July 23, 2009

Talacauvery, Stairway to the Heavens

No one told me there was a stairway in the Brahmagiri hills that led up to the heavens, to the gods, well almost.

The most I had imagined of Talacauvery when we left Bhagamandala for the hills was a pilgrim centre not very different from the many dotting the countryside, drawing urgent pilgrim feet into traveling long distances to pay obeisance as much to the deity as to the faith of their forefathers. At Talacauvery the river Cauvery emerges as a perennial spring before strengthening into one of India’s mightiest rivers revered as one of the Sapta Sindhu or seven holy rivers and is considered to be the Ganges of the South.

In the time it took the bus to inch up the winding road in the hills to the birthplace of the Cauvery eight kilometers away, alternating between blind turns cut in the side of the hill and steep drops that descended rapidly to the plains below, my picture of Talacauvery was complete. I had imagined it. Now I only had to retrace my memory map once we arrived at Talacauvery to recognize the familiar contours I had never once seen before except in the urgency of my anticipation of the sojourn in the hills.

The Talacauvery I had imagined while I sat alongside the driver in his cabin, looking out the windshield at the narrow ribbon of a road stretching ahead, lay hidden from easy view in the forests of the Brahmagiri hills. The steep climb up the hill would have ensured not merely her sanctity but the integrity of her surroundings as well, beyond the easy reach of anyone but the most faithful of her devotees, certainly spared of those stopping by to dip their feet in the sacred water while on their way elsewhere. The elsewhere at Talacauvery ended in a steep drop of several hundred metres.

After all the Cauvery had chosen to break surface in the heart of the Western Ghats mountain ranges and it was only fitting that she surfaced to the silence of the jungle, punctuated by calls of birds flitting from branch to branch in the shade of trees where time moves to the whims of the divine and to the necessity of nothing.

However the reality as I was to soon find out on reaching Talacauvery was very different from what I had imagined. Shorn of any green cover we came up against an ostentatious looking arch under construction, presumably a praveshdwar (gateway) the kind I would imagine gracing erstwhile kingdoms with the architecture to carry it off, not the source of a river.

A viewing platform built on the edge of the hill swept over tiled homes below. A road passed houses as it wound its way through the trees. There was no one on the road. In the distance folds upon folds of mountains receded, nudged back by a fair way until the farthest mountains became faint outlines of blue, merging with the sky. Physical perspectives merge into one in the distance, the same cannot be said for those of the mind. I let the nip in the breeze pull my imagination free and sweep it away, toward the mountains.

Joy’s call cut my flight of thoughts short. It was time to pull away from the panorama and turn to the gateway and beyond. Matters of religion and faith beckoned and there was little time to spare.

Beyond the gateway a large open platform stretched all the way to the tank where the Cauvery emerges as a spring. There was little or no shade along the way. Buses ferrying pilgrims were parked at the entrance from where they walked barefoot over the tiled platform warmed by the noon Sun, hardly the bare earth and dense canopies I had imagined. And there were pilgrims everywhere, substituting the birdlife of my imagination. I might as well have stepped into an urban temple let alone one in the hills home to one of India’s major rivers.

A black cow regarded a small coffee shop, completing the picture. Few Indian temples can afford to have cows indifferent to pilgrims and wayside shops serving them. There was much awaiting us.

I looked at my watch. It was past noon as the Sun beat down on us.

“How much longer?” I asked the driver.

“We should be in Talacauvery in fifteen minutes,” he replied without taking his eyes off the road.

I swayed as the driver leaned on the steering, throwing his body behind the wheel as the bus rounded yet another sharp turn up the hill. To my left the hill fell away through dense outgrowth punctuated by a profusion of flowers, some evidently wild, others planted. December is a good time to meander in Coorg. It is pleasant and flowers bloom in abundance, and birdlife is rife with melodies issuing forth from trees in carefree abandon.

As we drove along, breaks in vegetation revealed sloping roofs of Mangalore tiles. Homes were strung out sparsely. Set back from the road and fronted by neat gardens with arched gates layered in colourful blooms it was easy to miss the houses in the vegetation. Where constructed on slopes the red tiled roofs dropped away from view to be replaced by others as if in a slideshow. Gates sported names uncommon to a visiting eye; some led to homes, others to coffee plantations. Coorg is home to the Robusta and Arabica strains of coffee. In the distance the Brahmagiri mountain ranges rose from the earth in mellow folds of blue, watercolours on canvas. For the ride alone the road connecting Madikeri to Talacauvery is an indulgence.

Located in the Brahmagiri hill, 1,356 metres above sea level, Talacauvery (Talakaveri) lies 8 kms. from Bhagamandala and 48 kms. from Madikeri, the capital of Kodagu (Coorg). Pilgrims travelling to Talacauvery usually stop at Bhagamandala for a dip in the sacred confluence of the Cauvery, Kannike, and the Sujyoti before continuing up the hill to Talacauvery where the Cauvery springs from the earth only to disappear underground before surfacing again at Nagatirtha near Bhagamandala, upstream of the Triveni Sangam where she meets with the Kannike and Sujyoti before gaining strength on her mighty run through Karnataka and Tamilnadu, eventually meeting the Bay of Bengal at Poompuhar, having traversed close to 800 kms. along her entire length.

On the first day of the Hindu month of Makara Masa, in the middle of October, devotees in their thousands throng Talacauvery for a glimpse of the annual surge in the spring as the Cauvery rises in the Brahmakundike (holy pond) at a pre-determined moment. The day is known as Tula Sankramana and is celebrated with much fanfare as the day the Cauvery first took birth on earth, seeing in the surge a visit by Goddess Cauvery herself. The Kodavas, native to Kodagu (Coorg), observe Tula Sankramana as the first day of the Kodava calendar year.

A board indicating the Brahmakundike (holy pond) to be the birthplace of the river Cauvery exhorts devotees with “Don’t touch the holy water”. However pilgrims can bathe in the tank adjacent to the holy pond. A family of three takes a merry dip in the temple tank while a man collects the sacred water in used plastic water bottles to carry home.

Nandi, the faithful bull looks over the tank at the small temple dedicated to Lord Agastheeswara across the tank. Pilgrims loll on the steps descending to the water, awaiting the queue on the other side of the tank to thin before making their way to the small temple, to offer their prayers at the Brahmakundike. Some wade in the tank for a quick dip. A few others pace the stone steps, taking in the scene, thinking of nothing in particular. They are in no hurry. Gods are rarely fathomed by hurrying feet.

The temple to Lord Agastheeswara faces the brahmakundike (holy pond) where the Cauvery springs from the earth in a small square cut in stone between the shrine and the tank beyond and is located on the platform enclosing the temple tank.

Flowers from rituals performed float in the holy pond, tiptoeing to reflections of clouds above, and those of the brahmin priest and pilgrims seated on either side of the brahmakundike, offering prayers to the sacred spring.

Lord Agastheeswara is considered to be the link between the renowned Sage Agasthya and the river Cauvery. There two Brahmin priests attend to devotees offering their prayers at the Ugama Sthana (birth place) of the Cauvery, handing the devotees prasadam after helping them through the rituals. The pilgrims seat in front of the brahmakundike while the priest chants mantras. I queue up to offer my prayers.

Behind me schoolgirls in uniforms crowd the temple tank, their bare feet shifting uneasily on the Sun baked stone platform as they gaze intently into the tank watching bathing pilgrims.

Behind us the Brahmagiri peak beckoned. The long flight of steps burning a pale shade of white in the noon sunshine seemingly ascended to the skies, ending abruptly as if a ladder were suspended from an invisible thread trailing from the blue heavens above. I could sense the sharp edge to the air refreshing my lungs as I took mouthfuls in. We ascended the steps to the peak where the seven great sages known as the Sapta Maharishis once performed a yagna to the gods, pausing only to admire the tenacious flowers that bloomed in breaks between the stone steps.

In anticipation of the views to be had from atop the Brahmagiri peak the 500-odd steps gave way quickly as we passed wildflowers spouting on the slopes. The flowers ran diagonal to our ascent as if running away from the pilgrims making up the steps. Ruffled by the sharp breeze sweeping down the slope they nudged us onwards, to the peak while themselves disappearing over the curve.

Emerging from the last step the heavens opened up before us in a panorama befitting the gods. The Brahmagiri range in the Western Ghats mountain ranges straddles the border between Kodagu in Karnataka to the north and Wayanad in Kerala to the south.

Visitors took in the views in silence. A child played in the mud while the father reached into his bag for his camera. This was a moment the child would cherish in the years to come. This was where nature roamed in spirit.

The peak rolled all the way down before it was picked up by the next hill only to descend again, then lifted up by the next peak it fell over gently until the next hill picked it up again before running with it to yet another peak further away. I stood in silence and watched this relay race until the wave disappeared into strengthening shades of blue in the far distance. The blue mountains. I wondered if the Nilgiris were far away. From atop the Brahmagiri I could sense them in the blue folds in the distance, bringing memories from another time flooding back, from a long time ago.

July 01, 2009

Water Woes

I opened the newspaper today to news that water supply to the city might be restricted to every alternate day unless the south-west monsoons drop their load on the streets soon. The Met department would like us to believe that it may not rain as much this time around. I cannot be sure though.

Last week saw one heavy burst that brought parts of the city to a standstill before weakening to interspersing showers in between, nothing to bring the city to a halt, a sign that is taken to mean that water woes could be at our doorsteps.

It prompted a north-Indian tea stall owner where I had sheltered from the rains to remark, “Ab tho sab ka dimag thanda hoga.” (Now – that rains have arrived – minds will be at ease). This was last week.

The newspapers announced the coming of the rains to Bombay in large bold letters, a far cry from the months leading up to the monsoons.

“Cannot understand what is happening with our climate,” the taxi driver had reflected as we drove past a water supply truck backing up on a turn on a summer day.

“These days it is difficult to predict anything at all with the world,” he said while we waited, watching as a man directed the truck driver in negotiating the bend.

As March rolls in and temperatures begin to nudge upwards, sightings of trucks supplying water to neighbourhoods across the city are a common sight, more so in the mornings. March and April are crucial months in the city as water sources supplying much needed succour to the city deplete.

In late-April parts of the city, more so the ‘blue collar’ neighbouhoods packed tightly in narrow lanes, see acute water shortages. Bombay is no more a classless city than say Islamic countries are multi-religious. It is common to see high rises separated from ordinary tenements by only a lane, both sitting comfortably and laying an equal claim to the lane.

Supplying water is big business. On the arrival of a water truck the cry goes out in the chawls and in no time men and women, often in their night dresses stream out of their homes and queue up at the truck. All manner of utensils and buckets are employed in collecting water as the din pierces the early morning calm. Office-goers step past the din, observant but oblivious to it.

Children thrill in the morning activity that sees residents from the tenements gather at the water supply truck and exchange small talk, swapping stories while they await their turn at the tap.

Over time the morning ritual becomes an inedible part of their lives, like it once did my own in the rural hinterlands of India I traveled to in my vacations from school.