Whenever one sees a confluence of people, commonly the Tamil and Kannadiga people, engaged in worshipping the river Cauvery at Talacauvery for the thula snanam or the “sacred dip” in the month of thula (the Tamil month Aippasi), one sees them both as the children of the river.
A walk through the Puranic discourse on the river shows how the sacred geography of South India, developed by Hindu culture and spirituality across millennia, transcends linguistic barriers and reinforces the oneness of humanity in the common agro-eco zone in the Deccan.
Hinduism, of course, considers the geography of India as the most sacred. Like the repetitive and recursive nature of fractal geometry, the sacredness of the land was not limited to a few sacred places – there are pan-Indic sacred pilgrimage centres. So while Kasi and Ganga are revered highly, Hindu legends also speak richly of every river as if it is the most sacred.
We have the Puranic story of all the holy rivers coming to Cauvery to attain holiness. Agneya Purana tells us in thirty chapters the greatness of the river. Thondaradippodi Alwar sang of Cauvery as more sacred than Ganga itself. We have the later narration of Sri Bhagwat Rishi whose mother’s ashes turned into flowers at the most sacred river bank. Even before the rishi (sage) went to Kasi, the ashes had turned into flowers, but it happened at the banks of Cauvery. Unaware, the rishi went to Kasi, but at the banks of Ganga, the original ashes had returned. Later, the rishi realised his mistake and also that Cauvery was superior to even Ganga. (As a contrast, think of a local basilica in India claiming to be more sacred than the Vatican or consider a claim that a pilgrimage to a local mosque is holier than the Haj!)
The origin of the river Cauvery as given in the Puranic narrative is interesting. The river was born as the daughter of Kavera Maharishi. The rishi gave her in marriage to Agastya, the legendary dwarf rishi who is also credited with devising Tamil grammar. Agastya put her inside his kamandalu, the ritual water pot that he carries. The original intention of Cauvery coming to the Earth was to benefit the people of South India, but now she was held captive in the kamandalu.
Seeing this, the Chola king Kanthaman prayed to the devas that she should fulfill her original mission. So Ganesha took the form of a crow and, when Agastya was in meditation, the crow toppled the kamandalu, releasing Cauvery. She started flowing happily and it is said that the Chola king guided her course. However, at a place now called Thiruvalanchuzhi (literally meaning a “rightward spin”), the river disappeared into something of an abyss. The king approached a seer called Heranda Maharishi, who said that a noble life should be sacrificed in order to bring back the river from the abyss. So the king readied himself for sacrifice, but before he could do the act, the maharishi himself jumped into the abyss and sacrificed his life. The river resurfaced and, with the blessing of Shiva, the maharishi too was resurrected. (After all, in India, the divine’s own country, resurrections are so common!) And then the river started taking her usual course and merged with the sea.
These Puranic traditions may contain core geological and historical truths. Just as in the case of Ganga, here too, the Puranic tradition of Cauvery shows that there had been great human effort and sacrifices involved for the flow of the river as it is today, not to mention the understanding of the nature of the river and harnessing her instead of taming her.
There have been many wars between dynasties that ruled South India, but it is hard to find a war over Cauvery water. After all, whether one spoke Kannada or Tamil, the Cauvery was venerated, and fighting over the river mother would be unimaginable. The Vijayanagar Empire itself was a multi-lingual one with patronage extended for all the South Indian languages along with Sanskrit. Otherwise, how would one explain the fact that an emperor of Kannada lineage, Krishnadeva Raya, chose to write in Telugu about Andal, a Tamil poetess-devotee of Vishnu?
Even after the Nayaks overthrew the Islamist regime in Tamil Nadu and took charge, they continued the legacy of Chola kings with respect to the infrastructure needed for agriculture. “Though the irrigational system of the land was fairly well laid by the Chozhas, yet the Nayaks seem to have added more irrigational facilities. The epigraphs and the literary evidence refer to the construction of a dam across the Cauvery by Achyutappa Nayaka. Likewise numerous tanks were dug up for storing up water against the possible failure of monsoons,” writes historian V Vriddhagirisan, in his authoritative work on Tanjore Nayaks (1942).
The spiritual odyssey of Cauvery continues well into the twentieth century. Dr Rama Kausalya points out that a specific form of literature called Kuram, which has a tribal fortune-telling girl as the main character, was written in 1915 with Goddess Parvati in the form of dharmamba or dharma-samvardhini as Kurathi, the girl in question, who helps river Cauvery reach her lover, the ocean. This Kuram, called Dharmambal Kuram, was written by a woman called V S Vallambal, and explains the seasonal variations in Cauvery in a picturesque way. The significance, both natural and spiritual, of Cauvery is explained. The river not only provides nourishment to the body through food production, but also provides spiritual nourishment.
However, with British colonial rule, linguistic divisions started becoming fault lines, dividing people. Instead of seeing the Cauvery as one whole, politicians in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu became competitors for her water. Indian polity, instead of strengthening the multilingual, uni-cultural adoration of Cauvery as a means to solve the issue of water distribution, started playing the linguistic chauvinist card. The Congress in Karnataka catalysed the Kannada chauvinists. In Tamil Nadu, the Dravidian and Tamil secessionist forces used the Cauvery river water dispute to instigate people. The river, which for millennia has been nourishing India’s spiritual unity, is being appropriated as a tool by breaking-India forces.
If there was one person who saw both the danger and inevitability of the formation of states based on language, it was Babasaheb Ambedkar. Just a year before his parinirvana, Ambedkar wrote his views on the problem of the linguistic state. While he pointed out that the linguistic state offers administrative convenience and is hence inevitable, it could also become a source of disunity. Speaking from the point of view of the future of Hindus, Ambedkar warned that linguistic states, with their respective languages becoming “official languages”, could become “a death knell to the idea of a United India”.
Ambedkar wanted promotion of the cultural unity of the nation. If that did not happen, he warned that “India will then cease to be India. It will be a collection of different nationalities engaged in rivalries and wars against one another.”
Of course, one instrument of cultural unity that he advocated was making Hindi the official language of all linguistic states. But we can go beyond these words and capture the spirit of what he had said. The point is to infuse in people a sense of oneness as Indian first and Indian last, for which the state should use the cultural capital that is already present. Such cultural unification processes can reinforce the legal tools that Ambedkar prophetically placed in the Constitution with respect to interstate disputes on water resources.
Having worked extensively in inter-provincial river projects, Ambedkar had suggested, as early as 1945, the need for “Central control where a Province does not desire to take on such control or wherein the interests of regional development extending beyond the boundaries of a Province.” On 9 September 1949, he moved another amendment called ‘Adjudication of disputes relating to waters of inter-State rivers or river valleys’. The amendment gave Parliament the authority to “by law provide for the adjudication of any dispute or complaint with respect to the use, distribution or control of the water of, or in any inter-State river or river valley”. This ultimately became Article 262 of our Constitution.
Let us now pause and note how our cultural heritage and the legal genius of Ambedkar converge. They both insist on nurturing a common culture over and above our various languages. Ambedkar also provided constitutional instruments so that interstate river and river-valley disputes (note the term “river valley”, another masterstroke by Ambedkar) can be solved through common national interest. Yet, throughout most of the post-independence decades, the Nehruvian polity allowed – nay, nurtured – linguistic separatism with the ulterior aim of weakening Hindu consolidation. Dividing Hindu society with caste-based vote banks, linguistic chauvinism became the trusted tools of the trade for the pseudo-secular parties. This landed us in the mess that we find ourselves in today with respect to the Cauvery river water dispute.
To undo this, we need to harness every element of cultural nationalist unity our tradition provides us, and also use the wisdom and spirit of the Constitution that Ambedkar sculpted. Declaring the birthday of Ambedkar as National Water Day in 2016 by the present government, was an important step in creating this awareness. It is time we also take more steps to increase awareness among various linguistic groups and interstate agricultural communities, and come up with solutions not for short-term gains but with the long-term vision of building a strong and united India.
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