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The Tale of the Tungabhadra

In India, most rivers are revered - some perhaps, legends claim, were born from the heavens themselves, other rivers are transformed humans who have performed great deeds, or wish to serve mankind. There are as many myths as there are rivers, sometimes more - as rivers like the Ganges, have more than one story in living memory.

The Tungabhadra river that flows through Karnataka, past the boulder-strewn landscape of Hampi, is no different.

One legend talks of the end of the great deluge - the same great flood documented in other parts of the world: the Gilgamesh myth from Mesopotamia, the Gun-Yu flood of China, the Deucalion-Pyrrha version from Greece, or the tales of Noah or Nuh's ark from the Bible and the Qu'ran. To save the world from the deluge, Varaha, the boar-faced avatar of Vishnu, brings up an island from the seething floodwater with his mighty tusks. The sheer effort of his labour causes him to sweat profusely - and as the sweat from his brow drips and flows down his tusks, the twin rivers of Tunga and Bhadra are born. These two sweet water channels merge to form the Tungabhadra river.

Another retelling involves the slaying of king Hiranyakashyapu by Lord Vishnu as Narsimha - a half-man, half-lion avatar. Exhausted by the effort, Narsimha sits down and his sweat creates the sister channels of Tunga, the gentle and Bhadra, the wild, which meet to form the mighty Tungabhadra. A Kannada saying: Ganga snaana, Tunga paana, advises devotees to bathe in the waters of the Ganga, but drink the waters of the Tunga.


There’s another legend associated with the Tungabhadra river, or the Pampa, as it was called at the time of the Ramayana. Pilgrims who wish to follow the trail of Rama - another one of Vishnu’s avatars - in his search for Sita, will find themselves at the banks of the Tungabhadra. In the Ramayana, the river is a lake, described poignantly in the full bloom of Chaitra, the spring season. Upon reaching its banks, the fragrant breeze and blossoms were said to have made Rama’s grief at Sita’s abduction, almost unbearable. It was here that he and Lakshmana met Hanuman and Sugriva - the scions of the Vanara or monkey clan. They helped Sugriva in his struggle with Vali, to secure the throne of the monkey kingdom, and forged an alliance with Hanuman in their quest to regain Sita.


Today, the troops of macaques that hold fort atop the rocky outcrops, are not descendants of the ancient Vanara army, as some pilgrims believe. Years ago, a film crew brought in a cast of monkeys during a shoot based on Ramayana, and set them free after. It is these roving bands that continue to inhabit the landscape.


Interesting how geography draws inspiration from mythology - both the Tunga and Bhadra rivers, originate on the Varaha Parvatha (hill) in the Western Ghats range. After rising at Gangamooli, they carve different channels for a while, before they meet at Koodli and form the Tungabhadra. The Tungabhadra gushes past the lower elevations of the Western Ghats, skips down small waterfall chutes, and meanders along the plains of Karnataka. The river would once have flowed through the Vijayanagara capital of Hampi, irrigating lush fields, and watching as temples arose along its banks. As it wends eastwards, it joins the Krishna river and together, they flow into the Bay of Bengal.


The name Hampi too, was derived from the Kannada word, Pampa. For the 14th - 16th century Vijayanagara Empire with its capital in Hampi, the Tungabhadra was not just sacred, it was also a crucial barrier against invasions. Its wide, eddying channel was difficult to cross, and with the rocky outcrops as vantage points, the empire could prepare for any attacks. In the 16th Century, Krishna Devaraya, an emperor of the Vijayanagara dynasty, built stone walls along the river banks to counter the river’s erosion - some remnants of these walls can still be seen further downstream from Hampi. Other rulers constructed numerous canals and aqueducts, some of which have been fortified in recent years, and continue to irrigate the patchwork quilt of plantain and sugarcane farms. In the 19th and 20th centuries, two dams were erected along the Tungabhadra, to harness its energy for irrigation, hydroelectricity and industry. The dams have quelled the river, and now, it makes its way more sedately past the temple town.


It isn’t only man who tried to tame the river, the rocks did too. The granite outcrops form a gorge where the river’s torrid currents are forced to slow down and pass through a narrow channel. Yet the Tungabhadra’s turbulent, torrid energy is writ large upon the landscape - in the dry months from March to May, the river bed reveals distinct, gouged-out potholes. Geologically speaking, potholes often form in the upper stretches of a river - where its flow is at its most powerful. As rivers eddy and churn, they carry along rocks of different sizes which often gouge out or abrade the river bed, leaving behind potholes. These potholes coalesce over time resulting in a distinct Swiss-cheese riverscape.


Tungabhadra’s channel, especially as it flows through Hampi, is riddled with potholes - best seen in summer. Look closer, and you’ll see some potholes carrying rounded pebbles - this is the bedload - the material that gets trapped in the river eddies and hollows out the river bed. Though the river today isn’t half as turbulent as it once was, and is no longer capable of taking dollops out of the river bed, the size of the potholes is testimony to its once-torrid current.


In geomorphology, the study of landscape evolution, one believes that the persistence of rivers is etched into the very landscape – a memory of the forces that once shaped it, and continue to do so, slowly, and inexorably. So it is with the Tungabhadra, where the stories of geological timescales and those from the collective consciousness, weave together to shape the landscape.

Words: Devayani Khare

Cover image caption: A traditional basket boat or coracle adrift along the Tungabhadra river set against the backdrop of Hampi’s boulder-strewn landscape.

Cover image credits: Nandhukumar via Pixabay

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