Historical novelist Venketesh Ramakrishnan has embarked on a project to bring the river back into focus

If you were in Madras a few centuries ago, the Cooum river would have been a source of delight. You would have spotted atleast 70 species of fish in it and even a special crocodile called the ‘Coovum crocodile’. Along the banks of the river would have been several ‘paadal petra stalams’, many of them Chola temples. The Cooum has been the site of many historic incidents, and has, in many ways, made the city what it is today.

Cut to 2014 and all we’re left with is an embarrassment of a water source. What used to once bask in glory is now filled with garbage. Perhaps if we know the river better, we would treat it better, thinks writer Venketesh Ramakrishnan. The 49-year-old author of three Tamil novels and a recent book in English Gods, Kings and Slaves has just embarked on a mission — to culturally map the Cooum and the historic spots of interest on its banks. He rues, “The waters of this river have been used for travel, religion, war, and to support the thirst of a civilisation and yet today, we use it for just one purpose — drainage.”

He, along with other volunteers, is tracking the important spots and events surrounding this river. “Mapping its history before it is too late is imperative,” he states, “Letting Chennaiites know the importance of different places on the river banks is crucial.”

During Madras Week this August, Venketesh will be busy — he hopes to organise an exhibition centred on this project. “Our aim is to have an exhibition on the history of the Cooum and perhaps have heritage and photo walks along the river,” he says.

There was once a time when even crocodiles inhabited this river. “In fact, a special genus of crocodile called the ‘Coovum crocodile’ was famous…a stuffed specimen can be found in the museum,” he adds.

The river also played a vital role in religious and historic events. By learning more about them, he hopes that Chennaiites will realise the significance it had in the founding of the city. “Three temples on its shores have been sung about in the Thevaram (700-800 AD),” says Venketesh, “They have inscriptions from a period dating back to the early Tamil kings.” The famous Islamic saint Hazrath Syed Moosa Shah Qadri Baghdadi lived on its banks in the 17th century. “More recently, the Guinness record of the number of people attending a funeral (of C.N. Annadurai) also took place on the banks of the river.”

Venketesh’s vision for the future includes converting the river into a clean waterway.

“Historians like V. Sriram and S. Muthiah have already been writing about individual spots on the river for years. We just decided to put them all on one canvas and create a feeling of pride among those who have always loathed the river. This project, I hope, will make citizens of Chennai aware of the importance of this river,” he signs off.

A river sutra

* The Cooum is a short river. It is just about 70 km long.

* It is said to originate in Sattarai village, near the battlefield of Takkolam. There is also a lake called Cooum and an ancient temple called Thiruvirkolam near its origin.

* The name may have been derived from ‘coopam’, which means a well or a deep pit from where water comes.

* Tipu Sultan’s sons were held hostages by the East India Company on the banks of this river.

* The Carnatic nawabs’ first palace in Chennai, and the first British fort, were built on its banks.

* Pachaiyappa Mudaliar, the well-known philanthropist, is said to have had a daily bath in the river.

* Cooum was also known as the Triplicane river and Poonamallee since it runs through these localities.

If you’d like to share information or volunteer for the project, email abhivencat@yahoo.com or look up ‘Cooum — A Cultural Mapping’ on Facebook