Perhaps the most revered river in peninsular India is the Cauvery, known as ‘the Ganges of the south’. River Cauvery originates in the lush green forests of Kodagu (Coorg), Karnataka, at Talakaveri, and flows through the states of Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, as well as the Union Territory of Puducherry, and into 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 River Kabini, my protagonist.
I first made my acquaintance with the Kabini in July 2018, when I went to the outskirts of Nagarhole National Park for fieldwork (though perhaps unwisely, given the monsoon). This river is one of the chief water-bodies in this lush forest that is home to some of the rarest wildlife in southern India. Our accommodation was 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 regularly. However, thanks to the incessant rain, we were often unable to drive on the waterlogged roads that led into the forest. But one day, when the rains let up for a week, we decided to venture towards the river. And my first sight of the Kabini was memorable.
We were bouncing along in the back of our trusty jeep on a road that ran parallel to the river (though our view was blocked by settlements and trees), when our driver suddenly ground the jeep to a shuddering halt. We peered around him, trying to see what the matter was. All we could see ahead of us, on what was until now a fully functional dirt road, was water – muddy, rippling water. The driver muttered something under his breath and leaned out of the vehicle, waving to a passing villager “Is there an alternative road?” “The Kabini is 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. “We couldn’t have the water flooding the fields on the other side of the dam, so we had to open the gates. You could try the dam road.”
With the opening of the dam, the river’s full power had been unleashed upon the surrounding countryside – anything within the floodplain was now submerged. And we would be crossing the river on the dam road, which was rarely opened to anybody apart from government officials.
Up close, Kabini Reservoir was massive. Built of concrete and with imposing gates, I did not actually register that this was a dam; it seemed like the wall of a fortress. But once we obtained permission and 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. The level of the silvery-grey water was much higher on the far side of the dam; 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 at the water and clicking selfies with the star of the show, River Kabini. And when we arrived at the middle stretch of the dam road and descended from the vehicle, we saw what had captured everyone’s attention. The gatekeepers had opened three 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.
I have crossed paths with the Kabini many times since that first encounter. For the entire month of August, the river was in a dangerous mood. We spent three weeks unable to do our fieldwork thanks to heavy flooding in Kerala, Kodagu, and the forest roads in and around Nagarhole. We tried to drive our jeep down the roads, but the vehicle bobbed dully in the water, the engine roaring ineffectively. Forced to admit defeat, we retreated to our field station and prayed that the Kabini would recede.
Buses refused to ply. The Karnataka Forest Department untied its captive elephants to drag away floating debris, and also transport supplies in and out of affected villages. Livestock were tied up on higher grounds and the village boys were forbidden from taking them into the forest to graze. The river did not distinguish between her course and the forests – she conquered Nagarhole effortlessly, sending waves of panic in her wake. Wildlife wandered into and around villages, confused and surrounded by muddy water.
One warm September day, we found ourselves at the banks of the river once again, hot and dusty after a day of driving through potholes. The floods in Kerala had finally receded, and we were able to approach the river without the fear of washing away in her swirling waters. Suddenly, my colleague thrust out his arm, preventing me from stepping forward. He placed a finger on his lips, indicating that we remain silent. Parting the fronds of a low-hanging tree branch, we stared in delight at a small herd of elephants playing in the river. A young calf frolicked in the shallows, squealing loudly as it played. The adults watched indulgently, wallowing and keeping a lookout for predators. We watched them silently, staying away from the river so as to not disturb them.
The forests surrounding the Kabini are home to diverse wildlife. The trees along the riverbanks are always alive with birdsong, which, along with flashes of colour, indicate the presence of different species – drongos, woodpeckers, flycatchers, peafowl, and hornbills, among many others. We often spotted Crested Serpent Eagles high up on trees. This eagle is named for its favourite food – snakes – although it will happily snack on lizards and rodents when given the chance. Kingfishers brighten the banks of the Kabini – they can be spotted perched on low branches, watching for movement beneath the waves. Before one has had the time to blink, they dive in, snatch a hapless fish, and return to their perch to feast. Another bird we often spotted is the Oriental Darter aka snake-bird, called so because of its long neck. The darter prefers wetlands and rivers, wading through the shallows and using its long neck to catch fish. But even while foraging, they must keep a sharp lookout for Muggers, or marsh crocodiles, which lurk in the water. Crocodiles are famously sighted sunning themselves on the muddy banks of the river or drifting like logs in the water. The Kabini provides a banquet for her many residents, both local and visiting.
Each time I have encountered the Kabini, the river presents me with a different face. Often, she is a languid goddess, her banks fertile and endless, her waters mellow, and with birds skimming her surface. We’ve parked our jeep by her banks for picnic lunches, skimming stones on the water’s smooth surface. Giving us company once was a gaggle of village girls standing knee-deep in water a short distance upstream, bending over to wash clay pots; their laughter was carried to us by the river, like birdsong. Another time, a farmer stood by the river, with a stick holding two earthen pots hoisted across his shoulders. His young son filled bucket after bucket with water and poured the contents into these pots.
The Kabini is a giving river, reaching out to farmers with rivulets of life-giving water for consumption and irrigation. Many landowners dig shallow canals from the river into their fields. A year-round water supply promises a steady income, as it gives them independence from an oft-treacherous or unreliable monsoon. The river also serves as a lifeline to local communities and their livestock. Buffalo are a common sighting in the river, gazing balefully when you approach the banks. I once jumped away from the water’s edge as a young male buffalo charged a few steps forward, warning me away. His sturdy legs kicked up water, sending droplets flying. The mood is often also carefree, youthful, and blithe, as young children slip and slide down the muddy banks, giggling when they plop into the river with resounding splashes.
Yes, the Kabini is unpredictable, but glorious, no matter what her avatar. This queen of rivers holds power across the entire extent of her course. When she is merciful, she bestows a good growing season and plentiful water. And when she is angry, she takes what rightfully belongs to her.
It is impossible to tame a river. The Kabini flows through my daydreams and nightmares, changing my field schedule daily with her water levels. Yet she has managed to steal my heart.