Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU
RIVERS: JULY 01, 2001
Periyar: A confluence of cultures
The Periyar is sacred to the Malayali. Materially, spiritually, creatively. It is not just a sacred river, or Dakshina Ganga, or just a source for the State's drinking water and hydel power, it is also an inspiration for its writers, the muse of its poets, the final destination of departed souls, the transmitter of culture and a source of income for the environmentally-unfriendly who ravage it.
The Mullaiperiyar dam.
Periyar has always meant different things to different people. It evokes nostalgia in old timers whose memories are still washed by a pristine, crystal-clear river of the past, it ripples through the lyrics the Malayali hums. "Periyaare, Periyaare, Parvatha Nirayude Panineere" (Periyar, the fragrant essence of the mountains) has been written by the famous poet Vayalar Ramavarma and has been eternalised and internalised by generations of Malayalis. Vayalar, as he was popularly known, was not the only poet who converted Periyar as his muse . . . there are any number of them whose poetic oeuvre owed a debt to the river. Periyar is a magnificent entity that spawned and nurtured a culture and hence became a cult.
Next to the Bharatapuzha, Periyar has inspired writers and poets of Kerala. If Vayalar reminisces about his high after a refreshing dip in the cool waters of the Periyar in the height of summer, writer S. K. Nair mentions it in his autobiography. Jnanpith award winner G. Sankarakurup, S. K. Pottakkat, and Vaikom Mohammed Bashir also loved the Periyar. Kerala has 44 rivers and 41 flow westwards, but the Periyar has pre-eminence. It is the longest and largest river in Kerala, flowing over 244 km in Kerala alone. Originating from the Western Ghats, its water is believed to contain medicinal properties. Periyar is indeed identified as the cradle of Kerala's civilisation, the great social leveller, attracting both Royalty and the poor alike. Both the erstwhile kings of Travancore and Cochin built palaces on her banks and gravitated to them to escape the harsh onslaught of summer, a trend mimicked by the then upper class. Periyar also draws pilgrims, again playing the role of the communal leveller. Sri Sankara, the apostle of Advaitha philosophy, was born in Kalady, on the banks of the Periyar and predictably, nurtured an enduring affection for the river. Kalady is now a pilgrim centre and tourist destination.
Aluva or Alwaye, which is adjacent to Kalady, is the festive venue of Sivarathri for the Malayali, transcending all communal and class distinctions. The Aluva Sivarathri is thus also a mela, a dakshin Kumbh Mela, a celebrative assembly to which people come to see, to experience, to buy everything from brooms to bangles and pins to pots. Aluva Sivarathri is part of the Malayalam lore, proverbs, statements. If one does not recognise a friend, he is said to be not showing even the familiarity of having met at the crowded Aluva Sivarathri sands. Hindus congregated here to pay obeisance to their forefathers. a custom which traces its origin to the legend of Sri Rama who is believed to have performed the last rites of Jatayu, his winged friend, who sacrificed himself in his attempt to rescue Sita. Even today, every fortnight on new moon day, thousands of people perform "Bali" in the sacred waters of the Periyar. Downstream is Chelamattam temple which again attracts a huge horde of people performing the last rites of the dear departed, including immersion of the bones and ashes of the dead into the river. At Chelamattam, the river changes its direction.
Sacred and historic milestones abound in Aluva, like the ashram, erected by Sree Narayana Guru who was visited here by Mahatma Gandhi. It was also in Aluva that Gandhi held talks with the authorities of Travancore about the famous Vaikam Satyagraha. Both Tagore and Vinoba Bhave also visited the Ashram. The first All-religious meet was held on the Aluva sands in 1924.
Malayattoor, on the banks of the Periyar, is a popular pilgrim centre for the Christians of Kerala as they believe that it was blessed by the presence of St. Thomas, the apostle. This pilgrimage is acommunal, with all communities undertaking the hazardous climb to the Malayattoor hills. Periyar has historic pre-eminence. Muziris, or Kodungalloor as it is now known, is at the confluence of the Periyar. It was an international port visited by Arabs, Jews and the Romans. It became a confluence of cultures as well. Cheran Chenguttavan, the renowned King of the South, is believed to have built the temple of Kannagi here. The first mosque was also built at Kodungalloor by a Chera King who converted to Islam. The Portuguese also constructed a bathing ghat here in the 17th Century, subsequently used by the Dutch.
Periyar's role in the economy of Kerala is indescribable. Aluva was one of the four towns of erstwhile Travancore and a centre of trade. Now it is the industrial belt of Kerala. It was the conduit of wealth, and the means of transport, both for people and goods. Through its scenic heart, boats navigated with timber, spices and other hill products, reaching the interior through a network of canals which connected it. Now it is the picturesque houseboats that sail by, carrying tourists through the river and its tributaries. Periyar originates from the Western Ghats and has 17 tributaries. One of its tributaries, Mullayar, became Mullaperiyar, where a dam was constructed in 1895. This dam is the centre of a controversy between Kerala and Tamil Nadu now. Periyar, with around 13 dams on it, is a source for power generation, agriculture and industrial development, inland navigation, tourism promotion and fishing. It also nurtures a tribal population including Mannans, Malaarayans, Uralis and Muthuvan Kadars, living in the high hills bordering its banks. Billiard-table-smooth tea and coffee plantations, carpetting the hills of Munnar, Kattapana, Elappara and Vandiperiyar, offer an eternal seduction for foreign tourists. Rubber, teak and cardamom are also grown in the high ranges.
Main centres of tourism include the Periyar Tiger Sanctuary or Thekkady as it is commonly known, most frequented by wildlife enthusiasts. Apart from the Eravikulam National park which harbours the Nilgiri Tahr and the Thattekad Bird sanctuary, Thekkady, in fact, offers a mixed menu of sites and sounds, relaxation and exhilaration, incomparable scenic vistas and a tiger sanctuary which has elephants and bison, deer and sambhar, and a host of other animals which can be spotted. Hold your breath, by leisurely gliding down the placid Periyar lake. To see the elephant families drinking, bathing, swimming, nudging the young ones into the hierarchical fold can be an exquisite experience. One can also trek through the forest accompanied by an orchestra of squawks and chirps rendered by 160 species of birds. The Papiha's plaintive call cleaves through the cool silence of the jungle. There are aquatic birds like the Great Indian Hornbill and the Brahmini kite here, and even the flying lizard and the flying snake.
Periyar is Kerala's lifeline. Yet it is being ravaged by the greedy who are subjecting it to a slow death by scooping sands from its depths. The river is getting degraded, polluted by sewage, hospital wastes, industrial effluents et al, making its water undrinkable and unfit for the fabled cool dip. This has forced environmentalists to constitute the Save Periyar Action Plan to try to resuscitate the dying muse of Kerala.
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