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Practising mindfulness while floating down an icy river

River rafting on the Jia Bhoreli, a tributary of the Brahmaputra, induces feelings of contemplation and reflection in the writer

Rafting on the Kameng river is like floating in space.
Rafting on the Kameng river is like floating in space. (

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The silence hung like a shroud but it wasn’t in the least bit oppressive. It was comfortable, companionable. But not complete. A soft tinkle surfaced now and then, as the gently flowing water met a stone or a boulder.

At other times, it was a bit like a Martin Scorsese film. The bright rays of the sun fell on the rippling water surface, catching a million moving dips and crests, and reflecting off them like ephemeral diamonds—a beautiful, dynamic montage, set against a soundless backdrop. The power of silence far greater than any sound can ever hope to achieve.

Rafting on the Kameng river—also known as the Jia Bhoreli—which flows on the border between Assam and Arunachal Pradesh felt like floating in space.

On either side, tall trees rose just a few feet inwards from the pebbly banks, an impenetrable jungle wilderness. It almost seemed to hide primal eyes that watched our progress down the river.

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It was almost noon and the April sun that year was bright but did nothing to dispel the mild iciness in the air. As the raft glided along, cold air swept by in the opposite direction, prickly against the face.

The silence and smooth motion of the raft should have been soporific but the chilly air invigorated and brought every little thing into sharp focus, even thoughts that chased one another. If there ever was a perfect setting for mindfulness, this was it.

It hadn’t started quite as serenely, though. Earlier in the day, when I was sitting on the banks of the river just outside Bhalukpong, a tiny town on the Assam side, things didn’t look good.

Swaddled in layers, warming my hands against a hot cup of tea, I watched morosely as the fog enveloped the river and everything else. It was nearly mid-morning and the temperature was in low double digits. The day seemed bleak.

“It will clear soon,” the rafting guide said as I climbed into a rickety four-wheeler and trundled eastwards, parallel to the river, on a potholed road.

The raft rested at a jaunty angle in the open boot. As we drove through a part of the Nameri National Park in Assam, which shares a boundary with Arunachal’s Pakke Tiger Reserve, the jungle seemed to share my gloom. Not a leaf moved, not a thing stirred. An occasional call was the only indication that creatures hadn’t abandoned the forest.

Just a few minutes later, though, as the vehicle emerged from the canopied forest, we found the day had brightened dramatically and the sun was readying for an appearance.

The vehicle swerved sharply left, headed straight to the flowing river and stopped at the edge of a low promontory. The guide and driver made quick work of unloading the raft and other paraphernalia and I was kitted out with a life jacket.

With the guide’s help, I stepped into the raft gingerly, almost tumbling over as the flimsy contraption wobbled in the water. I hastily sat down on a plank, holding on to the ropes tied to the sides. With a push and shove from the driver, the raft shot forward and caught the river current.

Though the water had looked serene from the banks, it was anything but. It flowed briskly, tripping and falling over stones and boulders, prompting the raft to skip, jump and jerk as it hit obstructions of various sizes; it floated languidly for some time, zipping and lurching crazily as it hit rapids.

The experience was new and a panic attack threatened to surface. The moment passed, and, in just a few minutes, the panic gave way to sheer exhilaration.

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Soon, the river evened out and settled into a smooth glide, becoming almost meditative. The sun had emerged, the haze had cleared, and so had my mood. The sky was a beautiful cerulean blue, dotted with a few puffy white clouds. The blue of the sky met the blue of the water at the horizon downstream. The lush green forest on either side shone in perfect contrast to the surrounding blues.

I bent and dipped my fingers in the water, shocked by how cold it was. The Kameng originates in a glacial lake in the Himalaya and flows 264km before joining the Brahmaputra, about 70km south of Bhalukpong.

“It flows through mountains all the way till Bhalukpong,” the guide said. I couldn’t verify this but the chill numbed my fingers, as if proving his point.

In places, the water was so clear and flowed so gently that I could spot fish. Their scales caught the diffused sun rays, glistening for a moment before darting away. It was idyllic.

River-rafting often evokes images of being tossed around in a seemingly fragile boat, leaping and careening in a frenzy of adrenaline in a ferocious river that is in a great hurry to get to its destination. Rafting on the Jia Bhoreli wasn’t any of that. It was more like drifting on a lazy river in a water park, only infinitely better and picturesque—these are, after all, largely categorised as Grade I rapids.

A couple of times, the guide smoothly slid the raft into one of several sand banks that rose in the middle of the river. The name was a misnomer; the sandy patch was packed with smooth, rounded pebbles of varying sizes and shapes—round, oval, cylindrical, triangular, flat... They were of so many colours that it boggled the mind. Many glinted in the sun, like nature’s own bling.

“Take off your shoes and walk on them,” my guide said as he fished out a flask and other paraphernalia with which to make tea.

Much later, far away from the river, I was to remember the feeling of walking barefoot on those pebbles. The flowing water had polished the stones to a burnished finish. Walking on them, at once feeling their smooth surface and the icy water of the river, was surprisingly therapeutic.

The disparate shapes and sizes touched and exerted pressure on the feet at different points, bringing to mind a foot massage—only this was far, far better. Tea while sitting on the pebbles felt like luxury.

Back in the raft, the journey got the adrenaline pumping. The river picked up speed and jostled the raft, sending it bouncing over a series of rapids.

Water splashed up and doused my face and arms, shocking the system and invigorating me. Then, as we bumped and slid around a bend in the river, the raft settled down once more.

We spotted an elephant nonchalantly chewing on a bunch of bamboo stems. Startled by our bumping, somewhat rowdy passage, it stopped momentarily. We hovered on the water for a bit, watching the pachyderm, and doing some lotus-eating of our own, before continuing.

Almost three hours and 20km later, the guide deftly manoeuvred the raft to the right bank. I got out and sat on the bank, trying to soak up everything that the surroundings had to offer as the others packed up.

The river was back to a gentle flow, the sound and movement hypnotic and blissful. I desperately tried to hold on to that moment while jouncing back, while having a late lunch, while wandering around Bhalukpong town in the evening, while flying back home.

Back home, caught up in the daily grind, the image of floating on the Jia Bhoreli comes unbidden to mind at the oddest times, bringing back memories of a meditative adventure.

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