Looking back a life time that I have spent at Tillaisthanam, on the banks of the Cauvery, the most nostalgic moments belong to Aadi Perukku and the first gush of water in the river. Aadi Perukku or Aadi 18 was a festival, celebrated with joy by people of all ages. The river in full flow was witness to rituals performed by newly-weds and older women. The bank would become a playground in the evening when families would wend their way to the river and have food in the soft glow of sunset. The elders would relax while the children played around.
But that was once upon a time. This year round, a dry river bed greeted us on Aadi Perukku. Nevertheless, we went to observe the time honoured custom with food and pots of water. My mind raced to the years when our expectations would start rising with the advent of the Tamil month of Aani (June). Strong winds would start blowing indicating heavy rains in the catchment areas.
The talk of the town throughout the month would be the storage levels of dams and the day of opening of the Mettur dam. It was not a national affair then. On the appointed day, the convoy carrying officials, including the District Collector of the undivided Thanjavur district and the Superintendent engineers of the Cauvery and Vennar divisions, would zoom past our village in the morning to perform a puja before opening the sluice gates of Kallanai (Grand Anicut).
Almost all the children of the village would be either seated on Padithurai (steps leading to the river) or standing on the sands, looking in the direction of the Cauvery. It was a thrill to see the water slowly moving forward and presently the river bed would be filled. The first thing we did was to prostrate in front of the river. Was she not the life giver? Was she not our Mother? But we were not allowed to touch the water for three days. No reason was given but now I understand it is to give time for the impurities to get flushed.
On the fourth day, women would go to the river side carrying puja materials. After having a bath, they would offer her puja. From Vedic pandits to farmers, everybody had their own way of worshipping Mother Cauvery and Surya (Sun), the twin blessings. The village would wear a festive look, every one cheerful.
Young boys were the happiest when the river was in full flow, because they could swim. They would reach the top of a Mandap (which no longer exists), by climbing a nearby tree, and jump from there. It was a spectacular sight, especially when they jumped with their legs and arms folded. And they had to jump into a deep spot otherwise could end up with broken limbs. The mischievous among them would jump splashing the water on the elders, who would be leaving after a bath. Laughter and a quick jump would be the response to the curses.
Almost everyone could swim although going against the current was not an easy task. The challenge was to swim to the opposite shore and return. We were fans of Gopalratnam Anna, who performed this feat effortlessly. We used to wait with bated breath for him to come back to us. Now in his late 70s, Anna came to our village recently and had a hearty laugh, when I reminded him of this. We loved clinging to a floating banana stem and going along with the current to some distance.
I was always amazed by the way the men and women washed and dried their clothing on the stone steps of the river. Wrapping one end of the garment around themselves they would wash and rinse the other part and deftly reverse it. The blowing wind would dry the clothes before they reached home. It was free pedicure as we rubbed the soles of our feet on the stone steps and dangled them in the water for the fish to nibble away at the dirt. We were lucky if Chinni, the temple elephant of Tiruvaiyaru, also came to sport in the water. We were never tired of watching her let off massive sprays. She would leave only after the mahout cajoled her.
It was time for the farmers to get busy. They would walk briskly to the fields, plough on one shoulder and carrying the big brass vessel containing food — Neeragaram. Saminatha Asari would be the busiest man. He was an expert at fixing broken ploughs and carts that developed snags.
One river enriched our lives and took care of all our needs. A good yield was guaranteed and that was bliss. We didn’t need anything more. Still in a reverie, I murmur to myself ‘Andha naalum vandhidadho?’