Unlike city residents who pollute the water, tribal communities upstream revere the river
History is often the story of kings, ministers, chieftains and landlords. The story of ordinary human beings who also lived around them at the same time is very often not recorded. So it is with stories of the Karamana river. While names and tales of stalwarts who lived on its banks are documented, the names of those who inhabit the forests near the source of the river go unrecorded.
The Karamana river is not just a river associated with the city. It has good friends upstream; there are still places where the people take care of the river and the river is very much a part of the daily lives of those people. The health of the river is much better in those places. A couple of kilometres upwards of Karamana bridge is Mudavanmughal padavu where the Corporation has a self-help thoni (country boat) service that many local residents use to take the bus to Pappanamcode. One can find people bathing, washing, fishing and young children befriending the river and having great fun. Vijayan, a former headload worker living in the area, has seen the river deteriorate and points to a roadside gutter culminating in the river very near the padavu where people take a bath. He says that, at times, a bath in the river results in terrible itching. But the river here is healthier than in Karamana.
Even in Karamana, until a few decades ago, the river was very much a part of the daily life of the residents there, with many using it for travelling, bathing, washing, fishing and also for commercial purposes. The number of steps near the Karamana bridge itself is enough indication of the past life near the river. Senior riverside residents recall a thoni carrying vegetables coming to the padavu and people thronging to buy them. The banks of the river were made fertile with the alluvial soil that the flooding river would bring every year, and was most suited for cultivation and till recently vegetable cultivation (especially cheera – red amaranthus) was popular.
If we travel to the river basin, we can see some of the major tributaries of the river. One of them, Thodayar, joins the Karamana river at a spot known as Cheppila Kayam. The Kani settlements in the Western Ghats seem to be the real guardian angels of the river.
Near the catchment area of Peppara dam is Chemmankaala where a few Kani settlements still exist. They had to shift from their original settlement when the dam was built about four decades ago. One has to walk or rather climb the rocky path by the Thodayar from Chemmankaala and reach the source of the river – Vaazhvanthol Falls, where the water falls and crashes on an amazingly flat rock.
Elephants seem to be around the corner everywhere near the river. Chemmankaala is protected both by a trench and an electric fence. Mallan Kani can identitify a dozen ‘Aanathaaras’ (elephant tracks) on the river side here. Many trees here have a smooth bark as the elephants use these trees to rub their backs!
Kani gods are Mallan Thampuran, Narayanan Kutti Thampuran, Kaalan Thampuran, Ponnaruvi Amma and Moopathi Amma. During their festival ‘Koduthi’, they assemble in the ‘Paattappura’ and offer ‘Paatu’ and ‘Oottu’.
Mallan Kani’s mother, Maathi, used to make a special egg curry with crocodile eggs that used to be found on the riverside many decades ago. No one has seen crocodiles in the Karamana river nowadays. Samuel Mateer in Land of Charity mentions about crocodiles in Travancore river thus: “The largest and most formidable of the reptiles of Travancore are crocodiles, which may often be seen lying sunning themselves on the grassy banks of the rivers and backwaters, or swimming in the water with only the upper portion of the head, visible, or lying in a hole in the bank of the river with the head protruded and the mouth wide agape, ready to snap upon any living thing which may come within reach. There are two species of crocodiles, the smaller and more common, generally six or seven feet in length, and not ordinarily dangerous to human life; the larger reaching the length of eighteen or twenty feet. The latter are more dangerous; still, one does not often hear of lives being lost by them in this part of India”.
Mallan Kani’s wife, Aruvi, is a woman in her early forties, who by her name and giggles, remind you of the river itself. She sings many traditional songs, but a little confusing to city dwellers, for the Malayalam is strange and the setting is not easily recognisable. One of the Kani songs is a fable explaining the origin of the Karamana River. Padmanabha and his ‘machunan’ (brother-in-law) went to a forest to collect honey for Sita (when she was seven months pregnant). When thirst overcame them, they looked for water. They heard the sound of a river inside a ‘Mayila’ tree, flowing up and down. They cut open the tree, quenched their thirst, at first standing, then sitting and finally lying down. The water swept them away in two directions, Padmanabha towards Thiruvananthapuram, thus creating Karamana river (and Padmanabha promptly settled down at the foot of the river) and the brother-in-law (a Tamil king) flowed to the other side of the mountain range as a river into Tamil Nadu. Their goddess Ponnaruvi Amma seems to be a personification of the Karamana river with which they peacefully co-exist. The pristine water of the Thodayar would put dwellers of the capital city to great shame. The Kanis let the water flow unblemished, but as it enters the city, in a span of a few kilometres, it becomes a dangerous concoction.
The Makki Sastha temple on the banks of one of the tributaries to Thodayar is unique – it has no roofed enclosure. An idol stands exposed on an open platform with some recently acquired Hindu temple around it.
(Continuing the weekly series on the Karamana river, written by Dr. Achuthsankar S. Nair, head of the Department of Computational Biology and Bioinformatics, University of Kerala. He is a music and history buff. Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org)