ONE IS NEVER FAR FROM THE BRAHMAPUTRA when in western Assam. On a subcontinent where rivers are personified as female progeny of the gods, the “son of Brahma” is an exception. The river floods seasonally, unforgiving and capricious in its course. The people closest to him live in perpetual fear of his trajectory, and he occupies a central place in the region’s songs and mythology.
In one legend, a woman named Behula accompanies the corpse of her husband, Lakshmindara, on a raft down the Brahmaputra—popular belief in eastern India holds that a person killed by snakebite should be set afloat on the river. The raft passes several hamlets while the corpse swells and putrefies. Onlookers assume that Behula is mad, but she cannot be dissuaded. “Either I shall die with him or he will come to life and I shall be beside him when he does,” she declares. Behula prays to Manasa—the goddess of snakes—who, the story goes, ensures that the raft survives whirlpools and crocodile attacks. Behula’s perseverance is rewarded when Manasa brings Lakshmindara back to life.