Light of the South

Legend, history and literature intertwine to make the Cauvery an icon of culture

September 07, 2017 04:21 pm | Updated 05:31 pm IST

A view of Amma Mandapam bathing ghat at Srirangam.  Rockfort temple on the back side.  

A view of Amma Mandapam bathing ghat at Srirangam. Rockfort temple on the back side. PHOTO: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

River Cauvery representing the most important of the five elements — āpas (water) — is drawing close to its holy Pushkaram season. We prepare for the rituals with prayerful anxiety for a return to the days of plentiful flow that had been our everyday experience half a century earlier. The dazzling variety of all that is good and glorious gifted by the river down the millennia surpasses one’s imagination — legend, history, art, architecture, technological innovations, heroism, sacrifice, religion, spirituality, literature, music...

From Kodagu (Coorg) in Karnataka to Puhar (Kaveri-p-poompattinam) in Tamil Nadu, the Cauvery flows along 765 km. There is the prologue to the epic Manimekalai, which refers to the Cauvery coming to the Chola region. King Kantaman’s penance to quench the thirst of his land that was struck by drought moved Sage Agastya, who poured out water from his kamandala to flow forth as a river. Goddess Jambapati welcomed the river as the Venavaa Theertha Vilakku — “Quencher-light of this land’s water thirst, come!” There is a story connecting the river to Rishi Kavera.

Legend might be a shadow of the past. Not so history. From its rise in the Sahyadri Hills, the Cauvery keeps rushing through the creation of great kingdoms, royal rivalries, innumerable battles and a readiness to give up one’s life to make a statement for the coming generations. I remember my teenage days, when I first learnt about Queen Alamelamma, who had jumped into the Cauvery with all her jewels cursing that part of the river to become a whirlpool, the nearby land of Talakadu to be swept over by sand (maralaagi) and her husband’s enemies to be forever childless. Talakadu today is a vast expanse of sand on the left bank as the river changed course. The famous Keerthi Narayana temple and a few others have been excavated from the sand dunes; some thirty more remain buried.

Rich in history

A significant portion of South Indian history, where Indians and foreigners fought for suzerainty whirls around us as we sit for a while on the banks of the Cauvery at Srirangapatna. Here are the tombs of Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan. In the same war-stained Srirangapatna is Adi Ranga, an early peaceful temple dedicated to Ranganatha. After Srirangapatna’s Adi Ranga, we have the Madhya Ranga temple at Sivasamudra, where one can watch the magnificent drop of the Cauvery — a distance of 98 metres — and the site of Asia’s first hydro-electric power station, still functional. There is also an ancient temple for Someshwara here, which Adi Sankara visited and established a Sri Chakra.

As the devotees follow the course of the Cauvery into the Chola land, they soon arrive at Antya Ranga, the island of Srirangam, where the premier temple of Vishnu for all Srivaishnavites is located. All the Azhwars have sung ecstatic hymns about the Lord, and the kshetram. Tondaradippodi Azhwar even sings of the Cauvery as holier than Ganga and how the groves of Srirangam form a permanent festival of nature.

Srirangam is also a major presence in Emperor Krishnadeva Raya’s sublime Telugu epic, Amukta Malyada . It concludes with the marriage of Ranganatha and Andal at Srivilliputtur. Both of them come to Srirangam and to this day they sport in the sandal-scented groves on the banks of the Cauvery while guarding their devotees everywhere with love and compassion. The pilgrim centre of Srirangam seems to have captivated the Emperor for its well-planned seven prakaras, innumerable sub-temples, year-long festivities, art and architecture.

Serene past Amma Mantapam. (Below) Temple procession

Serene past Amma Mantapam. (Below) Temple procession

Adding to the island’s heart-warming religious presence are the Maths of Madhwa Sampradaya and the famed temple of Akhilandeswari where we bow deep to Jambukeswara, for this Appulingam represents the element of water, which seeps from underground, flowing in the sanctum. Holy Cauvery!

If religion is here, can literature and music be far behind? Cauvery has always nurtured a nest of singers and composers, for her mere presence transforms each musical note into a literary classic. In Silappadikaram, Kovalan and Madhavi reach the banks of the Cauvery to enjoy the breeze. Kovalan strums his lute and the river gets prayerfully personified as a lovely damsel walking with flowers in her tresses, the fish darting like her glances and the bees buzzing around. More than fifteen centuries later comes Tyagaraja who hails her as a young bride flowing forward to meet her bridegroom, the ocean Samudra Raja, in the Asaveri kriti, ‘Saarivedale...’

Muthuswami Dikshitar uses the glowing image, ‘Akshaya rupa akhanda Kaveri’ while describing the residence of Siva in the Kedaragowla kriti, ‘Neelakantam bhajeham.’

A special mention must be made here of the Grand Anicut or Kallanai constructed by the Chola king Karikalan in the second century AD and the fourth oldest water regulator structure still in use. With granaries always overflowing, those were times of joy.

Nor can we forget the temple halls set apart for expounding the epics and puranas. None went hungry, not even the guileless poor on the banks of the Cauvery, as recorded by Shankar Ram in his works ( The Love of Dust and The Children of the Kaveri ) and N. Raghunathan’s inimitable short stories, in Rasikan Kathaikal .

Image of procession

I am amazed, rewinding the past six decades since I stood as a young bride on the banks of the Cauvery performing the post-wedding ritual — immersion of paaligai . I have been ceaselessly listening to legend and history, watching the lush fields, visiting temples and walking with the procession as Lord Ranganatha crosses the river in His palanquin during Brahmotsavam.

From a distance, the palanquin, surrounded by devotees moves gracefully, in the backdrop of a golden sunset. And the most heartening closeness of the people to the Cauvery can be witnessed in the Adi month ((July-August). Lord Ranganatha comes in His golden palanquin to the bathing ghat at Ammamandapam and offers silks, garlands, Tirumangalyam, fruits and other gifts to his younger sister Cauvery, watched by huge crowds, many moved to tears.

All I can do is to keep open the saintly Sri Anirvan’s book of poems, Kaveri (translated from Bengali by Kalyani Bose) in my hands and muse on the river’s universal spiritual presence:

“Abrupt ends the path

A sudden fathomless depth of complete void in front

And Kaveri plunges into Shiv Samudra

Of my bosom

On the vast expanse of the unattached sky.”

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