A Walk to the Source of the Kaveri River

Author Bhikkhu Bodhi

In February 2019, accompanied by a young man from Bangalore named Nagarjuna, I set out to walk from Madikeri to Talakaveri, in the Kodagu district of Karnataka State in India. The distance of the walk is approximately 45 kilometers, about 30 miles.

On February 7th we traveled by train from Bangalore to Mysore. This is a pleasant and easy train ride of about 3.5 hours. We spent the night at the Mahabodhi Children’s School in Mysore. The next day (Feb. 8th), after the mid-day meal, we left for Madikeri, the major town in the Kodagu district. Ven. Bodhidatta, a Karnataka monk, drove us down in his car. The trip took about three hours. Along the way we stopped off at the Vikas Janaseva Home, a home for elderly people run by a man named Ramesh, a supporter of Ven. Bodhidatta.

When we reached Madikeri, Ven. Bodhidatta dropped us off at the home of Mrs. Batra, a devotee of Satya Sai Baba, who had previously helped the Mahabodhi School in Mysore and thus was known to Ven. Dhammāloka, the director of the school. Her husband is an eminent micro-biologist who has won many national awards and been honored by prominent government ministers, including several prime ministers. At the time he was not home; he was traveling back from Patna after attending a meeting there. We spent the night in an apartment in Mrs. Batra’s home, above the floor where she lives. The next day (Feb. 9th) Ramesh picked us up and drove us around to show us some sights around Madikeri—the Abbie Falls and the Pushpagiri Reserve. 

February 10—Sunday

We left Madikeri early in the morning, before breakfast, intending to get an early start before the day heated up. We were accompanied by a young man, a relative of Mrs. Batra, who lives in her house. He came along in order to show us where the road to Talakaveri branches off from Madikeri. After we reached the Talakaveri Road, he returned to Mrs. Batra’s home and Nagarjuna and I walked on by ourselves.

Mrs. Batra had kindly prepared two breakfast parcels for us of spiced rice and fruit. After walking for about an hour, at 8 am we decided to stop for breakfast. We saw a school and thought this would be a suitable place to eat. Since it was Sunday, no classes were in progress, but the schoolyard was open. A family consisting of a woman, her husband, and two boys were staying in a room of the school. We learned that the woman was a teacher here. The family had lost their home because of a landslide, but the school authorities allowed them to temporarily occupy this room. They offered us a mat on which to sit as we ate our breakfast. They also offered a bottle of water and some small bananas.

After breakfast we continued walking in the direction of Appangala, a village along the Talakaveri Road. At a certain point Ramesh, Ven. Bodhidatta’s supporter, caught up with us in his van and took us to a farmer’s house for the mid-day meal and our overnight stay. This was contrary to my own plan, which was to rest for a while after the meal, wait until the heat of the day subsides, and then continue walking. I did not want to be detained at any one place through the entire afternoon. But since Ramesh had made this arrangement on his own, out of courtesy I had to accept it.

The drive was about 5 km. We departed from the main road, took a side road, and then a small downhill road—partly paved, partly gravel, and partly dirt. At the end of this road we came to the home of the farming family. They primarily cultivate coffee, but also had a small plot for cultivating paddy and a couple of cows grazing in a field. Living at the home were the father, the mother, and a son and daughter. The son (perhaps 16) was in high school; the daughter (perhaps 20) had completed high school and was working in a nearby town. Another daughter was studying for a degree in commerce at a college in one of the cities.

We arrived about 10:30 am. The family prepared a simple meal for us of white rice, a tomato and onion curry, and a dish with a base of curd. The home was an old style farmhouse. It looked as if in days past it might have been a mark of affluence, but today it was rundown and in poor condition. It had only the barest furnishings; some rickety beds, wooden chairs, and plain wooden tables. The layout was like a maze, and I had to be sure to make the right turns to reach the room in which we were staying. The dirt floors were dusty; the only electrical items were a few light points, and at night the electricity was often interrupted. The toilet was an outdoor latrine, crouch style. Nevertheless, despite their apparent poverty, our hosts seemed a pious family, traditional Hindu farmers—honest, simple, and humble.

In the evening, as darkness fell, I performed a short blessing ceremony for the family at their request. I recited the vandana gathas to the Three Jewels, the Metta Sutta, and the Maha Jayamangala Gāthās. Since they are not Buddhist, I did not give the Refuges and Precepts. I then led them in a short meditation on loving-kindness, with Nagarjuna translating into Kannada. This was ironic, in a way, for a few days later Nagaruna told me that on that same afternoon the father had gone to participate in a puja at which a rooster was sacrificed to propitiate a local goddess.  

February 11th—Monday

After waking up at 4:30 am, I meditated for an hour and then did vandana. Before we left to continue our walk our hosts offered us sweet black tea and then gave us two food parcels to serve as our breakfast along the route. The father accompanied us on the local road leading to the secondary road, where he turned back. We continued walking until we reached the main road, perhaps a total of 3~4 km.

After walking about an hour, at 8 am we spotted a school and decided to take our breakfast there. We crossed the schoolyard and sat on the smooth stone walkway joining the classrooms. The family had given us each a parcel of upma (a spicy cereal). The amount of cereal they gave was so much that I could eat only half, but Nagarjuna finished his entire portion.

After breakfast we continued walking. The countryside here consists almost entirely of plantations, mostly of coffee, with patches of coconut trees and banana trees. Occasionally we would encounter clusters of houses and small villages made up of several shops. While aesthetically the landscape is pleasing to the eyes, after a while, on passing one coffee estate after another, it becomes tedious.

Ramesh was supposed to make an arrangement for our mid-day meal, but he had called Nagarjuna and told him he was busy that day and could not contact anyone on our behalf. I was not concerned, since I had my alms bowl with me and knew that I could always go on alms round. Before we left Bangalore, one of the monks had prepared a sign for me saying “I am a Buddhist monk on alms round. I only accept food, not money. Wishing you all blessings.” I could stop in front of houses and hold up the sign. Nagarjuna had brought a bell to ring outside the houses.

It turned out, however, that on this occasion I did not have to go on alms round. As we were walking along, preparing to stop for a rest, a motorcycle passed us, slowed down ahead of us, and stopped. As we approached, the cyclist removed his helmet. He introduced himself as a lecturer in economics at a nearby college (pre-university). He told us he had seen us yesterday on the road and was curious what we were doing. Nagarjuna explained to him, in Kannada, that we were making a padayatra, a walking tour, to the source of the Kaveri River.

The man, Mr. Diwakar, offered to make arrangements for our lunch. He told us to continue past a farmers’ bank (about 2 km further down the road), then continue further until we saw a house under construction, and beyond that, another house just off the road. That is where we would have our lunch.

I was under the impression that Mr. Diwakar was directing us to his own house, but it turned out I was mistaken. The head of the house was an older man whose children had studied economics with Mr. Diwakar. In this way they became friends. The man was a coffee cultivator. He lived in the house with his wife, son, and daughter-in-law. The son was out at work, but the other three were at home, along with his little grand-daughter. He told us that on account of the torrential rains this past summer he lost some 70 percent of his coffee crop.

The family offered Nagarjuna and myself a simple but tasty lunch of white rice, a vegetable curry, pickle, and pappadan. They also offered me a room to rest after the meal. From my experience on this walk, I came to see that in the countryside for most people the main meal of the day consists of little more than rice and a single curry dish, with side condiments and small bananas or other fruit for dessert.

After my rest and a meditation session, I went to the front room, where the family offered us coffee. By this time the heat of the day was subsiding. I called the family together for a blessing and after the usual photo session we resumed our walk.

We passed through a town called Cherambane, where we met Mr. Diwakar and a friend of his, a retired captain in the Indian army, in a truck. They had made arrangements for us to spend the night. They offered to give us a ride, but I rejected it, since my intention was to walk. We told them we would meet them a further 5 km down the road. They told us they would wait for us past the Danta Resort.

We continued walking. The terrain is still covered almost entirely by coffee estates, but at one point the land to the right of the road drops sharply to a low-lying valley, affording an awesome view of the mountains in the distance. The valley below is covered with paddy fields, a welcome break from the monotony of interminable coffee estates.

Along the road we came upon a clean, well-stocked coffee and spices shop called Sunrock, maintained by a young woman who greeted us with a beautiful bright smile. Two schoolgirls were with her, dressed in their green and gold school uniforms. The woman looked so young that I thought the girls were her younger sisters, but it turns out they were her daughters. The older girl looked about 14 and the younger about 10. This would have put the shop owner in her early 30s. She offered us tea and coffee and told us she had just opened the shop a month earlier, on January 14th. She also said she is a yoga teacher. I recited a blessing for them, and she told me she recognized some of the words in my chant, which are also found in Kannada (actually they have been absorbed into Kannada from Sanskrit and thus correspond to Pāli words).

We continued walking and passed the Danta Resort; it is presently under construction and when completed I believe it will be a five-star hotel. Just past the resort we met Mr. Diwakar and the captain, along with a cousin of the captain, also a retired military officer. As soon as we arrived, a bus pulled up and Mr. Diwakar ran to catch the bus, leaving us to the two cousins. They drove us to the bungalow where we were to spend the night. It is a home stay on a coffee estate a couple of kilometers off the main road. It is a nice house, well maintained, of a standard suitable even for Western tourists or middle-class Indian travelers. It has a well-furnished sitting room and a spacious bedroom with two beds. The bathroom has tap water and two toilets: one the Indian squat toilet, the other the Western commode.

February 12th—Tuesday

No breakfast was to be provided for us this morning. I would thus have to go on alms round. We set out walking at 7:30 am. We walking along the divergence road that had taken us to the bungalow. The terrain is a combination of coffee estates, bush, and large expansive trees that appear to be very old. On reaching the main road we continued walking for about a half-hour or a little longer. At 8:15 am I decided it was time to go on alms round. I took out the sign in Kannada and the bell, which I gave to Nagarjuna. I then went off to the side of the road to roll my robe into the formal style prescribed for walking on alms round. As soon as I returned to Nagarjuna, a car pulled up and the captain’s cousin came out with several packets of food, which he offered into my bowl. He then got back into the car and drove away.

I next stood outside several houses, bowl in hand and eyes cast down, with Nagarjuna behind me ringing the bell. The sound did not catch the attention of the occupants, who must have been too deeply engaged in their own  activities to hear it. At the next house the male resident was standing in the garden. He called his wife, who came out with a couple of rotis, which she placed in the bowl.

We next crossed the street, where I saw a man standing in the garden of his house and a woman on the verandah braiding the hair of a girl (of about 12), her daughter, dressed in the same green and gold uniform as the daughters of the coffee shop owner. Nagarjuna exchanged some words with them in Kannada. The woman asked if I would take a glass of milk. I declined, since I’m not accustomed to drinking milk in the morning. She then asked if we would take roti. I said yes. She went into the house and brought out two rotis and a curry preparation. I was about to receive them into my bowl when she invited us up to the verandah and suggested we take our breakfast there. As we approached she became emotionally effusive and said to me (via translation): “My mother and father are no more, but when I see you I feel my mother and father are still with me.” She served us with deep faith and devotion, offering a second serving of rotis and curry.

She told us that this day her daughter had her final examination, so we went into their sitting room and I blessed all three of them. She also told us that she thought the encounter that took place today was a rare blessing for her. She said that whenever other ascetics come to her house, they ask only for money, and they complain that what she gives is not sufficient. But she was delighted that I refused to receive any money and would accept only food.

Through her conversation with Nagarjuna it emerged that she has a cancer and regularly goes to Kerala for chemotherapy. I was deeply distressed to learn this. She seemed to be a wonderful woman, very generous and devout, and I kept on imagining what the impact would be on her family if she were to die of the cancer. I recited another blessing for her, and in my heart I strongly wished that the merits of her offering would serve as a potent counteractive wholesome karma that would cancel out the negative karma responsible for the cancer.

After leaving her house, we continued walking on the road to Talakaveri, pausing several times to rest along the route. Nagarjuna tried several times to call Mr. Diwakar to find out about his proposed arrangement for our lunch that day, but he could not get through to him. He finally tried one more time to call him, but again without success. Just then we looked up on the road, and there was Mr. Diwakar standing just ahead of us at a small roadside stall. His college was just about a hundred meters further up the road: the Sri Chauveri Pre-university College. The school comprises the 11th and 12th standard and prepares students for entry into the university.

Mr. Diwakar bought us buttermilk drinks at the stall and then led us by a vehicle to the government Inspection Bungalow where we had our lunch. He himself had to return to the school. At the bungalow I could finally bathe and wash my dusty clothes. The sun was so strong and hot that I could hang my clothes on the line outside the bungalow and expect them to be dry in an hour. After the meal we rested in the bungalow until 4 pm and then resumed our walk.

We had hardly walked a hundred meters on the main road when a car pulled up beside us with Ven. Bodhidatta, Ramesh, and a couple of Ven. Bodhidatta’s supporters. We put our baggage in their car and continued walking to Bhagamandala, the last major town before the ascent to Talakaveri begins. Ven. Bodhidatta got out of the car and joined us on foot. Ramesh and another man rode in the car, and still another man also got out and walked, taking photos of us as we walked along. The driver and Ramesh drove to Bhagamandala and parked there, waiting for us to reach the town.

In Bhagamandala we could see the Kaveri River at an early stage in its descent to the plains. Here it is still a narrow stream. We also visited the Bhagandeshwara Temple. According to Karnataka.com:

The temple reflects the Kerala style of architecture and is dedicated to Lord Shiva. The place has been named after Sri Bhaganda Maharshi who lived there along with his disciples. He did penance to invoke the blessings of Lord Shiva. The Lord blessed him and assured him of his presence. The Shiva linga was installed by Sri Bhaganda Maharshi, which is how the temple got its name…. The main deity in the temple is Lord Shiva, but there are also shrines of Lord Vishnu, Ganpati and Lord Subrahmanya. It is considered auspicious to take a dip in the holy water of Triveni Sangama, hence thousands of devotees throng the temple during the Tula Sankramana, which generally falls on the 18th of October every year. Many people also perform the last rites of their deceased loved ones.

 After a short visit to the temple, we headed for the Mayura Hotel for refreshments and then continued the walk toward Talakaveri. The distance from Bhagamandala to Talakaveri is 8 km. Accommodation had been arranged for us at a place halfway up the mountain. By this time it was late afternoon and the sun was beginning to sink toward the horizon. Talakaveri is at the top of the mountain, and thus, as we continued walking, the road started to become steep and the walk more demanding. It was fortunate that the car accompanying us carried our baggage, moving along at a slow pace.

Almost as soon as we left Bhagamandala and started our climb up the road, the terrain abruptly changed, from coffee estates and coconut groves to wild forest, with massive trees and sprawling bushland. On all sides we were surrounded by magnificent mountains.

While we were ascending the mountain, I heard a commotion behind me and saw Nagarjuna run back down the hill. I turned around and saw that Ven. Bodhidatta was writhing on the ground. His supporters were around him, one massaging his legs. At first I thought he might have had a heart attack, but he said that he had cramps in his lower legs. His followers massaged the calves and poured water over them. After resting a while, he got up and claimed he was now all right. Though we urged him to ride in the car, he insisted he could walk and we yielded to his wishes. Hardly had we walked another 50 meters than he fell again, and again his disciple massaged his calves and poured water over them. This time, after he had rested, he got in the car and continued the trip by car.

Just as night was falling, we reached our destination, the Coorg Green Spices and Coffee Shop, about 4 km from Talakaveri. The owners of the shop offered us refreshments and then led Nagarjuna and myself up to an apartment above the shop, where we spent the night.  

February 13th—Wednesday

The folks at the spice shop served us a delicious breakfast of upma, a vegetable curry, and balls made of rice flour to be eaten with a curry gravy. After the meal, Nagarjuna and I continued our ascent of the mountain road. We had about 4 km to cover to reach Talakaveri, but as the road rose, it became increasingly steep and convoluted. Each turn of the road offered increasingly more spectacular views of the surrounding  countryside, with the Western Ghat mountains in the distance, one mountain rolling behind another like waves on the sea. From the distance they appeared blue, purple, and gray.

After several short stops to rest and gather our strength, with one last turn of the mountain road the Talakaveri Temple complex at last came into view. Since the Kaveri River is considered sacred, its point of origin is regarded as the abode of a goddess, Sri Kaverishwari, and thus a temple complex has developed around the origin. Off to the right of the temple complex, about a hundred meters below the entrance, we saw another compound that looked like a temple.

Nagarjuna suggested that we first stop off at this place. I assumed he just wanted to get some information and that we were going to stay in the temple. As we approached, I saw the words “Kailasa Ashram” on the gate to the compound. A man in a white dhoti and shirt was standing toward the back, in front of the main hall, greeting us with a smile and gesture of anjali, as if he were expecting us. It turned out that Mr. Diwakar had made arrangements for us to spend the night here. Apparently, though a humble lecturer in economics, he has quite a wide range of influence in this part of Karnataka.

The man beckoned us to come close, offered us seats on a stone plank outside the main hall, and brought us cups of cool water, which we appreciated after the strenuous climb up the mountain road. The man, named Ravi Kavindra Swami, appeared to be the manager of the ashram. Although he bears the title of swami, I doubt that he is an ordained sannyasi but more likely an informal renunciant. He was not wearing the typical ocher robes of a sannyasi but was dressed in white.

He explained to us that the ashram was established by an American named Sivaya Subramuniya Swami, who had passed away  in 2001. He was a recognized guru in the Shaiva Siddhanta lineage and founded an ashram in Hawaii. Interestingly, his guru was the eminent Yoga Swami of Jaffna in Sri Lanka (died 1964), of whom I had often  heard when I was in Sri Lanka. Yoga Swami was highly venerated by people of all religions.

Ravi Swami complained about the way the sacred ambiance of the mountain was being desecrated by the throngs of tourists who visit the site, few of whom have any appreciation for its sanctity. Almost all are Indian; few Westerners come to this place, far from the usual tourist trails. He said they mainly come between September and January, make plenty of noise, look around and take photographs, and then leave. They do not show any respect for the holy heritage of the mountain, the origin of one of India’s sacred rivers. In the past, according to the swami, the place was a rishi-kshetra, “an abode of sages,” where yogis came to meditate. Now, however, it is being turned into just another tourist site for sightseers who arrive in busloads. Fortunately, at the time we visited the mountain, the place was almost deserted–quiet, serene, with very few tourists.

After our conversation, Ravi Swami led us to the residential block of the ashram and showed us our room. It was a bare room with just two beds and a chair. The residential block has four rooms, presumably all with two beds. In the back there is a bathroom section with toilets, sinks, and bathing rooms.

We rested for about an hour, after which the swami called us for lunch, a simple meal of white rice and a single curry. He served it to us with his own hands. After the meal we chatted a while. The swami is familiar with some Buddhist literature. He said that years ago he read a Buddhacharita, a life of the Buddha, and a collection of Jataka stories.

After our chat we rested and meditated, waiting for the mid-day heat to subside. When I stepped outside after our siesta, barefoot, the stone slab at the entrance to our hall was so hot I could not keep my feet on it. At around 4 pm we walked to the Talakaveri Temple and saw the sacred spot where the Kaveri River originates. This was the destination of our long walk that started four days earlier. However, it did not meet my preconceived idea of what the origin of a river looks like. I expected waters to be gushing out of the crevice in a mountain rock or a spring in the ground rising up to form a continuous stream. Instead, the origin point consists of a square pool enclosed by stone railings. Just above it is a smaller square pool containing “holy water.” A priest sits next to this pool, scooping out water in a ladle and offering it to devotees to sip and sprinkle over their heads. There is a plate next to him to receive donations.

We climbed up to the courtyard above the origin area, where there are shrines to several Hindu deities. We sat in meditation for some time on the stone block at one side. Then we climbed down and returned to the ashram for our evening vandana and meditation.

As is so often the case in this part of India, the presiding deity at the Kailasa Ashram is the elephant-headed god Ganesha, also known as Ganapati, son of Shiva. The shrine room is dedicated to him, and several times I saw the swami washing the precincts of the shrine and bringing offering items. Curiously, at Talakaveri there is no visible representation of the goddess Kaverishwari. She is represented only by the small square pool of holy water.  

February 14—Thursday

The day before the swami had told Nagarjuna that he would not be able to provide breakfast this day and suggested we have our breakfast at a hotel about a kilometer down the road. We walked down and Nagarjuna ordered for me a masala dosa with a potato curry and chutney as side dishes. It was quite filling. The swami also told Nagarjuna we would have to leave our rooms by 2 pm. He would not be able to provide accommodation for another night. I could not figure out the reason for this, since it did not seem as if anyone else would be coming. Perhaps he cherishes his solitude at the ashram.

At 10 am we set out to climb the Brahmagiri Mountain, which is reached by passing through the Talakaveri Temple. To get to the top of the mountain one must climb a flight of stone steps. Traditionally it is said that the ascent consists of 500 stone steps, but someone told Nagarjuna that there are actually about 300 steps. In any case, the ascent is quite exhausting, but the top of the mountain offers a panoramic view of the entire countryside—an astounding view that extends to the horizon on all sides, exceeding my powers of description. Magnificent mountains roll out in each direction—pale purple and gray against the deep blue sky. According to legend, seven rishis meditated on this mountaintop and received a vision of Brahma. Hence the name Brahmagiri.

To climb the mountain we had to leave our shoes below in a depository and climb barefoot. This was not difficult for me when we were climbing the stone steps, which are flat and smooth. But the top of Brahmagiri, beyond the steps, is made of rough red rock with many small, sharp pebbles which pierce the feet. I thus found it hard to walk around at the top.

As soon as we arrived at the top, a crowd of Indian tourists came right up behind us—one of the only crowds I saw here. Most were young women, but there were a few males with them. They laughed and shouted and took group photos, disturbing the serenity of the mountain. I would have loved to be up here alone, or with a few people who appreciate a meditative environment. But I had to bear the boisterous crowd with equanimity.

We had our lunch at the ashram, again served to us by the swami. By 2:30 pm we were ready to leave. Nagarjuna had called Ramesh, who had offered to come to Talakaveri, pick us up, and bring us back to Madikeri. When we went to say good-bye to the swami, he invited us to a seat outside the main hall and started a conversation about the Buddha, with references to the story of Angulimala, the meal offering by Ambapali, and some stories from the Jatakas.

Ramesh arrived around 3 pm, along with his wife and father. They first visited the Talakaveri Temple and then came to the ashram. They sat for some time speaking to the swami. Then we all got into the car and traveled back to Madikeri.

As we drove back over the same road we had covered by foot, the experience seemed like traveling back in time. I saw the Coorg Green Spice and Coffee Shop where we had spent the night before completing the walk to Talakaveri; the turn off to the Inspection Bungalow where we had our meal that day; the Danta Resort, where we met the captain; the Sunrock Spice and Coffee Shop, where the yoga teacher with her two daughters offered us tea; the Sri Chauveri Pre-university College where we met Mr. Diwakar; the school where we had breakfast after leaving the farmer’s house; the school where we had breakfast on our first day of walking; the road leading up to Madikeri, and the twisting road that brought us to Mrs. Batra’s house. I had been looking for the houses where I went on alms round, but failed to recognize them.

We spent our last night in Madikeri at Mr. Batra’s house. The next morning she again offered us a delicious breakfast. That morning the van from the Mahabodhi School in Mysore came for us and drove us to Mysore, where I spent the next four days.

On Feb. 19th Ven. Bodhidatta brought me to the site of his proposed Nalanda University, where I gave a short talk to his followers, recited some blessings, and had the mid-day meal. Then we embarked on the ride back to the Mahabodhi Society in Bangalore, brought there by the van of the Mahabodhi School in Mysore.

 

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