Cruising along the river

Peeking in

Cruising along the river

On a scenic boat ride down the River Sharavati, Padma Rao experiences the rural, riverine life.

One of the major life-bearing and electricity-generating rivers of Karnataka, the Sharavathi, is also known as the ‘Arrow River’. Shara means arrow in Sanskrit. The river meanders and gushes through the precipitous mountains of the Western Ghats, gathering phenomenal velocity, which is then harnessed to produce electricity. But when the river nears the ocean, its speed diminishes considerably. At Honnavar, where the river joins the Arabian Sea, it is called the Baraganga. The river which arises in the Western Ghats and flows through the hilly Malnad region, brings together  people living alongside, irrespective of their caste and religion, allowing them to bond over culture and philosophy.

Eshwar, the boatman at Honnavar who took us for a three-hour boat ride on the Sharavathi, was adept at manoeuvrering his boat in the intricate maze of waterways, through which the river finally reaches the ocean. The boat glided past riverside village schools with children reciting the morning prayer musically. Island homes were being repaired after the monsoons and rebuilt with building material brought in canoes. The beautiful red laterite stone, which is locally available, is the most favoured building material. As we drifted lazily past mangroves, flocks of ducks and other water birds rose up and flew away.

A joyride

Near a clump of mangroves, we heard an unknown birdcall, which Eshwar answered. We waited there for 5 minutes before being joined by a family of 8. They were going to a village called Gundibala for fulfilling a promise they made to the presiding deity, Hanuman. Known mostly for the yakshagana performance held every night at the Hanuman Temple, Gundibala was a major port in the 14th and 15th centuries, which exported pepper and spices to Europe and the Middle East.

It’s a common belief that if you desire something from God, you ask for it here in this temple and promise to perform the yakshagana for one night after your wish gets fulfilled. Surprisingly, the waiting list to perform at Gundibala is as long as 6 years! Our new friends were going to Gundibala to perform the dance drama as a thanksgiving for their daughter’s marriage. Appropriately, they had chosen the episode of Rama’s wedding to Sita.

A majority of the population might recognise Sharavathi by Jog Falls, one of the most popular tourist centres in the State. The river at Jog Falls lives up to its name — as it jumps down the precipice, its speed is surely more than that of an arrow in an Olympics archery contest. The dense forests around the falls (Kattale Kaanu), have almost disappeared, being replaced by betel nut plantations. Saddened though I was by the decimation of the rainforest, I was intrigued by the various herbs, spices, pineapple and banana plants thriving in the shade between betelnut plants. Each plantation has a large homestead, complete with a cattleshed, and its own perennial spring.

When we reached a plantation, we were greeted with the sights of betelnut harvesting. The acrobatic feat of the betelnut harvester who swung from one tall swaying tree to another, cutting down huge bunches of the nuts left us spellbound. The lady of the house took us on a tour of the century-old homestead and plied us with food and drink.

A picture of Goddess Chowdeshwari of Sigandur is displayed prominently in most of the plantations and homestays. Looking at our puzzled faces, our host tells us that the picture is an insurance against theft. It is said that thieves are discouraged from stealing upon seeing the photograph of the goddess as they greatly fear the consequences of such illegal actions.

I had to add the Sigandur Temple to my bucket list. When the dam across Sharavathi was built at Linganamakki, many tiny villages and hamlets as well as huge tracts of the rainforest came under water. The idol of Chowdeshwari was shifted from its original place to Sigandur, where a new temple was built. Sigandur is surrounded by the backwaters of the Linganamakki Dam on 3 sides. A boat ferries people and vehicles from Holebagilu to Sigandur with a one-way ticket cost of just one rupee! People flock to the temple during holidays. And on Makara Sankranti in January, a car festival is organised in which various cultural performances are staged.

The river was placid at Gerusoppa, 40 km up the river from Honnavar. After plunging down its mighty falls at Jog, the River Sharavathi has been dammed to use up its energy. Now she looked quite benign on her way to the ocean. The calm and peaceful spirit of the Jain sages of the Chaturmukha Basadi at Gerusoppa seems to have seeped into the psyche of the people who live on her banks and numerous islands.

Kindness is vital too

Manjunath, our boatman who rowed us to the ancient Jain temple, was no exception. After negotiating the fare to the Basadi and back, we sat in his motorboat. Our first stop was in an island, where a group of women got in. Going a kilometre still farther, our boatman dropped them at a makeshift jetty on the mainland. When asked about the fare he charged them, Manjunath said, “Nothing at all. They are all heading to the health centre and they pay me kindly during Eid.”

On our way back from the Basadi, we saw a couple of men carrying a load of bananas and mango leaves in a dilapidated canoe. There was a quick exchange of news between them and our boatman. At Manjunath’s behest, they rowed their canoe alongside our motorboat and tied the canoe to it. The motorboat towed the canoe up the river for a good distance so that the men were saved the effort of rowing upstream against the current. Such displays of kind-heartedness aren’t alien to these villages. In fact, it is the predominant quality here.

As our journey came to an end, I realised that riverine, rural lives are pretty simple and stress-free. All the villagers are concerned about is the wellbeing of everybody in their community. At a time when values are fast depleting and morals fading, such instances make one realise that life is beyond the usual 9-to-5 job and traffic. Sometimes, you have to slow down like the Sharavathi!

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