Cauvery Chronicles II: Ponni’s Perish
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Cauvery Chronicles II: Ponni’s Perish

TR Vivek travels downstream of Cauvery in Tamil Nadu and finds a river in decay.

By TR Vivek

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This story was first published on February 23, 2019. It has been republished today.

The Cauvery, affectionately called Ponni or the golden maid, is the giver of life for Tamil people. It flows like a garland slung across Tamil Nadu’s torso, neatly dividing its modern-day political map into north and south. Its drainage basin covers 35 per cent of the state’s geographical area. An entry less spectacular than she makes at Biligundlu—cutting through the dense forests of the Biligiri Ranga Hills and creating the breathtaking Hogenakkal falls (“smoky rocks” in Kannada), less than 10 kilometres further south-east—would be unworthy of her stature.

In late November of a year when the rain gods have been unusually benevolent, her magic seems magnified. I chose this time of the year to for a two-week journey along the Cauvery’s shores for reasons somewhat selfish. Unable to muster the will to witness a parched Ponni and her beds resembling a desert, I’d unpacked my bags and bailed out last minute on several occasions during drier months. I feared my own hopelessness would mangle an already melancholy story.

Thousands of tourists share my sanguine sentiments for the Cauvery this time of year. Along its quiet waters at Biligundlu, the Central Water Commission’s measuring station tracks if Karnataka has allowed Tamil Nadu the 177.25 thousand million cubic feet (TMC) of water stipulated by the Supreme Court’s 2018 final verdict in the decades-old dispute between the two riparian states. Here, the tourists have made their presence felt in a uniquely Indian manner. They’ve left behind a trail that includes heaps of empty beer bottles, chips packets, plastic plates, and underwear—everywhere.

Hogenakkal, for long a film-shooting hotspot, does brisk business in fried river fish freshly caught, and ₹5 sachets of sesame oil. Business is better today because many young holidaymakers from neighbouring Karnataka have come down, taking advantage of the extra-long weekend on account of the state mourning for Kannada actor-politician Ambareesh.

Revelrous pot-bellied men, clad in boxer shorts, beer in hand and fiery red batter-coated fish fry for “side dish”, get a sesame oil massage. As they wash it off with soap and shampoo under one of the many smaller falls at Hogenakkal, it offers a hideous sight. The coracle or basket boatmen are a resourceful lot. For a premium of a few hundred rupees, they can arrange alcoholic reinforcements and deposit safely onshore their piss-drunk patrons.

As if angered by the human grime it is forced to accumulate, the river froths up at many places. But then, how does that matter when there’s time to polish off another bottle of brandy before the sun sets?

Damned Waters

Human settlement around mega dams in India is usually sparse. Mettur is an exception. One of the earliest large dams built in India in 1934, it’s an imposing and impressive structure visible from almost anywhere in the mid-sized industrial town of Mettur. If the Krishna Raja Sagara (KRS) dam on the Cauvery in Karnataka’s Mandya district—conceived by M Visvesvaraya in the 1920s—is a marvel of modern Indian engineering genius, the Mettur dam 200 km downstream is a symbol of colonial ambition and power.

KRS, the earlier commissioned of the two, could hold 40 TMC of water and irrigate 125,000 acres of Mysuru kingdom, while the Mettur dam impounded 93.5 TMC adding some 300,000 acres of irrigated land in the Thanjavur region. It created what is known as the new delta, in addition to the lands of the old delta already in benefit of waters from the 2nd Century CE Grand Anicut and canal system built by the Cholas. The Mettur dam, with stunning art deco features, now provides irrigation and drinking water supply for nearly 15 out of 33 districts of Tamil Nadu. The inflows into Mettur find mention in the Tamil press every single day. The storage level at Mettur is in many ways a barometer of the happiness of the Tamils and their peace with the world at large.

Despite all the attention Mettur gets as the storehouse of life and hope for millions along the Cauvery, farmers in its vicinity say it helps them little. Geography, partly, and poor planning, in large measure, conspire against them. Conceived primarily to boost agriculture in the Cauvery delta, residents around here feel short-changed because no new drinking water and irrigation schemes have touched their lives since the 1960s when K Kamaraj was the chief minister. The higher elevation and rocky soil of the region makes it less conducive for canals and retention of groundwater. “We can enjoy the sight of water in the dam but can’t use it for drinking or irrigating our farms,” says K Dhanushkoti, a farmer in the tiny and remote Sethukkuzhi village on the fringes of the dam, 15 km from Mettur.

Recent years have brought a new problem that has made aridity pale in comparison. For people living on the periphery of the dam in villages such as Pannavadi, the night breeze isn’t something to look forward to. The stench it carries is the stuff of nightmares. The reason is apparent in the daytime.

Two government health workers dispense nilavembu kashayam—a decoction made with a herb called “king of bitters” (for good reason), considered effective against malaria and dengue now widespread in the state—and other allopathic antibiotics, at no cost, from the back of a van in Sethukkuzhi. Tamil Nadu can be perplexing. The state machinery is responsive enough to station a mobile health van in a distant village of 500 but apathetic to address equally important and connected issues at the very same spot.

The health workers perpetually cover their nose with the pallus of their saris. It is a punishment posting. Not far from where they are stationed, Ponni’s waters look like a giant Jackson Pollock painting with blotches of varying shades of green, blue, yellow and brown. Approaching this canvas feels like rubbing a cube of rotting fish and the contents of a septic tank against the body.

The smell is hard to scrape off the skin for the next few days. It’s not paasi or algae, the farmers assure me. To prove their point, they take me on a short coracle ride that feels like wading through the Sargasso Sea of crap. “All the shit you send us from Bengaluru. Enjoy, enjoy,” says Maari, a local farmer, mockingly. The locals are convinced this is Bengaluru’s urban sludge washing up at their doorstep. In the drier months, when the inflow into Mettur is down to a trickle, the goo gains ground.

The heavy solid content in the water means that farmers who used to draw water directly from the reservoir using oil pumps can’t anymore because the motors now get jammed. Even if they somehow manage to get the water upfield, it’s pretty much useless. Fifty-three-year-old Irasappan’s 1.5-acre chilli crop—a major produce around these parts—this year has collapsed with the double blow of lack of water and pest attack. If he’s lucky, the shrivelled, and snail-shaped chillies will fetch him ₹2 a kilo instead of the going rate of ₹12-15 for the healthier lot. The time and effort spent to harvest the malformed output far outweighs the income.

Irasappan and his family of six will have to live with a loss of ₹1 lakh because this piece of non-patta land isn’t eligible for any government support, loan waiver or subsidy. The only option is to slash the plants and get the land ready for another punt. “There’ll be plenty of chilli chutney in the household. Here, take as tmuch as you want,” he says with a wry smile, pointing to a mound of green chilli peppers.

Dhanushkoti, a wiry man of 37 with studs in both ears and clad in an ochre veshti, is more ambitious and enterprising than the older members of his village. To supplement the fading income from his 5.5-acre holding that fortuitously has a well with water, he has opened a tea shop in the market street of Kolathur, a little town about five km from his village. Apart from the steady income of ₹20,000 a month the tea shop brings, it also serves as a convenient hub for his political activism. When I ask him if he’d want his almost teenage children to take up the family profession, Dhanushkoti responds with the odd request to telephone his number and hands the buzzing phone to me.

The ringtone is a song from a private album with a folksy tune that goes: “Vivasayam vizhundhu pochu, indha pozhappum kaanju pochu; aina sabai neeyum kootti, Ayyanaare kaapaathu… (Farming is in the dumps, this profession too has dried up; O Ayyanaar! Summon the UN assembly and save us from this misery…)”. Dhanushkoti says, “You think I’m mad?”

Dhanushkoti belongs to the Vanniyar caste, categorised as most backward, with an electorally significant concentration in northern Tamil Nadu that the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) tries to harness. The party counts Mettur region as one of its strongholds. Vanniyars, mostly small landholders and farm labourers, have been most affected by the agrarian crisis, claims Dhanushkoti. Our conversation is punctuated by an endless stream of telephone calls in which his counsel to correspondents ranges from matters of procuring fertiliser from the local co-operative to the correct way of conducting “Tamil marriages” without Brahmin priests or Sanskrit mantras.

Pointing to the large drip-irrigated farms and affluent homes of the Gounders, the predominant backward caste of western Tamil Nadu to which the current chief minister Edappadi K Palaniswami belongs, Dhanushkoti somewhat enviously says, “The best thing about Gounders is that they mind their own business and make sure their children are well-educated. Not like Vanniyars who eagerly jump into the scene whenever someone has a problem. We specialise in inviting the chameleon of the shrub into our veshti.”

The problem he’s jumped into is helping his fellow caste farmers get patta for their lands that will allow them access to free electricity and other subsidies—and hopefully get him elected as the village head in time to occupy the new panchayat office under construction.

One thing you cannot fail to notice as you travel through the Cauvery’s course from Karnataka is the higher density of population, greater industrial activity and urbanisation as soon as you enter Tamil Nadu. Kongu Nadu, one of the largest territories of the ancient Tamil land, comprises the present-day Tamil Nadu districts of Krishnagiri, Dharmapuri, Erode, Salem, Namakkal, Tiruppur, Karur, Coimbatore and parts of the Nilgiris. The Cauvery’s middle basin and some of its major tributaries—Bhavani, Amaravathi, Noyyal—lie in Kongu Nadu.

The region is one of the state’s most prosperous, contributing a third of both Tamil Nadu’s industrial and agricultural output. The Coimbatore, Erode and Salem belt, in particular, has an agricultural base large enough to compete well with their highly developed manufacturing industries. They are also home to some of the fastest growing urban centres in the state.

Loom city’s doom

Erode is the first large city you encounter along the Cauvery in Tamil Nadu or, for that matter, after it originates in Kodagu in Karnataka. The Bhavani joins the Cauvery just north of Erode.

It’s a buzzing city of six lakh with a can-do entrepreneurial spirit and regional pride that’s palpable. The city and its citizens lose no opportunity to remind visitors of its somewhat self-congratulatory status as “Texvalley” and “loom city”—a nod to its textile manufacturing prowess. According to the Tamil Nadu Human Development Report, Erode is a “high income” district.

Erode is also one of the 100 “smart cities” identified by the Centre that will supposedly receive infrastructure investments worth more than ₹1,000 crore. The Coimbatore-Erode-Salem industrial corridor in the works, with an estimated investment of ₹43,000 crore, adds lustre to its self-esteem. But by any measure, Erode is a civic basket case: it can only provide less than half of the 70 million litres a day (MLD) of water its people need; it has no underground drainage system (a tiny stretch built with World Bank funds became functional last year); it generates 27 million litres of sewage, not a drop undergoing treatment, that flows into ponds, lakes, the Cauvery and canals that join the river; its groundwater level has plummeted nearly 60 per cent in the past decade; and numerous studies have found groundwater in most parts of the city unfit for both human consumption and agriculture.

Erode in fact derives its name from “two streams” or iru odu in Tamil—the 100-km-long, 13th Century Kalingarayan canal built by a Kongu chieftain connecting the Noyyal and Bhavani rivers, and the Perumpallam canal that cut across the city. Tamil nationalists claim the Kalingarayan canal to be among the earliest river-linking projects in the world. Noyyal is now dead, thanks to its abuse by one of India’s largest textile hubs: Tiruppur. The Kalingarayan canal is fast turning into a full-scale carrier of industrial effluents.

In 2006, the Madras High Court ordered the closure of all dyeing and tanning units in Erode that dump untreated effluents into the city’s canals. Many small-scale firms that couldn’t afford expensive reverse osmosis and sewage treatment plants—costing up to ₹1 crore to process one lakh litres—shut down. Even that hasn’t helped.

Chief among the drivers of human resilience is the profit motive. Besides the good old routine of greasing the palms of government officials to look the other way, Erode’s factory owners have perfected a pernicious trick in the pursuit of profit.

Borewells, sometimes 1,500 feet deep, are not uncommon in the bone dry, rocky regions of Salem, Namakkal and Tiruchengode. In fact, Tiruchengode, in Namakkal district, is the borewell rig capital of India. The region is so rocky and dry that borewell operators have specialised in digging up to 1,800 feet below the earth’s surface to prise out groundwater. The reputation of the mobile, truck-back Tiruchengode rigs is such that they are called upon not just to drill for water but also to rescue children in different parts of India who fall into deep borewells.

But in Erode’s industrial zones, borewells are not drilled to eke out precious groundwater but to discharge untreated effluents from tanning and textile-dyeing directly underground, given the pressure not to empty them into water bodies. Now, not only is Erode’s surface water polluted and the water table falling alarmingly, poison is being injected straight into the only reliable source of water.

A civic activist based in Erode points to the irony. “Being part of the global supply chain, Erode’s textile industry adheres to the strictest quality standards imposed by the importers in the US and European Union. But they happily break every single rule in the book in their own backyard. Forget the law, in their quest for profits in the present, they are screwing up their own immediate future.”

V Jeevanandam, a 73-year-old doctor, is a living legend in Erode and the larger Kongu region. The Gandhian activist and founder of the Tamil Nadu Green Movement (TNGM) fought a valiant battle in the 1990s and early 2000s against a large polluting textile firm called South India Viscose (SIV) that eventually led to its closure. He is the chairman of one of Erode’s best regarded private hospitals, the Erode Trust Hospital, and a chain of four cancer hospitals in South India that seeks to offer high-quality, affordable healthcare for the poor.

Jeevanandam reluctantly agrees to meet at his modest, mosaic-floored charitable clinic that doubles up as his residence. Without resorting to exaggeration, I can count the hour spent in his company as one of the most chastening and disillusioningly bleak moments of my life.

Jeevanandam’s voice is low, almost mousy. But his fair clean-shaven face and bald pate turns a red-tinted sulphur lamp powered by passive aggression when I tell him of my plans to write a piece on the Cauvery. “I have given up. I’m tired, frustrated. I cannot give you anything. I have nothing to tell you,” he says. Just as he’s booting me out of his office with all the courtesy a devout Gandhian can muster, his phone rings—a caller seeking his help in translating into Tamil the Kabir doha “Mala pherat jag bhaya”.

This soothes him, or perhaps makes my presence tolerable. Jeevanandam lobs a string of questions at me: There is only E. coli, not water, in the Cauvery. Why? Erode has the highest incidence of intestinal cancer. Why? There are infertility clinics everywhere you look in Erode. Why? Tiruppur is one of the most water-starved districts in the state but it has the highest per capita concentration of private swimming pools. Why? The same communist comrades who fought alongside me against SIV are now owners of factories that pollute as much if not more. Why? In the past, there were only dyeing and denim companies that polluted the river. Now we have allowed cardboard and assorted chemical industries to finish off the Bhavani. Why? Our farmers and our rivers are dying but we spend ₹3,000 crore on building a statue on the banks of a river. Why?

He says, “I have been talking about these issues for more than 30 years. No use. I’m 73. Very soon I’ll stop talking altogether.”

The 1952 Tamil novella Aatkolli (Maneater) lies on his table. Written by the legendary writer Ka Naa Subramanyam, it’s a meditation on similar questions: the lust for material wealth that hunts down humanity. Having failed to do anything to prevent the root cause of many of the diseases he describes, Jeevanandam is now content offering whatever medical help he can to people affected by them. “We’ve failed as a society. You and I are dumb spectators in this smart city. Go home.”

At the Vendipalayam barrage in Erode with a giant garbage landfill in the vicinity, the Cauvery—choked, jet-black and stinking to the high heavens—appears no less different from the Yamuna viewed from Delhi’s ITO bridge. I call home later that night, seeking soul succour. I have no courage to hear my nine-year-old daughter’s unfailingly cheerful accounts of her school-day without breaking down.

My next day, thankfully, turns out less dismal. A clutch of Erode’s most successful entrepreneurs, unwilling to be bogged down by the unresponsive bureaucracy and venal politicians, are trying to make things better by pledging a part of their own profits. Olirum Erodu Foundation (OEF) is one of the better-funded and functioning NGOs in the region, endorsed by film stars such as Suriya (in Tamil Nadu, celluloid support for any cause creates stratospheric levels of public buy-in).

OEF was the result of 53-year old, second generation Erode industrialist D Venkateswaran’s passion for creating regional entrepreneurship ecosystems through “bouncing boards”. A bouncing board is a closed, informal club of entrepreneurs from diverse sectors and without competing business interests. So, for instance, a bouncing board can only have one industrialist who operates in the real estate sector. Besides monthly meetings, the bouncing board members get together twice a year for a day-long retreat where they candidly share everything that concerns their business and personal lives—from family feuds to falling revenues.

Empathy and complete confidentiality are the currency in which the membership fee is paid. In its objective of learning and betterment through shared experiences, the bouncing board sounds like an Alcoholics Anonymous for those addicted to profit. There are now three bouncing boards in Erode.

In the bouncing board Venkateswaran chairs, the recurring questions around “how to do better by the city we do business out of” led to the creation of OEF, with a yearly individual commitment of ₹25 lakh from each member (not counting the CSR spends their companies might make). OEF is headed by B Chandrasekaran, a young, staunchly libertarian economist who was a consultant with the erstwhile Planning Commission. The NGO has built four new lakes and rejuvenated some 35 water bodies in the district, helping replenish groundwater and provide access to clean water. Notwithstanding the fair intentions of such initiatives, they seem mere bandages to tackle cancer.

Black river, yellow belt

Textile aside, Erode is the turmeric capital of India. In the past decade, its share of production of the prized yellow spice has fallen to about 22 per cent from a high of 35 per cent, thanks to industry eating into fertile tracts and additions to the national output by the newly-irrigated regions of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. But it remains the pre-eminent trading hub, accounting for nearly a third of turmeric sold wholesale in India.

Turmeric requires a lot of water but considerably less than rice. The non-sticky clay here, a slightly redder soil compared to what is found in the Cauvery delta, combined with the perennial waters of the Bhavani and the Kalingarayan canal make Erode a turmeric powerhouse. Erode is where large turmeric farmers from Karnataka and Kerala come to sell their produce.

While its exact origin in South and Southeast Asia is a matter of debate, turmeric’s importance in Tamil life is unquestionable. Not only does turmeric feature prominently in just about every home remedy, it is the very symbol of divinity. Twined cotton threads attain the exalted status of the Tamil thaali or mangalsutra when coated with turmeric. Only a piece of gold is deemed a worthy replacement for a finger of turmeric that, like a pendant, has to anchor the thaali. It is the base for the holy kumkum. A pinched pyramid made from its powder is not just a perfectly acceptable replacement for well-sculpted temple deities, but a pre-requisite for performing pujas at home. The rhizome with its stalks and leaves are tied to the ceremonial Pongal pot. Turmeric is the chief cosmetic product millions of Tamil women use even today. Tamil cuisine—why, even Indian cuisine generally speaking—isn’t complete without a dash of it.

For farmers in Erode district, growing manjal (turmeric) is a matter of gethhu (a Kongu Tamil expression that combines honour, social importance and higher self-esteem). Having cut his teeth in the agriculture-allied business of edible oils, Venkateswaran has a feel for it even if the bulk of his revenue now comes from business as diversified as polymers and automobile dealerships.

2011 was a watershed moment for Erode’s turmeric farmers. The price hit an all-time high of ₹17,000 a quintal. Everyone wanted to jump on to the gravy train. Farmers borrowed capital at hefty interest and staked family savings to produce turmeric in massive quantities. Within a year or so, the price crashed to ₹3,500. Now it hovers around a steady ₹7,000-8,000 a quintal. Determined to do something to cushion farmers from the 2011-12 price shocks, Venkateswaran started a producer company in 2013 for turmeric called Ulavan, meaning farmer.

Before Ulavan was set up, Erode had three regulated and one private market for turmeric where farmers sold their wares. With a small number of traders controlling these markets, cartelisation was unavoidable. The traders had the muscle to not only rig the prices at which farmers sold produce but also swindle them of, on average, five kg for a quintal, claiming the produce was damaged or of inferior quality.

Venkateswaran says, “We wanted to move beyond the 40 traders in Erode to find a pan-India market of 4,000 buyers.” And so a producer company was formed—a for-profit co-operative that can be formed with 10 or more farmers. Its activities can range from production and procurement to marketing and even export. With about 2,800 farmers in its fold, Ulavan sells ₹10 crore worth of turmeric. The ability to sell to a wider market ensures better prices for farmers and timely electronic payments. According to Venkateswaran, Ulavan was a precursor to the electronic National Agriculture Market (eNam) launched by the Centre in 2016.

The electronic trade of agricultural commodities is hampered by a buyer’s inability to physically inspect the produce for the promised quality and grade. In collaboration with the Tamil Nadu Agriculture University, Ulavan has managed to miniaturise a spectrophotometer into a handheld device, that, in less than 25 seconds, analyses and sends untamperable data on 10 key quality parameters of turmeric to buyers anywhere in the country through an app.

Farming Erod-ed

If all goes well, turmeric can be good business. An acre can yield an average of 2.5 tonnes. Even at current input costs, of which rising labour costs alone make up more than 30 per cent, farmers can earn upto ₹2.5 lakh per acre. But with nearly three consecutive years of poor rainfall, farmers are switching to maize, which finds a ready market in the poultry farms of neighbouring Namakkal district. And like almost everywhere in India, they are quitting the profession altogether in droves.

Venkatachalam is a wealthy farmer in his late fifties in Aval Poonthurai village, 20 km from Erode. He invites me to meet his fellow farmer friends.

The village, like most others in Erode, is a picture of pastoral idyll. The narrow tree-lined roads are perfectly paved. Small canals have copious water producing a faint drone. When the dense coconut groves don’t obstruct the view, there’s an unending expanse of turmeric and rice fields. The Gounders in these parts seem to take great pride in keeping things clean. The feeling extends to not selling their land to members of other castes for the fear they would disturb the “tranquility” that has taken many hundreds of years in making.

Clad in khaki shorts and a polo-neck T-shirt, Venkatachalam apologises for his “inappropriate” attire. After a recent bypass surgery, he’s taking things easy. His five farmer friends are turned out in starched and spotless white shirts and veshtis. Venkatachalam’s son is a well-known economist in London and his daughter lives in the US. Since neither is likely to come back home, Venkatachalam is gradually scaling down his agricultural operations. Settling down in retirement, with his children in foreign lands, isn’t an option—at least not yet.

His four acre-holding now consists largely of low-maintenance coconut. Small vegetable patches take care of daily domestic needs. In the 1980s and 1990s, he was known as one of the most progressive turmeric farmers whose record yields others wanted to emulate. Last year, he told his elder sister, settled abroad for several years now, that he couldn’t manage her large holding adjoining his and that she should make her own arrangements.

That’s pretty much the story of all large landholders that have chosen to remain here. Durairaj’s daughter lives in Luxembourg. Having never travelled beyond the borders of Tamil Nadu, his wife and he found life inside a luxury apartment in the city state’s German-speaking enclave meaningless. Palanisamy’s two sons work in an IT firm in the US. Paulraj’s daughter was in Australia last year, now in the UK, and “god knows where next”.

Venkatachalam takes me around a few adjoining villages. Pointing towards almost every large house that seems abandoned, he rattles off the names of the places their owners currently reside. “This belongs to my once-removed chitappa. He lives in Ogaayo. This land belongs to an uncle from my mother’s side. They are in Chiattle. The owners of that farm are in Miyaamee.” By the end of our 40-minute car ride, I’ve counted about 27 states of the US.

The villages resemble an extended senior home. Despite an acre fetching up to ₹40 lakh, the owners are loathe to selling them off because of the fear that “outsiders” might run their villages over, the fond hope that their children might someday want to return to their roots, or expectations that they might fetch a whole lot more in a few years. Local agricultural labourers too are hard to find.

Many armchair, market-oriented economic “experts”—through their op-eds and occupancy of Delhi think-tanks—have managed to mainstream the argument that millions of Indians have to be extirpated from “inefficient” agriculture into productive industry and services. For them, the Cauvery belt of Tamil Nadu must seem like heaven, proving their dodgy theories right. Farmers are abandoning their profession en masse—making extinct native knowledge of a vital occupation, forcing them into unskilled, menial jobs in industrial hubs, putting at risk India's agricultural diversity and food security.

Indeed, why do we need turmeric farmers when food colours and artificial flavours can be factory-produced? It is convenient to scapegoat farmers for the failure of our agricultural policies that have rendered theirs a dire profession.

No treats in Trichy

Flowing eastward through Karur district, and swollen by all its major tributaries, the river in Tiruchirappalli or Trichy is at its broadest and therefore called the akhanda Cauvery. Immediately below the city of Trichy, it splits into two creating the island of Srirangam—the holiest of Vaishnavite sites also known as the bhooloka Vaikuntha or Vishnu’s earthly abode. The Kollidam, a distributary that is essentially a flood-carrier, takes a northeasterly course to meet the sea near Porto Novo in Cuddalore district.

For almost the entirety of childhood and adolescence through the 1980s and mid-1990s, Srirangam was indeed my heaven on earth. The best part of the mornings was spent soaking in the Cauvery. If the main bathing ghat at Amma Mandapam was flooded by Gujarati tourists on weekends, there was always the option to head to quainter Geethapuram a few hundred metres upstream. It now has a check dam thanks to the hundreds of crores lavished on the tiny temple town by former chief minister J Jayalalithaa, who chose it to be her constituency between 2011 and 2015.

More fun could be had in the canal—narrower but with spots that were deeper and with faster flowing water—that flows through the town. Now it’s a sewage drain. Manic rounds of street cricket matches in the afternoons would necessitate putting another shift in at the river. By then some elder would have procured a few kilos of the now-famous Trichy Imam Pasand mangoes. The restoration of tissues after a tiring 400-step climb atop Trichy’s Rock Fort, or walking around the temple’s bazaars steeped in history, would require downing a few glasses of Michaels “syrup”, a deep purple sucrose bomb.

A heavy dinner at dirt-cheap establishments such as Madura Lodge or Mayavaram Lodge would leave no option other than a leisurely walk back to Srirangam past the Cauvery bridge and its cool air, just in time for dessert. At around 10 pm when the Srirangam temple is about to close, Lord Ranganatha is offered the aravanai, a mildly sweet (considerably less sweeter than sakkarai pongal), salty and ghee laden rice—his last morsel for the day. The aravanai’s distinctly smoky flavour, according to local legend, is on account of the fiery breath of Sesha, the serpent, on whose coiled body Ranganatha reclines.

Trichy and the delta region is the land of countless ancient temples with their unique sthala puranas, or foundational legends, that are themselves part of a magnificent culture refined over at least 2,000 years, if not more. The region’s way of life—agricultural practices, food, the exquisite temple art and architecture, enlightened civic planning, literature, music and sculpture—are in many ways the result of the uninterrupted prosperity offered by the Cauvery.

Take for instance, the Trichy region’s pan-India pre-eminence for banana production in the past. Banana is India’s most ubiquitous fruit available in abundance all through the year. It accounts for roughly 2.5 per cent of India’s farm GDP. In Tamil culture, it is one of the three exalted fruits, or mukkanis, alongside mango and jackfruit. No festival is complete without an offering of bananas for the gods. Vast parts of the bazaars around Trichy’s Rock Fort temple were once banana mandis. In the ancient Thayumanavar Shiva temple, in the same complex as the Rock Fort, a taar of bananas—a whole bunch with 10-15 tiers of fruit—is the chief offering made by devotees whose prayers for an accident-free childbirth in the family is answered. Shiva in this temple specialises in such matters.

An abundant supply of water from the Cauvery and conducive soil made Trichy among the most prized banana-growing regions in world. Famous local varieties such as rasthali, poovan, mondan and karpuravalli are grown here. Tamil Nadu is by a long margin the highest producer of bananas with annual production worth ₹8,000 crore. Maharashtra is a distant second at about half that value.

Plantain pleasures

Not surprisingly, the National Research Centre for Banana (NRCB), the apex research body for the fruit, is located about 20 km off Trichy. Its current director, S Uma is a gene scientist who’s a pioneer in many ways. She has been with the NRCB since its inception in 1993 and is one of only three women to ever helm the various institutions part of the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR).

When I gatecrash her office, introducing myself as a freelance journalist writing on the Cauvery, she runs a quick Internet search on me and the first part of the Newslaundry story. Bengaluru is her hometown, and she speaks with a discernible Kannada accent. Working in an area that is the hotbed of linguistic chauvinism, Uma is understandably wary of potential mischief-makers.

Under Uma, the NRCB has built Asia’s largest gene bank of 360 banana varieties. The popularity of Grand Nain—the long, pale yellow bananas that one encounters in most supermarket shelves (promoted by the giant Swiss horticultural conglomerate, Chiquita)—is such that it has been pulping production of more nutritious native bananas. Monoculture, or large-scale cropping of one strain without diversity, makes the crop susceptible to deadly disease attacks that could wipe out its production. There’s also the added risk of permanently losing indigenous varieties. This is one of the many threats Trichy’s famed banana growers face. The perennial scarcity of water has also meant that Tamil Nadu’s Theni district toppled Trichy from its top banana status.

NRCB’s recent efforts to promote native bananas that can stay firm and green for up to 35 days, in tandem with the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority’s (APEDA) push into EU markets, is off to a good start. Some 40 tonnes a week are exported from here now.

But that is no succour for a farmer like Mavadian, 53, in the tiny village of Kovathakudi 30 km north of NRCB across the Cauvery and Kollidam. Three years ago, he suffered a loss of ₹7 lakh on account of a failed banana crop across eight acres—only two acres of which he owned, the rest leased. A conscientious farmer, he’s been working every single day since then from 7 am to 10 pm in the fields, not only to repay the bank loan he’s taken to cover his losses but also to provide his sons with the economic velocity needed to escape agriculture.

Mavadian has paid off ₹4 lakh of his loan and sent two of his three sons to Chennai and Bengaluru, where they have stable jobs that guarantee a salary at the end of every month. “If only they’d released a little water, lifeline water, in 2014, I’d have saved much of my crop,” he says. He could have repaid his debt sooner if Cyclone Gaja, hadn’t felled some 500 fruit-bearing trees in every acre of his holding. Yet his losses are insignificant compared to farmers closer to the coastline.

The gulf of distrust

As you enter Trichy, the politics around the Cauvery gets louder. The Mekedatu Project green-flagged by the Central Water Commission animates conversations. The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) under newly-minted party chief MK Stalin is scheduled to hold a massive political rally in Trichy the next day. It brings together anti-Bharatiya Janata Party forces to protest the project. Ironically, high-ranking ministers and functionaries of the Karnataka Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular)—coalition partners who are to be the project’s joint executioners and primary political beneficiaries—are among the invitees.

Mekedatu (“goat’s leap” in Kannada) is envisaged as a “multipurpose balancing reservoir” (where the Cauvery creates a small ravine that might require the goats to be turbocharged Chetaks or Baraks to make the leap) at a cost of ₹6,000 crore. Here, in Karnataka’s Ramanagara district about 100 km from Bengaluru, the Cauvery and Arkavathy meet. It will address Bengaluru and Ramanagara district’s drinking water problems and generate much-needed hydel power for Karnataka, the state contends. Mekedatu or any other such project is not supposed to eat into the 177 TMC of Cauvery water the Supreme Court has mandated Karnataka to give Tamil Nadu.

The distrustful Tamils contend they’ve seen this script play out many times in the past, to their own peril. At the time, the echoes of protest reached Delhi too, where farmers from across the country—with those from Tamil Nadu being the most vocal—marched to Parliament demanding loan waivers and higher procurement prices. They fear Mekedatu is part of Karnataka’s efforts to add newer areas into the Cauvery’s irrigation fold and, in coming years, present dependence on it as a fait accompli to deny the lower riparian Tamil Nadu its share.

Channels of Chola wisdom

A bit of hydrological history may help to understand the roots of Tamil disgruntlement.

In 1901, the state of Mysuru was able to use only a paltry 27 TMC of the Cauvery, irrigating 1.1 lakh acres, while the Madras Presidency drew a whopping 366 TMC to water 13.5 lakh acres. The disproportionate development of the Tamil region was thanks to geography and the ingenuity of the Chola kings whose home base was the Cauvery delta. The Kallanai, or the Grand Anicut, is a masonry dam 20 km east of Trichy, believed to be built in 2nd Century CE by Karikala Cholan, the oldest water-regulation structure in active use.

Christopher Hill, a Colorado University historian, writes in the 2008 book South Asia: An Environmental History:

“The greatest period of irrigation in early South India occurred during the reign of king Karikala in the 2nd century CE. Karikala, king of Cholas faced constant flooding on the Cauvery river. The river was something of an anomaly for southern rivers in that it carried in its bed vast amounts of silt which not only caused it to change its course frequently, but also silted up adjoining lands, making them uncultivable for long periods of time. To control the flooding, Karikala commissioned the building of the Grand Anicut. The great dam was more than 1000 feet long and 200 feet wide; the irrigation canals feeding out of the reservoir watered 70,000 acres. So well built was the anicut that Arthur Cotton, arguably the greatest civil engineer of the British Raj admitted that he used the design for the 19th century irrigation works on the same river system. In addition, Cotton’s improvements on the dam make Grand Anicut the oldest functioning irrigation works in the world today.”

The Cauvery delta is a relatively small equilateral triangle shaped region, its sides about 125 km long. The river splits into 36 distributaries with a total length of 1,600 km. More than 1,500 main canals, 5,600 km in length, are watered by the rivers. The canals further feed 28,000 branches and sub-channels that cover 19,000 km. The combined length of the natural and manmade irrigation systems in this tiny area is roughly 60 per cent of the earth’s circumference.

The Cholas combined their understanding of waterworks with visionary town planning on a scale that puzzled engineers many centuries later. The Thanjavur delta managed to use more than 80 per cent of the flows for irrigation from a river in which high flow was confined to less than two months during the south-west monsoon season, and without a large reservoir till 1933. In the 1947 monograph Rural Problems in Madras, SY Krishnaswami, a distinguished Indian Civil Service officer, wrote that modern civil engineers could not truly understand this ancient system that combined irrigation and drainage: “This goes against accepted theories of irrigation of the present time. But a failure to appreciate the circumstances, under which this combination has taken place in the Tanjore delta, has been responsible for a great deal of ignorant application of modern ideas by theoretical engineers.”

The old channels of the Cauvery delta are designed in a manner that can take in much more water than necessary for the lands they directly irrigate. Therefore, in times of abundant flow in the river, instead of the water going into the sea, the earth became a reservoir. Krishnaswami wrote: “In the fields themselves, an ingenious system has been devised under which the drainage channel of the upper village is the irrigation source for the lower village. The result is that the waters conserved in the upper village are gradually passed on to the villages lower down. In times of flood, these channels distribute the risk of flood over the entire delta instead of allowing the waters to be concentrated in any particular spot, and when the river level goes down these very channels drain the waters gradually back into the river. This system involves a graduation in the period of cultivation from the head of the delta towards the tail end. Cultivation at the head would start early June, but by the time waters reached the tail-end, it would be mid-August. That’s why the double-crop lands lie in the upper reaches of the Cauvery delta. By the time the lean month of September ended, the north east monsoon would bring the rains in time for the crops to mature. The old system of irrigation in the Tanjore delta may be described in one sentence by saying that under this system every field acts as a reservoir and an insurance against floods.”

The depressions in every village were converted into ponds. Now many of them are reclaimed lands.

In the late 1950s and 1960s, Karnataka began to build large scale irrigation projects on every tributary of the Cauvery such as Kabini, Swarnavathy, Hemavathy and Harangi. By 1990, the area under Cauvery irrigation in Karnataka had increased 20-fold since the turn of the century, needing 323 TMC of water. It doubled in Tamil Nadu with a demand of 500 TMC.

In 1991, the Cauvery Water Disputes Tribunal (CWDT), formed under SC instructions, in its interim award asked Karnataka to release 205 TMC of water. Karnataka’s refusal to comply with it and the violence unleashed on Tamil-speaking labourers in Bengaluru and other parts of Karnataka infused a new kind of toxicity to the dispute between the two states. Until then, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka had negotiated and even fought in the courts in an atmosphere of relative calm. While the disagreements are more than a century old, their course is as varied as the Cauvery’s.

Between 1910 and 1924, a marker for strong regional interests had been laid down. Both Mysuru and Madras drew up plans to build the KRS and Mettur dams. But there was room for accommodating mutual interests—something which disappeared over the next few decades. By the 1970s, both states began to bicker over the process of negotiation itself.

S Guhan, a former Tamil Nadu finance secretary and a Senior Fellow at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, wrote in the 1992 book The Cauvery River Dispute: Towards Conciliation:

“Tamil Nadu began pressing for reference to a tribunal in 1970 and moved the SC as early as 1971; at the same time it participated in negotiations right up to 1990 in the hope to be able to work out a modus vivendi. But when, from 1978, differences began to widen Tamil Nadu essentially retracted, reiterating its stand based on the 1924 Agreement.”

The 1924 agreement allowed Mysuru to build new reservoirs, on the tributaries of Cauvery, of capacities not exceeding 60 per cent of that of the reservoirs the Madras Government chose to build on the tributaries Bhavani, Amaravathi and Noyyal that flow almost entirely in present day Tamil Nadu.

“On the other hand, Karnataka was clearly interested in prolonging the negotiations, in keeping them inconclusive, and in thwarting the reference to a tribunal. Through such a strategy, the state gained time to proceed with the completion of its new irrigation projects.”

Now, despite the SC’s final verdict in 2018, water sharing is a zero-sum game for both states.

The SC cut Tamil Nadu’s share to 177 TMC from the 192 TMC allowed by the CWDT in a 2007 decision. In making the decision, the apex court took into consideration the growing drinking water needs of the emerging megapolis of Bengaluru, and the better groundwater resource Tamil Nadu has.

In recent years, Tamil Nadu has turned into a breast-beating, grievance-mongering state that believes that the Centre is conspiring to liquidate its glory (the unfavourable court judgements on jallikattu and Cauvery; the central government’s dilly-dallying on the formation of an independent Cauvery water management authority mandated by the SC; the NEET exams) and plunder its wealth (Vedanta’s copper plant in Thoothukudi; hydrocarbon projects in the Cauvery delta; the Neutrino observatory in Theni) for the betterment of backward North India. Abetted by its politicians, Tamils now seem increasingly convinced that without protest, there’s no hope for securing their rights.

With neither the Congress nor the BJP politically relevant in the state, Tamils fear their interests are subservient to those of Karnataka, or the North, where they compete head-to-head. With the recent death of Jayalalithaa and M Karunanidhi, the heads of the two Dravidian parties, there is a growing fear that Tamil Nadu now has no effective defender of its interests at the national stage.

In the delta, especially, this sentiment resonates the most. In November 2018, just when there was some cheer in the region with the Cauvery in good flow after three years, Cyclone Gaja struck. The state government estimates that more than 80,000 people were displaced. The losses, including the decimation of thousands of acres of near-harvest paddy, banana, and mature coconut groves, were in excess of ₹15,000 crore.

Delta Dirge

When I visit the region about 10 days after Gaja had emptied its fury, it’s just about limping back to normalcy.

With political parties, NGOs and assorted philanthropic organisations distributing essentials everywhere, the delta seems like a giant disaster relief camp. About 60 per cent of the farms and fields in Orathanadu, a small panchayat town on the south bank of Cauvery in Thanjavur district, have been devoured by Gaja. When a senior state minister came to oversee relief work here, he was heckled by angry citizens.

G Neelamegam, the district secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) sits in a party worker’s small low-rise, tiled house which doubles up as a relief material warehouse for the thousands of bottles of drinking water and a mountain of blankets gathered by the party. He’s visibly shaken by the catastrophe, his voice as thin as his white moustache. He contends that the fractured politics of the state has not only resulted in shortchanging people’s interests but also scuppered any realistic chances of conciliation with Karnataka.

He says: “In 1977, MG Ramachandran [MGR] as the new CM was within sight of a deal with his Karnataka counterpart, Devaraj Urs. But Karunanidhi, who as MGR’s predecessor had himself been mature and mellow in his negotiations when in office, trumpeted it as a sell-out. We haven’t recovered since. But there is no excuse for Tamil Nadu not to have built more check dams or done more to conserve the precious waters of the Cauvery. For Karnataka, the Cauvery is a matter of competitive politics. For us, it’s our lifeline.”

The Tamil epic Silappathikaram—dated around 1st Century CE and authored by Elango Adigal—describes in detail the prosperity around Cauvery’s delta and Poompuhar, a thriving international port city, where the river meets the sea. More recently, in 1971, in his iconic travelogue along the Cauvery’s course, Nadanthai Vaazhi Kaveri, Thi Janakiraman, a modern great of Tamil literature, marvelled at the prosperous leftovers of a kingdom once glorious.

Even in 2018, when Ponni has all but become Karnataka’s stormwater drain and Tamil Nadu’s very own sewage carrier, its delta seems as enchanting with its relative prosperity, few stretches of roads that aren’t covered by a thick canopy of green, and ethereal temples at every turn.

Some two decades ago, S “Cauvery” Ranganathan was Mannargudi’s most famous resident. Today, VK Sasikala, Jayalalithaa’s closest confidante and a claimant of her political legacy who traces her origins from the town, has displaced Ranganathan from that perch. Ranganathan fought cases since the 1980s against Karnataka as the head of the Cauvery Delta Farmers’ Association to safeguard Tamil interests. But hardly anyone even within a few hundred metres of his spacious and ageing bungalow seems to have heard of the man, let alone offer reliable directions to his residence.

Gaja is keeping Ranganathan busy. He refuses to meet me. There is enormous damage control to be done on the 400-odd-acre holding he manages singlehandedly at the age of 82. His daughters and grandchildren, “well-settled” in cities and overseas, aren’t interested. A power transmission pylon that passes through his field has collapsed. The entire crop had to be culled to get it back up. Plus, as a prominent activist farmer, there’s a lot of relief and rehabilitation work that he wants done through government administration. This includes trying to get paper mills in distant Rameshwaram to mop up the mounds of fallen casuarina and eucalyptus trees all around at the dirt cheap charge of ₹3,000-4,000 a tonne.

Sadly, no buyer is in sight.

When I telephone him to say I’m outside his bungalow gate and able to see him pacing around, he relents. Frail, fair-skinned, wearing the red Vaishnavite caste-mark on the forehead, and clad in a peacock-blue kurta and veshti, Ranganathan, once he gets talking, has the eager manner of Timon the meerkat from The Lion King. He reels off agricultural and hydrological statistics not only as a longtime litigant but also as a former professor of geology at Trichy’s National College.

With trademark delta humour and wit, he talks about how certain bigwigs came up with solutions plucked straight from cloud cuckoo land to resolve the water dispute. One senior bureaucrat, new to the South, upon learning that Tamil Nadu lay in a rain shadow region, apparently proposed sawing off the peaks of the Western Ghats bordering Kerala and Karnataka to ensure unhindered passage of rain-bearing clouds all the way up to the delta region.

If sugarcane is the curse of the Mandya region in Karnataka, in the delta districts it is paddy. The loamy, alluvial soil found in the delta forms some of the best tracts for rice cultivation in the world. “The Thanjavur delta is unique in that it is one of the few places in the world which has practised continuous monocropping for more than 2,000 years over a million acres, using pretty much the same methods with not much significant change in yields,” he says. “Scientists would tell you that such monocropping is extremely dangerous. Perhaps we’ve been lucky. Call it Cauvery’s gift.”

For that reason, many farmers here demand that the Cauvery delta be declared a UNESCO World Heritage region on the lines of the Western Ghats.

However, Ranganathan contends that there is no reason anymore—especially for farmers in the new delta (the lands that came into the irrigation fold thanks to Mettur dam)—to be so addicted to rice. The sandy loam in new delta areas such as Pattukkottai, Pudukkottai and Aranthangi is better suited for drier crops like pulses. One TMC of water in the old delta can irrigate about 7,000 acres in the old delta and only 4,000 acres in the newer regions. Just as the farmers of Erode feel a sense of getthu growing turmeric, in the delta, owning paddy fields is a matter of mavusu (greater attractiveness) even if the economics of rice don’t quite match up to the social cachet.

Ranganathan was also a founding member of the “Cauvery Family” which in 2002 attempted to bring together the primary stakeholders—the farmers from the Tamil Nadu and Karnataka—to hammer out a solution amongst themselves that would pressure the two governments into signing a deal. This well-intentioned, non-political initiative was the brainchild of professor S Janakarajan of the Madras Institute of Development Studies. Janakarajan had earlier used his skills to help broker peace between farmers in Tamil Nadu’s Vaniyambadi region who were affected by the polluting tanneries and the industrialists.

Besides memories of the personal warmth between some of the farm leaders from the two states, not much remains of the initiative.

The search for sensible solutions

But with the SC’s final verdict, can real concord emerge?

Ranganathan doesn’t sound optimistic. He says, “See, for nearly half a century, Karnataka in a game of one-upmanship has wanted to develop its Cauvery basin as extensively as the delta region. That is simply not possible no matter how much water they use. Similarly, Tamil Nadu should also realise the changed realities. Its farmers cannot continue with their merry ways and cry when water runs out for their paddy. Neither historical attachments nor envy have a place. Soil quality and water availability should decide cropping patterns.”

That’s pretty much the prevailing sentiment among Tamil farmers along the Cauvery. There is disappointment about their rights being inadequately protected. There’s relief that this vexatious matter has attained closure in the courts. But there’s also a sense of resignation that the verdict won’t make any material difference to their lives.

“How do we remain hopeful when we have lived through the history of the dispute,” asks “Cauvery” Dhanapal, a large farmer in Kilvelur village near Nagapattinam, also the general secretary of the Delta Farmers Protection Association. “Karnataka has hardly ever complied with any of the tribunal awards. The 2007 order even laid down the monthly quantum to be given to Tamil Nadu but Karnataka only released water in September, that too only when it was sure of meeting its own needs. I’m not sure it will be any different now.”

Writing in The Hindu a few days after the SC verdict, Janakarajan, the former MIDS professor, raised similar doubts: “It has almost become customary for Tamil Nadu to file petitions annually in the Supreme Court to direct Karnataka to release water. On many occasions, directions from the Supreme Court have resulted in violent protests, causing disruption of life and enormous damage to property in Karnataka. We saw this happening in September 2016 too…The most worrying issue, however, is that a myopic political approach and imprudence have reduced the rank of a perennial river to that of a seasonal river, that too with looming uncertainties. Its ecological implications are hugely adverse, in particular for the deltaic and the coastal ecosystem. Unless one adheres strictly to the principles of federalism in a vast and diverse democratic country such as India, sharing of water from a river which flows through more than one state will continue to be a critical challenge.”

According to Dhanapal, the perennial water shortage has resulted in the actual paddy in the delta coming down by nearly 40 per cent. Four in five underground water sources near the coastal regions have turned saline. The Cauvery’s drying up has led to the extinction of not only the famed three-crop system of the delta but also many regional traditions. The traditional short-duration kuruvai crop sown in June in these parts has been an eyesore of sorts for Karnataka.

“It’s a big joke. For kuruvai, Mettur’s gates need to open on June 12. Since 1990 it has happened only thrice. This year, it opened on July 19. At 155 days for a crop, I’d count myself lucky if I can do one good crop a year. All that used to happen before the Kabini and Hemavathy dams were built.”

Dhanapal lost 30 acres of paddy—about ₹18 lakh—this year because of Cyclone Gaja. He says farmers are trapped in a vicious cycle. As a desperate measure to save their standing crop, farmers pump saline water from under 1,200 feet using 15-20 horsepower (HP) motors. They need to borrow money to do that because the free electricity provided by the government is only for 5 HP motors. The saline water not only reduces yields but eats up the soil’s vitality. The falling need for agricultural labour also pushes the unemployed towards alcoholism.

Meanwhile, the poorer, younger farmers are fleeing to work in factories and construction sites in Chennai, Bengaluru and Coimbatore.

At 57, Dhanapal says he is too old to leave his village and live in a city. His daughter has a master’s degree in engineering that has earned her a job in an IT firm. His son will be off to London soon to pursue a postgraduate course in the high-paying field of actuarial science. “Even if I’m crying, I’ll keep ploughing until I have the last ounce of capital and energy left. After that, God only knows,” he says.

The scenes of devastation Gaja has wrecked along the coastline of Nagapattinam district is heartbreaking. The flooded paddy fields are just about beginning to dry up. The ingress of sea water might have turned ground water even more saline. But there are more immediate concerns.

Coconut groves, several decades-old, have been flattened. A mature coconut tree is good as a monthly income financial product—its fruits and fronds earn up to ₹500 a month. The electric supply lines are being re-erected but it might take farmers several months to remove the many hundred tonnes of giant coconut trees and clear the mangled mango and cashew orchards before they even start thinking of doing something with their lands again.

What can be done with the wood? Burning isn’t an option. Farmers in villages such as Vettaikkaraniruppu, where not a tree stands erect, wonder if the debris could be dumped deep in the sea. As a lily-livered urban dweller, unable to bear the sight of proud farmers making a helpless clamour for relief material, I ask my driver to get me to Poompuhar as fast as he can—where the Cauvery meets the sea and where I too can bring this crushing journey to an end.

Thi Janakiraman’s Nadanthai Vaazhi Kaveri has been my companion on this trip. He is the writer nonpareil of the lives of Ponni’s progeny. At Poompuhar sangam, the sight of a smattering of people performing death rituals for their loved ones prompted me to finish the remaining few pages of his travelogue.

It ends like this:

“Water flows from the tap too. But how when it flows in the form of a river does it sound like music, sear up to the skies like temple spires, smile like a poem, and pierce into our being like sharp intellect! Countless Shiva-yogis, beginning with Tirumoolar. Countless music-yogis from the days of Tiruppanaazhvar. The Cauvery flowed before they came about. It still does. Why the despondency of not being able to see any of them? Nothing can be witnessed in its completeness. It would take a lifetime even to read fully the lines on our palms. We could keep looking at the Cauvery’s swirls in eternity. In its waters keep bubbling up knowledge, poetry and temples. They have for time immemorial, and they’ll keep moving along with her waters… [At Poompuhar] The sea tide rises to embrace Cauvery in its fold. It is eternal love. Insatiable love. It is the love that commits in perpetuity without the knowledge of ageing or even death.

Aadhimanthi, AatanatthiMadhavi, KovalanAathirai, MarudhiKamban, KoothanSambanthan, Sundaran,... the bubbles and the waves become one with the sea and turn into cloud. They’ll live yet again. The Cauvery comes walking. In doing so, she’s a giver of life. To praise her, there will be born countless new creators of verse.”

If only she could survive us.

We would like to thank Rahul Pandey, Gayathri Natarajan, Vijay Krishnan, Dhiraj and other NL Sena members who contributed to the projecct.

This story was first published on February 23, 2019. It has been been republished today.

Credits
  • Editing: Jayashree Arunachalam

  • Artwork: Anish Daolagupu

  • Design: Venkateshwaran Selvaraj and Aditya Relangi

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