The sky blushes a monochrome in blue tending to grey-black, with clouds that promise rain. Driving through the winding roads of Kodagu flanked by lush coffee estates and fields of spices, we bring our vehicle to a halt at Talakaveri, the birthplace of the sacred River Kaveri. We are as much awestruck by our surrounds as by the legends associated with the waterbody.
A river’s journey
Kaveri, the sacred, easterly-flowing river of peninsular India, commonly referred to as Dakshina Ganga, was born here in the Brahmagiri ranges of the Western Ghats, at an elevation of 1,341 m. However, Kaveri is not visible as a river at Brahmagiri. Rather, she originated as a gurgling spring that to date feeds a tank built on the hillside by the Kodavas of Kodugu. We witness devotees fill pots and bottles with the holy water from the tank, while others take a dip in it. Kaveri miraculously bubbles up every year at an auspicious moment in rebirth, on Tula Sankaramana day, which falls between October and November. Pilgrims in hundreds of thousands flock here to cleanse themselves during this time.
A temple to Goddess Kaveri, that is also dedicated to Shiva as Agasthyeswara, and Ganesha, overlooks the tank and attracts devotees in droves throughout the year. Talakaveri’s importance as a place of veneration gained greater importance since it is believed that Sage Agasthya was blessed here by Brahma, Vishnu and Ganesha as he sat meditating under the ashwaththa tree. Legend also has it that the saptarishis or the seven great sages who are extolled by the Vedas performed their yajna or ritual sacrifices at Brahmagiri Peak.
After offering prayers at the tank shrines, we ascend a flight of steps leading up to the summit of the mist-kissed Brahmagiri Hill, which offers stunning glimpses of the valley below. It is from here that the shimmering body of blue gleefully begins her downward journey, only to disappear underground. However, Kaveri resurfaces in a steep tumble at Bhagamandala, located at the foothills of Talakaveri where she swells with pride as she unites with River Kannike, and Sujyoti, a mythical river. The trio of rivers forms the much venerated ‘Triveni Sangam’. A dip at this confluence is believed to purge one from all evil and negative influences. Believers proceed to Talakaveri after taking a dip at the sangam and performing rituals for their ancestors.
Our next halt then is Bhagamandala or Bhagandeshwara Kshetra which derives its name from the Bhagandeshwara Temple dedicated to Lord Shiva. Though the temple complex was built by the Cholas around the 11th century, it displays Kerala-style temple architecture with copper roofs that curve up at each corner, into rearing and hooded cobras. Shrines to Vishnu, Ganesha and Subramanya with rimmed brass doors dot the courtyard. Painted sculptures of the pantheon of Hindu deities, flora, fauna and men in battle adorn the ceilings.
An inscription in its premises refers to Bhagamandala as having been captured by Tipu Sultan in the 1780s. He renamed it as Afesalabad, and as a tribute to himself for the feat he had accomplished, Tipu placed the ‘Salam Kallu’, a stone on the way to Talakaveri. The stone bears testimony to the brutal bloodbaths that he caused. However, in 1790, in a fiercely fought battle, Dodda Veera Rajendra, the most famous of the Haleri rulers of Coorg, regained the territory. Further, he donated the stupika and golden pinnacle of the temple’s cone-shaped shikhara.
Our Bhagamandala trip takes us to Karnataka’s only museum that exhibits objects related to bee-keeping. Bhagamandala is also home to Madhuvana, a bee-rearing and honey marketing centre.
Stuff of legends
A host of legends, most of which have their origins in the Puranas, are associated with Kaveri that has inspired several civilisations that have flourished on its banks. She is inextricably linked with Sage Agasthya, King Kavera and Lopamudra, a trio of puranic icons. The most popular tale associated with the river is that Lord Brahma sent his daughter Vishnumaya to earth as Lopamudra. He had twin objectives in doing so. One, to assist Lord Vishnu as the damsel Mohini, in his ploy to vanquish a demon. Secondly, to allow his daughter to fulfil her keen desire to serve humanity on earth. Brahma gave Lopamudra in adoption to King Kavera who meditated upon him to beget progeny. Pleased with the king’s worship, Brahma gave Lopamudra in adoption to him. As the king’s daughter, she was rechristened Kaveri, and she grew up to be a gorgeous maiden.
Sage Agasthya, who was meditating on Brahmagiri Hill, was entranced by the young Kaveri’s enchanting looks. He sought her hand in marriage. Kaveri accepted him, upon the condition that she would leave him for good if he left her alone for long, at any point in time. As fate would have it, Agasthya once became engrossed in a philosophical discussion and forgot his deal with Kaveri. She immediately left him, transfigured herself into a river, and began to flow in order to fulfil her own desire to serve mankind.
According to another popular myth, Sage Agasthya, by his yogic powers, turned Kaveri to water which he filled in his kamandalu or water pot, and kept it in his ashram. But on one occasion, when he entrusted the pot to his disciples and returned late from a debate, Kaveri used her divine powers to jump out of the kamandalu and emerge as a river to serve humanity. A variant of this version claims Lord Ganesha as having taken the form of a crow and toppling the water from the kamandalu.
Having feasted our senses on the picturesque Talakaveri and Bhagamandala, we then explored the neighbourhood within a radius of 70 km. Igguthappa Temple, 26 km away, is one of them. After paying our obeisance to Igguthappa, the chief preceptor of the Kodavas, their god of rain and crops, we delight in the verdure surrounding Chelavara Falls, a natural waterfall formed by a tributary of the Kaveri, and Nalaknad Palace which is located at the foot of Tadiandamol, Kodagu’s highest peak. The edifice was built in 1792 by Dodda Veera Rajendra to celebrate his victory against Tipu. It is adorned with exquisite wall murals in various states of preservation. The twin-storeyed palace with a simple exterior has intricate wooden carvings, low conical roof, crested dome and pillared facade.
About 70 km from Bhagamandala, we visit the serene and breathtaking Nisargadhama, a 64-acre island surrounded by River Kaveri. A scenic spot accessed by a hanging bridge across the river, it is ensconced by foliaceous teak and sandalwood trees and bamboo groves. Uma Maheshwara Kshetra and Harangi Dam are our final halting spots on this explorative sojourn of Kodava land. Our hearts and minds fill with a sense of pride at belonging to the land of this holy river. In her 800-km-long thrilling odyssey, Kaveri traipses amid varying landscapes of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, bounding over boulders, crisscrossing through clusters of expansive palm and paddy fields. She displays several shades of her whimsical nature on this jaunt — a young bride, serene and shy at once, a capricious and tempestuous prankster the next. The mirthful lass creates little and large waterways en route, joins forces with lesser streams, until she takes a final bow and loses herself in the fathomless depths of the Bay of Bengal.