Coracles across the Cauvery

Smooth sailing: Coracles like this are a familiar sight along River Cauvery.photos by the author

You find them all along the course of river Cauvery in Karnataka, at Bheemeshwari, Galibore and Cauvery fishing camps, Cauvery Sangam and near Barachukki falls. Coracles, which resemble a huge floating basket, are used to ferry people and even animals like goats and sheep by the villagers. They are also used as joy rides by tourist and a major tourist attraction. In some villages it is not uncommon to see even cycles and motorbikes ferried from one side of the river to the other. It has become a source of livelihood for local people in tourist centres.

Coracles, called theppa in Kannada are light, circular, saucer-shaped boats. They are on average about seven feet in diameter and can hold about six to eight people at a time. Other kinds of coracles usually can only hold one person. The basic frame is woven from bamboo sticks. Then the bottom is further reinforced with the addition of more bamboo sticks, making the base sturdy. The bottoms of the boats are covered in hides, or sometimes with sheets of plastic, to make them waterproof. In modern times, a plastic sheet is often embedded between two layers of bamboo. Sometimes the bottom of the craft is coated with bitumen (tar) to make it waterproof. Coracles are steered and propelled using a single paddle.

Coracles are found in some of the large lakes in Karnataka. Coracle rides are also popular along river Kabini and backwaters of river Harangi.They are also found in Tungabhadra river and one of the highlights for tourists visiting Hampi is a coracle ride. Coracles are said to have been in existence since pre-historic times. Domingos Paes, the Portuguese traveller who visited Hampi during sixteenth century AD makes a reference to coracles. He described the coracles as circular shaped, made of bamboo split wickerwork, covered the outside with leather and spins during the sail. They are exactly as it is today as it was four centuries back.

Today the leather has been replaced by plastic sheets. The coracle plays a pivotal ‘role’ in the 1974 landmark film, Bhootayyana Maga Ayyu. Ayyu and Gulla are sworn enemies. In the climax scene, Ayyu goes to the town, leaving behind his family. The village is into floods and Ayyu’s house is in danger. Ayyu’s wife and kids try to come out of the house as the dam collapses and the water enters the house drowning it completely. Gulla takes a coracle and single handedly sets out to rescue Ayyu’s family. Ayyu and Gulla end their years of enmity. The coracle, indeed, is a miracle.

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