Elegy for a lake

Begur Lake is slowly dying, joining the long list of Bangalore’s forsaken water bodies.

Updated - November 13, 2021 09:23 am IST

Published - May 25, 2013 05:38 pm IST

Illustration: Satwik Gade

Illustration: Satwik Gade

At dusk, when the muezzin’s call to prayer crackled over a speaker from a nearby mosque and bells clanged in the temple on its bank, Begur Lake was at its divine best. The last light of the setting sun, by now a glow on the tip of distant clouds, played briefly on the surface of the lake. More than any other time of the day, this was when the lake revealed its ethereal dazzling beauty.

But that image is now just a memory. In the last three months, from my balcony I have seen the lake being reduced from a sparkling 100-acre water body to the size of a small rain puddle.

The Begur Lake is dying and, if left to itself, its fate is not going to be any different from that of Bangalore’s long list of forgotten, forsaken lakes: parts of the lakebed will be encroached upon, parts will be auctioned off and, in due time, commercial and residential complexes will rise from it.

In the burgeoning cities of India, vanishing lakes are the inevitable price we pay for rapid urbanisation, some would say. But if you have lived close to one, even for a brief period as I have, you’ll find it difficult to put a price tag on a lake. There is certainly a larger environmental story to a dying lake but, in many ways, the loss is quite personal, human. For me, memories of the Begur Lake in its many moods are vivid.

There were misty winter mornings when the fisherman’s round boat was at first just a speck in the middle of the lake. His frail figure and the tiny boat would become clearly etched against the radiant blue water as the sun rose in the sky. Today the fishing boat lies inverted on land; a small make-shift shack from where they sold their catch of Rohu has been permanently locked.

The migratory birds that came from faraway lands have all gone their way. Every year the lake was host to many species of storks and ducks. Arriving in flocks, they swam serenely in endearing formations or stood still like statues telling the lake their stories; their bond going back generations.

The birds came this year too but, beneath the calm surface of the lake, the water level had fallen drastically. So much so that one day we saw fisherfolk wading about in knee-deep water, their boat in tow, searching to make sure that the last fish had been caught. The birds left soon after. Then the cluster of lotus and lilies, that opened up as the noon sun turned the lake into a silver shimmering mirror, withered away.

An ecosystem perished slowly. Today the lakebed lies bare in a shroud of ghost- like whiteness. When a lake dries up, it leaves a void that cannot be filled.

What is it that drains the life out of a living body that has been around for at least a thousand years in three months flat? Some kind of cancer may be. Land Cancer you could call it; for that was the pace at which land spread over the water body attacking first from the sides, making inroads to the centre, cutting it up in to small puddles that were left to dry. And who is to blame — the encroachments that cut off the lake’s water supply, deposition of silt, poor monsoons, the high rise apartments in the vicinity that drained the ground water, diversion of water from the lake for construction, the sewerage lines that were being dug up in the periphery of the lake — and to what extent? My balcony is now a seat by the bedside of a dying friend. Hold on, I want to call out. The monsoon is on its way, a small group of residents is running a campaign to save you….

On a bank of the Begur Lake stands a thousand-year-old Siva temple. An inscription on its floor is about a Jain army chief in the Ganga dynasty named Nagattara and his daughter Tondabbe who chose the ascetic life. Tondabbe’s asceticism culminated in her choosing to end her life by fasting to death in the Jain tradition of Sallekhana. Nagattara’s sorrow as he sat by his daughter’s deathbed reaches out across time and seeps in to our conscience as we watch a dying lake. Why can’t we let go of a dear one, accept death as a change of state — of water becoming clouds, clouds falling as rain — as the circle of life playing out, nothing being created or destroyed, just forms changing? May be because stoic nonchalance is, after all, an ideal. Human lives are built on hopes and dreams. And dreams never really die.

The other day I spotted a white crane that had stopped by at the puddle. Standing on one leg, it surveyed the parched land. A couple of mid summer showers has caused a carpet of grass to sprout at the periphery of the lake, from where it will gradually extend over the surface, like a curtain drawn at the end of a play. The crane stood still for a long time as if whispering a long- drawn-out goodbye to the lake, may be a prayer, and then flew away.

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