Matshona Dhliwayo once said, “A river is an ocean in a desert.” In the face of threatening climate disaster, look at rivers today, their lifelines, and the habitats they support — this statement is truer than ever.
Aghanashini is a small village on the southern bank of Aghanashini River in Kumta taluk (township) of Uttar Kannada district in Karnataka, Southwest India. In this village, the virgin river Aghanashini (meaning “one who destroys sins”) empties into the Arabian sea after originating 124km away in Shankara Honda, amidst the UNESCO World Heritage Center of the Western Ghats in Sirsi.
The other place where the river is believed to have originated is Manjuguni, a small hamlet in Ankola district of Karnataka. What makes this river unique is that its 124 km long course has remained unchanged from its origin as there have been no dams constructed in its path. The river follows a unique trajectory through stunning mountains, waterfalls, verdant valleys and stunning landscapes before finally merging into the Arabian Sea.
Aghanashini nurtures the relics of an ancient forest that has survived millions of years. The swamps of evergreen trees (Gymnacranthera canarica and Myristica fatua) here belong to the Myristicaceae family and help maintain the river’s perennial stream. These trees have subterranean tree roots called knee roots that help in exchange of gases, storing carbon to keep the air clean. Their characteristic stilt roots that help support the plant in the soft soil are also notable for most typically being seen in mangrove swamps. However, the most important role that the Myristica swamps perform is to retain monsoon water like sponges, releasing it during the hotter seasons. They also help reduce the impact of some floods, as they can contain the water to a certain degree.
The number of these swamps has seen a steady decrease over the years and the water has been getting diverted to farms. In fact, the forest has given way to agricultural lands for thousands of years now. But thankfully, all is not lost — religion has provided a solution to safeguard these ancient forests. There are fascinating legends about these forests, and locals believe that the Gods have been protecting these forests since time immemorial. There are several Terracotta figures found here that bear a striking similarity to the figurines of the Indus Valley, and this place was similarly a home for black pepper and other spices in the past.
Of all the sacred groves here, Babrulingeshwara is a sacred part of the mangrove forest where worship continues — it is believed no trees have ever been felled here. As the river flows along, the point at which the paddy fields end and the forest begins is a fascinating wonder called Gullegundi, where air bubbles mysteriously emanate from the water.
These forests are home to rich diversity of animals and birds, but the resident that adds to the unique and mysterious element of the area is the lion-tailed macaque, said to be one of the rarest primates in the wild. Their closest cousins live in the remote Sulawesi islands of Indonesia and only about 600 of these rare macaques live here. Known to be voracious foragers of the canopy, they feed on honey and jackfruit in the forest, help in seed dispersal, and are a key ally in sustaining the ecosystem. With an exceptionally low birthrate and habitat destruction, the future of these rare primates was once uncertain. However, after unrelenting efforts by prominent researchers and conservationists, the areas of Aghanashini and the adjoining forest of Sharavati have been declared as a Lion Tailed Macaque Conservation Reserve.
During the monsoon, there are other treats. A unique tree that starts turning into fruit locally called Uppage (Garcinia gummi-gutta) is one such example. Harvesting it is tough however, as the fruit is ready in June when rain is at its heaviest. Once collected from the forest, these fruits are cut and smoke dried before being sold as spices and medicine. The monsoon also brings to life a unique sundown spectacle, the bioluminescent fungi that glow in the night and give the forest a fairytale look.
The monsoon season is a time when some of the river’s streams and tributaries carry such a wash of organic material and soil that the waters turn red. The confluence of the clear and muddy waters at Marse is a sight to behold, flowing alongside and separate for hundreds of meters before they merge. However, a tributary named Bennehole is always clear and manifests as a stunning waterfall at Hebre. Aghanashini also has one of the highest number of waterfalls for any single river in the whole region and one of the most special ones is Unchalli where you can see a moonbow (a rainbow that happens at night) on a full moon night.
The salinity in these estuaries decreases in the monsoon season, providing perfect conditions to grow a unique variety of rice called Kagga, a salt tolerant rice variety that has been growing here for over 3500 years and requires a boat to harvest. The place where Kagga grows in the tidal wetlands of Kumta is called ‘Ghajini.’
Nestled on top of a mountain and surrounded by thick evergreen forests, another unique rice variety famous for its aroma grows called Sanna Akki. Unlike Kagga, Sanna Akki enjoys a decent local demand in villages like Methini, where the Hallaki tribe celebrate the rice’s bounty with a harvest festival. After a puja at the village headman’s house, they dance to electrifying music staging hundreds of shows over five days, walking from one village to the other, performing at each village on their way.
Growing in the saline water, the entangled roots of mangrove forests not only reduce soil erosion, but also provide a safe refuge for the young fish and act as exceptionally good carbon sinks. The coast where Aghanashini empties into the Arabian sea is dotted with such habitats. Estuaries are among the most productive ecosystems on Earth and most hospitable for mollusks like bivalves. The meat of the bivalve is a protein rich food for the people and their calcium rich shells are used to manufacture lime, which has a high industrial value. Low tides mean that the women head to the mud flats to collect this precious commodity, sifting the mud beneath their feet to pick the bivalves.
Some women go further to collect bivalves from the riverbed, diving each time for more than a minute. These women typically collect the bivalves for up to six hours each day, for about eight months in a year. They do it without any respiratory aid or safety apparatus and when the yield is high, even men join the collection drive. Once found in good numbers in Sharavati and Kali basins, the bivalves have now vanished from these estuaries due to the yearlong release of dam water from the upstream. Salinity variation across seasons as a key for the survival of bivalves and even a small disturbance can hamper this delicate balance disrupting the livelihoods of these people.
In the recent past, there have been plans to lease this land for industrial salt production, to build a thermal power plant and regular proposals to build a dam for generating electricity which have been met with widespread protests that have saved the river for now. But threats continue even today, with a proposal to divert a portion of the river’s flow to take water to faraway cities. A huge commercial port is also on the cards that is sure to kill the entire population of bivalves and turn the rich estuary barren. Conservation is a must and the importance of the same can hardly be overemphasized in this belt that is so fragile and yet has so much available nowhere else. The choice then is clear — the river and its path must continue unaltered and keep intact what nature intended.
- The region is also known for producing brown salt at Sanikatta village that is considered pure and natural and has natural minerals and herbs with about 96 per cent minerals.
- The banks have the highest variety of wild mangoes in the world called Appemidi.
- The estuary is rich with over 30 species of crabs.
- The bamboo from the valley makes the best quality of flutes.
Header image by Ashwini Kumar Bhat.