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Sunday, January 23, 2022

Daughter of Ponni

How the Cauvery lost the hilsa, and became an obsession.

Updated: April 27, 2014 10:02:22 am
The Hogenakkal Falls; the river in Kodagu; and priests by the river. The Hogenakkal Falls; the river in Kodagu; and priests by the river.

Ramya Swayamprakash

Rivers bind people to places. That might be counterintuitive but it is precisely through their endless motion and erosion that rivers create long-lasting identities of place. In their path from source to sea, they create borders, sustain lives, or destroy them.

The Cauvery was the first river I knew intimately, even before I set my eyes on her. My family tree is inextricably woven around the river, like most people from the Cauvery basin. Tributaries of the Cauvery fed my grandmother’s village; her waters used to flow through the backyard of the house my father grew up in. My father’s tales about swimming in the Cauvery spurred my desire to learn how to swim. The river was a part of the snarky exchanges in the house: “It’s all the Cauvery water in your genes that’s speaking.”

I was seven when I visited the Krishnaraja Sagar Dam near Mysore. All I remember of that evening were the lights in the Brindavan Gardens and the deafening roar of the river let loose from the dam gates. Walking on the dam, I was scared for my life. In the dark, I couldn’t see the river clearly but it felt more powerful than anything else I had ever experienced — comparable, perhaps, only to the Amazon. When I first saw the Cauvery as an adult, though, I was disappointed. Here was an emaciated river, trickling down. In Trichy, she is a puddled mass for most of the year, flowing only during a good monsoon. I could not fathom how a river so great could be reduced to this feeble attempt at motion.

In the stories I heard about the Cauvery, I knew him as Raja Raja Chola I — the 10th century king who built the Brihadeeshwara Temple in Tanjore. On many summer afternoons in Bombay, my grandmother, and mother would tell me the story of how it was built. A temple so high and mighty that one could see it from miles afar. Raja Raja Chola I was a brave and just king, who brought unparalleled prosperity to the Chola Nadu. He sailed across the high seas and conquered Sri Lanka, Maldives and the Malabar Coast. He was also known as Ponniyin Selvan, the son of Ponni (as the Cauvery is sometimes called, in reference to the fine silt she deposits; Ponni is also gold in Tamil). My mother often told us about the historical novel Ponniyin Selvan, authored by Kalki Krishnamurthy, and serialised in a Tamil weekly in the 1950s. Set over eight months, beginning with the monsoon, the five volumes traced the changing fortunes of the Chola empire, in the backdrop of the raging and treacherous Cauvery.

Until I had read the stories, I didn’t feel any affinity to Chola Nadu. I had spent most of my childhood wondering what bound one to a place. If anything, I abhorred the idea of roots, as they seemed to do a disservice to my “cosmopolitan” upbringing. I still don’t quite know where I belong. But every time I am in the Cauvery delta, I can feel the Ponni cast her spell on me.

I imagined the Cauvery as a river that fed millions of people but while researching block-printing traditions in the delta, I realised that it was no longer just about agriculture but a larger riverine landscape which sustained other crafts too. In my mind, there seemed to be many Cauverys — the block printer’s river whose flow dictated printing patterns and quality; the river which determined the farmer’s and fisherman’s wellbeing; and the Cauvery over which Karnataka and Tamil Nadu fought bitterly. The question then was, where was the authentic Cauvery? Or, was there an authentic river at all? Was the experience of the Cauvery a personal one? Eventually, though, I also started wondering about other perspectives. What did the fish in the Cauvery think of the river? Did they have a sense of place?

Often, as rivers flow down, fish swim up from the sea, exhibiting what is called “anadromous behaviour”. Programmed genetically, they swim upstream to lay eggs, guard their fry, and sometimes die. Salmon are, perhaps, the most famous example of such migratory fish. Bengal’s favourite fish, the hilsa, is also anadromous. Unlike salmon that search for their exact spot of birth to spawn, and build a little rock structure to guard the fry, the hilsa only approximately know the river they spawn in. They swim as far up as they can, and then spawn. According to some fish biologists, the hilsa can swim hundreds of kilometres upstream to lay eggs.

Until about 100 years ago, there was a robust population of the hilsa on the Cauvery. At the time, the British had built the Lower Anicut (a low dam built to regulate flows in the delta), the first, and perhaps the biggest obstacle in the hilsa’s path to spawning grounds from the sea. So profitable was the hilsa fishery on the Cauvery that a hatchery was started and a fish ladder built at the Lower Anicut to help production. The hilsa is not a particularly large fish. But the ladder built was too broad, and the channel too wide, for the fish to climb up the river. At the time, the science behind fish ladders was unclear. Today we know them as structures that help bypass dams by recreating as much of the original course and gradient of the river as possible to avoid stress for the fish.

The fishery persisted until the need for Cauvery water pushed the erstwhile Madras Presidency and Mysore Residency to a face-off — the birth of the still on-going Cauvery dispute. It spawned one of the greatest races to dam the Cauvery; staking claim was the game, building a dam was the action.

The result, on paper, was a series of dam sites and probable dams. Only two dams and three hydroelectric projects of prominence— the Krishnaraja Sagar Dam in Mysore, the Mettur in Madras and the hydro-electric plant at Shivanasamudram Falls on the border of the Madras and Mysore presidencies — were built. The Shivanasamudram project used the force of the falling water to harness electricity to supply to the gold mines in Kolar, jumpstarting the gold mining industry, over 140 km away.  The dam that holds the key to the delta, built when the river enters Tamil Nadu, however, is the Mettur Dam, which permanently cut off the hilsa from their spawning grounds around the Hogenakkal Falls. Today, the falls meekly empty into the Stanley Reservoir and  the hilsa is unheard of in the Cauvery.

I wonder what happened to the fishermen who fished the hilsa. I wonder what happened to all the recipes to cook the fish? Did anyone notice that the fish was gone? I haven’t fully uncovered what happened to the hilsa and why. And I may never fully know. But, increasingly, that is becoming the project of my life. Trying to uncover this story has brought me back to the Cauvery delta in more ways than one. And the more I have discovered, the more I realise how much more there is to discover.
My search has taught me that there may never be one idea of the river that I will find comfort in. Depending on the bank or dam I stand on, the Cauvery will change.
Ramya Swayamprakash works in the communications team at EMBARQ India. She has spent much of her adult life obsessing about dams, rivers, and fish

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