Among Hindus, there is a funeral rite that calls for immersion of the deceased’s ashes in the Ganga. That river is far from my ancestral village of Alathiyoor, near Tirur in central Kerala, but that wasn’t a concern: We have always looked on the Bharatapuzha—poetically called the Nila—as our Ganga; there are, in fact, many myths that connect the two rivers.
Back in Tirur after an absence of four years to perform my father’s last rites in December 2003, I was aghast to see the Nila was less than a trickle. It had never been a very deep river, but I remembered it as a wide, singing body of water. As children, my friends and I had played on its banks, we had grown up on its legends, and I had carried its image wherever I went across the world. But at that moment, as I stood in the ankle-deep water with my father’s ashes in my hands, something changed. I knew there was no going back from the Nila.
The keeper: Parayil organizes tours to the Spiti Valley
“The next five years of my life are for the river,” I announced to my friends soon afterwards. They were as concerned about the Nila as I was, but no one had thought seriously about what we could do for our river. I had worked as a professional fund-raiser with a children’s non-governmental organization in the UK and was aware that raising money for the Nila would not be a big deal. But I also knew most conventional funding supports aren’t sustainable. Plus, we wanted to dream our dreams for the Nila in our way, not according to the whims of a funding agency.
My first and closest associate in the Nila venture was Arun Prabhakaran, a childhood friend. He is a mine of river stories, steeped in its lore, its peoples and its civilizational ideals. Whatever we talked about, we always came back to the Nila. And, that’s when the idea hit us: Why not raise funds for the Nila by showcasing its unique history and culture? So was born The Blue Yonder (TBY) (www.theblueyonder.com) as a pioneering responsible travel company.
But first, always first, comes the Nila Foundation, dedicated to the regeneration of a dying river (and, in a broader sense, to all rivers). Under its aegis, we research the cause for the river’s decay, study the immense sociocultural impact of its seasonality, work with anthropologists, environmentalists, local musicians and folk artists. In its own sphere, the Nila is as significant as any of the great rivers of our country: On its banks thrived the ancient astrologer Vararuchi and the mathematician Aryabhatta. In more recent years, the river has imbued the work of littérateurs such as Jnanpith awardee M.T. Vasudevan Nair and O.V. Vijayan. The river has watered paddy fields, sustained rural livelihoods of farmers and traditional healers.
All that now stands threatened by the pressures of modernity. The state’s remittance economy has fostered a building boom; the source of sand—essential construction material—is the river. Forests in the catchment area, responsible for rainfall, are disappearing. Many of the Nila’s tributaries have been thoughtlessly dammed.
But all is not lost yet. For instance, a few families of the Pulluvars still exist, whom I remember doing rounds of our village, singing praises of snake gods. We have tracked them down, urged the adults to involve the children in their profession, take their art to the people again. But why should they want their children to follow a lifestyle that isn’t lucrative any more? Similar is the case with local farming and folk culture: Their revival has to make sustainable economic sense. Various Nila Foundation initiatives try to do just that.
In their own arenas, each venture is a “river-keeper’s initiative”. The Kodeeri Nature Camp promotes sustainable farming. The Madhava Vidhyalayam trains local kids in traditional percussion music. Vayali documents local folk culture. And TBY takes travellers around to these sites—they live in farm homesteads, attend percussion concerts, visit the Pulluvars in their villages—because it makes financial sense for everyone. None of the initiatives, though, is completely dependent on the TBY.
Besides, TBY also funds broader research into the status of rivers in Kerala and into folk culture along the Nila; we’re also setting up a coir processing unit in Tirur as a model of local work directly connected to the river.
It has been four years now and, finally, we’re seeing results; we hope to break even next year. Also, we now offer holidays in line with our basic philosophy in Karnataka, Sikkim, Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan and the Sunderbans in West Bengal, besides Kerala, and co-organized the Incredible India Second International Conference on Responsible Tourism in Kochi in March. But as we’ve become more and more involved with responsible tourism, I am more certain than I was four years ago: There is no going back from the Nila.
As told to Sumana Mukherjee. Write to email@example.com