Following a river of questions in eastern India

The fabled Brahmaputra River swirls with scenes of life, death, and grand silences.

Photograph by Paul Salopek
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Countless shifting islands and sand spits called chars dot the middle reaches of the Brahmaputra River. This one near Jogighopa, in Assam, is nearly a mile long.

Photograph by Paul Salopek
Writer and National Geographic Fellow Paul Salopek’s Out of Eden Walk is on a storytelling odyssey across the world in the footsteps of our human forebears. This is his latest dispatch from India.

You walk until your feet disappear. Until all waypoints flatten.

The sky becomes the seamless sky. The horizon is just a horizon. The ticking of your wristwatch slows. Plant 10 million footsteps across this Earth, and your heart pendulums to rest even as your shadow keeps moving. Look around. This is sacramental time.

The trail hews generally east: toward sunrise.

At hot midday, you steer by the slant of watery blue tree shadows. You slog through 50,000 years of rain. In your dirt-caked palms you hold the dented tin dippers that hang at the eternal wells. The planet creaks underfoot, a gigantic cog, hurling you forward through Cartesian space at 950 miles an hour. You notice, as you walk, how sweat drips steadily from each of your fingertips. This leaves dark asterisks in the dust in your wake.

You begin to see your dead. The river appears while you are singing to yourself a half-remembered song.

The river is your road.

The Brahmaputra is an 1,800-mile-long question mark. At its crown: sacred Kailash, the Crystal Mountain, in Tibet. At its feet: the Bay of Bengal. The son of four-headed Brahma and a mortal woman, who begat a water being, it is among the few male rivers in India.

The riverbank trails at Jogighopa are sand. Men and women a thousand years old trod them. These people carry baskets of rice. Past beached canoes. Past flooded paddy fields shining hazily in the sun like old mirrors with their silver backing peeled off. Past a mile-wide, slow-sliding, horizontal conveyor of a billion invisible fish that cascades over the curve of the world.

A toll keeper collects five rupees for the privilege of accessing a dream called the Khelaupara bridge.

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The 300-yard-long Khelaupara bridge, made of bamboo roped together by hand, spans a tributary of the Brahmaputra. It is disassembled before the annual monsoon flood—and then carefully reassembled after the water level drops.

Three hundred yards long. Thirty feet high. Roped together, by hand, by eye, by the metrics of the human body, from thousands of bamboo stalks. The spidery masterpiece, more a drawing than a sculpture, spans a tributary of the Brahmaputra. It is carefully assembled after—and disassembled before—every annual monsoon flood. (Read: Clean water is a scarce resource for many in India.)

The monsoons sprint, panting, up the Brahmaputra in the month of Bohag.

Now you really move: You must dance with Bordoisila.

Every spring Bordoisila runs away from her worthless husband.

She gusts, howling, back to the refuge of her mother’s house in Assam. Her leaf-spangled sari bends the betel nut palms to cracking. Her cloud-grey scarf rakes up dust from parched bund roads. Her whirlwind hair yanks roofs off houses, spinning the glittering tin into the angry sky like razored chakrams. She is beautiful and dangerous. Best to seek shelter. Bordoisila will yank your hair out sideways. She will bruise your skin with lead-shot rain. She will blow you into a ditch.

. . . nalbirinar paah, brahmaputrot halise jalise, boga koi bogoli nil aakaxot urise, aahise bohagi tai maa'kor ghoroloi bordoisila hoi . . .“Spring is visiting her maiden home.”

Then she’s gone again.

You can hear the Brahmaputra’s absences after these storms pass.

The river is so huge, so powerful, so irresistible, it collects all village sounds, enfolds them, scours them away, and washes them down into the Bay of Bengal. Children’s shouts, the ring of the blacksmith’s hammer, the fart of motor scooters, the calls of birds—these noises are dredged up, echoing, in the dripping nets of distant saltwater fishermen. The hamlets of the Brahmaputra are the quietest in India.

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Paddy fields line the banks of the Brahmaputra near Jogighopa.

The people of the chars are largely Muslim.

The river islands can be miles long. They are restless, ever shifting.

The sunbaked chars are shaped like fish, clouds, teardrops, and perhaps 200 of them dot the middle reaches of the Brahmaputra downstream from Guwahati. Here reside some of the poorest people in Assam. Everyone warns you away. But you pay them no heed. You walk the river road next to the chars.

At the village of Goroimari, you stagger, poisoned by the afternoon’s white heat, into an empty-shelved shop. In 30 seconds, the shopkeeper says you are staying the night with him. You don’t wish to impose. But the shopkeeper insists: You are staying with him. You wash in his bath. You eat from his larder. You sleep beneath a mosquito net in his house. At dawn he expresses incredulity at the idea of payment. He laughs in your face. “Ah yes, the shopkeeper of Goroimari,” says a man down the trail. “His father was a terminal case. Was it cancer? Totally hopeless. That family ruined itself with medical bills. Now they’re broke. What a waste.”

A few miles downstream, you see a boy shudder toward death after crashing his motorbike. Trying to revive him, a woman splashes his body with a basin of water, wailing.

A few miles upstream, you watch the children of the chars carry bagfuls of greasy mud to the top of a dike road. They are creating a mudslide. They toboggan down on bony bottoms, screeching in joy.

The Brahmaputra is blind. It sweeps all of this terribly away.

It is a serious thing
Just to be alive
On this fresh morning
In the broken world

Mary Oliver

The Brahmaputra is the color of serpentine.

You watch its waters as you walk. The upwelling currents are oval, elliptical, recurring. They surface in regular intervals. They are like the infinite loops of a Cy Twombly drawing. Like the helixes your solar system makes spiraling through the ether.

The people of the river ask you where you are going.

You smile. You don’t break stride. You say I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know stop asking.

This story was originally published on the National Geographic Society’s website devoted to the Out of Eden Walk project. Explore the site here.

Paul Salopek
won two Pulitzer Prizes for his journalism while a foreign correspondent with the Chicago Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @paulsalopek.