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Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU

RIVERS: JULY 01, 2001


Requiem for a river

M. T. Vasudevan Nair

The author is a winner of the Jnanpith award and is a Malayalam film-maker and writer.

When the bridge across the River Bharatapuzha was completed in 1954, the late Edasseri who had blazed literary trails with his poetic force, looked at it with wonder and later wrote the poem "Kuttipuram Bridge". It is a famous work, often quoted in the context of the eco-aesthetics of Malayalam poetry. The poet marvelled at the engineering skill. The bridge cost twenty-three lakhs of rupees, a formidable sum at that time. He could visualise the thousands of vehicles about to fly through the new highway. But he did not conceal his subtle fear that the serenity of the riverside village might vanish in the near future. The poem concluded on an apprehensive note:

S. Ramesh Kurup

"Oh Mother Perar, will you also change
Into a miserable gutter eventually?"

Perar or Nila (pet names of Bharatapuzha) did not turn into a gutter. The poet never foresaw the calamity of sand-mining and he could not imagine it as the desert strip, which it is now. Huge thickets grow on the small mounds in the sand bed in several places. One can even see a large casuarina grove right in the middle of the river between Kuttipuram and Tirunavaya. They are partially hidden only during the few days of heavy monsoon.

The river had inspired many of our major poets like Vallathol, P. Kunhiraman Nair and Edasseri. For the commoners it was the sacred Dakshina Ganga. Vallathol established the illustrious Kerala Kala Mandalam on its banks in the village of Cheruthuruthy. A whole lot of writers, singers and Kathakali artistes grew up in the villages close to the river from Kalpathy to Ponani. So the river was often described as the cultural stream of Malabar.

I have seen the terrifying form of the river during the floods of 1942 and 1944. We were safe in the ancestral house as it was built on an elevated area beyond the stretch of paddy fields. The elders said the worst flood was in 1924 when waters touched the foot hills.

The flood of 1944 is vivid in my memory. I was sent to the provision shop to get something in the afternoon and instead of the short cut through the fields I returned by the road bordering the river. The river was alarmingly full. Elders were watching from several points. Somebody shouted to me: "Run, boy, run. Any moment the water may rush in through a breach." I ran at a terrific speed. By the time I reached the steps to the house, water had gushed into the field. This flood lasted for four days. There were so many relatives in the house who had vacated from their riverside houses.

R. Prasanna Venkatesh/Wilderfile

We all took our daily baths from the steps below the main gate. During the heavy monsoon the river hissed during the days and roared at night, threatening to cut across and overflow. Yet we were not afraid of the river. The dark misty mountains in the distance and the ascending rolls of thick rain clouds were giving the necessary warnings. Of course the flood damaged the dwelling of low lying areas. Plantains and vegetables of those greedy farmers who encroached the riverbed and did unauthorised cultivation, suffered. The villagers generally kept the flat lands on either side of the river as flood-plains. This minimised the force of the flood and incidentally collected and stored large quantities of fertile top soil.

Bharatapuzha once boasted of a water transport system from Palakkad to Ponani. Twin boats carrying agricultural produce to Ponani port used to halt for the night at our ferry point. The oarsmen cooked their food on the banks and rested till daybreak. From our courtyard we could hear their friendly quarrels late in the night. An occasional Mopla ballad also floated in the night air.

The whole village, except the very old, took their bath in the river during summer. The water in the tanks was not good enough while compared to the crystal clear running water, even though it was not deep. The families without their own wells made their private water holes in the riverbed for potable water.

During the summer, guests and relatives came to all the upper middle class house from distant villages or towns like Calicut or Trichur. For the adolescent males it was a festive occasion to watch discreetly the sophisticated maidens chaperoned by elders going to certain protected areas of the river for their evening ablutions.

The cattle also enjoyed a bath in the river - there were areas marked for cattle - after a hot day's toil. If you could drive the cattle to the river without their taking a bite from the paddy fields on either side of the bund, then the grownups deemed you fit to enter the farm work. (If you could read Ezhuthachan's Ramayanam without faltering, your Malayalam education was complete!)

For me, the moonlit riverbed in the summer is a distant, but vivid dream. We were never allowed to go there as it was a favourite playground for the celestials. Villagers who got down at Pallipuram Railway Station from a night train had to be careful while crossing the river. If you did not disturb them, they would not bother you. That was the perfect understanding between divine beings and mortals.

K. Ananthan

Our family deity was in Kodikunnath Temple, six kilometres away across the river. We all believed in a legend that at some time in the past there was only a poor widow and three children in our house. She used to keep cows and every morning she would take the milk to the temple. In return she got enough cooked rice for the day. Once the river was full and the boatman did not dare to make it across. The widow returned and told the children that there would not be any rice till the river subsided. She gave boiled milk to the children and put them to bed. At midnight someone knocked on the front door and she opened it. There was an old woman on the door step all covered up and drenched. The nocturnal visitor placed a brass vessel full of rice in front of the widow and commanded: "Wake the children and feed them!"

Then the figure vanished. After the flood receded, on the fourth day the widow went to the temple with the usual milk. She had kept the rice vessel also with her to discuss the incident with the priest. The priest was astonished. The vessel had been missing from the sanctum sanctorum for the last three days.

So we all grew up loving and adoring the Mother Goddess who once brought rice to our hungry ancestor.

We have a grandmother too, the mother of Kodikkunnath Goddess. She is in the temple Muthassiar Kavu (grandmother's temple) near Pattambi.

According to one legend the Grandmother Goddess and her three beautiful daughters (including the mother of Kodikkunnath) were strolling along the river bed on a summer night. They saw a dance festival by the Harijans and the youngest daughter was so carried away by it, that she refused to go along when it was time to leave. The mother ordered her to be with the Harijans and perform as their guardian deity. This is the popular belief on the origin of Kanakkar Kavu (Kanakkar is a sect of Harijans).

On another occasion the two sisters quarrelled after witnessing the ritual of an animal sacrifice. As the younger one was so much engrossed in the gory scene, the elder one parted company and settled down in Kodikkunnath. The younger sister shifted to Kodungallur where blood sacrifices were a common ritual until the immediate past.

Coming to the present, hundreds of lorries now wait in queue at every point of access in every Panchayat all along the river. Roads are laid right into the midrib of the river for quick mining and loading. The thickets have grown into mini jungles in many places. They shield the gamblers during the day and the illicit distillers at night.

It is not an unusual spectacle now in April and May to see, while travelling through some villages by the river, long queues of women with their coloured plastic pots waiting patiently for the water lorry. The sub-soil water has receded so much that the wells on the river belt have gone dry.

The river Bharatapuzha set the stage for many battles and historical spectacles like Mamankam in the past. Noisy scenes are enacted even now on the riverbed over territorial rights of mining and loading and validity of official licenses. Long rows of heavy lorries block every access to the river. You can no longer get a panoramic view of the river. Instead, it is a vast scattering of mining pits.

To us, the river was another benevolent Mother Goddess. She discreetly guarded our intimate dreams. Her deep chasms painfully received the frustrations and shame of some of the erratic children. The departed dear ones accepted the rituals of our obeisance under her watchful eyes and left peacefully for their heavenly abodes.

The river which has often inspired me and which has witnessed my growing up, affectionately tolerating my contradictions within, is breathing her last.

I feel one of my filial bonds is about to be cruelly snapped. The village is losing a colourful historical past, a nostalgic glory and a cultural legacy. Yes, we have lost all of them, almost.


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