T.G. Aravamudhan, lawyer and part time lecturer in English at Pachaiyappa’s college, whose thesis — The Kaveri, the Maukharis and the Sangam age — won the Sankara- Parvati prize from the University of Madras in 1924, records many interesting facts about the Cauvery and raises equally interesting questions.
The Aganaanooru and Silappadikaram use an identical line while referring to the Cauvery-kadarkarai melikkum kaviri periaru (the river that erodes the seashore). And Purananuru says that the ships entering the mouth neither slacken the sail, nor reduce the freight, indicating the width of the mouth of the river. The Cauvery was wide some miles higher up too, as seen from the Silapaadikaram scene where Kannagi and Kovalan cross the river in a boat. Here the epic compares the Cauvery to the Ganges. Today we find that the Cauvery has many branches, but only the Arisilaru is spoken of in Nattrinai , a work of the Sangam period.
Aravamudhan argues that without many branches to relieve the force of gushing water, there must have been frequent flooding. In fact, Kanakasabai Pillai in his book, The Tamils 1,800 Years Ago says that the name Punal Nadu for Chola nadu, may be interpreted as a land of floods. So it is understandable that a great king like Karikalan of the Sangam period would build embankments to prevent flooding. Chola kings, who succeeded him, must have dug many branches for irrigation, probably causing an attenuation in the river as it neared the sea. That is why the Cauvery in Kaveripattinam today hardly matches the descriptions of the mouth of the river found in ancient Tamil literature, says Aravamudhan.
In an inscription of Gandaraditya (966 C.E.), the embankment of Karikalan is mentioned as one of the boundaries of a piece of land in Tiruneyttanam. This is present day Thillaisthanam, which is about 60 miles from the mouth of the river, and Aravamudhan says this indicates the extent of Karikalan’s embankment, which according to him stretched for 100 miles.
Aravamudhan picks up one version of the sthala purana of Thiruvalanchuzhi to ponder over changes that might have taken place in the course of the Cauvery. The account says that a king began to construct embankments on both sides of the river, but when he got to this place, a bila-dwara — a huge hollow — appeared, and the river plunged into it. A rishi then threw himself into the hole and blocked it, and a lingam arose from the hole. Aravamudhan says that may be the Cauvery changed its course some distance from Thiruvalanchuzhi, making a circumambulation of the place. Maybe it is the memory of this which is embellished in the sthala purana. And if the king in the story is Karikalan, then maybe it was in in his time that the river changed its course.
S. Ramachandran, retired epigraphist from the State Archaeology department, says Karikalan must have built sluices through which water from the Cauvery was carried to ponds. Pattinappalai praises Karikalan thus: kulam thottu valam perukki —meaning he built ponds and aided agricultural prosperity.
Puranaanooru says ‘nellum uyirandre, neerum uyirandre, mannan uyirthe malarthalai ulagam’ (neither crop nor water sustains the world; it is kings who do so). Chola kings would have wanted to live up to such expectations, says Ramachandran. Provisions were made for mulai paaligai (germination of seeds) in temples during the birth star of Raja Raja and Rajendra, showing the importance attached to the role of the king as facilitator of agriculture.
“In Kalithogai , we find that persons with adjudicating responsibilities, monitored irrigation,” says Ramachandran. “A 10th century inscription near Allur, Tiruchi, talks of ‘thalaivaai candrar’ (persons in charge of thalaivaai, main sluice). A Rajendra I period inscription in Tiruvavaduturai Gomuktiswara temple talks of vaaithalai kulai araiyargal — chiefs (araiyars) in charge of sluices (vaaithalai) and kulai (river banks). The inscription is about land donated by these chiefs. The land was received by their ancestors for providing technical help to Karikalan when he built embankments.”
Discovery of a milestone
In 1976, a team of archaeologists, of which Ramachandran was a part, discovered a milestone near the old bus stand in Kumbakonam. Further research by Ramachandran showed that the distances in it exactly matched the distance from Tiruchi to Kumbakonam, via Kallanai. “This was the Karikala Chola Peruvazhi, mentioned in a Vira Rajendra (1060 C.E) inscription. Such a road would have been very important in early times, linking the capital Uraiyur with the main port Kaveripattinam. The milestone belongs to the 1800s, showing that even in British times this route was very much in use. Silappadikaram says that Kovalan and Kannagi, walked along the river up to Uraiyur. This must have been the road they took. Thus the most important road in Chola Nadu was built along the Cauvery.”
Kudavayil Balasubramaniam says there is a bed dam about 2,000 years old in Kachamangalam, in Vennar river. Once you cross Kulittalai, near Mukkombu, the Kollidam flows at a higher level than Cauvery. When you get to the Anaicut, Kollidam flows at a lower level. Balasubramaniam says that Karikalan must have built a sluice at the mouth of the Manalpokki, which links Cauvery and Kollidam, so that excess water from the Cauvery would flow into the Kollidam.
“On the northern bank of the Cauvery, in Musiri, there is a sluice called Musiri vaikkaal, which according to an inscription here, was built by one of the officers of Raja Raja III. The inscription, which was recorded and published in 1906, refers to Cauvery as Karikal Chozha peraru. It is an ASI protected monument. But in place of wooden planks that were used to open and close the sluice, the PWD has placed rolling shutters. And they have also built a parapet wall which blocks from view the inscriptional reference to Karikalan,” says Balasubramaniam.