Administrator of the Talacauvery and Bhagamandala temples, Anandatheertha was involved in saving the Western Ghats and the Cauvery from human encroachments and destruction.

Anandatheertha Swami wearing a saffron dhoti with a red shirt is seen walking with journalist and filmmaker OK Johnny who is a dark grey and black trousers with a digital camera hanging from his neckAnandatheertha Swami (in red) with journalist and filmmaker OK Johnny
news Death Saturday, August 08, 2020 - 16:33

For the people who are obsessed passionately and irreversibly with River Cauvery, regular trips to Talacauvery are integral. A temple to Goddess Kaveri, which is also dedicated to Shiva as Agasthyeswara and Ganesha, overlooks the ancient tank there that collects water from a nearby wild spring. For devotees, the tank is the origin of the east-flowing river of peninsular India. As per legend, the river disappears at its birthplace only to take a rebirth at Bhagamandala, located a little away in the foothills.

It was on a September evening about a decade ago that I met Swami Anandatheertha, 76, for the first time. The meeting was followed by a long conversation about the mighty river, the lifeline of vast stretches of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. There were many conversations since then and each gave me the impression that I was talking to a living encyclopaedia, not just on the Cauvery but on all the rivers on earth. It was this school-teacher-turned-sage who took me on another occasion to a different forest location in the hills to show the exact origin of the river, which not many are aware of.

Having lived in Mumbai for long and worked there as a school teacher, Anandatheertha returned to his native place three decades ago to become the traditional trustee and administrator of the temples in Talacauvery and Bhagamandala. He had a spartan life in a small house in Talacauvery, located in the Brahmagiri ranges of the Western Ghats at an elevation of 1,341 m. 

A scholar with strong social and political concerns, Anandatheertha was a hardcore secular. He lived a life of intense commitment to the river and the surrounding forests. In the 1980s, he was among the members of the Save Western Ghats March, a major environmental protection initiative involving scientists, anthropologists, sociologists, activists, journalists and local communities. He marched together with others for 100 days along the length of the ghats highlighting the socio-ecological challenges the area grappled with. He had actively engaged with almost all attempts to save the Western Ghats and the Cauvery from human encroachments and destruction. He travelled extensively across the length and width of the river urging local communities to save the river as their lifeline. He found comfort in the role of a low-profile environmentalist with extreme devotion to the cause.

Landslide in Talacauvery, Kodagu

As journalist and filmmaker OK Johnny, who authored Kaveriyodoppam Ente Yathrakal (Journeys along Cauvery), rightly pointed out, Anandatheertha was always anxious about the fate of the Cauvery which is extremely polluted and has been almost destroyed. Except for the little stretch in his small locality, the river is now on its deathbed. For Anandatheertha, the Western Ghats and the river were integral to his existence. In a way, he always spoke in the river’s voice.

In Talacauvery, Anandatheertha shared many legends about the place. It was the place where Sage Agastya was blessed by Brahma, Vishnu and Ganesha while meditating under the ashwaththa tree. It was at the Brahmagiri peak that the saptarishis or the seven great sages performed their yajna or ritual sacrifices. Anandatheertha also spoke about Lord Brahma’s daughter Lopamudra who was later rechristened Cauvery and eventually transudated herself into a river to serve humankind.

But now everything is a fond memory. On Thursday, Anandatheertha failed to turn up at the Talacauvery temple along with the chief priest to conduct the morning rituals. One of the security guards at the temple then went to check and found the priest’s house buried fully in mud. He soon alerted the district authorities, who later confirmed officially the massive landslide that wreaked havoc in Talacauvery.

The development officer of the local gram panchayat had issued notices to Anandatheertha directing him and the head priest’s family to shift from the place as their house was at the foot of the hill and the hill was prone to landslides. However, Anandatheertha decided to stay. Even the cowshed he had with over 20 bovines was buried deep in mounds of mud and rubble. According to Kodagu District Commissioner Annies Kanmani Joy, the area surrounding the priest’s houses was inaccessible.

Flooding in Bhagamandala, Kodagu

In the incessant rains, a portion of the Brahmagiri Hill, about 30 acres collapsed on the two houses on Thursday morning in which Anandatheertha and the priest lived. Shantha Narayana (68), her husband and temple’s head priest TS Narayana Achar (70) and relatives Ravikiran Bhat and Pavan Bhat went missing. Anandatheertha's body was retrieved on Saturday.

It was during the last monsoon that the Geological Survey of India (GSI) had predicted the possibility of landslides in Talacauvery, in the close vicinity of the temple, after detecting surface cracks. The GSI had conducted extensive field study in Kodagu after the two subsequent floods since 2018 and found slope modification without proper precautions as the major cause of landslides. Unbridled construction of houses by carving into the hill slopes has resulted in land destabilisation in the Talacauvery region. Unsupported slope cuts for road widening also contributed to the present tragedy.

A spiritual leader who always expressed concern over the change in land use patterns in the Brahmagiri Hills and the mushrooming illegal constructions has now become its victim along with four of his relatives. He was always against large scale capital investments to convert Talacauvery into a concrete jungle in the name of spiritual tourism. The encyclopaedia on rivers is no more. His attempts to save the river and its supporting forest stretches have also gone in vain.

KA Shaji is a Thiruvananthapuram-based freelance writer.

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