Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

The Kaveri

N. Raghunathan


A CALLOW schoolboy in the first decade of the century was shocked beyond words when he read in a book by an American hygienist that bathing was unnecessary for health and might conceivably be harmful. And, though he has since outgrown many prejudices, he has not been quite able to get over this one. For he was brought up on the banks of the Kaveri. His day began with a bath; he envied the blossom grace of the young swimmers though he was too timorous to emulate them. The water he drank came from the river, not dripping lukewarm from a metal tap covered with verdigris but in cool pitchers carried by gentle hands. In early summer the dry river-bed was his playground. For many memorable months at a stretch he listened spell-bound to the Ramayana expounded in the low-roofed spacious mandapa on the bathing ghat by one of the greatest scholars of his time. To this day the music of Valmiki brings up for him nostalgic recollections of those “moving waters at their priest like task.” The festive pipes were often heard there; and once in a while the long-dawn wail, of the trumpets as a funeral passed by. But the most abiding memory is the hush that fell on the river in the gloaming, when the old men standing knee-deep in water offered arghya as the rooks settled to rest and the stars came out one by one.

Indian culture is essentially a riparian growth. Apo va idagm sarvam, says the Sruti, And the Manasara lays down that the site of a projected village should be near a stream. Running water has symbolised for us the central mystery of life, which ever renews itself, yet is never the same. The oiliest prayer in the world invokes the seven holy streams; and an immemorial tradition gives the Kaveri pride of place among them all, the Ganga herself not excepted. She is the mind-born of Brahma, says the Sthala Purana. The selfless rishi Kavera obtained her for daughter as the result of his long austerities on the Brahmagiri. He gave her hand in marriage to the sage Agastya. But, having come down from Heaven to purify the earth and enrich it, she issued forth at the appointed hour from the water-bowl in which the patron saint of the South had gathered her in essence along with other holy streams.

At this point let the historian take up the tale. The turbulent mounts in stream gathering many tributaries on the Mysore table-land spills all over the plains till a constructive genius of the first order comes to tame her. “The servitude of rivers,” says Gibbon, “is the noblest and most important victory which man has obtained over the licentiousness of Nature.” And Chola Karikala, by shoring up the turbid waters between two high banks, turned what might have been a foetid swamp into a Garden of Eden. Another Chola, probably Raja Raja, built the Grand Anicut, one of the engineering marvels of the ancient world. And since then many dams have been built up and down the river and innumerable canals dug, so that seen from the sky the Tanjore Delta must appear seamed and scarred with the victory of man over Nature. Even so the problem of drainage remains largely unsolved. But the Kaveri for all her vagaries deserves supremely well the title Chola Mata that a grateful Samskrit poet bestowed on her.

The Kaveri is by no means a mighty stream, reckoned by any standard. Its length of four hundred and seventy-two miles is exceeded by that of almost every other famous Indian river, not to mention such foreign giants as the Mississipi and the Yangtse Kyang. In its most populous reaches it is dry for six months in the year; and nowhere is it navigable. At its broadest, above the Upper Anicut, it is hardly more than a mile in width. After the Kollidam takes off it becomes progressively tenuous till barely a drop of water is left by the time it reaches the sea. But, for all her physical smallness, “Dakshinapatha Jahnavee”–(the Ganga of the South)–as she has been called, has made a name for herself in literature which Roman fiber and silver-streamed Thames might envy. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the Bhagavata and the Skandha all speak of her with reverence. To Valmiki she is “the divine stream, the blessed one, in whose lucent waters the apsarases love to sport.”

Tatastam apagam divyam prasannasalilam sivam
Tatra drakshyatha kavereem vihrtam apsaro ganaih.

And the matter-of-fact Mahabharata repeats the reference to the apsarases, those celestial maidens who hold empire over art and song; which speaks much for the prophetic insight of the poets, since the affinity between music and the Kaveri has been close and continuous for at least three hundred years.

The Bhagavata, in describing her as mahabhaga stresses her purity. The Tamil poets from the Sangam Age downwards have rejoices rather in her bounty, For them she was Ponni, whose Midas touch turned everything into gold, Tanneerum Kaviriye (“there is no water like Kaveri water”), said Avvai, whom no man nor woman for that matter dared to contradict. For Kamban the gentle river overflows with milk and honey. She is:

The Alwars and the Nayanmars pay brief but pregnant tributes to the sacred stream on which are situated forty of the hundred-and-eight ‘tiruppatis’ of Vaishnavism and numberless Siva shrines of hoary antiquity. Among later panegyrists the most notable are Parasara Bhatta who in his Rangaraja Sthava, celebrates the beauty and magnificence of the river at Srirangam the holy island; Tyagaraja who in his Asaveri Kriti Sari Vedalina, playing a variation on the same theme, pictures her as hastening with joyous abandon to join the Lord; and Nilakantha Dikshita who in his Siva Lilarnava gives in a few verses the essence of that culture which is the characteristic product of the Kaveri. The Dikshita, a grand-nephew of the great Appayya, was born in Thondamandalam. He lived but a short while in Tanjore where he studied under the polymath and statesman Govinda Dikshita. The best part of his life he spent at Madura as Minister of the Nayak Kings. Such a man can be hardly accused of parochialism, when he writes, “Whatever else one might wish to praise one inevitably looks to the Chola Desa for a comparison.” “Svarga and apavarga are equally at the command of these fortunate mortals. Sweet is Kaveri water; sweeter the milk of the coconut on her banks; sweetest the songs of her poets.”

This was no exotic culture, no coterie product. It sprang directly from the life of the people and all classes and all strata contributed to it each in its measure. It bespoke a social cohesion which even forty years ago had not visibly broken down. In its palmy days that organic society was perhaps family-centered, but its members were not self-centered. They may have been clannish, but they were not exclusive. Caste was a reality, but there was hardly such a talking as caste-consciousness. The river, the numerous far-famed temples on its banks, the feasts, fasts, and ceremonies by which they reckoned the passing year and which were never complete without a bath at one or other sacred spot, the body of folk-lore and legend that had accumulated down the centuries–all these acted as a powerful cement of social relations. Learning was valued not for ones own sake nor for the money it brought but as a means of liberation. Within the hallowed precincts of the schools there were no such distinctions as high and low, native and alien.

To the courts of the Chola Kings and their Nayak and Mahratta successors, poets, musicians and scholars flocked from all parts of the country. They were receive with every mark of honour, assured a modest competence and allowed complete freedom to devote themselves to their chosen tasks. On the short stretch of eighty odd miles from Srirangam to the sea three hundred villages have been listed and if you penetrate to three miles on either bank the number could easily be trebled. Many of these were Royal grants. One of the most famous was Sahajirajapuram, established by King Shaji and better known today as Tiruvisanalloor. Sixty-four families noted for their learning, contentment, and purity of life were settled here. There were Maharashtrans, Kannadigas and Telugus among them as there, were Tamils; and they represented all, the three schools of Vedanta. Ramabhadra the foremost poet of the Silver Age of Samskrit, Sadasiva Brahmendra the Mahayogi, Sridhara Venkatesa the prince of devotees and friend of Bodhendra of Nama Siddhanta fame, Yagnanarayana Yajwa, the author of a great Mimamsa classic, and hundreds of others who lived in this little village enriched literature and the arts. They made history and in due course the halo of sainthood has settled upon them. Within a mile or two of this Brahman centre of learning and piety and living in perfect amity with the Sankara Acharya Peetha at Kumbakonam were the great Tamil Adhinams, the home of Saiva Siddhanta.

The anonymous author of the Tula Kaveri Mahatmya in a moment of illumination characterised the river as sulabha, accessible. She is that in a supreme measure, but only in the last seventy miles of her course where lovely little villages are sown thick on either bank. Earth has not anything to show more fair than this green valley with its dense and yet orderly vegetation, through which the sun rarely penetrates. The soil is rich and is constantly renewed by the prodigal river. Even when it goes dry the water is never far from the surface and the busy picotahs make a pleasing sight. Bountiful nature did not however make for sloth. All sections of a variously gifted people placed their special talents and their ungrudged labour at the service of the community. They built temples and choultries, organised festivals, excavated tanks and opened many a new avenue to the questing spirit, because they were animated by maitri.

The wedding of Kaveri to Agastya is symbolic of the Aryan-Dravidian synthesis which was triumphantly worked out in these ideal conditions. Long ago, on the banks of the Kaveri, the Tamil achieved an intuitive balance between tradition and innovation. He offered an unwavering hospitality to new ideas but took care not to endanger the stability of social life. An extraordinary subtlety in speculation went hand in hand with an unaffected attachment to the simple life. The decorative element which proliferates luxuriantly in the sculpture of the great Chola temples is subdued to the general design which is securely grounded in metaphysic. Not for nothing did the temple serve for ages as the nerve-centre of the community. Today the villages are half-empty, the temples too often in the undisturbed possession of bats and owls; the Kaveri is rich in her bounty as ever, but the hands are too few that are stretched out to receive the guerdon. But no man who has lived on her banks in the impressionable years can forget her quite. Echoing the memorable confession of a great scholar in another context, he might say: “Familiar with all skepticism’s, expert in tracing all beliefs to primitive superstitions, explorers of the infinitely great and infinitely small, we are children of the Kaveri still.”*

* Reprinted by courtesy of All-India Radio, Madras. The author is indebted to Dr. V. Raghavan for placing at his disposal material that has been collected for a book on the Kaveri which is to be brought out under the auspices of the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham, Kumbakonam.

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