Many temple tanks which were once brimming with water and where float festivals were held are dry now

One look at the sprawling Mariamman Teppakulam, and it is the buzz of humanity inside the tank that first catches your attention — boys playing cricket, people walking across the tank to go to the other side and few wheeling bicycles through patches of the dry brown and grassy green tank bed.

Many temple tanks in the city which were once brimming with water and where beautiful float festivals were held are bone dry now. The tanks found either inside or outside the temple premises are replete with rich history and fine architecture.

A source of water is something of great importance to a temple. “For most sprawling temples which bears the brunt of a hot sun, a tank ensures that some parts of the temple are always kept cool,” points out Sridhar Bhattar from the Narasingam Perumal Temple. The presence of a temple tank also results in groundwater table getting charged, says A. Gurunathan, Head, Vayalagam Movement of the Dhan Foundation. It has published a book on four prominent temple tanks in Madurai.

“Owing to scarce rainfall and channels that supplied water from a main source going defunct, either a concrete floor or tiles are laid on the tank bed to retain at least the little water that the tank manages to get since it cannot support percolation and groundwater recharge,” he explains.

The temple tanks

Many believe that these ancient tanks had effective systems which received water from the Vaigai. “Two small tanks were built near the Mariamman Teppakulam so that the silt in the water brought from Vaigai could be filtered before it is let into the tank,” says writer Su Venkatesan who chronicled Madurai’s history in his book ‘Kaaval Kottam.’ “Photos taken in the1880’s during the British period show the tank brimming with water,” he points out.

Among the prominent temple tanks in the city, the Koodal Azhagar Perumal Tank, which is being restored as per a court directive, remains dry. Residents and shopkeepers there say it has been more than 60 years since they last saw the tank with water. While folklore suggests that the Koodal Azhagar Perumal Temple tank on Town Hall Road hosted a grand float festival, the dry tank suggests otherwise. “Even when the streets in its vicinity get flooded during the monsoon, the tank never retains water for more than a couple of days,” says a shopkeeper on Town Hall Road.

Most devotees who visit the Narasingam Perumal Temple on the outskirts of the city exclaim in surprise when they see the temple tank filled with water and covered with lotus leaves. “I’ve been going to the temple for the past 50 years and not once have I seen the tank dry,” says A. Velammal, a flower seller who has a small shop outside the temple.

The temple authorities do not allow water to be pumped from the tank. Volunteers clean the tank periodically. “While many believe that a natural spring — sort of an artesian aquifer — existed here, the tank’s strategic location near the hills also results in rainwater filling the tank,” says L. Kamakshi, a devotee who frequents the temple.

Systems in place

With regard to pollution, it is a common sight to see plastic bags and bottles inside many of these tanks. “Garbage and water that is used to clean the temple premises should not be let into the tanks,” says Mr. Gurunathan. “While we ensure the tank remains litter-free, people ignore signboards and continue to throw sacks and bags of dry flowers and plastic bottles inside. Tourists and locals should understand that they play a part in keeping the tank clean,” says Ms. Velammal.

Most channels which brought water from the Vaigai and the Kiruthumal River to the temple tanks are choked with garbage and many others have disappeared under buildings and other establishments. “A brick tunnel which is believed to have brought water from the Kiruthumal River leading to the Teppakulam was discovered when a road nearby was dug up,” says historian C. Santhalingam.

While the channels need attention, sustained maintenance of the tank is needed, say experts. Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments department officials say Mariamman Teppakulam is to be renovated at a cost of Rs. 40 lakh. It will ensure that the cracked walls are repaired. “People must be aware of the history of old tanks so that they will understand the importance of conserving them. A systematic approach in upkeep of these ancient temple tanks will make a world of difference,” says Mr. Venkatesan.

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