Namma Madurai traces the canals and irrigation system that once fed the lush vicinity of the city

You leave behind the din and bustle of the bypass when you enter the cement road of Maadakulam village. Cool air carrying the smell of cow dung announces you have arrived in a place that still has all its old charm intact.

Maadakulam udainthaal Madurai Paazh. This simple saying implies the importance of Maadakulam to the Temple City. Biggest of all the tanks in the region, it was the main source of irrigation for the entire wetland of Madurai.

“I believed the tank to be the sea, where people fish often,” my brother once told me. Now, the tank resembles a pond filled knee-deep with slush and silt. Spreading across 326 acres, it can hold 47,25,000 cubic metres of water. Once, the water from this tank filled all the tanks in Madurai before reaching Keezh Madurai, says A. Sakthivel, a villager.

According to C. Santhalingam, retired Archaeological Officer, most of the later Pandya inscriptions refer to our city as ‘Madurodaya vazhanatil Maadakula keezh Madurai’. This inscriptional reference notes that Maadakulam was situated within the limits of ‘Madurodaya vazhanadu,’ a geographical division.

Likewise, later Pandya inscriptions belonging to the 12th and 13th centuries refer to Maadakula keezh Tiruparankundram, Maadakula keezh Ariyur, Maadakula keezh Kulasekarapuram, Maadakula keezh Kodimangalam. From these references, it is inferred that the term ‘kulakeezh’ means a separate geographical division, like kootram or naadu, which is similar to our present taluk and panchayat unions. This simply means the tank fed the wetlands of Madurai. No wonder it looked like a sea to my brother two decades ago.

Guardians and gods

The tank has two inscriptions. The 12th century Pandya period inscription found near the north sluice gives detailed information about the water management system that existed in those days.

It talks about a group of tank security guards who are often referred to as ‘eri veera kanam’. “People from various villages (eight sides) were selected and employed as a guarding force of the tank,” says Santhalingam. He says the inscription also contains the symbols of whisks, lamp, dagger, plough and horns. The symbols refer to mercantile guilds. Perhaps, the guild members who were also involved in agro-based activities might have managed the tank with the help of their guards.

Another inscription, belonging to the 18th century, refers to a sluice as ‘Thiru Aalavayan madai’, named after the presiding god of Meenakshi Temple, Aalavaiudaiyar. It recounts an incident in which Arya Puthira Kanaker Nayan Pillai repaired the damaged sluice. Archaeologists have unearthed pieces of black and red ware and burial urns from the vicinity of the tank. If those finds are taken into account, the tank is at least 2000 years old.

All irrigation tanks have a protective deity and Maadakulam has its Edadi Ayyanar on the southern side of the village. Villagers link the birth of Edadi Ayyanar to the mythological story of Mohini Avathar of Lord Vishnu. At the entrance, the temple has two sets of white elephants, statues of Vedan and Vedatchi and Chinna Karuppu and Periya Karuppu, guardian deities of Ayyanar.

The village has places named ‘Arali aadi’ and ‘Thamira Pallam’, referring to the flowers that grew in and near the water. Besides, it is believed that the villagers ground sugarcane and sent cane juice through a canal for the construction of King Thirumalai Naicker’s palace. The presence of an alakal (grinding stone) and use of the name ‘vaikal’ provide credence to that belief. According to 85-year-old Ayyan, both the channel and the alakal have gone underground owing to accumulation of sand. The serene, narrow village road suddenly bustles with activity when a vehicle is heard. Women and children run haphazardly carrying pots and utensils, thinking the water tanker has arrived. Water scarcity has not spared this village.

No matter how many resources we have, unless we learn to maintain and use them properly we won’t benefit by them. Maadakulam as it is now is a standing example of a neglected resource that might have kept a land prosperous.