Recent news reports on the river Kaveri might focus on the dispute between Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala on the sharing of its waters, but there was a time when the river was revered in the areas it flowed through, when it played an important role in the socio-cultural fabric of the people on its banks, and when its banks fostered empires. Former professor of English and Chennai resident Padma Seshadri’s passion for river stories, combined with some pleasant childhood memories of the river, led her to collaborate with her colleague in the department of English at Chennai’s Stella Maris College, Padma Malini Sundararaghavan, to write a book on the once-mighty river. Titled It Happened along the Kaveri:
A Journey through Space and Time, the book explores the myths and legends, history and culture of the territories the 802 km-long river flows through.
Seeing the retired professors at the release of the book in Bangalore, two seemingly gentle souls clad in silk saris, one more frail than the other, it is hard to imagine them as intrepid explorers traversing the length of the river. “But when we set out to research and write book in the late 1990s, we were much younger — we travelled by car, train and bus, and we hauled our own luggage,” says 66-year-old Sundara-raghavan, laughing. Unlike Alice Albinia, author of The Empires of the Indus, who travelled along the river from Pakistan to Tibet, the two adopted a different approach. The first leg of their journey was not at the source of the river in Coorg in Karnataka but from Trichy, or Tiruchirappalli in Tamil Nadu, to Poompuhar on the coast, the latter once “an internationally important trading centre” and ancient port now reduced to “an artificially erected showpiece” where the river becomes a trickle in the dry season.
Their travels in Karnataka happened in spurts, at different times, sometimes with friends and family, or even with their students.
An important source for their research was the gazetteers brought out when the British ruled India. “We went through the gazetteers of all the districts through which the Kaveri flowed,” says Sundararaghavan. Other sources include archaeological reports, archives and epigraphy. “The idea was to travel along the Kaveri but, while researching, we realised that there is no one book that combines history, mythology, epigraphy and biography, etc . So we decided we should write one.” Even the travelogues in the book are not the kind that will tell you where to stay and what to eat. “We wanted to make the history and mythology come alive,” says the author.
A lot of the book is indeed dominated by the shrines that dot the banks of the river, mythological stories and sthalapuranas (the story of a place). That the authors feel a certain reverence for the river is palpable in these sections. The historical narratives, another important constituent of the book, throw up quite a few vignettes of interest. Some of the stories about Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan even dispel the image of the rulers as merciless destroyers of temples. According to one such story, a procession of Lord Ranganatha was attacked when it went past a mosque, and the Hindus complained to Ali who advised them to hit back. They did so, to the surprise of the Muslims, and the mullah took up the issue with Ali, who merely asked him whether they had attacked first. When the imam replied in the affirmative, Ali told him that he should then have been prepared for retaliation. Ali was also reportedly moved to spare the lives of the Kodava people of Coorg because the first two heads of Kodavas brought to him by his soldiers had such fine features. Following the river to Tamil Nadu, it is the story of the erstwhile kingdom of Cholamandalam that takes up the bulk of this section, as the river has a multitude of channels in the region known for its rich cultural heritage and history.
The authors consciously decided not to include the problem of pollution of the river in the main book, confining it to the afterword. “We did not want to spoil the happiness of the travel,” says Sundararaghavan, candidly. They steered clear of the inter-state dispute over the river’s waters. “But neither state can lay claim to it,” she says. “All the people living along a river have a right to it.”