The river that Tamil Nadu often forgets

High up on the Western Ghats, nature has sneaked in a perennial river system that is rich with lore and life but whose water might be drying up

June 10, 2017 04:30 pm | Updated 05:27 pm IST

The Karaiyar dam

The Karaiyar dam

For four days in July-August, which is the Tamil month of Adi , there is a festival at the temple on the hills just downstream of the Karaiyar dam across the River Tamirabarani. It is the Adi festival at the Sorimuthu Ayyanar temple and nearly 1.5 lakh people gather there on those four days. “The forest becomes a mass picnic spot—people cook food, wash in the river, spend the nights in the woods. Tests show that there is a surge in bacteria levels in the river right after the festival,” said R. Mathivanan, an activist.

Then there is the Papanasam temple on the river’s shores. It is believed that devotees, before taking a dip in the river, must cast away their clothes as a sign that their sins have been washed away. But years of saris and dhotis being dumped have taken a toll on Tamirabarani. Now, volunteers have gotten together to fish out the clothes, and there are new rules that devotees must dump their clothes at a designated point outside the river, from where they can be removed later.

In many ways, these two stories symbolise the complex and interconnected story of natural bounty and manmade carelessness that characterise the country’s relationship with its rivers.

Tamil Nadu’s drought story is dominated by the narrative of how it has been denied its rightful share of river water by its neighbours. But it has another river, less famous, whose fate lies entirely in its hands. This is the Tamirabarani.

Residents of Tirunelveli and Thoothukudi districts rarely miss telling visitors about how this is the only river that rises in Tamil Nadu and flows into the sea. They are proud that their only perennial river hasn’t fully dried up, despite the severe drought across the state. The river has reduced to a small stream, barely a puddle in places, but it’s still alive.

From the Western Ghats

The story of Tamirabarani, ironically enough, should begin in Kerala. What keeps the river going during summer is the southwest monsoon that otherwise usually misses Tamil Nadu. The monsoon’s arrival in Kerala is, of course, part of the pan-Indian monsoon narrative and lore. But as lush green Kerala settles down to a persistent drizzle that becomes a downpour every evening, what transmits across the Ghats to its rain-shadow neighbour is only a whiff—a faint echo that Tamils call a saaral or light drizzle.

High up on the Western Ghats, though, nature has sneaked a river system into Tamil Nadu. From the misty peaks, more than a dozen rivers and hundreds of small streams join together to form the Tamirabarani. “While rains are key, what keeps the river going is the mist in the mountains that ensures moistness through the year. The whole ecosystem, including the vegetation, drips with moisture that finds its way into the streams and eventually the river,” said S. Sudhakar, head of the Department of Biotechnology at Manmoniam Sundaranar University, who frequently treks in these mountains.

The mists are indeed mysterious. “Unexpected things can happen,” said Arumugam Kaani, a leader of the Kaani tribe that lives on the fringes of the forest here. “People talking loudly can disperse the clouds,” he said. For Arumugam and his people, their woes started when the Kalakkad Mundanthurai forest on the Western Ghats was declared a tiger reserve in 1988. The tribal way of life was destroyed and he and his clansmen had to move out of the core forest. Of the 36 tribal groups that had once inhabited these forests for generations, only about 500 now live in four settlements near the Papanasam dam. But, experts counter, it was the bio-reserve that helped the Tamirabarani rebound.

When it comes to Tamirabarani, faith and tradition mix with history, culture and ecology. The river’s lovers talk of the water’s unique taste and curative properties. And it may not all be hyperbole. M.B. Viswanathan, who heads the Department of Plant Science at Bharathidasan University, said there may well be some scientific basis to the claims. “In the upper reaches, the rich vegetation along the streams and rivers ensures that the leaves and bark that fall into the river trigger secondary metabolism, making the waters pure and nutrient-rich. Drinking such water can give a sense of wellbeing and energy. We need not entirely laugh off the belief that bathing in Courtallam cures insanity,” he says, laughing.

A temporary bridge connecting two tribal settlements

A temporary bridge connecting two tribal settlements

Pitchandi Kaani is a tribal healer or plathi . Trained by his father in Siddha medicine, he claims to know all the medicinal herbs of these hills. “The books say the fruit of the vennaval plant can be found in Poongulam, where the Tamirabarani’s wellspring is located. It can cure venn kushtam [vitiligo], but the plant is not there now,” he said.

The Pothigai hills, where the main Tamirabarani streams are born, are a known source of medicinal plants, celebrated in Siddha literature. “The hills are like village societies where each community has its own exclusive neighbourhood. It’s as if bamboo, shola and grasslands have carved out their own areas in the forest. I have found rare types of turmeric here that are not widely used,” said Sudhakar.

Legend has it that the Tamil language was revealed to Agastya, an early Siddhar, while he was meditating in these hills. In Kallidaikurichi, among the first villages the river serves on the plains, I met 81-year-old K.S. Sankarasubramanian. He pointed out the ancient temples that dot the river’s rather short 80 km course on the plains. “The river is a pilgrimage,” he said.

No water in sight

But none of this has helped the waters run smooth. This year, the main river has almost dried up and the Papanasam dam has been shut. Water offtake by major industries off Srivaikuntam, some 60 km downstream from Kallidaikurichi, has been stopped and the Thoothukudi power plant shut down. “Even in the severe drought of the mid-1970s, we still had one crop. But this year there was none. There is just no water,” said S.M.A. Nainar, an 82-year-old farmer in Srivaikuntam.

Over the decades, several industries have sprung up on its banks starting from Vikramasinghapuram at the foothills. These factories have contributed to the development and prosperity of the region, but have also triggered concerns over water use and effluent discharge.

Among the more well-known of these units are the Pepsi and Coke bottling facilities. Their use of water, especially during drought periods, has triggered agitations by farmers who have claimed the right to second use of the river after it serves household needs. Industry cannot be a priority, they have said, when their livelihoods are at stake. The courts ruled that the cola factories’ use of the river water had not affected its domestic or agricultural use, but all along the river, the issue has triggered an overall movement, with farmers, young people and residents taking up the cause of the Tamirabarani.

The Kadana river, which is a part of the Tamirabarani

The Kadana river, which is a part of the Tamirabarani

They may be litigious and agitationist, and their concerns may be mostly local, but they are determined to invoke history, lore and affection to save their river. S. Srinivasan, a lawyer, has moved the court against a proposed check dam at Mukkani, a few kilometres from Punnakayal, where the river meets the sea. The check dam is to prevent seawater ingress into the river and he has argued that the dam should be built further downstream, at Punnakayal, to curtail the ingress at source. At the other end of the river, in Kallidaikurichi on the plains, residents took to the streets recently to protest against a PWD project that would have taken some of the village’s sewage into Tamirabarani. The project has now been stayed by the court, said V. Salim, a resident.

Impact of pollution

S. Chellappa heads the Tirunelveli chapter of the Ganga-Kumari National Waterways Project. “Mixing of sewage, industrial pollution, and dumping plastics into the river are worrying aspects. But the most important problem is rampant sand mining that removes the natural filter along the bed, and affects the river’s life, its natural purification and groundwater recharging,” he said.

By the time the courts banned sand mining here in 2010, activists say much damage had already been done. And, activists say, sand mining continues illegally in several stretches. Chellappa says this must stop. He also says that saving the river means securing its banks, clearing encroachments and invasive species, stopping industrial pollution and sewage dumping, and rigorous desilting of canals and tanks. Mathivanan is among the many activists actively involved in saving the Tamirabarani. Inspired by Badal Sircar, Mathivanan formed the theatre group, Thedal, in the 1980s, which performed plays on unemployment, caste and tribal rights.

Today, Mathivanan, with his wife and daughter, works through the Arumbugal Trust. “We talk about how the river has lost its glory and how groundwater has been depleted, and how the people can get together to revive the river,” he said. Arumbugal’s recent project has been to promote awareness about the endangered Dugongs. Last month, Mathivanan was invited by Kallidaikurichi villagers to take part in their agitation against the proposed sewage project.

Managing waste water

In Kallidaikurichi, S. Viswanathan, an academic and a resident of the village, explained why he thought the sewage project was flawed. In the existing system, waste water from the village first goes into the Kannadian Canal, where the waste settles down. Relatively clean water, if in excess, is let into Tamirabarani. If the PWD sewage project comes through, raw sewage will be let into the river directly. “Our whole problem is that we have destroyed existing systems that have worked well. Why mess with what’s there now?” asked Viswanathan.

The protest against the sewage project in Kallidaikurichi has drawn many villagers. Inspired by former president Abdul Kalam, young men got together to clean up the river banks. They rented a JCB to remove trash and remove invasive species. Such voluntary action is being seen elsewhere too, said N. Khaja Mohideen, founder president of the Tamirabarani Environment Protection Movement.

Mohideen typifies the Tirunelveli man who is passionate about Tamirabarani. Many hours into his Ramadan fast, his eyes lit up and his voice strengthened as he recounted river lore. He pointed to the large Muslim settlement in Melapalayam and talked about its history. He spoke of how the famous Pathamadai mats, made of reeds, owed their silken quality to the river water. At Ambasamudram, he showed me a tree-lined street that was intended to serve as a shady walkway for villagers to go to the river. He pointed to arid farmlands that once used to grow three crops a year. “Houses are coming up here because people want the groundwater. But if they are keen to protect the river and farming, why don’t they build homes in non-farmlands,” he asked.

When Adi comes around, bringing with it the Sorimuthu Ayyanar festival, Mohideen said the tribals would vacate their settlements, as they did every year, and move up into the higher reaches of the hills. “It becomes too much for them,” he said. When civilisation invades the river, the original inhabitants of the land retreat into the silent misty heights of its birth.

Top News Today

Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.