Written by Arati Kumar-Rao

by Arati Kumar-Rao

3000 km, 3 countries, 80 million people: One river. 

Deep in to western Tibet, above the northwestern tip of Nepal and southeast of the sacred Lake Manasarovar 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. 

As it winds east, it reaches the regions around Lhasa. Now, it is no trickle. It is simply The Great River: the Yarlung Tsangpo (pictured above) and it is about to do something no river in the world does. 

After doggedly pushing east for 1625 kms, it changes its mind and turns around. Bending around the lofty Namcha Barwa like a moat, it cleaves the deepest, wildest canyon in the world: the Tsangpo Gorge.

This about-turn brings about a change in the river. The mild mannered trickle, the easy-going Great River Yarlung Tsangpo suddenly morphs into a wild, effervescent adolescent spewing mist sky high and frothing dangerous, angry white waters.  

Pro kayakers call it the “Everest of Rivers” and to negotiate the Tsangpo Gorge alive is their holy grail. In this avatar the Tsangpo spills into the dark, lush, thick, dense forests of Arunachal Pradesh.

It is now in India.

Dropping a whopping 2500m over just 200km, with cascading cataracts, and foaming rapids, the Tsangpo, now called Siang, is about to meet two more massive rivers: the Dibang and the Lohit.

And it morphs yet again. Disgorged and distinctly calmer, the three rivers flood into an ocean-like massive river, the Son of Brahma: the Brahmaputra in India’s Assam.

Eddying like a dizzy dervish, with two-speed currents: a faster one undercutting a slower surface current, the Brahmaputra bisects Assam, feeding and watering millions. But its journey, its work, is far from done.

Bending yet again southwards, the Brahmaputra writhes its way through Bangladesh as Jamuna, joining up with the mighty Teesta and growing a hundred tentacles to embrace the Bay of Bengal and emptying itself into it. 

Braiding through three countries, changing names over five times, traversing 3000 km, falling 5300m from source to sea, this rare male river, the Brahmaputra — temperamental and wild, is the life force for 80 million people.

80 million people across Tibet, northeastern India, and Bangladesh directly depend upon the river for sustenance. 

This series will document the river itself and the amorphous lives of the people who live and die by it.