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A Riparian Saga

Prema Chari

By Padma Seshadri and Padma Malini Sundararaghavan
Niyogi Books, New Delhi, 2012, pp. 448, Rs. 795.00


This episodic narrative meanders charm- ingly while the authors digress to regale us with myths and legends, with no particular historical perspective. The spatial emphasis renders chronology irrelevant. But, interestingly, like any epic narrative, this formidably researched riparian saga uses a common literary trope of that genre: it starts in medias res, in the middle of the story, for though the narrative begins at the source of the river in Kodagu, the authors’ quest for ‘nadi mulam’ begins at the point it merges with the sea in Tamil Nadu. Temporally, one even senses a postmodern (yet essentially Puranic) notion of non-linear time.   Like any self-respecting river, two strands join in a sangam of pure reverence, with some interesting subtexts: one is the historian’s penchant for documenting sources, such as gazettes and sthalapuranas, and the other the mystical view that sees the journey, which is the Kaveri’s as much as it is the authors’, to ‘fulfill her destiny, her union with the Lord of the Sea, her husband, the King of the Ocean, Samudraraja.’ The detour through the annals of history sometimes results in far too detailed a description of battles lost and won. So while it is possible to be overwhelmed by the plethora of minute observation and meticulous research, every traveller will find in this book something that resonates, such as the description of the procession of deities in Srirangam stopping at agraharam households for reverential rituals. This reviewer, while reading about metal craft in Swami-malai, near Kumbakonam, immediately associated memories of mother shopping for brass kuthu villakku and thenguzhal presses particular to this region.   Ganga is without a peer; legends about her origins continue to enthrall us. But what of ‘dakshina desha Ganga’—the Ganga of the South? Like her more revered sister, she too is descended, in various stories, from the Hindu Trinity, and is sanctified further by the performance of sarvanga sparsha when she girdles the reclining Vishnu in Srirangam (Tamil Nadu), Srirangapatna, and Siva-samudram in Karnataka.   Like the river, the narrative is diverted by a boulder here, enters a channel there, allowing the authors to digress on the building of a hydroelectric dam or the burgeoning schools of yoga in Mysore. In Coorg, for instance, a sage’s curse causes the river to make a sudden turn, thereby displacing the pleats in her sari to the back, providing an imaginative explanation for the ...

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