The Brahmaputra, the central river of Assam in Northeast India, is a water body known for reshaping the geography of its floodplains frequently due to ecological occurrences like the annual monsoon floods. The Brahmaputra and its tributaries braid through the State of Assam, shaping the ecological, cultural and social needs of the region and its people.
The people inhabiting its unstable and fluid flood banks of the river and its tributaries often rely on the alterations in the landscape caused by the river to shape their lives accordingly. This photographic journey through lower-Assam’s flood-hit ‘char’ regions, aims to visually explore the ever-changing lives of char-dwellers and tries to present a fluid history of human-river entanglement. This topic helps to get an idea of how the people residing on the char regions co-live with the riverine geography and rely completely on themselves to make a living. As this photo-feature will show, this community has been most industrial in adapting to live with the river geography of the State.
*Char Chapori (Assamese: চৰ চাপৰি) is an area of Brahmaputra river and
its tributaries in the Indian state Assam constitution of flood plain
The instability brought by the river to the people’s lives in the char regions have forced them to adjust accordingly and device ways to suit the flood-prone region’s geography. This can be witnessed where the river bank, called ‘mathauri’ in vernacular, was damaged by steady erosion which was a constant feature of the river’s shoreline during the monsoon season. There was widespread erosion by the river, which in turn effects the location of these char areas, making people to re-adjust their livelihood choices and transport modes. Bamboo sticks are used as bridges and boats are used as primary mode of transport to move across the temporarily flooded geographies.
Houses are built in the middle of the river and people bathe, wash dishes and clothes in the river water. Almost every house in the region owned a boat, further pointing out how people have given up on travelling via designated land pathways like roads and highways and instead adapted to the submerged geography. The people huddle together in boats meant for transporting people to their daily markets and jobs. The submerged geography thus offers them faster and efficient mobility through the use of boats.
The villagers have to put their harvest out to dry, as the annual heavy rain and flood damaged their crop regularly. The main sources of income in these areas are agriculture and fishing, which puts them at financial risk during the annual flood season and also during drought spells in winter, when flood water recedes. During these times, they are completely dependent on the limited ration provided by the government of Assam, and sometimes they get to have only one meal per day.
The char-dwelling communities have devised their own infrastructure to withstand the flood devastations. The people have constructed temporary makeshift tents, built on higher grounds, which they use as their homes during the months when flood hits. They have even built separate tents for their livestock.
Another thing to note here is that there has been a gradual shift in livelihood and profession of the people in Char areas to adapt to the river landscape. Earlier, they were completely dependent on agriculture. However, with time the people are using the river and its unstable course for their livelihood as well, by using it for fishing. Sometimes, therefore, the choice of livelihood is determined by the river too.
A river does not follow boundaries. For the resides of Char-Chapori community, the river-people on the banks of the Brahmaputra and its tributaries, this proves to be true. Each year, the monsoon and flood erases human-river boundaries, forcing the char inhabitants to co-live with the river. Some of the villages I visited had people adjusting their livelihoods and transport modes depending on the river’s course. Others literally lived on the submerged lands, opting to use the water bodies surrounding them as resources. In the wake of the current climate crisis, these narratives of river-human entanglement can open up new avenues to study life in river landscapes.