Brahmaputra River is one of the world's great rivers and as far as anyone knows no one has ever traveled its entire length. Extending for 3,080 kilometers (1,913 miles) through some of the world's most remote and inhospitable terrain, it begins in the Himalayas in western Tibet as a glacier-fed stream and changes its name and twists and turns through China and India before emptying into Indian Ocean and the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh. The basin size of the Brahmaputra is 712,035 square kilometers (274,918 square miles). [Source: Jere Van Dyk, National Geographic, November 1988]

By some reckoning the Brahmaputra is the highest river in the world. Brahmaputra means "son of Brahma." Brahma is one of the most prominent Hindu gods. In Hindu cosmology the Brahmaputra is the only male river. The river is regarded as sacred by Buddhists in Tibet but not among the Muslims in Bangladesh.

The Brahmaputra is at its lowest in February, when water in the Himalayas is locked up in snow and ice. The river is at its highest in June when it is swollen from snow melt and early monsoons rains and September after the monsoons. In the dry season there is enough water to irrigate crops. New islands are constantly being creating and channels are consisting changing and on the move.

The Brahmaputra often floods in India, swamping fields and washing away villages. Sediment from floods helps fertilize the soil. Villages have to be move as the water cuts away at river banks. Freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins, known locally as su, swim up the Brahmaputra all the way to Assam.

Route of the Brahmaputra in Tibet

The source of the Brahmaputra is in Tibet 100 kilometers south of sacred Mt. Kailas in the Chemayungdung range in the Himalayas and near the sacred Lake Mansarovar . The river here is known to Tibetans as the Zangpo, or Tsangpo, which simple means "river." [Source: Jere Van Dyk, National Geographic, November 1988]

The Zangpo is the largest river in southern Tibet. It flows at a height of more than two miles (3500 meters) for 1125 kilometers (700 miles) to the east almost the entire length of the Chinese-Tibetan border with Nepal and eastern India. It wasn't until early in the 20th century that geographers were certain that the Zangpo and the Brahmaputra were the same river. A British surveyor wrote in 1788, "This river must have a very long course before its enters the Bengal Provinces, since for 40 miles it is twice as big as the Thames...[There is] the strongest presumptive proof possible of the Sanpoo and Burrampooter being one and the same river."

The Zangpo goes through several name changes. It starts out as the Maquan Zangpo and becomes the Yarlung Zangpo. The river that flows through Lhasa is a tributary of the Yarlung Zanpo. Most Tibetans live along the Yarlung Zangpo and its tributaries, from Xigaze to Zetang, where Tibetan Buddhism developed in the late 8th century and water form the river is used to irrigate crops in otherwise dry areas.

The Zangpo narrows at Pei and drops into a rapid-filled, 3050-meter (10,000-foot) -deep gorge that seems like an escape route carved out of the Himalayas. Here the river makes a right hand turn towards India and drops a phenomenal 2133 meters (7,000 feet) in 240 kilometers (150 miles). This section of the river is known as the Siang to the Chinese, who want to someday harness the river into the world’s greatest generator of hydroelectric power. The area is also the site of massive logging operations. Travel here is restricted and even if it wasn't travel in the region is very difficult. There are few roads and the ones that exist are treacherous and often washed out or closed by landslides. The river is too wild to negotiate in boats and is crossed by cables rather bridges.

Route of the Brahmaputra in India and Bangladesh

The Siang flows through an area claimed by both China and India and has been the site of some fighting. China rejects the McMahon Line drawn between Tibet and British India in 1914. Many explorers who have attempted to explore this difficult stretch of the rivers did not return to tell the tale. It wasn't until 1924 that the area was explored by Europeans. In 1962, the Chinese invaded this area and the Indian military has a strong presence in the area today.

As the river enters the Assam Valley it become officially known as the Brahmaputra. Here the river broadens and is fed by rivers coming out of some the rainiest parts of the world. River ferries run along some sections around Dibrugarh. Further down river the Brahmaputra passes by Kaziranga National Park, sometimes flooding it and killing rare one-horned rhinos. The Brahmaputra enters Bangladesh as the Jamuna, joins the Ganges to form the Padma and ends as the Meghna, which splits into a massive delta that empties into the Bay of Bengal at a rate of 2.3 million cubic feet of water a second.

According to the Guinness Book of Records, the 77,700-square-kilometer (30,000-square-mile) delta created by the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers in Bangladesh and West Bengal, India is the world's largest delta. Ever year the Brahmaputra and Ganges system carries two billion tons of sediment out to sea. More than any other river system, even the Amazon. The sediment creates islands known as chars, which are utilized for farming but are vulnerable to floods.

In Bangladesh, the Brahmaputra is so wide there are no bridges across it, only ferries. Even so the river is the Bangladesh's main transportation system. Boats of all sizes and shapes fill the river. There are large passenger ferries, waters water taxis and noaka loaded with a variety of goods. Most are propelled by boatmen with a single oar. Some of the sailing vessels look like Viking ships. There are even some old paddlewheelers in operation. Fishermen use variety of nets and poles.

Transportation on the Brahmaputra

Rafting on the Brahmaputra River can be done on the upper reaches of the river in Arunachel Pradesh. One 180-kilometer (110-mile) one-week trips starts near the Tibetan border at Tuting, where there is flimsy-looking cane hanging bridge across the river, and ends in Pasighat. The trip takes rafters through some Class IV (advanced) rapids that often flip the rafts. One of the highlights of the trip is the visit to the Dibang Valley, home of the Adi people, and Marmong Gorge, with spectacular sheer walls, waterfalls and dense rain forest foliage. . . After the Marmong there are still some challenging rapids but the water is generally calmer. There are some more hanging bridges. Trips in the region are sponsored by the Delhi-based Aquaterra Adventures.

One can take a cruise along the Brahmaputra in Assam on the “MV Mahabaahu ”, experiencing wildlife, tradition, adventure tourism on the way. It one survey it was rated as one of the Top Ten River Cruise of the World. The MV Mahabaahu runs seven-night sailings along the Brahmaputra, either upstream, from Guwahati to Jorhat, or downstream in the other direction. Downstream itineraries depart from Neamati Ghat, near Jorhat (accessible by air from Kolkata). The cruise stops in Kaziranga National Park, which National Geographic calls 'the Serengeti of India.', which visitors can explore in boat, jeep and elephant-back safaris and look for tigers, elephants, wild buffalo and one-horned rhino. Its sandy and ever-shifting banks are also home to large herds of deer and to birds, including great hornbills, large storks and black-necked cranes.

The Mahabaahu provides comfortable base for enjoying the river. The cabins have large windows. Several have balconies. Though not a 'luxury boat' by today's Western standards, Mahabaahu is well presented with crisp linen cloths and napkins in the dining room, silk hangings and cushions on the beds, and comfortable seating in the main Soma Lounge, up on the sun deck, and around the pool.

In Bangladesh, the Brahmaputra is so wide there are no bridges across it, only ferries. Even so the river is the Bangladesh's main transportation system. Boats of all sized and shapes fill the river. There are large passenger ferries, waters water taxis and noaka loaded with a variety of goods. Most are propelled by boatmen with a single oar. Some of the sailing vessels look like Viking ships. There are even some old paddle-wheelers in operation. Fishermen use variety of nets and poles.

Bridges Over the Brahmaputra

Bogibeel Bridge is a combined road and rail bridge over the Brahmaputra River between Dhemaji district and Dibrugarh district in Assam that makes transportation between Assam and Arunachal Pradesh much easier. Opened in 2018, it was started in 2002 and took 16 years to build.

The Bogibeel Bridge is the longest rail-cum-road bridge in India and second longest such bridge in Asia, measuring 4.94 kilometers. It has 41 spans of 125 meters and a superstructure of composite welded steel truss and reinforced concrete. As it is situated in an earthquake-prone area over a river than is famous for flooding and creating new channels, it is India's first bridge to have fully welded steel-concrete support beams that can withstand earthquakes of magnitudes up to 7 on the Richter Scale. The bridge was constructed by a consortium of construction companies headed by Hindustan Construction Company. The bridge has a double rail line on the lower deck and a 3 lane road on the upper deck.

Dhola-Sadiya Bridge is 9.1-kilometer-long, US$381 million bridge over the Brahmaputra river between Assam and Arunachal Pradesh states that opened in 2017. The Dhola Sadia bridge link Dhola in Arunachal Pradesh to Sadiya in Tinsukia district of Assam is crucial from the strategic perspective as it is close to the border state of Arunachal Pradesh. cuts travel time between Assam and Arunachal Pradesh by four to five hours. It longest bridge close to the border with China and the Indian media made a big deal about the fact that the bridge has been built to support the weight of a 60-tonne tank. [Source: AFP, May 29, 2017]

At its inauguration, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the structure will help farmers in mountainous Arunachal Pradesh transport crops and herbs to markets in Assam.“This bridge will not only save time and money, but it will bring about a new economical revolution for the people of Assam and Arunachal Pradesh,” Modi said. On the military benefits, Ajit Singh, a defence research officer at New Delhi’s Institute for Conflict Management, said: “The bridge is going to help our troops get to parts that were earlier difficult to reach in times of crises.”

The Indian government is also constructing a 2,000 kilometers highway to connect the eastern part of Arunachal Pradesh to the western side at an estimated cost of US$6 billion. It is also carrying out a study on a possible new railway network in the area and has set up a ministry to develop India’s remote northeast beyond the so-called Chicken’s Neck - a narrow strip of territory around Bangladesh.

Damming the Brahmaputra

The Chinese government has proposed damming the mighty Brahmaputra River, one the world’s largest rivers, and diverting the flow to Yellow River to ease water shortages in the northern China. The move could cause an ecological and economic disaster in parts of India and Bangladesh that depend on the river and affect India’s own plans to dam the river.

The proposal calls for diverting the Brahmaputra where it does a big U-turn in the world’s deepest canyon before entering India and building a network of dams, canals and tunnels to divert 200 billion cubic meters of water a year to the Yellow River and five other rivers.

More than 185 million people in northeastern India and Bangladesh depend on the Brahmaputra. In the Indian state of Assam 80 percent agriculture relies on water from the river and 60 percent of power from hydroelectric projects comes from dams on the river and its tributaries. There are also worries that an earthquake could destroy a Chinese dam and cause a catastrophic flood that could kill thousands..

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: India tourism website (, India’s Ministry of Tourism and other government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in August 2020

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