As our boat approached the Brahmaputra, an unmistakable hump rose out of the river. In those seconds, the 10 of us on board reverted to childhood mannerisms to express joy: We cooed, squealed, aahh-ed, clapped hands.
For the next hour or so, our eyes darted here and there to catch a glimpse, each sighting greeted as enthusiastically as the last. If we happened to see a nose or rear or even the blowhole, the delight was much more palpable—and loud.
‘Xihu’ spotting: The confluence of the Kulsi and the Brahmaputra is a great place to spot Gangetic dolphins. Photo: Nitin Mukul
Just an hour outside Guwahati, the Brahmaputra is home to scores of Gangetic dolphins, locally called xihu (the “x” sounds similar to “h”). A few years ago, my good friend Sanjoy Hazarika, the well-known journalist and an expert on the North-East, had mentioned dolphins among the many causes he was involved with and urged me to take my daughter on a dolphin-watching trip. Last month, Hazarika—fresh from the festival-circuit success of Children of the River: The Xihus of Assam, a documentary he had produced— repeated his plea. And this time, I obeyed.
On his advice, I got in touch with Debajit Choudhury, who runs the non-profit Rural Development Association in Jiakur, a village in Kamrup district. On a Sunday morning, we arrived at Choudhury’s farm and were given the grand tour. He showed us the circular tanks where fish lay eggs, another for breeding eels, the organic farm and fields of green. And then he led us up to what my daughter called a tree house but really was a thatched hut attached to the elevated water tanks that circulate the water in the tanks. There, we were served tea and heavenly coconut samosas.
After a few minutes spent petting a new baby calf and looking inside the chicken and duck coops, we set off for the bank of the Kulsi river. Though we tend to think of the Brahmaputra as one vast, formidable body of water—it is the only river deemed “masculine” in India—it actually consists of several tributaries, such as the Kulsi, and branches and bends.
Also See Trip Planner / Brahmaputra
And as with any riverine civilization, it has fostered several cultures. My mother, for instance, grew up in the Santipur section of Guwahati, a city girl. My father’s home is in Sadiya, a village on the northern bank bordering Arunachal Pradesh, now said to be an Ulfa base. As a child, I remember taking a train, switching to a bus and then being ferried across the river—a two-day journey—to get from one to the other.
The one thing they had in common, though, was the sighting of xihus. Once upon a time, they told me, dolphins were ubiquitous in the river, though they have been always hunted by humans. Choudhury explained that their blubber made them vulnerable. Apart from its use as bait for catfish, dolphin oil is also considered a miracle cure for all kinds of ailments.
I may not have had the locals’ intuitive understanding of the river and its treasures, but Hazarika’s film explained why the banks of the Kulsi were lined with trucks: They were waiting to load up with sand, fuel for the building boom across the state. Sand-mining is actually good for the river, according to the Centre for North East Studies and Policy Research (C-NES), a conservation group of which Hazarika is managing trustee. It removes sediment and maintains water levels, both important for the freshwater population.
Children of the River debunks many of the myths associated with the Brahmaputra, but conservationists have gone beyond simply telling locals not to kill the dolphins and given them alternatives. Researchers at Patna Science College worked with C-NES and found that certain fishgut can replace dolphin blubber as bait. Now, the Assam government is working to declare a dolphin sanctuary in the area.
That was not to say the battle had been won, Choudhury told us during our half-hour ride in a boat usually used to transport sand or fish. “The villages along the river are poor, and much more education is necessary,” he said as we neared the prime viewing spot. Choudhury expressed hope that Assam would better develop off-beat activities, such as dolphin-watching, to promote both tourism and employment.
Our boatman slowed down as we neared the confluence of the Kulsi and the Brahmaputra; the peculiarities of the currents make the point a magnet for all riverine creatures. Fishermen nearby told us a pod of dolphins had been sighted here earlier in the day. I was the first in our group to spot one of these mammals, and it quickly became a game. After several minutes (they come up for air anywhere between 30 seconds and several minutes), we began trying to distinguish them. One was a deep black colour, another very spotty. We saw a baby and then adults twice its size. We estimated there to be about a half dozen dolphins in our particular spot; the total population in this part of the river is said to be 200-odd.
On the ride back, Choudhury’s daughters regaled us with songs— Hindi, English, Assamese. Asked to sing a borgeet (traditional Assamese devotional songs), Choudhury’s youngest, Okoni, began belting out Kiss me, kiss me, kiss me, much to her father’s embarrassment. But as we passed groups of fisherman, detangled the roots of the trees along the bank, heard the hissing of the fully loaded trucks ready to go, Okoni’s choice of the gospel song and civil rights anthem We Shall Overcome felt quite appropriate.
A part of me hopes the dolphins don’t get too “discovered” by tourists who will trash the place and potentially threaten the wildlife. I don’t want these dolphins to do tricks, like at amusement parks, or become mere spectacles as in a zoo. But much, if not all, conservation rests on awareness. For that alone, it’s worth sharing their story—in the hope that the dolphins really will be saved. And that my children can say they, too, saw plenty of them on their journeys across the Brahmaputra.
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