JOR, MAHARASHTRA: Really, where’s the Krishna born? In one gushing torrent springing from the earth? Or in multiple streaks of water draining down the hills around Mahabaleshwar? Or perhaps magically from the mouth of a stone sculpture of a cow, filling up a kund and then spilling out on a great journey to the sea?
With mythology on its side, it’s the last-named place, the Krishnabai temple at Kshetra Mahabaleshwar, which makes the most strident claim to being the source of the Krishna. But the path to it is not promising. In an unwitting prelude to the state of the river downstream, it is strewn with garbage, the tower is covered with moss, and monument bonsais sprout through the cracks in the masonry.
Visitors are few and far between, being more interested in the Panchganga temple a few hundred yards downhill, which stands at the confluence of five rivulets, including the Krishna, which team up and become the torrent we used to know.
Here at the Krishnabai, at the end of an unmarked path leading to nowhere, it’s hard to imagine the scale and devotion of the millions observing the Krishna Pushkaram festival in four states downstream.
The temple is said to be 800 years old but its priest Mangesh Homble puts it back to 5,000 years. He is a rather unconventional dresser for a priest, clad in a zippered jacket and rolled-up trousers. And he has no time for visitors – the few who turn up – who won’t leave their footwear outside. This is a temple after all, although it looks more like a forgotten monument.
“Thank god for that!” he says out loud, folding his hands in mock exasperation, when asked why there are so few visitors. In a calmer moment, he says it couldn’t be any more popular, given that there’s no signage to the temple, barring some tattered banners strung to the trees. Who would be curious enough to trudge a few hundred metres through the mud?
Inside the sanctum sanctorum, the pillars show a generous growth of calcites due to the steady drip of water. But Homble thinks it’s a great place for meditation and proceeds to chant the Mrityunjaya mantra — which bounces off the moss-covered walls in a mesmeric echo.
The Archaeological Survey of India protects the monument and has it weeded thrice a year. But that’s about it for the mythological fount of a river being celebrated in four states.
The Krishnabai temple’s claim to being the source of the Krishna is disputed locally. The river hides in the valleys and ghats of Mahabaleshwar only to re-emerge downstream close to the village of Jor in Wai taluka, where too its birthplace is claimed, much to the outrage of the people of Mahabaleshwar.
In Mahabaleshwar, Prateek, the twenty-something manager of a small hotel, charmingly sells damp and smelly rooms at exorbitant rates during the holiday weekend, but frowns when asked about Jor. “There’s nothing there. This is the birthplace of the river. Somebody has misled you,” he insists.
In Wai taluka, however, the farmers are Jor fans. “Oh, Jor? You want to see the birthplace of the Krishna?” a farmer exclaims before carefully giving us directions to the village. To cement its claim, the town of Wai organises an annual fair called the Krishnabai festival which is celebrated for eight days.
Wai is a storied place. It was here that Adil Shah’s general, Afzal Khan, came to grief at the hands – or the wagh nakh (tiger claws) – of Chattrapati Shivaji. The story goes that the Maratha warrior’s aides prayed to the Krishna for Shivaji’s victory in that fateful meeting and were duly granted.
Jor lies beyond the end of a meandering drive round the folds of the Sahyadri range, framed by scenic waterfalls on one side and glimpses of the Krishna on the other. Then suddenly around a bend, the path vanishes into the misty green, leaving one in the middle of nowhere. This right here, a local inhabitant tells us, is Jor, and there, an hour’s trek further up the hill, is the real birthplace of the Krishna. Alas, it is presently inaccessible due to landslides.
Here at Jor, fed by the rivulets streaking down the hills, Krishna is already a force. It rushes up and divides the village into two. Today, the larger half is inaccessible as the lone bridge that led to it from Wai collapsed 15 days ago. Buses have stopped plying and children going to school in Kshetra Mahabaleshwar now sit at home. On the other side of the village, the asphalt road abruptly ends. Jor’s lesser half is a hamlet without any paths. But what use are roads here? Everyone, ten-year-old or seventy, hikes up the hill to Kshetra Mahabaleshwar, where temples, schools and livelihoods are located.
“We do not call it the Krishna,” Sangeeta Santosh Dhebe corrects us. “It is called Ulki. They call it the Krishna down at the Balkawadi dam, not here.” Sangeeta is a citizen of Jor. Her husband Santosh is a guide at Kshetra Mahabaleshwar, where perhaps he tells the story of the Krishna and the cow to tourists. But this is Jor, and she is sovereign. Her septuagenarian in-laws farm the paddy fields. Out here, irrigating the paddies is never a problem as it is for farmers in the distant delta of the Krishna.
But then, some problems are universal. Sangeeta has no access to safe drinking water. Like her fellow villagers, she draws water from the nearest creek and uses a cloth filter to make it passably potable.
Jor or Mahabaleshwar, here begins the futile journey of the Krishna to the Bay of Bengal. Hindrances to her progress crop up not far from its birthplace whichever you care to accept. The first of the dams on the Krishna is the Balkawadi project in Satara district. Work on it began in 1996 and was completed 15 years ago. It was built, typically, because an earlier dam had begun to fetch diminishing returns. The Dhom dam was built in 1976 near Wai but inside of 20 years, it had silted up so much that its holding capacity diminished. And therefore the Balkawadi had to be built upstream.
It’s a familiar story down the length of the Krishna. Dams built because earlier dams weren’t enough.
Wai, the city served by the Dhom dam, is now a scene of pollution and encroachment of its banks. Environmentalists launched a clean-up drive a few years ago but there are no takers among the town’s fathers for a retreat from the banks of the Krishna or for a stop to the disposal of rubbish into its waters. Again a familiar story, as old as the Ganga.