The Intrepid Rafters of Koshi
|August 2008||Text by : Ravi Man Singh
For Dan Bahadur Rai, better known as ‘Beni Kanchha’ of Mai Beni village in Bhojpur
District, that October day began like any other. Kanchha and his mates Nabin Rai and Man Bahadur Majhi set out to transport 225 ghans (pieces or stalks; technically ‘culms’) of bamboo to Terardi, Chhatara, to sell. The quantity was more than the usual 150 to 180 ghans normally ferried at a time by rafters down the Koshi river. They started early, for the return trip was a five hour walk and they wanted to be home by evening. A jungle vine called birali and stripped bamboo skins called choya are used to tie the bamboo culms in bunches of 25 or 30 and lash them into cone-shape rafts for running the river. In two hours the raft was water worthy.
The sky was clear and bright with no noticeable wind, an ideal day. Kanchha made sure the charis, the 35 foot bamboo poles with which to steer the raft, were in good shape. The water level on the Koshi river was high but calm.
In 10 minutes, as they approached the first rapids, Kanchha gave a cautioning shout to his mates and rammed his chari into the churning water. Huge sprays slapped the three as the white water engulfed the raft. They whistled in relief as they shot safely past. The first hurdle was over. Now, only three more to go.
It was smooth sailing after that as the team drew nearer to the confluence of Arun and Dudh Koshi rivers. Tribeni lay 300 meters ahead. There, the Tammar joins the Sun Koshi (which the locals call the Dudh Koshi), afterwhich the river is known as the Sapta Koshi, a merger of altogether seven of east Nepal’s great snow-fed rivers.
They knew their raft was heavy and sluggish, and as they drifted towards Tribeni they feared the tiny speck rapidly looming larger ahead of them. It was the massive, menacing ‘killer boulder’, the jyanmare dhunga, the most dreaded of all and long the site of innumerable accidents, sometimes resulting in serious injuries and even deaths. Other most-feared rapids include the jibe, trishule, materi and the kosappa, to name a few.
Their bodies taut, the trio braced themselves for the onslaught. Kanchha yelled out instructions as the raft first rode the waves and then nose-dived into the frothing water. They had to keep the dreaded boulder at arms length, meet headlong the force of Tammar that lashed out straight at them, then swerve quickly to their right to dodge several smaller boulders almost shielded by the thrashing waters. It was here a rafter’s sheer grit,
experience and the best of his prowess are put to the test.
Kanchha suddenly felt the current getting stronger. The unwieldy raft was being forced dangerously close to the jyanmare. In unison, all three rafters plunged their charis trying to hard push the raft away from the menacing boulder.
Fear gripped Kanchha and before he could shout another warning the raft rammed full force into the rock, hovered for a few seconds, then was hurled like a matchbox towards the waiting boulders on the other side. Despite the din, Kanchha clearly heard the crunching thud as the raft struck one of the boulders. The birali creepers snapped and to their horror the raft split clean in two and the three men were thrown overboard.
“I kicked furiously and managed a hold onto the broken raft. Fearing the worst about my mates, I held on,” Kanchha recalls. “Suddenly a wave hit the flimsy raft tipping it over carrying me underneath. Everything blackened. A deafening rumble like a hundred truck engines filled my ears. Trapped under water for almost a minute, I fought hard to surface with my lungs to bursting. I panicked. I thought I was drowning.”
“I don’t know what it was, must be God’s will, I surfaced,” he says somberly. “Taking a deep breath I clambered on to the remaining half of the raft. To my great relief I saw my mates drifting on the other half of the raft some 150 meters downstream. Help soon came from other rafters who helped us to the nearest bank. After a short respite we fetched some birali, tied the broken raft together and continued on.”
Two more serious rapids lay ahead but, fearsome or not, they also had to be run. All went well, however, and the rest of the journey was uneventful. When they finally reached Terardi they were three hours behind time.
This is how the intrepid bamboo rafters of the Koshi flirt with death with every trip they make. Mishaps are common and the unpredictable Koshi lays claim to one or two rafters almost every other year. Kanchha, now 37, started rafting bamboo when he was 14, and he’s had a close brush with death several times. Some others were not lucky enough to tell their tales.
Bamboo trading down the Koshi is done mostly by men of ethnic Rai, Majhi and Tamang, and has a long history. Kanchha recalls his granddad doing the same work. The bamboos come from Dhankuta, Bhojpur, Udaypur and as far away as Khotang, and are ferried to Terardi at Shringighat in Sunsari District, about three kilometers from Chhatara. There, the rafters are paid 30 rupees per bamboo, a profit of only five rupees per culm, against investment of 25 rupees each. The contractor at Terardi then sells the bamboo for an equally small margin of five to eight rupees per stalk. At markets in Dharan, Itahari and and Kathmandu, they fetch 75 to 90 rupees each. Risking one’s life for a few hundred rupees ferrying bamboo down the Koshi is hard to comprehend.
Living below poverty level, the lives of riverside natives in east Nepal is agonizingly hard. For them, however, bamboo ferrying is as much a means of livelihood as pig farming, or raising goats or chickens and farming a few crops.
Kanchha told me about the perils of ferrying bamboo down the Koshi when I was his guest at Parkua, a small village in Bhojpur District. He beamed when I presented him a life-jacket that I had brought along from Kathmandu. My fishermen friends and I had given him one the year before and he was happy now that his partner could also wear one. The life jackets would cut down considerably the risk of drowning. Kanchha and his partner are not the only intrepid bamboo rafters on the Koshi, and I cannot help but think about all the
others out on the mighty rivers who, unaided by any kind of life saving gear, continue this death defying way of making a living.
Ravi Singh is an avid Koshi river sports fisherman, and a freelance writer. He lives in Kathmandu and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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