All eyes were on the Mahamakham tank in Kumbakonam, where the once-in-12-years festival was celebrated recently. It was cleaned and water was filled for the thousands of pilgrims to take a dip. But what of other temple tanks in the town that is important for both the historian and the spiritually inclined?
Old timers of Kumbakonam remember seeing ducks having a quiet swim in the Nageswaran Kulam until the 1970s. But that tank became a residential colony. Now the houses are being demolished and one hopes the tank will be restored. The Kumbeswara Kulam has been converted into a park. The Anjaneya kulam has become a parking lot for trucks. The pond attached to the Mettu Street Vinayaka temple has also given way to houses.
History shows that Tamil Nadu has faced floods and droughts, problems we are familiar with these days too. But the difference lay in how our ancestors handled disasters. To know what we need to do in future, quite simply — learn from history.
Sangam literature is rich in references to water bodies. Tamil scholar Sarala Rajagopalan says that an Agananuru verse shows that water sources meant for drinking purposes were guarded carefully, perhaps to ensure that enemies did not poison it. In the verse, a mother who keeps an eye on her romantically inclined daughter is compared to the guard of a pond. Poigai was a natural pond, says Sarala, while kulam was man-made. She talks of entirakinaru — well that has a contraption for drawing out water.
Water was considered to be so sacred, that a verse in Perumal Tirumizhi refers to Vishnu as a pond, says Vaishnavism scholar Kidambi Narayanan. “In Rangaraja sthavam, Parasara Bhattar describes Lord Ranganatha as a lotus pond. Every temple must have seven features, two of which are a nadi — river and a pushkarani — pond.”
Epigraphist S. Ramachandran says that while Puranic stories do seem totally fictitious, like purely imaginary, stories, if read in conjunction with history, one can see that often they are symbolic accounts of actual events. He mentions a story in Tiruvilaiyadal Puranam as an example. The rains fail, and the Pandya king imprisons clouds. In the battle that ensues, Indra is defeated. Ramachandran says that there is an inscription approximately of 12th to 13th century, in a place called Irunchirai near Aruppukottai. The inscription refers to Irunchiraiyaana Indira samaananallur. So we have the name of Indra in the inscription. Chirai means dam, and irunchirai indicates a ‘strong dam or reservoir.’ The inference to be drawn by reading both inscription and the Puranic account is that when the rains failed, the Pandya king built a dam. Ramachandran says that the largest network of lakes is seen in Tirunelveli district.
He says the Pandyas must have been the earliest to excavate lakes, going by evidence in Sangam literature. A verse in Purananuru says that a man who wants his fame to be eternal will establish water bodies; the fame of those who do not do so will fade. The verse is about a Pandya king. So the Pandyas must have built lakes even in the Sangam era.
Engineer S. Rajendran says that Rajendra I, did not erect a jaya stambha — pillar of victory, when he defeated the king of Bengal, but had a lake cut instead, establishing a jala stambha!
Archaeologist Kudavayil Balasubramaniam, who is working on a book on water management in the Pallava, Chola and Pandya periods, explains how the Cholas managed their water resources. When Raja Raja built the Big Temple, he built the Sivaganga Kulam and a lake that in the Nayak period came to be called Sevvappa Nayakkan Eri. Every drop of water that fell into the Big Temple complex was carried through underground canals to the Sivaganga kulam.
Veeraraghavan, self-taught expert in the field, who has presented papers on the subject, talks of an interesting inscription that can be dated roughly 630 C.E. or a little after that. It uses the word ‘Gunamili.’ Veeraraghavan guesses that this is a reference to Mahendra Varma Pallava, who is here being described as the one who lacks good qualities! This is a rare instance of a king being referred to in uncomplimentary terms.
Veeraragahvan says that the lake could have been cut by Jains. Mahendra Varma, who had the title Gunaparan had converted from Jainism to Saivism, and was rather harsh on the Jains, after his conversion. So the Jains who excavated the lake might have shown their displeasure by mocking at his title. Women too donated for the establishment of thoombu, and a seventh century inscription near Tirukkoilur talks of a Perundevi who built a thoombu. The practice of digging lakes between hills was common, and two such lakes are the Panamalai lake in Villupuram and Doosi Mamandur lake. “The former was probably excavated by Rajasimha Pallavan,” says Veeraraghavan.
Balasubramanian says that in Ramagiri, five kilometres from Nagalapuram, a stone bull is seen on the banks of a pond. Water keeps pouring from the mouth of the bull throughout the year. It is believed the water perhaps comes from one of the perennial springs in the hill. An inscription on the back of the bull says it was sculpted by Koovathur Perunthachan, son of Chamundi. The inscription says that Lord Siva appeared in the sculptor’s dream and asked him to sculpt a rishaba for him.
Strengthening the tanks
Kuzhi kuthudal was the scooping of mud from the bottom of the lake, to deepen it. The mud would be transported and used to strengthen the banks of the lake. An inscription says fish from the lake and palm fruits were sold to carry out kuzhi kuthudal. Villagers also provided fund for the operation.
(More on Kumuzhi Thoombu and other tanks in the second part, next week)