Story of a Holy River that became a Sewage

by Aswin Sankar

Cooum which had several names in history like Pali River, Thames of South India, Triplicane River, etc. has got another name ‘Sewage’ in the 21st century and also it has been declared as a dead river. Tamil literature and Saivite Puranas say Cooum is a holy river. Even Cooum has its own holy book called Koova Puranam. Let’s see the journey of this holy river and how it has become sewage.

It is said that Cooum had its origin in Dharmapuri district and due to changes in earth crust its origin has been changed. Now Cooum is a tributary of Kosasthalaiyar which flows for 72km from Kesavaram Dam to the Bay of Bengal. Cooum river has a lot of historical stories to say. A song by Saiva saint, Thirugnanasambandar wrote in the 7th century has references to Cooum and villages in its bank. Being named after the village Koovam, inscriptions in a temple at koovam talk about the Battle of Takkolam (949CE) in which Chola prince Rajaditya was defeated by Rashtrakuta king Krishna III. Another inscription says a huge resource and land has been used at the time of Chola king Rajendra II (11th century) to construct a canal that brings water from the river to the Koovam water tank. Inscriptions at the same site say in 1112CE during the period of Chola king Kulothunga I funds has been allocated for maintenance of Koovam tank.

Fast-forwarding to the arrival of Europeans, Britishers are the last to visit Madras. Britishers want to build a fort in Madras and all the European forts are built only to the northern bank of a river joining ocean whether its Pulicat, Pondicherry, Santhome, or Nagapattinam, so the only option Britishers had was Cooum. British Built a fort at the bank of Cooum river mouth in the year 1639 which still stands in the name of “Fort St. George”.  In the year 1734, then British governor of Madras George Morton Pitt created a village with 230 weavers in the bank of Cooum called “Chinna Thari Pettai” which became Chintadripet now.  

Since Madras has become a city and trade hub, Nawab of Arcot, Muhammed Ali Wallajah VIII wants to build a palace in Madras, that too within the limit of Fort St. George. As Muhammed Ali Wallajah VIII became an ally of the British, with the help of the British in 1768 he built a palace for 117acres in the southern bank of Cooum which is called Chepauk Palace.

In the last three decades of the 18th century, a ferocious series of wars happened which is known as Anglo-Mysore Wars. On 10th September 1780 as a part of the second Anglo-Mysore war, a battle between Tipu Sultan and the British happened at a village called Pullalur which is near the starting point of river Cooum.  Tipu Sultan made history at the Battle of Pollilur that Britishers were defeated decisively and no other Indian kingdom has ever thrashed Britishers like he did. But at the end of the Anglo-Mysore Wars Tipu Sultan was defeated and the treaty was signed called the Treaty of Srirangapatnam in 1792. As per the treaty Tipu Sultan has to pay 33million Indian rupees as indemnity. Since Tipu Sultan couldn’t pay the indemnity, two of his three sons were taken and kept as war hostages in the southern bank of Cooum. On 2nd February of 1835 one of the iconic buildings in Chennai was established at the bank of Cooum by then Governor of Madras, Sir Fredrick Adams which is the first institution in the world to allow women to pursue MBBS. It is Madras Medical College and it has a record of women students in 1875. Even women from western countries sail to Madras for pursuing MBBS.

India’s first-ever zoological park was established in the bank of Cooum as Madras Zoo where today’s Egmore Museum is located. It was established in the year 1855 and it had around 300 animals which include mammals, birds, and reptiles. After several complaints from the locals on untimely roars and unpleasant smells, it was shifted to another place called People’s Park by 1863 which is also in the bank of Cooum.

Madras was on a strong empire built by the British and during the second world war, the British had a fear that the Japanese might bomb the city. They are scared that a bomb on Zoo would set all the animals free which will put all the city resident’s life in danger. So the British decided to vacate the Zoo on People’s Park which unfortunately became impossible and on 12th April 1942 at the bank of Cooum it resulted in one of the cruel acts in world history. All the carnivorous in the zoo were shot dead within one hour. There were three lions, six lionesses, four tigers, eight leopards, four bears, and a black panther. Later the Zoo was shifted to Vandalur in 1985.

In 1876-1878 India faced a great famine which also affected the Madras Province. To save people in and around Madras, then governor of Madras “The Duke of Buckingham and Chandos” came up with an idea to employ people. He decided to join the Cooum river with the Adyar river by building an 8 km-long canal. With a budget of 3million rupee, he successfully completed the canal. This 8km canal is known as the Buckingham canal which was later renamed the entire 796km long canal from Cochrane’s canal to the Buckingham canal. In the northern bank of Cooum lies Egmore Child and Women Hospital at which, on 7th March 1886 a Burmese Princess, Myat Phaya was born.

The entire world knows that The Wright Brothers invented and flew their first Aeroplane in 1903, the first-ever flight of airplanes in Asia and India was at Madras. In 1910, seven years after the Wright Brothers invented the airplane, an Italian chef named Giacomo Maria De Angelis who is a friend of Madras’s governor, built a biplane in Madras and made it take off from the island ground in Cooum which flew over Cooum. De Angelis tested it before and arranged a public viewing at island ground.

Madras which is now known as Chennai is one of India’s metropolitan cities. The headquarters of this city’s corporation is called Greater Chennai Corporation. But in history, this headquarters has another name called “Ripon Building”. Ripon Building which is also located on the bank of Cooum is one of those iconic buildings in Chennai. With a budget of 7.5lakh rupees, Ripon Building was constructed in the year 1913 and since then it functioning as headquarters of Chennai corporation. Kesavaram Dam which was built around the 1940s in the origin of Cooum is one of the major for saving Chennai from becoming day zero. This dam diverts the water to Poondi lake instead of flowing to the sea. In 1953, after several struggles and disputes, the Indian government has decided to bifurcate Madras province and create a state called Andhra. But dispute arises on drawing a border between Tamil Nadu and Andhra.

Both the states wanted Madras to be on their side and after almost a year-long debate Andhra came up with an idea to have Cooum as a border, whichever in the north belongs to Andhra and in the south belongs to Tamil Nadu which also failed for Andhra. This idea of Andhra proves how the river Cooum played a major role in history. Naduvankarai is a small village in the northern bank of Cooum where India’s first industry-oriented International Trade Fair was held in 1968. The Anna Nagar Tower Park was actually built for this trade fair.

With these many historical stories, Cooum is running through our Chennai but we have never lent our ears to hear these stories, instead, we gave the never a new name “Sewage”. Is Cooum really sewage? Is that how it runs from the origin?    Cooum which starts in Kesavaram Dam has around 66 urban and rural areas in its bank. Cooum which flows like fresh water in rural areas has been used for agriculture.

Areas in the bank of Cooum

TakkolamUriyur R.F.
Uriyur R.F.
KakkalurDevi nagar
Kovil KuppamMurukancheri
Chinna NolamburMaduravoyal
Anna NagarArumbakkam
Shenoy NagarAminjikarai
EgmoreThousand lights
Anna Salai
Park TownChintadripet
Anna Salai
Fort St. GeorgeTriplicane
Chennai Port TrustMarina Beach

All these areas in the bank of Cooum had a massive development which resulted in building several bridges across it. Cooum has around 45-48 bridges out of which few are not in use. Within the city limit, there are some major bridges like Chennai ORR bridge, Maduravoyal bridge, Koyambedu bridge, Periyar bridge, and Napier bridge. Cooum also has two railway bridges, a metro bridge, and a metro track 30m below the river.

Sl.No.Bridge name
1.Uriyur R.F. bridge
2.Anaikattuputhur bridge
3.Narasingapuram road bridge
4.Perambakkam old bridge
5.Perambakkam new bridge
6.Kondanchery road bridge
7.Satharai bridge
8.Pudhumavilangai bridge
9.Kodambattur-Athigathur bridge
10.Cooum river bridge, Thiruvallur high road
11.Railway station road bridge
12.Thiruvur bridge
13.Perumalpattu-Kottamedu road bridge
14.Chennai ORR bridge
15.Poonamalle-Pattabiram road bridge
16.Kannapalayam road bridge
17.Kamaraj nagar-Kannapalayam road bridge
18.Paruthipattu bridge
19.Thiruverkadu bus depot road bridge
20.Velappanchavadi bridge
21.Vanagaram-Ambattur road bridge
22.Union road-Mumbai highway bridge
23.Maduravoyal bridge
24.Chinna Nolambur bridge
25.Golden George Rathnam salai bridge
26.Golden George Rathnam bridge
27.Rail nagar bridge
28.CMRL bridge, Koyambedu
29.Koyambedu bridge
30.Arumbakkam bridge
31.Anna nagar bridge
32.Aminjikarai bridge
33.Choolaimedu bridge
34.Choolaimedu high road bridge
35.Nungambakkam railway bridge
36.Nungambakkam bridge
37.Egmore bridge
38.Ethiraj road bridge
39.Cooum bridge, Anna salai
40.Chintadripet bridge
41.Park town railway bridge
42.Park town flyover bridge
43.Periyar Bridge
44.Anna salai-Muthuswamy road bridge
45.Napier bridge
46.Underground Metro track

Cooum has four check dams and another check dam under construction.

Dams in Cooum

Sl.No.Dam name
1.Kesavaram Dam
2.Pudhumavilangai check Dam (under construction)
3.Putlur Water havering Dam
4.Koratur check Dam
5.Viraraghavapuram check Dam

These check dams are one of the major reasons for Cooum becoming sewage. By these check dams, Cooum water has been stopped before entering the city and it has been consumed by the whole city. Since water has been stopped, the drainage and industrial waste which were released in Cooum are getting exposed. These untreated drainage and industrial waste are another major reason for Cooum being sewage. Cooum which starts its journey as a holy river takes a massive transformation as sewage when it enters the city. Cooum which used to be a boon for the city has been slowly converted into bane by the same city itself.

Source: Wikipedia, TheMadrasMinutes, The Hindu, Google Earth

Published by LakesOfIndia

Lakes of India is an E.F.I initiative aimed at sensitizing the larger public on freshwater habitats across the country. A blog platform where one can read about lakes across India. You can become a guest blogger to write about a lake in your hometown and initiate an action to protect that lake.

One thought on “Story of a Holy River that became a Sewage

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: