A River Dance: Cauvery in Crisis

In my childhood, I remember whispering the names under my breath, determined to ward off my family’s amusement by pronouncing them precisely: Tiruchirappalli and Thanjavur, Dindigul and Erode, Coimbatore and Chidambaram. These were the cities of my summer vacations, where I visited relatives, temples, and sights throughout the southeastern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Occasionally in view as we traveled by car and train was Cauvery, South India’s third-largest river, bisecting Tamil Nadu roughly west to east. My father would point out her drying riverbeds and then explain water cycles and drought and the timing of monsoons. After sweltering hours on the road, I wasn’t particularly receptive to his facts and figures. Nevertheless, I listened groggily as he reminisced about the Cauvery of his own childhood, her waters ample and clear, and as he worried for her future.

Now, decades later, Cauvery’s crisis conditions have accelerated from pressing to dire. With so many Indian cities losing groundwater at an alarming rate—and indeed, predicted to lose it entirely at any moment—their governments increasingly turn to Cauvery’s river water, extracting it with pumps, collecting it in tanks, and then transporting it to clamoring crowds.

As groundwater drains, the water table falls below river levels—which means Cauvery now feeds the groundwater, too, like a mother pouring her attention wherever she’s called. But as climate change alters monsoon patterns, Cauvery herself is barely fed and never replenished.

As I hear of the worsening droughts, of the increasing desperation and displacement, it’s particularly harrowing to learn which cities in the Cauvery basin are approaching Day Zero, when all the taps run dry. Some are those I visited throughout my childhood, the cities where family members live at the front lines.

A wide rectangular room anchored my grandparents’ home in the city of Karur and accommodated most household activities, even eating and sleeping. As a child, a major source of my amusement was cartwheeling from one end of this room to the other, where the narrow passage to the kitchen and bathroom commenced.

At that entryway stood a tiny sink with an equally miniscule faucet—everyone’s first stop for morning ablutions, specifically, toothbrushing. I still remember my mother’s scolding when I accidentally let the water run while brushing, as well my relatives’ look of shock at my wanton disregard. I learned that two or three quick fistfuls of water from the tap were considered sufficient for a rinse and eventually mastered those motions. But my irritation—and shame—lingered.

At the time, I didn’t consider the possible reasons for the tight management and careful husbanding of household water—I only felt the inconvenience. I struggled to get my long hair fully washed with the allotted two buckets of bath water. Sitting on a short stool, I used a small chombu to pour the water over my head; it took me a week or so to get the knack of maximizing its coverage.

During summers of drought, I sometimes had to draw my bathwater from a storage well at the side of the bathroom. During those droughts, the thick wall of this storage well was lined with larger chombus, used to catch extra water whenever the taps were running. That captured water would be used later for washing clothes or cleaning the household.

Even in a clean and well-maintained home like my grandparents’, the stored water containers attracted the dengue-spreading Aedes mosquito species, which hospitalized me at age seven. The stored water itself also presented challenges, often tasting a bit strange and even altering the flavor of the food cooked in it.

My grandparents’ home was comfortably outfitted by community standards, with an attached groundwater well, some pipes, and a few sinks. Unlike other families, we did not have to fetch water from elsewhere. With attentive management, there was enough with which to cook, wash, and to transport in stainless steel thermoses when we traveled—after, of course, it had been thoroughly boiled, filtered, and cooled.

At a certain point during my summer vacations, one vision sustained me: returning home to America, filling a tall glass with ice, then adding water straight from the tap. I dreamed of that brimming liquid and my first frosty gulp and the sweet taste.

Just a few more weeks, I’d tell myself.

As a child learning Bharath Natyam, a classical dance form native to South India, I was discouraged at times by the notoriously rigorous physical training. I knew, though, if I bided my time, I’d eventually cross the bridge from nritta (physical steps) to nrithya (facial expressions), and finally, to what I longed for: natya (drama). At its heart, Bharath Natyam is a storytelling tradition, and I longed to be the one dancing those stories.

The stories were those I’d learned from my parents and grandparents, from books and Sunday School lessons—compelling tales of sages, warriors, kings. Later, in high school and college, I enjoyed researching these stories further, digging into their philosophical and spiritual dimensions, and then watching as expert dancers communicated those more esoteric aspects.

For example, a physically skilled dancer might accurately execute Shiva’s signature tandava dance—but could she demonstrate how it symbolized the ever-pulsing circle of creation and destruction? An expressive dancer might easily portray a woman’s assiduous search for her beloved—but could she evoke the soul’s longing to merge with Oneness?

When I could see and understand what a dancer truly meant to convey, it felt exciting and revelatory, like a flash of light.

At a 2019 Isha Foundation fundraiser for Cauvery Calling, a massive river revitalization effort, I watched a set of dances relating well-known tales of the woman named Cauvery, the wife of a renowned sage, who accepted the task of irrigating South India. At one point during the evening, the featured dancer told the story of another river, the Ganga, whose connection to India’s history and mythology is as deeply rooted as Cauvery’s. Though I’d heard many versions of Ganga’s story, my skin prickled at this particular interpretation of the old tale:

Humanity needed Ganga’s sacred waters on the Earth, and she was ordered to descend there from heaven. Angered by the order, Ganga planned to sweep the Earth away in a furious torrent. Appealed to for assistance, Shiva, the divine ascetic and yogi, caught Ganga as she descended in the thickly matted locks of his hair, where she remains now, eternally entangled. She is released only gradually, reliably, and sustainably for humanity’s survival.

Locks. Entanglement. Sustainable release. In the context of the event and the information being shared there, I understood what the dancer wanted to tell me.

I saw that flash of light.

In the last few generations, forests flanking Indian rivers have been cleared for a variety of reasons, for example to follow non-traditional agricultural methods. For millennia, those forests produced thick, interlocking networks of roots and topsoil, which trapped water in the earth. That water was released gradually, feeding the river continuously and sustainably. The dense tree cover resulted in transpiration, drawing rainfall, and acting as another source of water for the river. The river never dried, and, due to the tightly-woven root networks, the monsoons couldn’t wash away all of the nutrient-rich topsoil.

Encoded in the dance was this age-old wisdom. Shiva’s locks represent the underground root-soil networks. Ganga’s capture represents the sustainable release of water and preservation of topsoil. This is a story of the structures and cycles holding the water in our rivers. It’s a story of the natural world in balance.

It is estimated that Indian land has supported agriculture for at least 10,000 years. However, over only the last few generations, the availability and nutritional value of its soil has plummeted due to climate change factors and the recent “Green Revolution” that encouraged farmers to abandon traditional crops, deploy chemical fertilizers, and plant high-yield seeds.

Lacking adequate water and nutrient-rich soil to produce crops, and now trapped in debt and despair, Indian farmers are committing suicide at a shocking rate—some sources estimate 60,000 suicides over the last three decades. This desperation has prompted responsive measures such as the Cauvery Calling campaign, an alliance of scientists, universities, associations, and government bodies.

Soil health is deeply connected to river health, and as such, soil depletion results in river depletion. Cauvery Calling is implementing a large-scale intervention, planting a kilometer-width of trees on both sides of the Cauvery, over her full length, in order to build up organic material in the soil, increase water percolation into the river, and promote water retention within the river. Farmers enrolled in the program are gradually diversifying to fruit tree-based agriculture and are receiving educational and moral support during the entire period of transition.

There is an old saying in the Tamil language: even if the rains fail, Cauvery will never fail. Sayings like these are now subject to question. Within a few generations, 10,000 years of traditional agriculture have come undone. Within a few generations, rivers that flowed for millennia have drained, and the forests that sustained nutrient-rich topsoil have been depleted.

It is now predicted that 25 percent of India will turn to desert. I find it unimaginable that this land I visited regularly, bursting with plants and insects, exploding with color and fragrance, overflowing with fruits and flowers, could lose its ability to support life—unimaginable that its teeming soil could turn to sand.

As this desertification advances, I wonder whether the erstwhile profession of water divination—the detection of drinkable water by examining local vegetation—might revive. The ancient sage Sarasvata composed a geo-botanical guide to prospect for groundwater based upon micro-environmental ecology, noting how, for example, the presence of a date palm near jujube and piu trees pointed to water, as did certain ficus varietals in proximity to one another. Later, in the 6th century C.E., Varahamihira built upon this work, listing 120 plants serving as groundwater indicators. Though such guides may possess less relevance due to irreparably damaged and altered landscapes, I suspect that the people drawn to this profession, being instinctively tuned to the natural world, will adapt.

I met such a figure recently, not in India, but in Santa Cruz, California. She was not a water diviner, but rather a forager who searched for edible foods among the grasses, weeds, and trees in the area.

When my husband and I began our hike with her, I found it difficult to concentrate, thinking of the wildfires that had raged in the area during the previous week, imagining another spark reigniting the landscape. But I slowly tuned in as the forager shared how to identify edible plants and explained which leaves and nuts and berries we could touch and eat. Each time, before placing an item in her mouth, she closed her eyes for a moment in gratitude to the land around her, the source of the food she consumed.

Though we hiked in a parched and dusty area, at one point we crossed into a clearing, its air fresh and cool. A pond rippled at our feet, inviting us to bend and touch the ground, to place our hands in the water.

I wished I could send myself backward in time to stop the car in India that held my child-self. I wished I could place her hands in the water, too. I’d ask her to feel Cauvery nourish the land, to look deeply into her waters.

I’d beg that child to ignore her various inconveniences. I’d ask her to stop worrying about pronunciations, to stop reciting city names, and instead to list all that the flowing water fed: Soil and Clouds, Leaves and Roots, Bodies and Cells.

Though I wouldn’t want to spoil her moment of communion, I’d feel obligated to warn her of the times to come, and to urge her to fight for the water, for her life, for the earth.


1. Das, Krishna N. and Shyamantha Asoken. “A Quarter of India’s Land Is Turning into Desert”. ScientificAmerican.org. Nature Publishing Group. 18 June 2014. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/a-quarter-of-india-s-land-is-turning-into-desert/

2. Isha Foundation. “Cauvery Calling”. https://www.ishaoutreach.org/en/cauvery-calling

3. Kumar-Rao, Arati. “India’s water crisis could be helped by better building, planning”. NationalGeographic.com. National Geographic Society. 15 July 2019. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/07/india-water-crisis-drought-could-be-helped-better-building-planning/#close

4. Safi, Michael. “Suicides of nearly 60,000 Indian farmers linked to climate change, study claims”. TheGuardian.com. Guardian Media Group. 31 July 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jul/31/suicides-of-nearly-60000-indian-farmers-linked-to-climate-change-study-claims

5. Salopek, Paul. “India is in a historic water crisis. Will diverting 30 rivers solve it?” NationalGeographic.com. National Geographic Society. 6 March 2019. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/03/india-diverting-30-rivers-to-solve-historic-water-crisis/

6. Zwerdling, Daniel. “‘Green Revolution’ trapping its farmers in debt.” Npr.org. Corporation for Public Broadcasting. 14 April 2009. https://www.npr.org/2009/04/14/102944731/green-revolution-trapping-indias-farmers-in-debt