– Guest blog by Shri N. Ramdas Iyer
This story from Moovattupuzha Town in Kerala is first in a series of online stories of urban rivers from across India. Please share your feedback and suggestions on the same (Read more in appendix). If you have any urban river stories or images that you might want to share, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com
The Moovattupuzha river which literally means the “river made of three streams”, these being the Thodupuzha river, the Kothamangalam river and the Kaliyar river, ran just through the backyard of my maternal grandparents’ ancestral home. The river lends its name to the town through which it flows. This shows the importance of the river in the life of the people living in the town of Moovattupuzha. Our house was located just on the banks of the confluence. The famous Puzha Kara Kavil Bhagawathi temple (meaning Bhagawathi on the banks of the river) is visited by a lot of people even now.
I have been associated with the river since I was four or five years old. I was in fact born in Moovattupuzha town. Though my father was employed faraway, we used to visit this place every summer and the first thing I did was to run to the river to have a dip and splash. Those days, the river was a natural flow and had a bottom of sand. Because of the summer, the river was depleted in some places, but it did run robustly and we never failed to cup the sweet water in our palms and drink it several times while bathing. It was so pure. It flowed through the hills of Idukki, which had many medicinal plants, and it was widely believed that bathing in the river kept your skin healthy. I am witness to that. When I developed lichen planus in 1979, visits to no dermatologist or ayurved did anything to cure it. Only my regular baths and swims in the river cured me. I remember that the water had a special scent of vetiver (Chrysopogon zizanioides) or khus at all times.
Wells in the backyards of houses that lined the river never ever dried up and the water from those wells were sweet and soft, lending its own taste to food cooked in it.
The Idukki dam built around 1975 changed the entire nature of the river. The flow in the river depended entirely on when the gates of the dam were open. The water flowed thick and fast touching both the banks for the entire year. Somehow, the nature of the river changed. It was water still, but not the water with medicinal properties, one that we would love to drink. We young people still bathed in it, but elders found it a little difficult and for the first time, the town of Moovattupuzha had bathrooms constructed in houses. I feel that the change in the nature of the river due to the Idukki Dam was the main reason. Flotsam and algae started appearing in the river and entangling the legs of the bathers. One sad thing was that the depth of the river increased and the sand gave way to slushy silt, encouraging people who wanted to commit suicide to jump into certain spots in the river. The entire ecosystem of the banks changed. Some huge trees that sheltered hundred of unique birds and bats started rotting and fell.
Eventually the wells dried up. Piped water came to houses. Few people went to the river to bathe. The humans of Moovattupuzha lost touch with the river. It became a stinking sewer filled with moss and a repository of mosquito larvae. Dengue and Chikangunya made their appearance on the banks. Hardly a home exists which has not had a patient of these diseases. Eventually the river came to be thought of as a nuisance with only drug addicts and anti socials infesting its banks.
Of late the Municipality of the town of Moovattupuzha has further strengthened the divide between people and the river by building stainless steel railings all around the banks and making walkways for people to see the river. In most places, the surface of the river is covered by plastic, slaughterhouse waste and such other junk. The last time I walked along the banks, it was not much more than a sewer. Sadly all this happened in my lifetime – 50 years.
Ramdas Iyer (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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As part of the India Rivers Day 2017 event, we held an exhibition based on this year’s theme – ‘Rivers in the Urban Context’. Responding to our call for entries, many individuals and organisations shared urban river stories/ documentation from across India, making it a lively and diverse collection.
However, a concern shared by the organising committee and many of our visitors, has been the limited distribution of these important and insightful river stories if restricted only to the physical form of the exhibition. It is in this stead that we’re starting a series of blogs where we will share these various river stories, though the experience of the exhibition can only be justified when visited in personal capacity.
If all goes well, we will soon announce dates for the exhibition to be open in more venues across Delhi and other cities too. If you want to or can help us taking this exhibition to a local venue near you, please contact us at email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.