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July 28, 2014 Sruthisagar Yamunan
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Not very often do we manage to discover a great part of history accidentally

The Kesavaram dam. Photo: Sruthisagar Yamunan
The Kesavaram dam. Photo: Sruthisagar Yamunan

About ten days ago, I pulled myself out of bed before the sun could rise, a record of sorts for someone who usually goes to sleep just before sunrise. The previous time I did so was for a cricket match five years ago. If my memory serves me right, that was the last time I engaged in any form of serious exercise.

I joined a group of history enthusiasts who had come together to trace the origins of the Cooum river. The idea was to map the cultural icons along its course.

I could almost read the question in your mind. Why would anyone want to discover anything about the Cooum at all?

In Madras, that is Chennai, a city from which I have hardly ever stayed away, the river-turned-open-sewage is both a crucial part of the Metro’s collective identity, and a shame every inhabitant wants to disown. The greatest photography cliché in Chennai would be to click a shot of someone trying desperately to keep the stench from the Cooum away with a cloth covering their nose. This happens every minute of every day.

So I became curious when someone told me there was more to the river than the filth that we associate it with.

Author and historian Venkatesh Ramakrishnan, who wrote the famous ‘Kaviri Mainthan’, led the group that had a mix of software engineers, retired mamas and, of course, a journalist.

My first shock was when we landed in a village in Tiruvallur called 'Cooum'. I was duly informed that the river derived its name from this place, historically referred to as Tiruvirkkolam.

The Shiva temple here is a ‘Padal Petra Sthalam’ on which Tirugnanasambandar had bestowed 10 beautifully composed poems, each one of which ended with the name of the village.

When I told a resident near the temple that we had come from Chennai, the old man frowned.

“People from your city always make fun of us,” the man noted. Apparently, whenever people from this place visit Chennai and say that they hail from ‘Cooum’, they are invariably responded with a mocking laughter as not many in Madras knew that such a place even exist! For us in Chennai, Cooum is Cooum.

It was at this temple that I made the first Chola connection with the river.

After our stopover at two more Chola-era sites, including Sivapuram where the temple once had a Cooum channel supplying it water, we finally made a move to our destination.

We landed at what is now considered the spot from which the river becomes ‘Cooum’.

The Kesavaram dam, the decisive point at which the water splits as Cooum and Kosasthalayar rivers, was operated from 1942 to divert the water to the Poondi reservoir, a drinking water source for the city.

Today, the river bed is desert-dry with palm trees shooting up from its soil. But unlike the river’s avatar in Chennai, there is no stink to run away from.

As the group was busy clicking photographs, it struck me that the place where we stood was called Thakkolam.

I had encountered that name before. I knew it was tremendously significant. But I just couldn't remember where and when, or what exactly I should associate it with.

A few minutes later, realisation dawned when Mr. Venkatesh and another group member narrated the story.

There in front of us, to the right of Cooum's origination, was the sprawling Thakkolam field which had witnessed arguably the most crucial battle in South India’s history.

Over thousand years ago, the Chola Prince, Rajaditya, was killed in a fierce battle on the same field against the marauding Rashtrakutas. Had Rajaditya won, the lineage of Chola kings would have changed. The great Raja Raja Chola and his son Rajendra Chola, under whose reigns the empire expanded across seas, may have never become emperors if not for this war.

I remembered that ‘Kalki’ Krishnamurthy’s epic novel, Ponniyin Selvan, made a mention of the Thakkolam war in the first few pages, hailing the valour of Rajaditya, the Chola crown prince who built the ‘Veera Narayana Eri’, now called the ‘Veeranam’ lake. Without this lake, Chennai would be in dire straits today.

For someone from a generation which had always considered the river as a cesspool, associating it with the Thakkolam battle, the event which reinvigorated the Cholas and made them the imperial force they later turned out to be, was a truly great moment.

July 23, 2014 PHEROZE L. VINCENT
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