Cauvery: The river that the Tamils thought would never fail

The ‘Ganga of South India’ may be dying now, but was once a cherished waterbody in the lore of Tamil country

By V Sundararaju
Published: Friday 07 June 2019
The Stanley Reservoir formed by the Mettur Dam on the Cauvery river. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Cauvery (also spelt as ‘Kaveri’), known as ‘Ponni’ in Tamil, is the fourth-largest river in south India. Originating in the Western Ghats at Talakaveri in Karnataka’s Kodagu district, it passes through Tamil Nadu. The river bisects the state into north and south and finally reaches the Bay of Bengal at Poompuhar, also known as Kaveripoompattinam in Tamil Nadu.

The Cauvery basin is spread over 81,155 square kilometres (sq km) in the states of Karnataka (34,273 sq km), Tamil Nadu (43,856 sq km) and Kerala (2,866 sq km) and the Union Territory of Puducherry (160 sq km).

The Cauvery’s major tributaries, Kabini and Moyar, join it before it reaches the Stanley Reservoir at Mettur in Tamil Nadu’s Salem district. The river’s total length, from source to mouth, is 802 kilometres.

From antiquity to the present era, the river has been the lifeline of the ancient kingdoms and cities of south India. Because of the river’s bountiful nature, the Cauvery delta was considered to be one of the most fertile regions in India till recently.

Today, though, that is no longer the case: Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have been bitterly at odds with each other over sharing the river’s waters due to the failure of the monsoon and erratic rainfall.

A cherished waterbody

Today, the Cauvery might be a minefield of controversies. However, it has been among the most loved, cherished and celebrated waterbodies, finding an important place in Tamil literature, right from the Sangam era, spanning from the 5th BCE to the 3rd century CE.

For instance, Pattina Palai, a Tamil poetic work belonging to the Sangam period, speaks highly of “Cauvery, the river that never fails, even if the sky does”.

[Tamil]: “வான் பொய்ப்பினும் தான் பொய்யா மலைத்தலைய கடற் காவிரி”

[Roman]: “Vaan Poyppinum Thaan Poyya, Malaiththalaiya Kadar Cauvery”

Similar praise of the river is found in Puranaanooru and Porunaraatru Padai.

Puranooru, one of the eight books in the secular anthology of Sangam literature, writes: 

“The forceful water flow in the river Cauvery that can even uproot a tree, takes care of all the living beings of the world, as a woman feeds a child through her breast”

“புனிறு நீர் குழவிக்கு இலிற்றுமுலை போலச்

சுரந்த காவிரி மரங்கொல் மலி நீர்

மன்பதை புரக்கும்” - Poem No. 68

“Puniru neer kuzhavikku ilitru mulai polach

Surantha kaaviri marangol malineer

Manpathai purakkum”.

In the Kamba Ramayanam, when the great Tamil poet Kambar compares the Kosala kingdom of Sri Rama with the realm of the Cholas, he attributes the fertility of the Chola kingdom to the perennial river Cauvery.

The Five Great Epics of Tamil Literature composed in Classical Tamil are Silappathikaram, Manimekalai, Seevaka Chinthamanai, Valayapathi and Kundalakesi.

In Silappadhikaram, composer Elangovadikal sings many songs in praise of the Cauvery and elaborately describes how it has made the Chola kingdom at the Cauvery delta fertile and flourishing.

Elangovadikal speaks about the greatness of the Cauvery through Kovalan, the hero of the epic and Madhavi, the second heroine. While Kovalan sings about the Cauvery in only three poems, Madhavi greets the ruler of the country and the river Cauvery in three poems. Thus, controversy arises between them and Kovalan gets separated from Madhavi.

Says Madhavi:

“Long live this fertile country! Long live the Cauvery that nurtures the country like a mother”.

“வாழி அவன்தன் வளநாடு

மகவாய் வளர்க்கும் தாயாகி

ஊழி உய்க்கும் பேருதவி

ஒழியாய் வாழி காவேரி”

And Kovalan’s words are:

“As farmers sing;

As the sounds of sluice gates rise;

As new waters break open

As people celebrate;

You walk! Long live the Cauvery!”

“உழவர் ஓதை மதகோதை

உடைநீரோதை தண் பதங்கொள்

விழவரோதை சிறந்தார்ப்ப

நடந்தாய் வாழி காவேரி”

In Manimekalai, another famous epic, the poet Saaththanaar describes the Cauvery with due regard and reverence.

“As per the request of Kanthaman, the then Chola King, the great sage Agasthiyar (Agastya) poured holy water from his kamandal and the water started flowing in the name of the river Cauvery”.

“Kanjavetkaiyin Kanthaman venda

Amara munivan Agaththiyan thanaathu

Karagam kavizhththa Cauveryp pavai”

"கஞ்ச வேட்கையின் காந்தமன் வேண்ட

அமர முனிவன் அகத்தியன் தனாது

கரகம் கவிழ்த்த காவிரிப் பாவை"

On seeing the river, the Goddess Sambapathy welcomes Cauvery thus:

“Welcome the Ganges from the blissful sky that fulfilled the desires of the king Kanthaman”

“Aanu visumbin aagaaya gangai!

Venavaath theerththa vilakke! Vaa!”

"ஆணு விசும்பின் ஆகாய கங்கை!

வேணவாத் தீர்த்த விளக்கே! வருக!"

The poet describes the Cauvery as “the river that nourishes the land with perennial water, even if the zodiac signs show impending severe summer”. He praises the Cauvery as the family deity of the Chola Kingdom because of its boundless benevolence through its copious flow of water”.

“Paadal saal sirappin Bharathaththu ongiya

Kodaach sengol chozhartham kulakkodi

Kolnilai thirinthu kodai needinum

Than nilai thiriyaath than thamizhp paavai”

"பாடல் சார் சிறப்பின் பரதத்து ஓங்கிய

கோடாச்செங்கோல் சோழர்தம் குலக்கொடி

கோள்நிலை திரிந்து கோடை நீடினும்

தான் நிலை திரியாத் தண் தமிழ்ப் பாவை"

Chola king, Karikalan (‘Karikala Cholan’), built a stone dam across the Cauvery 2,000 years ago, based on the representations received from peasants to increase the extent of paddy cultivation.

This dam was called the ‘Grand Anicut’ by Sir Arthur Thomas Cotton, the famous British engineer and served as a model for constructing a dam across the river Kollidam near Mukkombu during the 19th century. After the construction of the dam and other canals, about 1.2 million acres of land were brought under cultivation.

Many temples like the Sri Renganatha Swamy temple at Srirangam (the island in the middle of the Cauvery in Tiruchirappalli), Pragatheeswara temple at Thanjavur and Sri Nataraja temple at Chidambaram had been built along the course of the Cauvery as well as in its delta.

As the Chola empire was very prosperous due to the Cauvery, the lifeline of the kingdom, the then rulers were able to extend their reign up to Southeast Asia. 

Memories and the death of a river

During my training period at the erstwhile Southern Forest Rangers College, Coimbatore, sometime in 1975, I happened to stay with others in tents in the Makut (near Brahmagiri) forests of Karnataka, from where the Cauvery originates. The site was located just on the banks of the river.

The forests were of moist deciduous type and water flow in the river was said to be perennial. But, of late, due to the development of roads, railway tracks, electricity pylons, etc, right across the rain forests, it has lost its charm and greenery. Moreover, the rainfall levels have come down drastically, resulting in hardly any water in the river.

In the past, every year on June 12, water used to be released from the Mettur dam, enabling farmers in the Cauvery delta to go ahead with farming activities. Now it is only a memory.

Water was shared between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu according to agreements signed in 1892 and 1924 between the Madras Presidency and the Wodeyar Kingdom of Mysore. About 44,000 sq km of the river basin is in Tamil Nadu and 32,000 sq km in Karnataka.

Since the water sharing has been done according to a British Era agreement, Karnataka does not agree with the sharing of drinking water with Tamil Nadu. Karnataka also wants the agreement to be renewed according to present day rainfall patterns.

The Supreme Court of India, in its verdict dated February 16, 2018, had ruled that Karnataka would get 284.75 thousand million cubic feet (tmcft), Tamil Nadu 404.25 tmcft, Kerala 30 tmcft and Puducherry 7 tmcft.

The apex court also directed the Centre to notify the Cauvery Management Scheme. The central government notified the ‘Cauvery Water Management Scheme’ on June 1, 2018, constituting the ‘Cauvery Water Management Authority’ and the ‘Cauvery Water Regulation Committee’.

The Cauvery Water Management Authority (CWMA) ordered Karnataka on May 28, 2019, to release 9.19 tmcft of water to the lower riparian states for June. The CWMA meeting was attended by the representatives of the Centre and the riparian states, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Puducherry. As several parts of Tamil Nadu are reeling under acute water shortage, the Centre had already issued a drought advisory, warning about the depleting water levels in the reservoirs.

Karnataka has to ensure flow of about 3 tmcft to Tamil Nadu by June 10. But it has only about 14.43 tmcft of water in the four major reservoirs of the Cauvery basin, namely Krishna Raja Sagar, Kabini, Hemavathi and Harangi. They need 4.84 tmcft of water to meet out the drinking water requirements to 47 towns, including Bengaluru, Mysuru, Mandya and 625 villages in the basin area.

Karnataka has already issued directions not to use any water for irrigation. Many talukas in the basin have been declared as drought-hit. As such, Karnataka is not able to release any water to Tamil Nadu. It states that only if the catchment areas receive good rainfall, will Karnataka think of releasing the due share to other states.

In the present situation, only a good monsoon with copious amount of rainfall can help all the concerned parties. It is high time that everyone realises the responsibility of using water judiciously, stop polluting water and taking all possible efforts to increase the ground water table.

Effective water management is the need of the hour. Maybe then, the Cauvery will be bountiful again one day.                  

V Sundararaju is president, the Society for Conservation of Nature, Trichy, Tamil Nadu, and consultant with the Society for Social Forest Research & Development, Tamil Nadu

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