Celebrating the birth of a river

Last Updated 19 October 2009, 18:14 IST
Celebrating the birth of a river

This year, as always, my daughter and I wrapped a length of deep magenta silk around a coconut, and decorated it with our traditional jewellery. We invoked the spirit of Goddess Cauvery, Mother Earth, worshipped in every Kodava home on the day after the sacred, life-giving, life-bearing waters come bubbling up at the kundike at Talacauvery. For the Kanni Puje, we heaped a brass or silver tray with rice, placed the decorated coconut on it, with fresh flowers, three betel leaves and areca nuts, and a lit lamp; then the family prayed, and thanked Kaveramma for all the bounty.

 The thousands of pilgrims who converge at Talacauvery typically drive past, most, without noticing the botth posts, planted in fields and cattle yards. Placed on the day before the sankramana, every village has its own tradition, of different creepers and wood used. The posts are topped with looped creepers, to ward off the evil eye, and spirits, from the abundance of grain ripening in the fields, the generosity of Kaveramma. The Kodavas have, since ancient times, regarded themselves as Kaveramma’s children.
They till the land in her name and, traditionally, regard themselves as caretakers of the land on her behalf.

Cauvery is part of their lives...

Every Kodava tries to make the journey to collect sacred waters for the home. Every auspicious occasion opens by invoking the Goddess, and before they die, Cauvery teertha is trickled into the mouth. Our bards sing of Her with stirring devotion, rejoicing in her beauty and generosity. For ten days, the waters bubble up and, on the tenth, known as pathodi, women go walking to their ancestral homes, to celebrate the auspiciousness of the event. Nature lies at the heart of our worship. The river is inextricably linked with the life of the Kodavas. The Goddesses story, however, is a haunting one, of deception and betrayal. There is a version from the Cauvery Purana, all tangled with explanations and extrapolations.

As a daughter twice adopted, first as Lopamudra, the foster daughter of Brahma, and then adopted by the sage Kavera, she becomes the wife of Agasthya, who falls in love with her. Breaking his promise never to leave her alone, Agasthya does worse; he confines her in a pot, and betrays her, to go bathe in the downstream Kanaké. The furious Cauvery spills out of the pot, and flows away as a raging, rushing river, cascading and looping across the countryside of Kodagu, pursued by the chastened Agasthya.

Legends abound

 There are legends and stories to be heard at each part of the river, as she flows across the landscape. At the village of Balamuri, where she swerved right to avoid Agasthya, who tried to obstruct her, she washed over the Kodava women, waiting to stop her flight from their land, with such force, that the pleats of their saris were swept from front to back.

Another story tells of how, at this same spot, Agasthya asked the people of Kodagu to arbitrate their dispute. The Amma Kodavas supported him, while the Kodavas supported Kaveramma, declaring that a woman should not be held against her will. The furious sage cursed the Kodavas, that they should diminish in numbers, their women should not tie their garments in front, their rice should not grow, and cows not give milk. The Goddess's protection, however, saved them, and they continued to prosper. Each twist she takes, before she leaves Kodagu, holds a story.

The truth of the old Kodava saying, that if you want to see a sea of humanity, go to Talacauvery on the sankramana day, but if you want to see the Goddess, go on another day, has been brought home to me forcefully, over the years. Festival days are a nightmare of filth, noise and unruly crowds.

 But on a rain-lashed July morning, the confluence is a churning mass of muddy brown, and the steps to the river are submerged.

Sacred waters

You enter the river at your peril. The water in the tank is crystalline; you can see the coins glinting at the bottom.

Whipped by stinging rain, looking into the kundiké is an epiphany - a few splashes of vermillion, and pure, life-giving, sacred waters.

On a cloudless December day, you can stand on the Brahamagiri peak, breathing in the sparkling air, and gaze at all of creation spread out before you. The heart-wrenchingly beautiful hills of Kodagu fall away, in wave after wave, to the valleys below, full of rich fields and little red-tiled cottages. The Goddess enfolds you in an embrace of cloud, sky and breeze, green, highland meadows, rugged, forest- covered slopes, and birdsong, piercing the silent air.

(Published 19 October 2009, 15:50 IST)

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