms” are two clans descended from the Borgohains and the Buragohains. I was told this by one such man in Dibrugarh a couple of years ago. He also showed me a letter inviting him to a Tai conference in China.
Tai Ahom revivalism has an interesting past. Yasmin Saikia, a professor of history in Arizona State University, wrote in a paper:
It appears that the first myths about Ahom were created by the British agents. Borrowing from the myths of Ahom origin compiled by JP Wade, the first British resident in Assam, Walter Hamilton-Buchannan introduced the term Ahom in the East India Gazetteer in 1828. He claimed that originally, a group of Shan warriors, led by a mythical godlike figure called Sukapha, came to Assam in 1228 and established an Ahom kingdom. Buchannan’s story of the Ahom, which was neatly packaged within a western linear chronology, became a colonial discourse in the early 19th century.Yasmin Saikia’s paper in ‘Seminar’
Saikia notes that in the Ahom chronicles called the Buranjis, Ahom is not a defined ethnic community. “Ethnicity was not the factor that made Ahom, but the favour of the reigning swargadeo (king) and an individual’s ability determined his status as Ahom. Hence, in the reign of different swargadeos, the composition of the Ahom officers differed greatly. In the buranjis, we find that Naga, Kachari, Nora, Garo, Mikir, Miri, and even Goriya (Muslim), formed this blended community of trusted servants…This history of the hybrid Ahom was overlooked by the British when they came to Assam,” she wrote.
It follows from Professor Saikia’s statement that the Ahoms were a cadre of administrative officers, rather like the IAS of today, and not an ethnic group.
Dangers Associated with Cow-Belt Hinduism
Thailand and China have both shown an interest in promoting ethnic Tai revivalism in the Northeast, for their own reasons. At least one former Chief Minister of Assam, the late Hiteswar Saikia, also played to the Tai chauvinist gallery.
His reasons may have been different – he was CM during the height of ULFA’s power – but there is an old resentment that has long existed between Hindu communities of northeast India and the mainland. Professor Saikia traced this to the early days of the Indian national movement under Mahatma Gandhi, when many Assamese started to see themselves through caste Hindu eyes as “low caste” and “polluted”. A rejection of the Hindu identity came as a reaction to this.
The current questioning of “Namami Brahmaputra” has echoes of this.
The conflict was and is between an expansionist cow-belt Hinduism, which associates Sanskrit, vegetarianism, and cow worship, with caste and local traditions that are at odds with such pieties.
(The writer is an author and journalist based in Shillong. He can be reached @mrsamratx. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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