The Kaveri in Myth, Legend and Life


Gold and beads born of Northern Hill
Garland and Incense born of Kodagu Hill
Pearl of South Sea and Coral of Eastern Sea
Ganga floods and benefits from the Cauvery
Food of Ceylon and riches of Kazhagam.

Pattinapappalai, Tamil epic from ca. 100 BCE

Rivers convey to me memories of pleasure, of joy in immersing into the water and into the spirit of nature that brings life and change. Waterways of all sizes have been important in my life. Such feelings are shared by many who seek the peace and comfort of riparian retreats. As an amateur naturalist and dedicated angler I feel an intimate spiritual and physical affinity and pulsing of life around me, as if I sense the inner voice of nature.

Poets, too, have been inspired by the emotions that a river evokes. After seeing the River Wye coursing through the valley near Tintern Abbey, Wordsworth wrote,

O sylvan Wye! Thou wanderer thro’ the woods,
How often has my spirit returned to thee!

The river nourishes the poet as his nurse of nature. Such moments have evoked for me ecstatic experiences where I briefly glimpse through the doors of perception another dimension, an oceanic feeling of cosmic union.

Indeed, rivers and all freshwater streams represent the cycle of our existence, springing from heaven’s precipitation, flowing through our mother earth, dispensing the water of life, and ultimately disappearing into the infinite womb, the world’s oceans.

Over 60 years now, since my first visit to India, the river Kaveri (what seems now the standardized English spelling in India, but persists as Cauvery or Cauvary in Central Government publications and in Tamil Nadu) has been for me a part of this experience. I have traversed the entire course of this river at one time or another. Its history, geography, and ecology have fascinated me, and I wish to share some of this.

The Kaveri is the largest river in southern India and arises in the mountainous region of Coorg in the Western Ghats. On their eastern slope, the river rapidly descends to the Deccan Plateau which occupies much of the central and southern part of India. The plateau slopes south-east through the state of Karnataka. The river then plunges in a spectacular fall from the two thousand feet high plateau near Sivasamudrum, 40 miles southeast of Mysuru, and roars through a boulder strewn gorge before quieting into a murmuring and muttering stream of rapids and pools flanked by wooded hills of the Dhanagur State Forest in which elephant, deer, boar and leopard roam. It broadens into a placid stream, crosses into the State of Tamil Nadu and spreads into a wide delta covering the southeastern corner of India before merging on the Coromandel Coast with the Bay of Bengal. Let us follow it and point out some particular features along the way.


The Source: Kodagu in the Western Ghats

It is written in the scriptures
That you were present at the birth of time
When Shiva as a golden peacock
Roamed the ocean of the void\

Attributed to Shankaracharya, ca. 800 A.D (in A River Sutra by Gita Mehta)

I drove one year from Manipal in the Canara Coast north of Mangalore. The route traversed the Western Ghats past miles of rubber and coffee plantations, cashew, pepper, and citrus groves in the heartland of Coorg, the home of the martial caste that has supplied India with many military leaders. To stay in this delightful region resembling the valleys of northern California was tempting, but I pushed on to the headwaters of the Kaveri at Talakaveri in the densely wooded slopes of the 3,000 feet high Brahmagiri Hills. Here a natural spring emerges, the first manifestation of the holy Kaveri River, often called the Dakshina Ganga, the Ganga of the south, and said to have emerged from Brahma’s dream as the daughter of Kaveran in the shape of a river.

Within an ancient shrine is a small pool, considered the holiest part of the river, where the spring emerges from the hillside. It is the goal of countless pilgrims who immerse themselves in the pool to be cleansed of their sins. This small spring is surrounded by forest that supports a diverse wildlife, beautiful plants and stately trees. I felt the sacred power of these sylvan haunts, knowing the fascinating journey from this spring to the far-off union with the salty ocean.

From here the young brook, burbling and laughing, soon becomes a brawling stream, rushing down the eastern slope of the ghat into the undulating tableland of the Deccan Plateau in Karnataka. It is gathered by the Krishnarajasagar Dam near Mysuru (Mysore City) into a large reservoir that was conceived and built by the Mysore Government in the early 1900’s. The spates from monsoon rains are thus tamed and the dam provides a steadier flow for the rest of the river’s journey. It is an example of the benevolent and far-seeing policies of the Mysore Maharaja, but also the source of a bitter dispute over water utilization with the then government of Madras.

As an extra benefit, the Mysore administration constructed the beautiful Brindavan Gardens on the Mogul model nearby with multitudes of fountains which are colorfully lighted at night and supply a source of pleasure for the Mysore residents and tourists such as me wandering through these gardens and a large adjoining area of fruit orchards.

A bit farther down, the Kaveri meanders slowly around several islands that are favored by vast flocks of migrating birds. The nests are safe here from most predators and the hatchlings are able to mature and proceed on their winged way between lands as distant as Siberia and Australia. The Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary was conceived and promoted by the great Indian ornithologist Salem Ali as part of the national parks program.

Paddling through this avian world with a guide, I was startled by the sudden arousal of thousands of bats from their daytime sleep, and the sky darkened momentarily as these giant fruit bats swept over me with a loud flapping of their wings. It was also remarkable to see large pelicans in flocks skimming the water with effortless ease.



Islands in a river are sacred places according to legends of South India. Such a place is Srirangapattana where Vishnu, in his avatar Ranganatha was said to sleep. Thus this island was considered a source of divine power even by Tipu Sultan in the 1700s, when he chose it, with its population said to be 100,000, as his capital. He built his main palace within a fort enclosing also the Sriranganatha Temple, where Vishnu was asked to stay by the river goddess of Hindu legend. The enlightened Tipu supported the upkeep of this temple as well as the building of an adjacent mosque.

As a seat of divine and royal power, the island of Srirangapattana has been fought over and besieged often, finally in 1799 by the British with the defeat and death of the great leader, Tipu Sultan.

In my visits to Srirangapattana I have marveled at the exquisite taste of this mogul leader in designing and building the palace and surrounding buildings. His bathing ghat on the banks of the Kaveri is especially evocative, for here I can see him and his coterie immersing themselves in this delightful river, enjoying their brief time on this earth.

The Kaveri proceeds to flow southeast along the Deccan plateau of Karnataka, past the ancient Hindu shrines in Somnathpur and Talaked until it reaches the escarpment near Sivasamudrum. Here the river falls in a spectacular cascade into a rocky chasm that gradually widens as it flows into the plain of Southern Tamil Nadu.


The Kaveri Gorge Wilderness and a Personal Memoir

One of my favorite places in the world is located near Bhimaswaram some fifty miles south-east from the princely city of Mysore, now called Mysuru. I have frequently camped there on the river’s bank several miles below the Kaveri Falls, surrounded by forest and hills, and have fished for the legendary mahseer and other species. Above and beyond angling, trekking and observing wildlife, I have found this a place for communion between myself and nature. No need for a guru here.

Part of the web of fascination with this remote retreat has been the contrast of three characters whose lives, although separate, have been intimately involved with the forests and jungles flanking the Kaveri and Kabini rivers.

My days at camp usually began before dawn when Anul, the ever-cheerful 16 year old assigned to take care of this elderly man, brought tea and biscuits to my tent. One morning, after I dressed and checked my gear, Rava, the guide whom I had known for 16 years, came and we walked together down to the river bank to the coracle that had been pulled up and left upside down overnight. All was quiet then except for the occasional cry of a peacock. A mist covered the water and the sun rising over the Dhanagur hills was like an orange, not yet giving any heat in the cold morning that required a sweater. Rava paddled the coracle slowly through the cottony stillness. Dimples in the water and an occasional splash signaled fish that were rising to snatch unknown prey from the quiet surface. I cast a tiny terrestrial, a black beetle, and was greeted with an instantaneous take; the widening rings around the spot where the beetle had landed showed that it was no longer there. I tightened up the line and felt the heavy throb of a good sized fish diving to the bottom. . My lightweight fly rod was barely adequate for the task. Rava maneuvered the coracle to give me scope to play the piscine quarry. Keep the rod high and nearly vertical, not too heavy a hand on the drag, but assert authority if the fish headed towards the nearby reeds for that would assure a break off. Oh, how many times I have lost fish that outmaneuvered me! The battle slowly turned in my favor and the oblate shape of a Carnatic Carp gradually became visible. Rava, with a quick sure motion, netted the fish and lifted it into the coracle. There would be fresh fish for dinner today.

After several more, we returned for breakfast. I then eagerly prepared to go down to the shore below my tent for the rest of the morning where Anul had placed a chair under a huge banyan tree. With my binoculars I would watch the many varieties of birds and the occasional violent thrashing of a large crocodile as it captured a prey, often a fish, but even, although I never saw it, a fawn drinking at the water’s edge. Rava had seen many scenes like that during his lifetime as forest guard and guide.

Otters gamboled in the rapids in large packs and occasionally appeared with a fish writhing in their mouth. I looked at the water life in the shallows of the river and could see that it was bursting with life. The tiniest plants, insects and shrimps were in the innermost recesses of the shallow water and as it deepened, ever larger fish of many species competed for space and food. The bird population was ever changing and Rava knew every species. Many were fish feeders ranging from small kingfishers to large cormorants, herons, and pelicans.

Following are vignettes of three characters that have added color and adventure to my experiences in this stretch of the Kaveri.



The first time that I saw Ganesh, three years before, he was handcuffed and being marched off the river by an armed patrol of forest guards. He had been caught, again, poaching on the protected stretch of the Kaveri River reserved for catch-and-release angling. But after a few years of this, the Karnataka State Department of Forestry finally gave up repeatedly arresting and jailing him and in despair turned him over to the management of the camp that I often came to. They promptly hired him to be a guide for sports fishermen, and I was privileged to become Ganesh’s first client. I was finally with a pro, a real fisherman, and he had a steady income. It was a mutually satisfactory arrangement.

Ganesh was young, dark and solemn, and knew three words in English; “fish,” “strike,” and “lost.” Which is the usual sequence of events in the pursuit of the legendary giant of the river, the mighty Mahseer.

The mahseer belongs to the family Cyprinidae, which includes minnows, tenches, carps and goldfish. It once populated all the fast flowing rivers of India and was the favorite game-fish, the “Indian Salmon,” of British sportsmen in the prime of Empire. The word ‘mahseer’ probably comes from the Sanskrit ‘Maha Shira’ (big head). These often gigantic fish indeed have big heads. Although related to the carps, of which many varieties exist in the Indian subcontinent, the resemblance ends, for the mahseer are piscine pugilists, not placid inhabitants of lakes and ponds. The mahseer is an attractive fish. It has large iridescent scales of hues ranging among the subspecies from pink to deep purple. The shape is lithe when young but the giant specimens I have seen in photographs have a pronounced hump. They are often pampered with food by Hindu pilgrims when they live in bodies of water near temples and they can attain gigantic size under those conditions. But elsewhere they have been nearly eradicated and large specimens are generally found only in highly protected stretches. The largest, Barbus tor Mussulah, weighing as much as 200 pounds, dwells in the river Kaveri and its tributaries.

The tribal people in the sparsely distributed villages along the river rely on game and fish for sustenance. But indiscriminate dynamiting of the river by the needy villagers had led to the decline of the fish population forcing the forestry officials to put a total ban on all fishing. All, that is, except catch and release angling provided for Indian and foreign sports fishermen. But the poor villagers, forgotten in all this, therefore had to resort to poaching and Ganesh was the best of them. The forest guards knew him well and a game of cat and mouse followed until some one finally and intelligently figured out the solution.

On that first outing with my new gillie, Ganesh and I departed at dawn, the river mist muffling all sound. He paddled the tiny coracle through a cottony universe, carrying me and my fishing gear. The current increased as we were swept into rapids, the craft, home-made of an interlacing bamboo frame on which was stretched buffalo hide, spun in a dizzy whirl while menacing rocks and white water flew past. We finally reached our goal, the Leopard Pool, vast brooding quiet water into which the river cascaded. We clambered out on a tiny rocky island. Ganesh pointed, I cast, and the heavy bait bounced along the bottom until it came to rest. Then the long, tense wait for the connection from the unknown. Soon there were a few tugs on the line, then- wham!- the 25- pound test monofilament, upon which my forefinger was lightly resting , tore out of the reel like a bolt of lightning, scorching my finger. I reacted instinctively, set the bail, raised the rod tip and struck once! Twice! Thrice! And knew that a monster was on. It was as if I had connected with a giant boulder on the river bottom. But this boulder shot downstream and I could do nothing to stop it. We were preparing to get into the coracle and chase it when the creature changed course and moved across the pool. I exerted maximum lateral pull on the heavy rod and seemed to begin to hold him. My shoulders and arms began to ache with fatigue from the long battle. Then there came a new sensation, a curious vibration that I felt along the sharply arcing fishing rod. It was as if a giant violin bow was stroking the taught line. What could it be? I found out very soon, for the line suddenly went slack. Lost! The final word in Ganesh’s vocabulary. I sadly reeled in and found the answer at the end of the broken line. It showed marks of fraying and abrasion over a length of several feet. The giant mahseer, possibly over one hundred pounds, had evidently swum calmly over to an underwater ridge of rock which served to saw off the line. I have been told that they are intelligent fish; this one must have been a genius. Ganesh and I sadly shook hands and we set off again to pursue our quest, but fruitlessly that memorable day.

I woke just before dawn the next morning when Ganesh softly whispered through the closed flaps of my tent, “Chai, Sahib.” The morning had started out like any other of the dozens of mornings by the banks of the Kaveri. Little did I know what this day would bring. The air was still and cool and the calls of the birds, including the peculiar catlike meow of the distant peacock, sounded over the murmur of the river. The tea was hot, sweet, and milky, and the ubiquitous Indian Cadbury’s Glucose Biscuits melted pleasantly in my mouth.

I assembled my gear and joined Ganesh at the shore. Today we would float downstream to the Tiger pool. Ganesh, normally solemn in his South Indian way, seemed oddly buoyant, as if something good would happen that day. I took my seat in the tiny coracle as the gray dawn quickly blushed, casting a rosy hue over the scene. We reached the head of the pool, landed on a small island, and, feeling lazy, I nodded to Ganesh to make the first cast. I was still sleepy and yet entranced, as always, with the magic of the morning. Then, “Sahib, big bite!” Ganesh said, urgently, handing me the rod. I took it and immediately felt a force that nearly pulled it out of my grasp. I awakened with a shock to realize that there was something big at the other end of the line, something that wanted to leave immediately. I struggled with the rod as the mahseer decided to run down the rapids at the tail of the pool. The two forces of current and the fish’s plans to go in the wrong direction set the finely wrought Swedish Ambassador reel to scream in protest. Ganesh decided the strategy and guided me with the wildly arcing rod into the coracle. We set off downstream in pursuit of the headstrong creature. The ride down the rapids was like on a whirling dervish of a roller coaster. A spinning panorama of the wooded landscape flashed before my eyes as I tried to maintain contact with the quarry. I reeled in as we found ourselves finally below the fish. I stepped out on the shore and played him from that more advantageous position. Finally with many grunts I was able to guide the fish into the shallows. He weighed about 35 pounds, and I gave him a kiss on the head before gently releasing him back to his home in the majestic Kaveri. This Golden Mahseer was not a trophy fish for the Kaveri but I was quietly ecstatic, feeling a sense of initiation into the mystic clan of mahseer anglers.

I thought about that culminating moment. Had I become a real fisherman? It was Kipling who wrote, “There he met the mahseer of the Poonch beside whom the tarpon is as a herring and he who lands him can say he is a fisherman.” Perhaps I landed him, but it was Ganesh who hooked him and guided me in the final struggle.

I handed over my expensive rod and reel to Ganesh when I left the camp a few days later, making sure the camp manager translated my grateful words, “These are for a real fisherman.”



The coracle spun as it slid down the rapids making me slightly dizzy. The landscape of hills, trees, and rocks flanking the river rotated rapidly in front of my eyes. Rava vigorously paddled the tiny craft while in the other coracle Joubert Van Ingen, now ninety-three years of age, rode with aplomb, while his long-time retainer, Venkatesh, steadied theirs. We were out for a morning of fly-fishing for Carnatic carp and Murral.

I first met Joubert at his home in Mysore nearly 18 years before and maintained a contact through correspondence ever since. He was born in India, his parents coming there from South Africa to build a taxidermy business, then a very active and lucrative activity thanks mainly to the princely and colonial sportsmen who were actively decimating the tiger population. A bright-eyed and alert man of medium stature, he warmly greeted me, a total stranger, and introduced his older, nearly blind brother, De Wet. To talk to them was to go back to the misty days of Empire and privilege, of hunting and angling for what seemed India’s unlimited wildlife.

I had often imagined living in the days of the British Raj, not because of the English political domination of India but because of the stories that I had read about the pristine nature and wild life. Here, in the person of the Van Ingen brothers was a connection back to those earlier days, filled with hunting, but also often with a real love for the nature of India.

Now, in my last visit to my retreat on the Kaveri, one of the few places that I have experienced a satisfying inner peace, I decided to call Joubert and ask him to join me in a fly-fishing outing, something he used to do on a regular basis. Joubert was now the only survivor of his siblings, but still lived in Mysuru, his taxidermy business long defunct, but supported by his coffee and tea gardens in the nearby Nilgiri Hills.

Although hard-of-hearing and arthritic he agreed and we met at a designated spot on the river early one morning. He had not changed much in the time since I saw him last, but at 93 he needed a good deal of help getting into the coracle, the only form of water craft in this part of the Kaveri. His gillie had brought along a supply of live grasshoppers and that was what Van Ingen attached to the bare hook at the end of the long leader of his ten foot fly rod. This was fly-fishing a la Van Ingen. For my part I had brought with me a supply of artificials, mainly terrestrials such as beetles and grasshoppers. But Van Ingen, with his reflexes undiminished, and with the help of the live lure, landed twice as many fish as I. We returned to the shore where a charcoal grill was in readiness and a sumptuous lunch of grilled carp and Murral was shared with the other guests at the fishing camp.

It may be hard for many to imagine that here in the middle of densely populated southern India there is a large area of nearly uninhabited wilderness, of forest and jungle that is still home to much wild-life, of a few tribal people but also of renegades. There is a touch of the Wild West to these forests and hills flanking the Kaveri River. This is the area that I have been attracted to again and again and where I was fishing with Joubert Van Ingen, who knew all this territory intimately as a hunter and wilderness lover.

I had often hiked to a nearby fire look-out tower overlooking the river and the surrounding hills and forests. As far as eye could see there was no sign of human habitation or activity. Possibly because of the steep escarpment of the Deccan plateau this area indeed was wild, protected from human incursion by its geological features and also by the laws enacted long ago to preserve its isolation.

Imagining what this countryside was like a hundred years ago gave me a frisson of nostalgia for something that I had never experienced, the magic feeling of being in a land abundant with fish and game, unspoiled by roads and railways, of dams and hydroelectric plants.

Yet I did not have to look that far back. Joubert Van Ingen, born and raised in this place 93 years ago, related its presence to me directly with his recollections of shikar, of camping, fishing and hunting through these hills of what then was the princely state of Mysore and the adjacent British run Madras Presidency. His bright blue eyes shone with the pleasure of those experiences long ago as he showed me albums of fading photographs showing topee’d colonials in suit and tie, aristocratic Indians with pugree and silk kurta, gigantic dead fish or tigers or other game, and always, the real India of poor villagers, holding the catch, or rifle or rod. He was born in another day when wild-life was thought to be limitless. If he only could have known.

We finished the fishing with a plentiful catch of Carp and Murral and returned to the camp while Joubert reminisced during lunch before being driven back to Mysore.

I asked about mahseer; “It is surprising that there are any mahseer left in the river these days – so little water is released from the dam.” He was talking about the Krishnarajasagar dam above Mysore.

“The constant dynamiting of the pools and netting with nylon nets has depleted the river of indigenous fish. There are no mahseer now above Sivasamudrum Falls. It is sad all these wonderful fish have been wiped out.” We chatted more about his life in India and the pleasure he had escaping to the still pristine spot in this increasingly urbanized nation. Presently he called his driver and reluctantly, I felt, climbed into the car for the long journey back to Mysore. I had felt the touch of an older era now beyond the consciousness of the new generations calling this wonderful country, home.

One day I walked along the river bank and was shocked to see plastic debris entangled in tree roots and caught in rocky crevices. Further on I saw discarded plastic bottles and plates, remnants of picnickers, something I had never seen before. I left the camp a few days later, saddened by the reality that a new era was upon us, changing the face of our mother earth.



I had never met another character as famous in this area. He was known by the single name, Veerapan, and such a notorious and murderous dacoit has not been known in the history of modern India. Veerapan had been dead for five years at age fifty, cut down in an ambush not far from where we were. For over twenty years he had terrorized surrounding villages, murdered dozens, and kidnapped many, retreating into the depths of this wilderness where the law could not reach him.

At the height of his reign of terror, even our small camp which I often visited was guarded by an encampment of the Karnataka State Constabulary, with more armed men than there were guests, because Veerapan was in the habit of kidnapping people of means and holding them for ransom. A foreign tourist was surely a prize catch whose kidnapping would be an embarrassment to the government.

Koose Muniswamy Veerapan started life in a poor and remote jungle village on the border with Tamil Nadu. He soon showed his talents as a marksman and poacher, and was arrested already at age 13. He fell in with more lawless and violent gangs and made his mark when he shot and killed five young men in a rival gang, reportedly chopping their bodies into pieces and dumping them into the Kaveri. He became notorious and feared, living off the largess of frightened and intimidated villagers and earning increasingly from illegally cutting and selling wild sandalwood trees, killing elephants for their tusks, and kidnapping, eventually culminating in 2000 in the bold kidnapping of the famous Kannada movie star, Raj Kumar, from his country home nearby.

That kidnapping became a major national news event and eventually a scandal when one of Veerapan’s many demands included the release of over one hundred members of his gang who were in various prisons for charges ranging from poaching of sandalwood to murder. Because of Rajkumar’s celebrity the legal authorities appeared to cave in to the dacoit’s demands and were prepared to release outright all the gang members and also dispense millions of rupees to villagers who had “suffered” from the police’s expeditions to seek out Veerapan and his gang. In fact he was seen by many as the Indian Robin Hood and vast sympathy seemed to come from poor Tamilians who saw him in the political light of supporting Tamil causes against the Kannada and even national resistance. He was strongly supported as well by the LTTE, the Tamil Tigers, the guerillas and terrorists in Sri Lanka. He was referred to by the villagers as “Velu Muruga”, the son of Lord Shiva.

It was finally only the Supreme Court of Karnataka that put a stop to the authorities’ feeble attempts to bow to Veerapan’s demands.

This hostage crisis went on for several months until Rajkumar feigned serious illness and was suddenly released but not before a rumored millions of rupees had been paid to Veerapan from Rajkumar’s family and supporters. During this time I had come to the camp and found it heavily guarded by the Karnataka Constabulary, living in tents close to ours. I noted however that they still had old fashioned Enfield type rifles that were no match for the known armament of Veerapan that included AK-47’s.

Veerapan continued his activities in the forests of south central India until 2004 when he was ambushed and killed by the Tamil Nadu police, thus ending one of the longest and bloodiest criminal careers in modern Indian history.
Yes, this remote region of jungle, rivers, and forests, in the middle of a densely populated country, recalled the Wild West. Fortunately, I never met Veerapan, but his presence was still there, like the aura of Billy the Kid that still pervaded the ethos of the American West.


The Delta

The final part of the 758 kilometer course of the Kaveri to the Bay of Bengal is through the lush delta, the cradle of South India, its Hindu religion and culture. Within this wide expanse are the great temples at Tiruchirappalli, Tanjavuru, Srirangam and Chidambaram.

The island of Srirangam is a sacred site and the Siva temples date to the 5th and 6th century BC when the Pallava King Mahendravaram reigned. Expansion of the temple complexes proceeded well into the 17th century.

The water from the Kaveri pervades this widely scattered area and supplies temple ponds (tanks) as well as the tens of thousands of acres devoted mainly to the cultivation of rice.

The Kaveri loses its identity as a river and becomes a sort of earth mother, spreading out and nurturing the human population of life’s essence.

The earliest settlements of the Cholas survives in the Shaivite temples, particularly the Nageshwara Temple from the ninth century when the Kaveri delta consolidated to become the cultural and economic center of south India followed by the Vijayanagar era with further construction. I visited the sacred temple at Chidambaram many years ago and felt the throb of the ancient culture as the temple drums beat and the chimes rang to announce a puja in the inner sanctum of this stupendous building. The times appeared to have stood still for hundreds of years and given this place an aspect as eternal as the nearby Kaveri River spreading into the limitless sea.

The shallow harbor of Nagapattinum and the fort at Tranquebar are landmarks culminating in the Kaveri’s march to the sea. The Danes built the fort in 1620 and carried out a thriving trade with the Thanjavur Empire until the middle of the 19th century when the British East India Company strong armed the Danes out of India.

As usual the Danish missionaries were busy with constructing the first printing press with Tamil characters in order to print and distribute copies of the Holy Bible translated by them into Tamil.

The Future of the Kaveri

Even if the sky fails to give rain
The unfailing Cauvery
Born of the mount, gives gold
With its vast ocean of water

– Pattinapappalai

Over the two millennia since that was written the increase of human population has changed the vision of this river as an unbounded resource. Water conservation became a problem as far back as the second century A.D. when the Chola king, Karikalam, built what is now considered the oldest functioning dam in the world, the Kaliamai or Grand Anicut, a long barrage across the Kaveri below Srirangam that enables impounded water to be diverted into numerous irrigation canals. A similar structure, the Upper Anicut, located above Tiruchirappali, was designed and built by Sir Arthur Cotton in the 19th century. These major conservation projects including the modern Mettur Dam near Erode enable the water of the Kaveri to be nearly completely utilized for agricultural, industrial and domestic purposes, so that barely a trickle of the once mighty now highly polluted river reaches the Bay of Bengal.

Conflicts over water rights between the highly populated and water starved southeast Tamil Nadu and the less densely populated and water abundant Karnataka date back centuries. The dispute came to a head with the construction of the Krishnarajasagar dam by the Mysore government over a hundred years ago. The negotiations between Madras Presidency (now Tamil Nadu State) and Mysore (now Karnataka State) have been extensive, byzantine and never mutually satisfactory to either riparian party. As seen in the second map population density varies widely along the course of the river. The portion of river lying within Karnataka flows often through areas of sparse density which reflects non-agricultural land such as hilly terrain and reserve forest. In the lower Kaveri, lying within Tamil Nadu, the population is uniformly higher as reflects the highly agriculturized Kaveri delta. It is little wonder that the greatest need for water is in the terminal portion, giving rise to the conflict between the two states and the corresponding societies differing in language and culture. The river is drained dry in many years by the needs of the rural population of Southeast Tamil Nadu.

This water usage problem, particularly acute in years with poor monsoon rains, is only one of many similar crises in the Indian subcontinent, and, for that, matter, in many parts of the world today. In India, nearly two hundred years ago, an ambitious scheme to alleviate the chronic water shortage of the Southeast was conceived that linked the water from the Ganges near Patna via a series of reservoirs, canals, and pumping stations to the Kaveri at Upper Anicut. These “Ganges-Cauvery Link Canal” and later “Garland Canal Project dreams never materialized. The Central Government eventually evolved the “Interlinking of Rivers Project” or ILR that proposes through 30 canals to link rivers spanning the Himalayan drainage to the Southern extremity at an estimated cost stated equivalent to US $ 118 billion. Part of this scheme is to connect a large reservoir of the Godavari River in Andhra Pradesh with the Kaveri at Grand Anicut. The former chairman of the ILR Task Force, Suresh Prabhu, stated in 2008 that the ability of this project to be “technically feasible and politically benign could prove difficult.” The scheme was proposed in 2002 and scheduled to be completed in 2016. I have found no information that any construction has even started.

The world-wide crisis of fresh water available to the burgeoning human populations has no end in sight. South India and the Kaveri are no exceptions. The Kaveri has, along with most peninsular rivers, been considered drought vulnerable and, despite several recent favorable monsoons is believed to be unable to meet the demands of agriculture, industry and consumption in its extensive drainage area.

It is not clear in what direction global climate change will affect the Kaveri. It is a common belief that arid regions will become drier and wet regions wetter as the mean global temperature increases. Major parts of the Kaveri watershed are in semiarid regions. In my personal observation of this river, there are signs that the flow has decreased as seen by the lower levels during the winter and the movement of large fish such as Mahseer downstream, presumably to find more favorable deep holding pools.

Unfortunately, there is now meteorological evidence that supports my casual observations. The Southwest monsoon, chief contributor to India’s rainfall, shows a steady decrease of rainfall within the last decade.

The desperate but grandiose plans described above have tended to ignore a basic problem—the inefficiency of agricultural production and water utilization in many regions of India today as compared to nearby countries. Before large and expensive water projects are started, and start they must, far simpler solutions may be at hand. It has been estimated that productivity under conditions of optimum efficiency could increase as much as eighty percent.



Rivers bring water, the essence of life, to parts of our earth that may be otherwise barren. Whole civilizations have thus arisen along these waterways.

The Kaveri, one of the greatest of India’s rivers, is part of the fabric of its history. It continues to evoke feelings of the closeness of nature to our species.

As the press of humanity increases, the bountiful flood from our earth mother, giving the water of life, diminishes through pollution and over usage.

Such is the case particularly with the lower Kaveri, nurturing a large population. It is human neglect and lack of foresight that is leading to a crisis, a small example of the global peril of fresh water availability. Reflected in our blindness towards the causes of climate change is our lack of understanding of the vital role of rivers in human society.

I am comforted always by the memories of the wilderness , wildlife, and remarkable characters that I have encountered along this nurturing waterway. ■

Carl von Essen is a retired physician with many years of practice in India.