The river that never fails: The Cauvery runs through Tamil literature from Sangam Age to today

To this day, Aadi Perukku is celebrated in the delta region in tribute to the fertile Cauvery.
The river that never fails: The Cauvery runs through Tamil literature from Sangam Age to today
The river that never fails: The Cauvery runs through Tamil literature from Sangam Age to today

One of the earliest memes after the Cauvery issue broke out featured the AIADMK MP, Navaneethakrishnan, who rose to dubitable fame by singing about Kashmir in Parliament. The meme suiggested that given half a chance he would have belted out another song on the Cauvery too.

It wouldn’t come as much of a surprise, since if recorded history and literature are anything to go by, Cauvery – despite being a hotbed of controversies now – has always been the most loved, most cherished and celebrated of rivers flowing through Tamil Nadu. Tamil literature is peppered with paens to the river, going all the way back to the Sangam age.

Cauvery has found an inimitable mention in several works of Sangam literature. Perhaps the most important mention is in “Pattina palai” which talks of the Cauvery as a river that never fails, even if the sky does (வான் பொய்யினும் தான்பொய்யா, மலைத்தலை இய கடற்காவிரி - Vaan Poyyinum Thaan Poyya, Malaiththalai iya kadar kaviri). Other homages to the glory of the flowing Cauvery come up in poetic works including the “Puranaanooru” and “Porunaraatru Padai”.

In a later age, the “Kamba Ramayanam” (the 12th century work on Ramayana by Kambar) draws parallels between Kosala Naadu and Chola Naadu, speaking of the Chola Naadu’s fertility thanks to the Cauvery.

But perhaps the best sign of the Cauvery’s importance to Tamil Nadu is the mention it receives in “Silappadhikaram” – one of the five great epics in Tamil. Several songs in Silappadhikaram speak eloquently on how the flowing Cauvery makes the Chola Naadu (now the Delta region) flourish.

வாழி அவன்தன் வளநாடு
மகவாய்  வளர்க்கும் தாயாகி
ஊழி உய்க்கும் பேருதவி
ஒழியாய் வாழி காவேரி

(Long live this fertile country! Long live the Cauvery that nurtures the country like a mother)

Elangovadigal, the author of Silappadhikaram, penned several songs in the epic in the form of Aatruvari padalgal (songs sung to a river) and coined the iconic idiom “Nadanthai Vaazhi Cauvery” (And you walked! Long live Cauvery).

As farmers sing,

As the sounds of sluice rise,

As new waters break open,

As people celebrate,

You walk! Long live Cauvery!

(உழவர் ஓதை மதகு ஓதை; உடைநீர் ஓதை;
தன்பதங்கொள் நடந்தாய் வாழி காவேரி விழவர் ஒதைசிறந்தார்ப்ப) writes Elangovadigal.

Much later, Thi Janakiraman – a well-known writer in Tamil – would call his travelogue along the banks of Cauvery, “Nadanthai Vaazhi Cauvery”. This travelogue remains a cult classic in modern Tamil literature till date.

Going back to the “Silappadhikaram”, the Cauvery Perukku – a festival celebrated to this day as Aadi Perukku finds a mention too.  Celebrated on the 18th day of the Tamil month Aadi, Aadi Perukku is a festival marking the inflow of new waters in the rivers. People in the delta region celebrate the festival to pay tribute to the Cauvery’s fertility. Aadi Perukku has been and remains an important festival for farmers and women in Tamil Nadu.

Through centuries, the Cauvery has been flowing into our lives. Through immortal songs and festivals, the river has been etched into the soul of Tamil lands.  For those in the Delta region, the Cauvery is an immortal source of life, who never fails them, even when skies do.  For the rest of us, she is a shining literary icon – an indelible part of our culture.

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