In the quaint hill station of Old Mahabaleshwar on the slopes of the Western Ghats is a shrine dedicated to Shiva. The Adi Mahadeva Temple appears unassuming from the outside; however, as soon as you enter it, a profoundly interesting sight greets you. The Krishna river that rises in these hills flows through subterranean passages and exits through the snout of a stone Nandi (celestial bull). The water that drains into a tank in the inner courtyard of the temple disappears underground once again until it reaches the edge of the Mahabaleshwar Plateau. Here it descends into the Krishna/Koyna Valley as a series of waterfalls.
This temple is considered the mythical source of the Krishna. With such proximity to its geographical origins, this is not surprising. Although the river emerges from the snout as a thin stream, it becomes a behemoth of many tributaries, which merge with it along its course, making it one of the largest river systems in the country. The 1300 km long Krishna is the lifeline of Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh. For centuries, it has been a witness to the rise and fall of various kingdoms in the Deccan and South India.
There is a fascinating legend associated with the origin of this river. It is believed that the river is an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu who was turned into a river due to a curse. Enamored by goddess Parvati’s beauty, Vishnu could not resist the temptation of seducing her and magically took the form of her husband Shiva. Upon discovering his true origins, Parvati cursed him-as a consequence, he was transformed into a female river. Strangely, Krishna’s tributaries the Vena and Koyna are believed to incarnate of Shiva and Brahma respectively.
Due to its association with the Hindu Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, several centers of pilgrimage have flourished along the banks of the Krishna and its tributaries. However, these are mere relics of its association with Hinduism. To see the real power that it holds over those who believe in its sanctity, one should participate in the Krishna Pushkaram.
An interesting myth is associated with this festival. Tundila, a devout Brahmin priest performed severe austerities to gain the favors of Shiva and finally won the right to serve as one of his principal companions. Shiva who was then in his riverine form (one of his eight incarnations) was perplexed about choosing a mortal as his companion, as the priest would certainly drown in his company. Instead, he decided to make Tundila the caretaker of all the water bodies in the universe. The priest earned the title of Pushkara’ (one who caters to the needs of the world).
Pushkara was very judicious in performing his duties; however, he was entangled in a celestial controversy. Brahma (the creator) desperately needed water to realize his dream of a perfect universe. As Pushkara was the sole guardian of all the water resources, Brahma had to persuade Shiva to let him live in his kamandalam, which Pushkara eventually agreed to. However, this is hardly the end of the controversy. The Vedic god Brihaspati also wanted to share the responsibility of creation. Therefore, he too requested Shiva to place Pushkara under his command. Although his wish was granted, Pushkara refused to oblige, as he did not want to leave Brahma’s side. He put forth the condition that if he were to help Brihaspati, Brahma would have to accompany him.
Brahma resolved this delicate situation with ease. It was decided that Pushkara would stay with Brihaspati for a length of two muhurthams, (an auspicious time) for 12 days when the latter was entering a particular zodiac sign and 12 days when he was exiting it. Brahma, accompanied by all the other gods, would sanctify the holy river, which Brihaspati was visiting during this stipulated period. In this way, Pushkara could serve both Brahma and Brihaspati.
During the Pushkarams, devotees undertake purification and Brihaspati. rituals that usually conclude with a holy dip. They also pay homage to their departed ancestors in an elaborate shradh ceremony in a bid to appease their spirits.
Another famous river festival on the Krishna coincides with the end of the Dusshera festivities. The Bhavani Diksha involves a lengthy 41-day prelude to the main event that eventually unfolds at Durga Ghat in Vijayawada. Devotees of Kanaka Durga (patron deity of Vijayawada) live like ascetics and perform various Vedic rituals during this period. On the last day of the festival, thousands of pilgrims in flaming red garments throng to the banks of the Krishna for a holy dip.
Rivers have played a central role in Hindu belief and the Indian context, it is impossible to disassociate religion from the rivers. However, we have to realize that the rivers have supported civilizations long before the concept of religion emerged. There are numerous historical sites along Krishna’s course. Satara, which lies below Mahabaleshwar, is most famous for its association with the Marathas and their epic battles against the last Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. Its pre-medieval history dates back to the rule of the Gupta Empire followed by the reign of the Satvahanas. The Deccan style temples on the banks of the Krishna (at Satara) are comparatively recent.
Jamkhandi in Northern Karnataka is renowned for its Chalukyan monuments, which include the 1000-year-old temple of Jambukeshwar (an incarnation of Shiva). Srisailam in the Kurnool district of Andhra Pradesh is one of the twelve Jyotirlinga shrines of Shiva while Nandikonda and Amravati have numerous Buddhist relics. Vijayawada, which has emerged as the epicenter of Andhra culture, has been historically associated with the Chalukyas of Badami.
The Krishna, which has supported numerous civilizations over the centuries, continues to sustain a vast population. With its 35 tributaries, it irrigates a large agricultural zone, making the region naturally attractive to commercial exploitation. While agriculture has always been the primary economic activity, large-scale industrialization is a reality that the people of the Krishna Valley have to concede with. Both farming and industry depend on the availability of land and water. This is where the conflict begins: the acquisition of agricultural land for the industry is one of the most debatable issues today. The lax laws on the treatment and discharge of industrial effluents intensify the problem. The co-existence of industry and agriculture has led to disastrous results in the past. Large tracts of arable land along the Krishna basin have been rendered unfit for agricultural use due to untreated industrial discharge and other pollutants.
While the population has been rising rapidly over the years, the amount of water available has remained constant. In areas where the aquifer is depleted faster than its annual rate of replenishment, we have less water than we had a decade ago. Adding to this problem is the fact that most of our rivers are also used as drainage systems for domestic and industrial waste. The sheer combined volume of the Krishna and its tributaries only means that this problem is multiplied to uncontrollable levels.
The Krishna river system receives effluents and wastewater from several large cities, which include Pune, Satara, Kolhapur, Hyderabad, Kurnool, and Vijayawada among others. More than 500 important industrial units operate from the Krishna basin, 200 of which are large-scale industries.
To cite an example of the environmental damage caused by industríal effluents, one has to visit Dharwad on the banks of the Tungabhadra, an important tributary of the Krishna. Here two units of the Gwalior Rayon Silk Manufacturing Company Ltd (Grasim) generate approximately 33,000 cubic meters of effluents.
Villagers downstream were affected by the increased level of pollution as soon as the plant was commissioned, but the worst hit was the fisherfolk. Fish stocks were nearly wiped out from the lower reaches of the Tungabhadra. While numerous committees were set up to look into the grievances of these fisherfolk, hardly anything came out of it. In 2002, after a prolonged legal battle that lasted eight years, these fishermen received a meager individual compensation of two thousand rupees. Today, completely disheartened, many of them have migrated to the cities in search of livelihood.
The people of the Krishna Basin also have to contend with the unpredictable nature of the river and its tributaries. In October 2009, floods replaced drought-like conditions in southern India, marooning more than 350 villages and leaving millions homeless. On October 6, 2009, the Press Trust of India (PT) reported that the Krishna River set a record in flood discharge at the Prakasam Barrage, surpassing the previous record from 1903, when there were no dams across the river.
Today, the same issues that affect the other rivers of the region plague the Krishna and its tributaries. The reality of a disappearing delta is no longer a fictional notion. Weather patterns are becoming harsher due to global warming. The scenario of extreme climatic changes, which would radically alter the face of the globe, is no longer a myth. Machalipatanam, where the Krishna meets the sea was once a flourishing port town. It is yet to recover from the aftermath of the tsunami, which struck the Andhra coast in 2004. If the question of sustainability is not addressed, India’s rain-fed rivers may not be able to support future generations.