The Deepor Beel is a large and prominent floodplain lake located in the south-west of Guwahati city in Assam. It is a Wildlife Sanctuary of the Government of Assam and an important Ramsar site since 2002. Its basin is drained by a system of rivulets and hill streams that connect the neighbouring hills and the forests to the river Brahmaputra through an outlet called the Khanajan. In 2004, Birdlife International declared the wetland an important bird area (Mahabahu Brahmaputra n.d.).
History and etymology
The name Deepor Beel means the ‘lake of elephants’–a Beel in Assamese and Bodo dialects is a lake, and the word Deep-or is said to have derived from the word for elephants in one of the indigenous dialects. Historically, Bodo, Karbi, Garo, Rabha and Khasi tribes, and Assamese-speaking, fishing and other communities lived around the place. The word Deep-or, therefore, might have originated from an admixture of these dialects. Different local stories abound for the history and the significance of the wetland. In one of the stories a visiting and thirsty Brahmin priest is said to have contributed to the forming of the lake through his magical powers. The long-established relationship of the lake to the elephants of the forests at its edge is more plausible. Despite urban interference and ecological apathy big groups of elephants continue to visit the wetland, especially in the winters when the scarce sources of water in the neighbouring hill forests dry up. The special relationship of elephants to this lake is made more prominent by the fact that its shape somewhat resembled an elephant’s footprint, although this shape is being increasingly modified and the relationship with the elephants is becoming increasingly fraught, due to land reclamations for urbanisation (Bodo 2017).
There are no historical epigraphs or manuscripts connected to the Deepor Beel, but this does not diminish its historical significance or disconnect the lake from history. Much of the history of Guwahati city is connected to the wetlands. For centuries, its marshy waters created a natural geographical barrier for the forts of Pandu and Guwahati, slowing down the invading armies and forcing mounted troops to take a narrow, perilous land passage to the two forts. Because of such geography, successive invading armies from Bengal and the Mughal centre were determinedly repelled from Guwahati each time. In summers, the waters of the Brahmaputra rise significantly and cover a larger land area that also encompasses the Deepor Beel. In the famous Battle of Saraighat, the Ahom armies strategically used the natural fortresses offered by the rise and fall of these waters and routed an invading naval and land army of the Mughals for the final time (Bhuyan 2010).
Tribal hamlets skirting the southern border of the Deepor Beel have their own oral histories of migrating and settling along the Beel. The settlements of Karbis, Khasis, Bodo and Rabha tribes were after a time followed by fishermen communities of non-tribal societies. The tribes, in fewer numbers, and the moriya (fishermen community) in greater numbers, constitute the major communities of people residing along the wetland today. There is a hill rivulet on the southern edge of the wetland, some distance off the Gorchuk-Airport road, which is said to be a variant of one of the ancient sites called the Jyotirlingas referred to in the Shiva Purana. It is, however, unclear whether this site, called by the same name, is really a branch of the Bhimashankar Jyotirlinga in Pune or an appropriation from an indigenous and tribal form of nature worship. There is another lingam temple of the same nature in a place, not far-off, called Basistha. Since the development of the Gorchuk-Airport road the temple has become a busier tourist spot. Apart from the tribal and the fishing communities, the surroundings of the wetland today are inhabited by urban workers, municipal workers and migrants to the city.
Wildlife and conservation
On most days, big mammals are seldom seen in Deepor Beel during the day except sometimes in the early hours of the morning. A variety of bird species remains throughout the year, flying in and out of the wetland. The swamps are a stop for migratory birds which travel in during the winters. The presence of these birds varies in different years and ornithologists have complained that increasing pollution and urban interferences are hampering the patterns of migration. Amongst the migratory birds that travel to the Beel are the barn swallow, northern shoveler, brown shrike, ruddy shelduck (the brahminy duck), common sandpiper, brown-headed gull, common/ stejneger’s stonechat, red-crested pochard, tufted duck, northern lapwing, common snipe, temminck’s stint, whiskered tern, white wagtail, citrine wagtail, little ringed plover, grey-headed lapwing and grey-backed shrike. Most of these birds have not been spotted in the wetland since the winter of 2010 (Saikia 2005).
The Siberian crane, the long-distance migrant from western and central Russia also travelled to the Deepor Beel. They otherwise travelled to Nagpur, Bihar and most prominently the Keoladeo National Park in India. Since 2001, with aberrations coming in their migratory patterns they have stopped visiting Indian sites. On a usual day’s visit to the Deepor Beel one is more likely to see Herons, including the cattle egrets and lapwings and storks. Efforts for conservation of the wetland have not adequately helped either the residents or the migratory birds. The greater adjutant storks, for example, still flock together in the wetland in abundance, but as the municipal garbage dump has been situated in the centre of the Beel, it has fed the birds hazardous waste, including plastic materials.
There is an alarming need to conserve the Deepor Beel. Political and official will is not lacking, as the Assam state government has adopted measures for the preservation of the wetland, instituted the wildlife sanctuary and tried to ensure safe passages for elephants. In 2008 the state government enacted a legislation called The Guwahati Water Bodies (Preservation and Conservation) Act for freeing the several water bodies around the city from encroachments. These are complemented by the efforts of the local universities, technical institutes, NGOs and private individuals and bird lovers. Experts feel that despite taking up several efforts, the idea of conservation has been misdirected. Professor Prashanta Saikia, zoological expert at Gauhati University has pointed out that taking up foreign approaches to conservation, routed through state structures and NGOs is destroying indigenous–traditional and often tribal—ways of ecological conservation. Conservation efforts have been externally introduced and are not indigenous and local in their concepts. Every ecological system has a unique and nature-gifted capacity to re-generate and so it is for the Deepor Beel. Dr Saikia has said this capacity of the lake is being lost due to perturbation causes of urbanisation and pollution (Saikia 2017).
Urbanisation and local communities
Conservation of the wetland also confronts the challenge that while on the one hand its core area has been conserved as a wildlife sanctuary, on the other hand the catchment of the Deepor Beel has not figured in the plan for conservation. Professor Abani Kumar Bhagabati of the Gauhati University’s Department of Geography has said the drainage system of Guwahati city with all its small hill streams, the catchment of the Deepor Beel, the other smaller water bodies scattered across Guwahati and the Brahmaputra River, all form parts of the same interconnected system. In summers when the Brahmaputra is in spate the river waters rush in through a backflow via the Khanajan River. At other times of the year the waters of the wetland flow out to the Brahmaputra (Bhagabati 2017).
Urban pressures have induced man-made changes in the Deepor Beel that are changing the wetland’s ecosystem. Until the 1980s the wetland was part of a large, rural and detached suburb of the city with scatterings of fish-rearing and agricultural villages. To the south was the expanse of the forested hills of Meghalaya, and to the east the Bahini and smaller hill streams flowed down to drain into the Beel. Towards 1989 the need for an expansion of the railway network in Assam created the beginning of railway construction through the body of the wetland. Although public concern against this affront to Guwahati’s beloved Deepor Beel compelled the government to alter the route and in fact also made a small beginning in official conservation of the Beel, the starting of the railway line was the ominous foretelling that the railways was only the beginning of many more human interferences to come in the wetland’s way.
Indeed, since 1989 the Beel has almost been torn apart by a network of railway line and roads so that the southern road—the Gorchuk-Airport road—is seldom empty of vehicles. The railway line and the vehicular traffic together are responsible for the death of several elephants, especially at night when vehicles disobey forest guards, and then speed across the elephant corridors that drive down to the Beel from the reserved forests in the Meghalaya hills (Wildlife Trust of India 2017). Observations over the years include an increase in vehicular traffic, which has made the Deepor Beel an uninviting place for birds, especially in the winters, a time when picnicking groups from different places including the various localities of Guwahati visit in great numbers, play loud music, dirty the waters and more often than not leave behind their food and plastic waste. Birds and small animals cannot survive in such an environment.
The local, resident communities of the Beel do not share the indifference to the life and health of the wetland that is seen in visitors such as picnickers. The fishing communities live hard and uncertain lives. One fisherman lost his life in the summer of 2017, unable to escape a storm in time as he was entangled by weeds in the middle of the wetland. The fisherpeople’s catch often depends on patterns of the monsoon, the backflow of the Brahmaputra river and invariably on the wind directions, as their fishnets are caught amongst water hyacinths. The local communities have their own unique roles to play in the conservation of the wetland and in the conservation of specific species. Although in separate contexts, there is a theoretical trend wherein NGOs have influenced the goals set for conservation by carving out autonomous spaces, and adding layers of meaning for the local communities (Karim 2004). Certain villages have adopted greater adjutant storks, and an NGO called Aranyak and its flag-bearer, Purnima Barman, have led and supported the cause of conservation in the villages (Chandra 2015). Persons from the surrounding villages with knowledge of the terrain and animal or bird behaviour have become forest guards in the state’s Forest Department. Some of their family members, on their own initiative, run conservation societies.
Influences on literature and culture
For a long time the local communities depended on the wetland for protein in the form of fish and animal meat, for livelihoods from fish-rearing and Bodo-rice cultivation, and collected seeds such as of water lilies. They celebrated the wetland as an integral part of their lives and the best form for its representation was the very life they led. The houses were built on stilts or had outhouses which were built on such stilts. There was fishing equipment such as the bamboo jakoi (small scoop), dolonga (big scoop) and sepa (round traps) in every house, and fish-catching was part of the celebrations in the harvest festival of Magh Bihu in January. The house-building patterns and the village neighbourhood were oriented towards integrating with the Deepor Beel. These cultural traditions are changing as these local economies are urbanising, helped by their proximity to the urban markets of Guwahati city. Multi-storey buildings or apartment complexes are taking over and so the livelihoods of the villagers have altered. On an average day a visitor sees only a handful of fisherpersons’ boats wading across the waters.
The municipal garbage dump right at the centre of the wetland spoils its beauty. It is already a two-storey high and at least 200-metre long heap of domestic waste, increasing in mass each day. Eagles circle the skies over these heaps where municipal workers including school-going children had set up their colonies in disturbingly nauseating living conditions after establishment of the dump-site. Until the garbage was relocated to this place in 2006, the wetland had been an oasis of urban peace. Professor Bhagabati has pointed out that at every small instance nature creates unique poetic interventions, weaving poetry and sonnets out of the air (Bhagabati 2017). This aesthetic value of the Deepor Beel is invaluable and, sometimes because of human interference such as the relocating of the municipal dump, appears to be on the precipice of a great fall.
The peaceful environment of the Deepor Beel and its adjoining forests and wildlife has inspired writers, poets and thinkers to write of their experiences and to think deeply on the relationship of humans and nature. Tarun Ram Phukan was one such freedom fighter and political leader of Assam who chronicled his hunting adventures made in the wetland’s environs. Nobel laureate Rudyard Kipling too wrote about the elephants of the Garo Hills, about the secret rendezvous of these great mammals and the human connection in his story. It appeared in the title ‘Toomai of the Elephants’, first published in St. Nicholas Magazine in 1893, and appearing a year later as part of the collections in the famous Jungle Book. These influences on literature might have faded but Deepor Beel remains a living example of the cost of urbanisation for traditional and forest ecosystems.
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Bhuyan, Suryya Kumar. 2010. Lachit Barphukan and his times. Guwahati: Publication Board Assam.
Chandra, Kavita Kanan. 2015. ‘Giving a “dirty” bird its place of pride in people’s mind and cultural conscience.’ The Weekend Leader, Guwahati, November 2. Online at http://www.theweekendleader.com/Heroism/2290/another-stork-tale.html (viewed on December 4, 2017).
Karim, Lamia. 2004. ‘Democratizing Bangladesh: State, NGOs and Militant Islam.’ Cultural Dynamics 16.2/3: 291–318.
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Saikia, Prasanta Kumar. 2005. Qualitative and quantitative study of lower and higher organisms and their functional role in the Deepor Beel ecosystem. Umiam, Meghalaya: North Eastern Space Applications Centre.
Flood and River Erosion Management Agency of Assam. n.d. ‘A case study on Deepor Beel: The Ramsar site and the most prominent flood plain wetland of Brahmaputra.’ Online at http://thebrahmaputra.in/ (viewed on October 12, 2017).
Wildlife Trust of India. n.d. ‘Train-elephant collision averted in Deepor Beel, Assam’. Online at http://www.wti.org.in/news/train-elephant-collision-averted-in-deepor-beel-assam/ (viewed on December 2, 2017).
Bhagabati, Abani Kumar. 2017. ‘Geography and landscape of Deepor Beel,’ Interview with author, November 1. Video, 32:25.
Bodo, Pramode. 2017. Interview with author, October 30.
Saikia, Prasanta Kumar. 2017. ‘Ecology of Deepor Beel,’ Interview with author, November 11. Video, 20:28.
Talukdar, Harekrishna. 2017. ‘Revisiting Deepor Beel: A travelling workshop of Kala Samanvayaa 2015,’ February 27. Video, 32:24. Online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rIY5Q2AVv7o