(Part I of a four-part series)
I was thirteen years old when my father decided to change the family surname from Kulkarni to Noolkar. I was flabbergasted. Not only was I unaware of anyone who had changed their surname as such (or indeed, that it could be done just like that), but also, the idea struck me as particularly unpleasant and unnecessary. I could imagine the repeated questions and taunts at school, and besides, who would change into this rather irregular last name anyway?
I voiced these thoughts to my father in no uncertain terms. who, in turn, beamed and simply told me what it meant. “Noolkar”, he said, “means hailing from Nool. That’s the village we come from.”
I had never heard of it.
“Nool is in Gadhinglaj taluka of Kolhapur district, on the banks of the Hiranyakeshi river, very close to the Karnataka border,” he went on, oblivious to my disinterest. “And the region is very famous for its buffaloes – their milk is of excellent quality, and they are golden haired – hiranyakeshi!” he finished grandly.
I never wanted to hear of it again.
For the next decade and more, as I patiently corrected people who misspelt and mispronounced my unusual last name, not once did I think of Nool or Hiranyakeshi. I travelled to half a dozen countries in three continents, but not once did I step into Nool. I saw the Ganga, Brahmaputra, Mekong, Pearl, Potomac and Hudson, and began working on transboundary water conflicts on Middle Eastern rivers, but not once did I see the Hiranyakeshi flow. It was only after I started studying rivers of Maharashtra that the thought of the Hiranyakeshi crossed my mind.
Whether it was because of my marriage, (and the prospects of taking on a new identity), or an increased understanding of water here at home I do not know, but the curiosity to visit my village and its river took root. The experience of travelling the entire length of the exotic Teesta river still retained its exhilaration, and while the Himalayan rivers beckoned me again, I found myself increasingly invested in exploring the peninsula first. What better than Hiranyakeshi to begin with?
My husband’s friend decided to get wedded at Belgaum at the end of 2018, about 70 kilometres away from the origin of the Hiranyakeshi, and off we went a day earlier, to explore the river and my village.
The Hiranyakeshi is a small river (just 88 kms). It originates in the beautiful, hypnotic village of Amboli, and pours into the Ghataprabha river, which itself is a tributary of the Krishna river. Small, slender and transboundary, the Hiranyakeshi snakes through the southern tip of Maharashtra, briefly tracing the Maharashtra-Karnataka border, into the northern slice of Karnataka. Important towns on its banks are Amboli, Ajra, Gadhinglaj and Sankeshwar. The river also has her own mini waterfalls, named Ramteerth, near Ajra. Since she twists and curves and bends an umpteen number of times and often strays from the road, we decided to stick to the road and follow it partly virtually in part i.e. through Google maps. We would go as far as the car would go, and take as many stops as we would want on the way.
A quick early breakfast in a sleepy Belgaum set us off in the cheerful December sun. The road from Belgaum to Amboli was pretty; tiny villages, lush green fields of sugarcane and jowar lined both sides of the road, and the rich, black soil peeked over fallow lands. Intermittent meadows of thick trees took over as villages faded into the distance, their branches arching over the winding road and forming a thick canopy which nevertheless provided glimpses of a brilliant blue sky. We rolled down the car windows to let the sunrays bounce off us, and were pleasantly greeted with a cool whiff of sweet-smelling breeze that accompanied us for the rest of the day.
The road was quite deserted except a tractor or two carrying sugarcane to the nearest sugar factory and the classic state transport bus, popularly known as the ST. The tractors were to play an important albeit unfortunate role in our journey later in the day, and were indeed a prominent feature of our entire trip to Belgaum and back. The ST is known to spring upon the unsuspecting private traveller on a random twist and startle him, though momentarily. Its bulky red body swings in tandem with the irregular rhythm of the unpredictably twisting roads of the Sahyadris. No wonder, no amount of experience in the ghats can do away the silent sigh of relief a driver heaves when the sudden ST passes by smoothly.
At the outskirts of Amboli village, a small, beaten road took us to the origin of the Hiranyakeshi, located in a sacred grove, commemorated by the Hiranyakeshwar temple. We passed by a hamlet, which, though tiny, looked fairly well-to-do, with petit pukka houses, each with a vehicle or two. People, young and old, thronged the verandahs basking in the winter sun and looked at us curiously as we drove by. We climbed a small hill and drove through a forest (more likely, a clump of trees) until we reached a clearing that looked like a parking spot for the temple. We parked there and walked the last few metres.
The temple seemed to be frequented by visitors, as the path was well-paved. It was a solitary walk, however not a soul was in sight. There was no sound except a bird chirping melancholically, and even though we got glimpses of a stream through the trees, there was absolutely no hint of what our final destination was going to look like. We scrambled up a small mound rather impatiently and the view opened up to a cosy sacred grove. In its lap sat a neatly seated temple facing a small rectangular pond with the gomukh, literally, mouth of a cow, at its helm.
I had reached the origin of the Hiranyakeshi.
(This post was first published here on The Tilak Chronicle.)
Gauri Noolkar-Oak is a transboundary water conflicts researcher and has studied river basins in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and South Asia. She is also the Founder of Lokmaanya.
The views and opinions expressed in the above article belong to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official opinion, policy or position of Lokmaanya.