Historian Chithra Madhavan on how ancient tanks conserved water, gave employment opportunities, and added charm to temples

The king ordered his son to go to battle with an enemy. And so the prince set out, his army in tow, to carry out his father’s command. One day, when his army was camping on the outskirts of a city along the way, the prince set them a task. He asked them to create a tank. The soldiers did so with diligence. But the prince didn’t live to see it — he was killed by the enemy as he fought bravely on an elephant’s back. The tank he built supplies water to our city today — it’s the Veeranam Lake!

Every tank has a story. And if it’s located by a temple, it comes with an even more interesting one. Historian Chithra Madhavan narrated them to a small group of history buffs under the stars at Spaces, Besant Nagar. The talk, titled ‘Temple Tanks of India — A Historical Perspective’, was part of ‘Water Bodies’, an Indo-Korean Arts Residency project and exhibition by InKo Centre and Arts Council Korea.

So, what purpose does a temple tank serve? For one, it is used to bathe the deity and devotees too take a dip in their waters. But the most important aspect of these tanks is water harvesting. Temple tanks help maintain the groundwater level of the surrounding areas; they make sure that wells in their neighbourhood are full.

Sometimes, a tank was an offshoot to the construction of the temple. Mammoth quantities of earth were dug out during the process. These trenches could have been turned into tanks, said Chithra. She went on to point out that though most of these water bodies our kings constructed are in a bad state at present, there are some that continue to serve their purpose. The Mahendra Thadagam (lake) near Arakkonam, built by Pallava king Mahendravarman, irrigates and supplies water to seven surrounding villages even today.

Chithra presented pictures of the beautiful tanks in Mamallapuram, Tirumala, and Tiruvarur among others. Then came the breath-taking step tanks of Karnataka, Gujarat and Rajasthan. These architectural marvels also gave employment opportunities during their construction, she observed.

Look closely and you can make out that every temple tank has inlet and outlet channels. Sadly, most of them are clogged as a result of neglect and pollution. “This is a dangerous trend,” said Chithra. “There’s nothing worse than covering up a water body.”

Hidden amidst the tall buildings of Chennai are several temple tanks, most of which are in a state of neglect. Chithra showed a picture of an ancient temple tank in Mylapore that’s being used as a dumping ground by residents in high-rise buildings nearby. In the heart of Mylapore is the biggest temple tank in Chennai — the Kapaleeswara temple tank.

Some of these tanks were used to stash away coins and precious idols during invasions to prevent them from falling into the hands of the enemy. Chithra showed a photo of ancient coins with inscriptions dug out from a temple tank. “These were found when the tank was dredged,” she explained. They were probably dropped inside for safe-keeping by someone many years ago. But they never returned for them.