A middle-aged lady in a sari ran the small shop. She was talking to the elderly priest in what I suspect was Tulu when I stepped over to where he was sitting, wrapped tightly in a shawl. The others had taken off their shoes and socks and walked down the paved path to the Triveni Sangama where the Kannike and the mythical Sujyoti meet the Cauvery as she flares up and spreads her girth on her long run across Peninsular India before flowing into the Bay of Bengal.
The priest had wrapped a shawl around his head and upper body, keeping him warm in the sharp breeze that blew in that early December morning from across the road passing Bhagamandala on its way to Talacauvery in the hills of the Western Ghats mountain ranges.
“Yes, it is past 10.30,” I reply, taking in the morning freshness in the backdrop of the mountains, a sight that invariably gladdens my heart and adds a spring to my step. Years ago the five days I spent trekking in the Western Ghats mountain ranges just out of secondary school, living in a canvas tent at the foot of the Western Ghats in a remote jungle location in Goa, left a lifelong imprint on my mind for the formidable mountain ranges, an experience that left me with a healthy respect for India’s rivers, more so those that descend from the mountains. Cauvery does.
The priest wraps the shawl even tighter as a gust of cold wind sweeps down the steps to where we are. “I’ve been waiting here, it is cold actually,” he says. I nod.
A short distance away from where the elderly priest waited, buses ferrying passengers and devotees halt by makeshift shops by the road, dropping off passengers visiting Bhagamandala, while those from the opposite direction stop for passengers heading in the direction of Madikeri. There is nothing there to indicate a bus stop. Every once in a while the priest looked past me at the ‘bus stop’ for signs of his visitor from Mysore before turning to talk to me.
His face betrays little or no annoyance, just resignation, but I cannot be sure for, with age, as movements slow up, so do expressions and in the pauses that punctuate conversations the moment passes before the aged speaker can muster the appropriate expressions. There’s little such ‘seemingly inscrutable’ faces can tell me, so I usually listen carefully to the often halting speech of the elderly.
He told me he stays behind the Sri Bhagandeshwara temple complex, home to the deities Subramanya, Ganapati, Mahavishnu and Ishwara, pointing across the road to the dwellings behind trees that adjoin the temple. Along the picturesque road from Madikeri to Bhagamandala breaks in trees provided us glimpses of sloping roofs, mostly red Mangalore Tiles, named after the red clay local to Mangalore, the headquarters of South Canara (also known as Dakshin Kannada). On the road to Bhagamandala we passed milestones along the way pointing the direction to Mangalore. It lies over 140 kilometers off Madikeri (Coorg).
Coorg or Kodagu district lies to the southeast of South Canara (Dakshina Kannada) district. North Canara and South Canara were formerly parts of the Canara district under a single administration in the Madras Presidency before the British split Canara district into North Canara and South Canara.
The Canara Bank, founded in 1906 by the legendary Ammembal Subba Rao Pai, belonging to the Gowda Saraswath Brahmin community, draws its name from the erstwhile Canara district. I grew up hearing ‘Canara’ in the years my uncle worked with the Canara bank, for I would visit his family in my school vacations each year, staying with them for weeks at each of the locations his postings with the Canara Bank took him to, namely Dharwad, Gadag, Bangalore, Hubli, Laxmeshwar, Ankali (off Chikkodi), and eventually Gulbarga when he retired from his services with the Canara Bank.
Bhagamandala is sacred for the confluence of the three rivers, Cauvery, Kannike, and the mythical Sujyoti. A stone plaque at the entrance to the confluence notes the Cauvery as being ‘revered as one of the Sapta Sindhu or seven holy rivers and is considered to be the Ganges of the South. A dip in this holy Sangam completes the Hindu Shraddha rites for the departed soul.’ It also notes that ‘The Cauvery flows 800 kilometres from Talacauvery in Karnataka to Poompuhar in Tamil Nadu. Major dams on the Cauvery are the Krishnarajasagara Dam in Mandya District (Karnataka) and the Mettur Dam in Mettur (Tamil Nadu).’
I circumvent the priest to the plastic bags on the makeshift wooden table behind him and seeing me step over to peek into the contents of one, the priest turns his head and says, “The four coconuts and the four flowers in each of the bags are offerings the devotee makes at the temple to the four deities; Subramanya, Ganapati, Mahavishnu and Ishwara (Bhagandeshwara).”
The temple lay across the road from the sacred confluence. Shops lined the entrance to the temple, a narrow mud path that forked away from the road to Talacauvery, where the Brahmin priests I was to meet later had their homes. We were to visit the temple later after we were done with visiting the sacred confluence.
A fresh burst of birds chirping floats on the breeze to the strains of Cauvery Vandana playing in one of the shops across the street that sold among other things incense sticks, devotional cassettes, and puja offerings in plastic baskets, each consisting of four coconuts, four Hibiscus flowers, and four bananas along with a pack of incense sticks.
When we reached Bhagamandala there were few people around and we had the place pretty much to ourselves, the silence was not to last much longer. I look around as the priest lapses into silence. Tunes float in to where I stand. There’s something to be said of devotional strains riding the breeze by a sacred confluence of three rivers. The intonation waxes and wanes in the breeze as if riding waves and in the silence occasional ripples in the water appear to match the rhythm of the song.
Before we, a motley bunch of travel writers, descended the bus that Club Mahindra had organized to take us to Bhagamandala on our Coorg sojourn that they sponsored as a part of their Web Initiatives program, I had imagined the confluence to be a roiling affair where the mighty Cauvery flexes her girth and in meeting with the Kannike and the Sujyoti she would thunder at the sky in a fearsome roar while breaching the banks in the violence of the confluence. Somewhere in the back of my mind memories of the Sharavati at Jog falls and of the Mahdei in the Western Ghats during the monsoons provided for the fearsome context. But when I learned that Bhagamandala lay a mere eight kilometers from Talacauvery where the Cauvery takes birth in the high reaches of the Western Ghats I quickly realized that the confluence lay upstream of the Cauvery and would be no roiling affair. She would run many a kilometer more before adding muscle and acquire the ferocity that would make people worship Goddess Cauvery to propitiate her so that she is less belligerent along her course downstream. Each year worshippers observe the ‘Polinkana’ festival where they propitiate Goddess Cauvery on the banks of the Triveni Sangama with a Maha Puja in the belief it will make her flow gently, releasing the ‘Polinkana Mantapa’ made up of banana stems with a lighted wick riding it. The festival coincides with ‘Karkataka Amavasye’.
I leave the elderly priest sitting on the low wall and walk down the paved path to what looks like an innocuous tank, actually a water passage that flows gently underneath a small bridge at either end of the concrete platform with steps leading to the water, and where people gather before descending the steps to dip their feet into the sacred confluence of the three rivers.
The opposite bank is not paved with a concrete platform. There a priest squats on his haunches and helps a youth with tonsured head perform rituals. Pilgrims performing rituals to their departed ancestors first take a dip in the confluence, perform rituals here before leaving for Talacauvery.
At the far end to my left a flight of steps descends from either side of the embankment just ahead of the bridge that passes over the confluence. In the distance the high reaches of the mountain ranges ring the Sangama (confluence). The skies are clear and touched a deep shade of blue. I see few birds in the sky.
Behind me, on a raised circular platform around the Ashwath (Pipal) tree, stone reliefs depicting the Nag devta (Cobra) lean against the tree trunk while some stand on their own. Kumkum (traditionally made from dried turmeric and powdered with slaked lime, turning it red) adorns the serpents. Hindus worship the Cobra (Nag) on Nag Panchmi. In the morning Sun their texture shows the effects of the elements. I do not know how long they’ve been here, who placed them around the base of the tree or for that matter which of the stone reliefs came first.
From the edge of the platform I watch pilgrims take a dip in the confluence, children shrieking in delight as they splash water on each other even as they hang on to their mother’s saris fearful of being dunked in the water. The water is not deep, only waist high, at places it barely comes up to the knees. However in the monsoons the water level rises. Standing there it is difficult to imagine the Cauvery runs hundreds of kilometers through several Indian states, irrigates thousands of acres of farmland in the Deccan Plateau, descends over mountains in spectacular waterfalls, generates hydroelectric power and evokes awe for its ferocity in the monsoons over wide swathes of land.
An elderly Coorgi lady in a traditional Kodava dress cradles a newborn in her arms while the mother, in a mauve sari looks on. Against the outline of the mountains in the far distance and in the backdrop of what is essentially a benign nature of the confluence on that early December morning they paint a picture of serenity that is as much laidback as it is peaceful and inviting. A young couple with a baby settles on the steps that descend the platform to the confluence. While the mother holds the baby in her lap, they sit in silence, watching visitors splash in the water. Occasionally a motor vehicle sounds over the bridge ferrying visiting pilgrims or maybe returning pilgrims. Sometimes it does not matter what goes on elsewhere for, in the circle of life the radius shortens to the immediate, the immediate that prolongs the moment, stilling time even as it ticks for those around.
I turn to see Amogh train his camera at the opposite bank while Arun paces the platform lazily. Just then a brahmin priest walks in my direction. In the strengthening breeze the saffron coloured shawl wrapped around his neck shifts, its loose end flapping in the sudden gust. He crosses his arms across his bare chest and tucks the loose end in the corner of his elbow.
He is lean and is dressed in a white lungi folded up to his knees. I catch his glance and smile, and like with the Serpents in stone, time has etched its passage on his face. I put his age in the late fifties.
“Namaskara,” I greet him. He replies likewise, folding his hands in greeting before crossing them at his chest. Like the other priest I met at the entrance, Ramachandra Bhat too stays in the village near the temple across the road. He uses the Kannada words ‘Kshetrawadi and Sthaladaavaru’ to indicate that he traces his origins to this place, at least as far back as he can remember.
Pointing behind me in the direction of Talacauvery in the Brahmagiri hills, Ramachandra Bhat tells me that I missed seeing the ‘habba’ (festival) that takes place annually starting on Tula Sankramana, usually mid-October and lasting a month. Tula Sankramana is the day the Cauvery took birth at Talacauvery, and each year thousands from all over the state gather at Talacauvery to witness the Cauvery surge forth in the form of a spring and it is celebrated with much traditional fanfare. The Kodavas mark Tula Sankramana as the first day of the Kodava Calendar year, such is the significance the Coorgis attach to the divinity of the river Cauvery.
Continuing, Ramchandra Bhat explained, “At Talacauvery the Teertodbhava takes place at the Cauvery’s Ugamasthana (place of birth), where once each year in the Tula month the Cauvery surges forth on Tula Sankramana in the form of a spring from the Brahmakundike (Holy Pond).”
On Tula Sankramana pilgrims from far and wide make their way to Bhagamandala to pay their respects to their ancestors. They tonsure their heads and perform shraddh (rituals for the departed) on the auspicious day.
We turn to look at a large group of schoolgirls who’ve descended into the water and playfully splash each other even as a few among them make a dash for the opposite bank to escape the playful splashing.
The priest’s tone is even as he speaks, making no attempt to be heard over the noise, yet I can hear him clearly, even the nuances. As the flow of pilgrims ebbs and flows behind us, the noise begins to acquire a steadiness of a constant hum, receding to the background even as it plays out upfront.
“This is the Dakshin Kashi,” he says matter-of-factly before continuing, “Ganga comes here from Kashi and stays here for one month. Lots of people come here at that time. It is punyakaal.”
I’m intrigued by the priest’s assertion. I had heard of Bhagamandala as Dakshin’s Kashi (the Kashi of the South) but I hadn’t connected it to the Ganges appearing here to cleanse herself in the Cauvery, in the month following the Tula Sankramana.
The legend of the Cauvery records her as performing tapasya (penance) to invoke Lord Vishnu to grant her wish of becoming the most sacred of rivers, giving life to humanity along her course and sustaining their prosperity through the ages. Cauvery’s tapasya is rewarded with the appearance of Lord Vishnu who, upon hearing her wish, grants it thus: ‘The Ganges is sacred because she originates from my feet; but you are infinitely more sacred to her as I adorn you as my garland’. Subsequently it is believed the Ganges appears underground to cleanse herself in the Cauvery every year, staying back for a month.
“I come here (to the confluence) everyday and perform kriya karya (rituals) for pilgrims if they need it. It’s been forty years that I’ve been doing this (rituals),” he says.
Ramchandra Bhat holds out a fifty rupee note to me and asks, “Do you have change for fifty rupees?” Apparently he has to deduct some amount from the fifty rupees and return the balance to someone. I take the fifty rupee note from him and pass him five tenners. He heads over to someone in the crowd behind me and returns within minutes. Then I take his pictures. He is curious to see how his pictures turned out. I show him the frames in the panel display. He smiles at me and asks, “Do the pictures develop so soon?” I explain that unlike film cameras digital cameras do not need photographic paper. The images are stored digitally.
“They’ve come good,” he says of the pictures.
Ramchandra Bhat lives with his wife behind the temple across the road and has four children. Speaking of his family he tells me, “Dhoddo maga devasthan pujey madikondu idhaney (the eldest son is a priest at the temple). He has children and stays separately (from us). Invobba deshsavey (the other son is in service of the nation – Indian Army). He completed his Diploma in Engineering and joined the Indian Army. He is in a clerical post there. The third son is a priest like me, and performs all rituals like I do. He does puja in Subramanyam Devasthan (temple).”
As I listen to the priest speak in a Kannada dialect that’s at once soothing and melodious I’m reminded of the Kannada our neighbours, the Ramkrishna Bhat family, spoke back in Goa in the late seventies, particularly when Anand’s cousin Kamesh, and his aunt, Shanta (they pronounce Shantey), whom we called Chikki, came visiting the Bhat family from Kumta in North Canara, also known as Uttara Kannada. When they spoke in their native tongue I would usually go quiet in the hope of acquiring their dialect for its nuances and tonality that was quite unlike the one I was accustomed to. In time I did manage to learn the Havyaka Kannada (spoken by Havyaka brahmins) dialect to a degree only to lose it in the years after we moved to another place. Moreover phones were uncommon in those days.
So when I heard Ramchandra Bhat speak the Havyaka dialect, it swiftly wound the years a long way back to my childhood, bridging decades and making me feel at home a long way from home.
The Sun is up in the sky, and steadily climbing. The breeze offsets any heat we might otherwise have felt. Sound of buses halting by the shops carries over to us. By now there’s a fair crowd about the place. Teachers struggle to maintain order among the schoolgirls as they break free in the shallow water, their hair tied in plaits with colourful ribbons.
Talking of his daughter he says, “Magalannu madhvey madi kottu aaythu (got our daughter married off).”
In India’s hinterland life as a brahmin priest is a difficult one economically. Where the son does not take after his father in priestly duties or if there’s no opening for one at the temple they leave the village for the city in search of a job. The Bhats belong to a brahmin sect called Havyaka brahmins, and speak a dialect of Kannada known as Havyaka Kannada or Havigannada, different in tone and usage from the Kannada of the brahmins to the north of Karnataka in the Deccan Plateau. The Havyaka brahmins are largely confined to Kumta, Sirsi, Honnavar, and Siddapur in the North Canara district, and also in the South Canara (Dakshin Kannada) district, bordered by the Arabian Sea to the West. Migration took the Havyaka brahmins to Coorg as well, though their numbers here are far fewer than that in North and South Canara districts. Moreover their dialect is known to differ from the Havyaka Kannada (Havigannada) to an extent, though not by much.
I ask him how many brahmin priests perform puja and kriya (rituals) for pilgrims offering prayers in memory of their departed ancestors. He says there are 5-6 brahmin priests like him who wait on the banks for the purpose and proceeds to point them out to me. One of them is on the opposite bank. Then he points further away along the bank at two other priests and says, “There, two more.”
Apparently two more priests haven’t come down to the confluence today. “There’re not many pilgrims today so they did not come,” he explains, shifting his weight to the other leg. “Sumne kala kallibaku (sometimes have to just while away time). I come and wait here,” he concludes, looking away. I sense a hint of despondency in his last statement, but the breeze catches it mid-air and whisks it away to the strains of the Cauvery Vandana.