The legends of Kosi
Key lessons for dealing with the vagaries of the Kosi’s annual cycle are to be found in the myths and folklore of the North Indian plain.
Kusaha, where the breach in the Kosi River embankment took place on 18 August 2008, is said to be a diminutive form of Kaushik Ashram, the home of the Rishi Vishvamitra, believed to be the author of the Rig Veda, one of holiest books of the Hindus. There are a few other villages in the area named Kusaha as well, and in all likelihood the sage could have lived in any of those, too. According to Hindu mythology, Kaushiki, or the River Kosi as it is called today, is Vishvamitra’s elder sister. Let us look more closely at some of the stories and legends from this part of Southasia.
One story is about an eminent ascetic named Richeek, of Rishi Bhrigu’s lineage, who was given to deep meditation. One day, he went to the palace of King Gaadhi, son of King Kaushika, and asked for the hand of his daughter, Satyavati. Gaadhi was a royal and Richeek an indigent Brahmin, and hence the king turned down the proposal. But as Richeek was leaving, the king, making what he believed to be an impossible demand, told Richeek that if he could present him with a thousand horses, as fair as the moon, as swift as the wind and each with one dark ear, then he would accept the proposal. Richeek proceeded to beseech the god Varun for the horses, which the latter made available through the River Ganga. Legend has it that it was at Asvatirtha, near Kannauj in Uttar Paradesh, on the banks of the Ganga, where the river delivered the horses. Richeek went to the king with the thousand horses, and the king dutifully allowed his daughter Satyavati to marry the poor, aged ascetic.
Male progeny of Kaushik are known as Kaushik, while females are known as Kaushiki. As such, Satyavati was called Kaushiki and Visvamitra was called Kaushik, and thus Kaushiki was the elder sister of Visvamitra. When she died, Satyavati is said to have taken on the form of the River Kaushiki. Years later, when Vishvamitra was moving from Ayodhya towards Sonebhadra (the Sone River) with Ram and Lakshman, he acquainted the two princes with his elder sister. The verses relating to this episode appear in Valmiki’s Ramayana. In the Bal Kaand section (Verse 34), the episode is narrated as follows:
O Raghava, I had an elder sister who was eminently virtuous. She was called Satyavati. She had been married to the sage Richeek.
Entirely devoted to her spouse, Satyavati’s body departed to the heavens. But on Earth, she began to flow in the form of the munificent River Kaushiki.
It is for the good of the world that this sister of mine flowed in the form of a river from her refuge in the Himalaya. It is indeed a charming river of divinely holy waters.
O Raghunandan, I have great affection for my sister Kaushiki, and hence I dwell regularly and ever so happily on her bank itself, close to the Himalaya.
The virtuous Satyavati is renowned as the dutiful. That extremely fortunate and pious lady is present here in the form of the glorious River Kaushiki.
O Ram, I had come away from my sister to Siddh Ashram in order to perfect the true mode of sacrificial worship. Now I have attained that perfection by the virtue of your splendour.
Since Kaushika Vishvamitra was born into a Kshatriya family, he performed rigorous meditations for a thousand years at Pushkartirtha, in order to become a rishi. Yet even when the gods blessed him as a rishi, he still did not break his meditations. Indra, the king of the gods, became apprehensive of Vishvamitra’s powers, and sent the charming apsara Menaka to distract him. Menaka knew well of Vishvamitra’s merits, and she expressed her fears to the king of the gods. In the Mahabharata, she described Vishvamitra as the seer “who has created that fathomless and impassable river for his ablutions, which is known in this world as the exceedingly holy River Kaushiki.”
Menaka nonetheless did Indra’s bidding, and it turned out that even Vishvamitra could not resist her bewitching charms. Menaka subsequently gave birth to Vishvamitra’s daughter, whom she abandoned on the banks of the Malini River. The child later came to be known as Shakuntala, immortalised by the poet Kalidasa. After spending almost ten years with Menaka, Vishvamitra realised, in a rage, that he had been tricked by the gods. He bid goodbye to Menaka, and came down to the banks of his sister Kaushiki for a thousand-year-long meditation. If his meditation at the holy Pushkar shrine made him a rishi, he became a maharishi on the banks of the Kaushiki. Now, finally, he had conquered the god of desire.
Between Himalaya and plains
A second legend relating the origin of the Kosi can be found in the Markandeya Purana, one of Hinduism’s 18 major texts. Shumbha and Nishumbha were two demon brothers, who performed severe penance and usurped the kingdom of the gods. They tormented the gods, stole whatever they had and finally exiled them. Devoid of their kingdom, the gods went to the Himalaya, where they prayed to the great goddess Bhagvati. Propitiated by their deep devotion, the goddess asked them about the distress that had brought them there. At that very moment, Shiva emerged, as a goddess, from the body of Parvati. “Shumbha and Nishumbha defeated these gods in a war and exiled them,” Shiva said to her. “Hence, they have gathered here and are praying to us for redemption.” The Purana also says, “As Shiva emerged from the kosha [cells] of Parvati’s body, she came to be known by the world as Kaushiki. When Kaushiki appeared from Parvati’s body, the latter turned dark and began to dwell in the Himalaya under the name of Kalika.”
A third story comes from the Mahabharata. Once upon a time there was no death in the world, and all the creatures simply lived on forever. This situation seemed acceptable for a while, but eventually Brahma worried that if no one died it would eventually lead to great disorder. Therefore, in order to reduce the world’s burden, Brahma used all of his skills to create Death. Death took the form of a woman of red and yellow complexion, adorned with golden earrings and other ornaments. Upon her creation, however, Death was loath to perform the frightful task assigned to her by Brahma. She repeatedly appealed for exemption, but to no avail; she was forced to perform severe penance to propitiate Brahma. Eventually, she took refuge in the Kaushiki. Vedavyasa narrates in the Mahabharata: “And then holding fast to the norms of [her] vow, Death first went to the banks of the River Kaushiki. She subsisted there on air and water, and again started performing strict observances.” But she did not succeed in being exempted from her frightful fate, and finally she had to obey Brahma’s commands. It is indeed intriguing why the sage Vedavyasa chose the Kosi River as the site of Death’s penance.
Finally, according to a fourth legend, there once was a daredevil who tried to contain the Kosi. It is said that a demon became attracted by Kosi’s beauty, fell in love with her and proposed to marry her. But Kosi responded with the condition that she would only accept the proposal if he could contain her between the Himalaya and her confluence with the Ganga within the span of a single night; otherwise, the demon would be killed. The demon agreed and set to work. As the work progressed, Kosi became increasingly nervous at the sight of the pace of the demon’s work. She went running to Lord Shiva, her father, and sought his help. Disguised as a cock, Lord Shiva went to see where the demon was at work, and he started crowing. The demon, though he had completed his work, became nervous on hearing the cock’s crow, thinking that it was almost morning. As the crowing continued, he decided to run away, in order to save his life. Thus, Kosi was able to remain free. The lesson appears to be that it is only devils who could think of taming this wild river – and even they do not succeed in their efforts.
Dance of lovers
We have had a glimpse of what has been written about the Kosi in the Hindu scriptures. But this is no less important than what has been included in the region’s various folklore, folksongs (some of which have been gathered by a collector named Brajeshwar Mullik, others by Om Prakash Bharti) and legends. In the folktales of the lands through which it flows, the Kosi is regarded as a virgin river: carefree, paying no heed to bonds, carving a new path whenever she likes. If her behaviour affects somebody, she is unconcerned about it. But according to local lore, the Kosi has a lover who is as powerful as herself. He is black in complexion, and carries a massive spade, with a blade weighing 80 maunds (almost 3000 kg) and a handle of 82 maunds. His name is Rannu Sardar; the Kosi dances to his tunes, and Rannu paves the way for her, with the river following behind him. Behind the two, meanwhile, follows a tale of massive misery and devastation, as well as prayers and pleas to the river.
Women of this area pray to the river as a mother, telling Kosi that Enough is enough, please go back now. Hundreds of songs are written and sung on these themes. Promises are made to the river that if she spares the people and does not create situations in which boats are forced to ply the villages, they will offer plates of sweets to her. But the Kosi remains unconcerned, and continues to devastate. Eventually, the pleas and prayers are replaced by denunciations and curses, at which point the title of mother and the status of a goddess are withdrawn. Then the Kosi remains only a naughty virgin, an unsteady girl – and the only way people know to bring such girls to terms is to get them married. As the legend goes, women, fed up with the vagaries of the river, put sindoor, the vermilion powder signifying marriage, into the river; at that point, it is said, the river runs away from the scene.
In some instances, mythology mirrored reality, especially when it came to the vagaries of the river’s flow. In one tale, narrated by Mahabharata patriarch Bhishma Pitamaha, the ocean called all his wives and said,
Rivers! I notice that during floods you all get filled up to the brim, uprooting big trees and carrying them along with their roots and branches. But the willow is never seen in your flow. The willow is very thin and a very insignificant plant. It has no strength of its own, and grows all along your banks. Still, you are not able to bring it to me. Do you avoid the plant, or has it done some good to you [that you favour it]? I want to know why this plant does not leave your banks and come here.
The Ganga replied,
O Lord of Rivers! The big trees because of their arrogance, do not bow before the might of our flow. They get destroyed owing to their confrontational nature, and have to leave their places. But because the willow is not like them, it bows before the swift currents; and when the river subsides, it is back in its place. It judges the times and behaves accordingly; it is always in our grip and is never unruly. There is no trace of arrogance in it, and that is the reason that never has to leave its place. The plants, trees and creepers that bow before the might of winds and rivers and raise their heads only when they subside, are never destroyed.
Bhishma Pitamaha said when a learned king judges that the opponent is more powerful, he should behave like a willow and bow before him. Through the example of the willows, Bhishma Pitamaha thus gave one of the first important lessons in dealing with the powerful Himalayan rivers. Even though the demons tried to tame the Kosi and failed, the path of least resistance – despite being such a common scientific principle – has been thrown to winds in ‘modern’ approaches to dealing with rivers.