GUWAHATI, March 31 - The Brahmaputra was truly �the great natural highway between Bengal and Assam,� during the British Rule, said noted historian Rajen Saikia, quoting from �A Statistical Account of Assam� of noted civilian-cum-scholar WW Hunter. Saikia, author of the widely acclaimed �Social and Economic History of Assam 1853-1921,� was speaking to this newspaper in keeping with the spirit of Namami Brahmaputra festival. He maintained that if the rivers are opened, the people would get new opportunities opened up for them.
In Assam, the river system governed the settlement pattern, farming and crop selection habits. The rivers were the highways of communication and commerce; unifiers of history, men and measures; straighteners of identity, language and culture. Their broadness was the index of the Assamese mind and the meanders symbolized their self-defeating waywardness.
Rarely a source of worry, every river of Assam was an object of worship. The river was the promoter of urbanization and destroyer of �moronic exclusiveness.� By denying themselves the sight of the beauty and broadness, the later generations may have brought upon themselves the curse of ignorance. �Open the rivers and you open new opportunities,� he said.
Referring to the Mediterranean World of the famous French historian Fernand Braudel, who described the Mediterranean as the greatest document of its past history, Saikia said a study of the rivers of Assam may also provide clues to the understanding of the socioeconomic fabric of the past. For Braudel the sea was everything, it provided unity, transport, the means of exchange and intercourse among nations. The rivers also played a similar role in Assam, he said.
Similarly, boats also played an important role in the economic activities of the people of Assam in the early part of the British rule, until the introduction of the steamers. The steamer service became regular in the State in 1861. Till then, boats were the only means for carrying goods and passengers between Calcutta (Kolkata) and Assam. Even after the steamers were introduced, the importance of boats did not decline as the steamer service was infrequent and it could not cover all the stations.
Water traffic provided livelihood to a large community in the riverside town of Goalpara. Guwahati, Barpeta and Palasbari were the three important centres of river-traffic in the undivided Kamrup district. The Brahmaputra was the core of the system, which nourished the life-strings of the minor rivers of the district. Though the minor rivers were not navigable by big boats round the year, native crafts were engaged to keep up the flow of import and export. In fact, the bulk of the river-borne trade was carried on by native boats, said Saikia.
Biswanath, Tezpur and Mangaldai were the three riverside towns of Darrang district. In Nagaon, there were only two trading posts connected by river traffic. They were Nagaon and Raha. Golaghat and Jorhat were the two important river traffic stations in Sivasagar district, while Dibrugarh, Sadiya and Jaipur were the notable riverside stations in undivided Lakhimpur district.
It is hence not difficult to assume that boats did play a major role in the economic life of the community, said Saikia.