She writhes and rolls, thunderous in her haste, her stormy mood evident in her foamy crests and shadowy troughs. Her banks cascade inwards, like unruly hair coming undone from an elegant knot. Slick with dull brown mud, they sift and coat the rocks that keep the fishermen on their toes. Boats bob helplessly in her waters, their occupants valiantly keeping their vessels afloat. Nets swirl around them, waiting for the fish that will be tossed up to the surface as the waters swell.
Perhaps the most revered river in India’s peninsula is the Kaveri, known as the Ganges of the south. Just as pilgrims from northern India traverse the country to cleanse their souls in the Ganges’ mighty flow, so the pilgrims of southern India make their way to the Kaveri’s broad banks to pray. The Kaveri begins in the lush green forests of Kodagu, at Talakaveri, and flows through the states of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, as well as the Union Territory of Puducherry, to the Bay of Bengal, forming one of India’s most fertile deltas at the end of her journey. Along the way, she is joined by multiple tributaries, one of which is the powerful Kabini.
I first made my acquaintance with the Kabini a month ago, when I came to the outskirts of Nagarahole National Park for fieldwork. Our accommodation is located on the fringes of the park, and in order to reach our field sites, we ended up coming face to face with this beautiful, mighty river on a daily basis. My first sight of the Kabini was memorable; we were bouncing along in the back of our trusty jeep on a road that technically ran parallel to the river (though our view was blocked thanks to settlements and trees), when Chandan, who was driving the vehicle, suddenly ground the jeep to a shuddering halt. We all peered around him, trying to see what was the matter.
All we could see ahead of us, on what was up until now a fully-functional dirt road, was water. Muddy, rippling water. Chandan muttered something under his breath and leaned out of the vehicle, waving to a passing village man. “Is there an alternate road?” he inquired.
“Kabini’s overflowing, all roads are under water,” the man replied, sounding quite cheerful at the prospect of being cut off from the rest of the region. “Try the dam road.”
I was staring at the road in front of us. If I squinted, I could see a slight raised edge on either side of the road, though the edges were blurred under the moving water. “Is that…a bridge?” I asked Nitya.
“Yep,” she replied. “The Kabini’s gone and covered the bridges too.”
Incredible is the power of a river. With the opening of the dam, the river’s full fury had been unleashed upon the surrounding countryside. Anything within the floodplain was now submerged. And now, we would be crossing the river on the dam road, which was rarely opened to travelers apart from government officials.
Up close, the Kabini reservoir was massive. Built of concrete and furnished with imposing gates, I did not actually register that this was a dam; I thought it was the wall of a fortress. But once we obtained permission from the gatekeeper and Chandan steered the jeep onto the dam, it struck me that we were on top of the only structure powerful enough to moderate the Kabini’s flow. Looking out of the open back of the jeep, I drank in the silvery-grey waters of the Kabini. The water level was much higher on the other side of the dam (as compared to the side we had been driving along just a few minutes before). On the near side of the dam, green fields struggled to poke out from beneath the rising water. Cattle and goats grazed at the river’s edge, on what used to be the green floodplain. Crowds of locals ambled around the dam road, looking over at the water and clicking selfies with the star of the show, the Kabini. And when we pulled to the middle of the dam and descended from the vehicle, we saw what had captured everyone’s attention. The gatekeepers had opened three of the floodgates, from which poured a frothy, immense waterfall. The Kabini, set free from her bounds. I could only stare and blink as the spray from the angry river coated me repeatedly. Despite the mud, I could not help but feel blessed. After all, I was unlikely to return to this dam, much less see the Kabini in all her glory again.
I have crossed paths with the Kabini many times since that first encounter. Each time, the river presents me with a different face. Sometimes she is a languid goddess, her banks fertile and endless, her waters mellow, birds skimming her surface. At other times, she is mischievous and seductive, threatening to spill her banks but pulling back at the last moment. Often, she is kind and giving, reaching out to farmers with rivulets of life-giving water with which they may irrigate their crops. Wildlife flock to her banks to feast on her succulent waters, elephants bathe in her waves, tigers swim in lazy circles in the shallows to cool off in the hot summer sun. Yes, the Kabini is indeed a goddess, unpredictable in her moods but glorious no matter her avatar. Her silky tresses, her flashing spirit, her silvery-blue gown…this queen of rivers deserves respect as she makes her way across her territory. When she is merciful, she bestows a good growing season and plentiful water to the masses. And when she is angry, she takes what rightfully belongs to her.
It is impossible to truly tame a river. Seeing the Kabini in her many moods has intimated me to the vivid personality of this river. She is ever-changing and ever-charming. This undulating river flows through my daydreams and nightmares, changing my field schedule on a daily basis with her water levels.
Yet she has managed to steal my heart.