Gustasp & Jeroo Irani encounter the Cauvery in the forests of Karnataka.

A deep trench, meant to keep elephants away from the lush coffee plantation, had the imprint of a large footprint. An elephant had just lumbered past. “He is in the vicinity,” whispered Ganesh, our naturalist-guide.

As we soldiered on through the Dubare Forest in Kodagu or Coorg, Karnataka, past stands of dead bamboo and soaring rosewood and sandalwood trees, the jungle resonated with an air of menace. “Shhh! He’s there, not too far away!” Ganesh said, as our hearts beat a harsh tattoo against our chests. We were in search of the legendary river Cauvery and it seemed like in the process we would be trampled by an elephant. We stood as still as the tall matti trees from whose sturdy trunks tribals draw water to drink. And then, to the huge relief of our group of four, we heard the lone tusker tramp away in the opposite direction.

Parting thickets of leaves and dry twigs that clawed at us, we trod up and down red paths to suddenly arrive at a clearing. An expanse of emerald-green waters, rippled below, tripping over smooth boulders... the Cauvery at last! The mythical maiden river had played truant even with Sage Agastya who fell in love with her. Legend says the sage asked a disciple to keep an eye on his beautiful wife Cauvery and put her in a vessel. The mischievous and self-willed lady was upset and started to flow away. When the young lad protested, she went underground. That is why, it is said, the river disappears from her source at TalaCauvery, high in the Western Ghats in Coorg, to re-emerge at Bhagamandala, a few kilometres away where a charming temple is dedicated to her.

In the land of her birth, the river is worshipped as a living goddess. Every Coorg or Kodava home is adorned with a photograph or oleograph of the Cauvery and a heavy brass lamp is lit every morning and evening to honour the ancestors. We, however, washed our faces in her life-giving waters and splashed it on one another, while Ganesh sang a song to Ma Cauvery, his voice riding over the sound of the rushing river.

When we were there recently, the river was fairly shallow but coracles bearing locals drifted along its length to the various villages. We too twirled down the river in a coracle to the riverside village of Karadigodu, with trusty Ganesh, when the fragrance of freshly-baked local bread wafted over the slowly-awakening hamlet. Children were getting ready for school, cramming into an auto rickshaw that doubled as a school bus, while grandmothers packed tiffin boxes with lunch for their men-folk on their way to work in the coffee plantations. Mothers swung infants on ample hips and waved to older children heading for the nearest college, heaving backpacks on frail backs.

The village had an aura of sleepy prosperity. Neat little cottages were strung in rows, painted in vivid shades of pink, purple, mauve and green and, in some, TV sets played out the latest South India soaps. We stopped at a local stall (grandly called The Riverside Hotel) for some South Indian filter coffee, fresh sweet bread and smoke-flavoured onion bhajias that had just been whipped off a wood fire. And in front of the village flowed the mercurial Cauvery which, when it is in spate, can break its banks and flood the hamlet and the first row of houses! Yet when we took part in harvesting coffee berries in a plantation, we began to understand how the locals feel an almost mystical attachment to the river.

“Without the river and the land that it waters, we are nothing,” said one of the women coffee pluckers whose nimble technique of prying coffee berries off the bush, we tried hard to imitate. “Ma Cauvery is our goddess!” she exclaimed.

After coffee harvesting ends in February, pepper is culled and so it goes on till June when, with the rains, the Cauvery brims with revitalising waters again, the soil sprouts anew and the cycle of life is renewed.

We met the river goddess again in Kabini, a three-hour drive away, past fields of ripening corn, sugar cane and paddy. The forests of Nagarahole were a dark-green tangled smudge beyond the coiling river Kabini which, incidentally, is a tributary of the Cauvery!

As our boat put-putted down the Kabini that circles the south-eastern edge of the Nagarahole National Park, we saw a couple of wild elephants, long tusks grazing the ground, a marsh crocodile sunning itself on a bank, as still as a log of wood, an iridescent kingfisher that dived for his meal and emerged triumphant. All around us was a world as fresh as at the dawn of time and we thanked Ma Cauvery for her life-nurturing presence which even embraces the wilderness.