The Kabini & Kaveri Chronicles

Published on: 05/06/2024

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Photo title: Herds of herbivores supported by Kabini’s meandering channels


Photo Credits: Vinoth Chandar via Flickr (CC-BY)

Rivers have been the cradles of ancient civilisations, drawing nomadic herdsmen to their fertile plains and perpetual waters, inspiring the cultivation of land and the growth of societies, cities, and empires. The Vedic scriptures recount the divine origins and historical significance of India's river valleys, where religious faiths were born, and empires rose and fell. Rivers have not only shaped geological landscapes but also found their way into poetry, literature, mythology, and religion. Revered as bridges between heaven and earth, rivers are integral to all rites of life and death. Even today, they remain the lifelines of the Indian subcontinent, sustaining wildlife and humans.

The Kabini River, born from the union of the Panamaram and Mananthavady Rivers, begins its journey near Kavilumpara in Kerala's Kozhikode district and meanders eastward through the lush Wayanad district before entering Karnataka's Mysore district. As it enters Karnataka, its sinuous channel widens into a dragon-shaped reservoir, the Kabini backwaters, which irrigate the Nagarhole National Park, for most of the year. In summer, the reservoir retreats, and grassy meadows burst into life.

Further along Kabini’s journey, it gushes past Kabini Dam, with its modest 20-megawatt hydroelectric power plant built in 1974, and continues north-eastwards to meet the majestic Kaveri (also spelt as Cauvery) river. As the Kabini River flows through the states of Kerala and Karnataka, it carves its way through several geological realms. In Kerala's Wayanad district, the river must traverse four distinct landscapes; the ancient, metamorphic formation known as the Peninsular Gneissic Complex, the banded mixture of metamorphic and igneous rocks known as the Migmatite complex, the hard, coarse-grained, metamorphic charnockites, rich in shimmery minerals like quartz, feldspar, and pyroxene, and a mosaic of rocks, including garnet-sillimanite-biotite gneiss and quartz-mica schist. While these rocky realms are indistinguishable to non-geologists, travelers may find it fascinating that they reveal ancient geological processes of metamorphosis and weathering spanning nearly 3 billion years!

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Photo title: Grassy meadows of the Kabini


Photo Credits: Kandukuru Nagarjun via Flickr (CC-BY)

While the Kabini river may not have flowed through this landscape for quite as long, it serves as a vital tributary of the Kaveri river, with a much older history and folklore.

In one tale, Kaveri is the daughter of Lord Brahma, who wished to serve mankind. Born as a princess and later married to a sage, her devout meditation rendered her more sacred than the Ganges. Legend has it that once a year, the Ganges flows underground to cleanse the sins washed in her waters, to meet the sanctified Kaveri.

Another myth about the origin of Kaveri is connected to the venerable sage Agastya. Lord Vishnu asked the goddess Vishnumaya to accompany the sage Agastya as his wife on earth. During a severe drought, she assumed her liquid form in Agastya's brass water pot, and one day, as the sage rested, the pot was overturned—perhaps by a crow, the wind, or Ganesha, and Vishnumaya, flowed downhill and brought the land back to life as the river Kaveri. In myth, the Kaveri river is revered not just as a body of water but as a divine essence, a symbol of purity, service, and life-giving force, across time and tradition.

Today, the Kaveri River's journey from its rain-drenched source in the forests of Coorg, Karnataka, to the sea is fraught with socio-political challenges. Winding through water-intensive banana, coffee, and pepper plantations, the Kaveri and its tributary, the Kabini, face significant strain. Numerous tubewells have drained the groundwater table, while chemical fertilizers and pesticides have polluted the rivers.

The construction of reservoirs, barrages, canals, and anecuts, driven by soaring demands for irrigation, household use, and power generation, has profoundly transformed these rivers. These alterations have expanded irrigated areas and secured water availability during scarcity. However, they have also intensified tensions over water allocation between upstream and downstream states, sparking conflicts among those who rely on the rivers’ life-giving flow. To complicate matters further, wild forest fires in Nagarhole have increased in intensity and decimated the thick forests that once sheltered the rivers.

Yet the enduring legacy of these rivers can be witnessed in the spectacular biodiversity they host all year round. Kabini was once an erstwhile hunting ground for Maharajah of Mysore, who played host to Indian royalty and British viceroys. Today, the backwaters of Kabini, form a natural corridor between the Nagarhole and Bandipur national parks, and host populations of large mammals like gaur, elephant, leopard, tiger, bison, spotted deer, sambhar, over 250 species of birds, and a bewildering number of reptiles and insects. The Kaveri river too, supports a 100-kilometre wildlife sanctuary in Karnataka, with similar avifauna.

In so many ways, the biodiversity along rivers reflects the complex interplay of long-term geological processes and biogeography. Deep-time processes, such as geological events and climate change, have played significant roles in shaping river valleys and have led to the creation of a wide range of ecological niches, from pristine mountain streams to expansive floodplains, each supporting unique combinations of plants and animals. The distribution of species is determined by factors like terrain, and weather conditions, as well as natural cycles of migration, colonization, and extinction events, resulting in the unique genetic diversity of riverine ecosystems.

Like wild creatures seek nourishment along the water’s edge, humans too, come in search of solace. As we reflect upon the vital role of rivers in sustaining life, may we forge a deeper appreciation for their enduring legacy.

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Devayani Khare

Devayani Khare is a geo/science communicator by profession, and wanderlust at heart. Having studied geomorphology - the evolution of landscapes through time, she believes landscapes are about memories - those captured in or imprinted upon rocks, the genetic legacy of biodiversity, and the echoes of human history. Through a regular newsletter, Geosophy and other stories, she hopes to capture and convey the ‘persistence of memories writ in stone.’ Her stories draw inspiration from her interests in geography, birdwatching, wildlife, mythology, and literature.

1Kabini VinothChandar

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