Vaigai: from lofty heights to a dismal carrier of urban refuse

Downsized: The Kiruthumal was 21 metres wide at its origin and an average of 15 metres along the urban stretch till the 1970s. Now, it is between 10 metres and 3.66 metres, as seen off Bypass Road in Madurai.

Downsized: The Kiruthumal was 21 metres wide at its origin and an average of 15 metres along the urban stretch till the 1970s. Now, it is between 10 metres and 3.66 metres, as seen off Bypass Road in Madurai.  

Till the 1970s, the Koodal Alagar Temple tank, Hema Pushkarani, drew water from the Kiruthumal

When there is public demand to expedite schemes to link rivers, Madurai is guilty of neglecting one of the earliest river links in history. The legendary Vaigai had an equally important Kiruthumal running almost parallel to it. But today, the once perennial Vaigai is competing with the Kiruthumal in carrying urban refuse. From a river, the Kiruthumal has degenerated into a sewage carrier, mainly due to public neglect.

A. K. Ramanujan’s poem, The River, which begins with the lines, “In Madurai, city of temples and poets, who sang of cities and temples, every summer a river dries to a trickle in the sand,” is about the Vaigai. His lines can eminently be attributed to the Kiruthumal too. According to a Vaishnavite legend, when Lord Brahma washed the legs of Lord Vishnu, drops of water fell on Madurai, spreading as two rivers - the Vaigai and Kiruthumal. The secondary river is also referred to as Kiruthumalai as it circumambulated the Koodal Alagar Temple like a garland. This feature is compared with another venerable place for Vaishnavites, Srirangam, around which two rivers - the Cauvery and Kollidam - flow.

Till the 1970s, the Koodal Alagar Temple tank, Hema Pushkarani, drew water from the Kiruthumal.

Another legend associated with the river is the Macha or Matsya (fish) Avatar, one of the 10 incarnations of Lord Vishnu.

This incarnation is believed to have happened at Thuvariman, where the river starts its journey into Madurai. Residents have installed a board to indicate the place where the avatar took place. According to Koodal N. Raghavan, a Vaishnavite scholar, the ‘fish’ became the symbol of Pandya kingdom because of this association.

88 km, 4 districts

Residents on the banks of the present Kiruthumal channel recall that they used to take bath in the river, that snaked its way for 88 km in Madurai, Virudhunagar, Sivaganga and Ramanathapuram districts, feeding 75 tanks. While remnants of the river are still visible beyond Madurai, irreparable damage has been done to it along a stretch of 13 km when it passes through Erkudi-Achampathu, Ponmeni, SBOA Colony, Subramaniapuram, Ellis Nagar, Thideer Nagar, Makalipatti, Keeraithurai and Samanatham.

Explaining how the Kiruthumal transformed into a sewage channel, G. Balaji and K. Thirumaran, in a research paper published in the Journal of Environmental Science and Engineering, say that “complete change from agricultural use that contained water channels for drainage and surplus purposes to urban land use with impervious layers with roads, buildings... and concrete-lined channels had done considerable damage” to the river. As a result, groundwater level has gone down to between 40 and 120 metres along its course.

The study points that a 1992-master plan for storm water drainage for Madurai city and surrounding areas prepared by Consulting Engineering Services (India) refers to the Kiruthumal as one of the eight channels that flow in the city by supplying to or receiving from the Vaigai.

This channel, the plan said, received water from the Vaigai and the field drainage of Thuvariman and Madakulam tanks, besides surplus from Avaniapuram and Chinthamani channels.

But “most of the times in a year, the urban stretch of the Kiruthumal gets filled by urban raw sewage from residential and industrial buildings.

Historically, the river supplied water to moats around the inner walled city of Madurai on the south and western sides.”

No water for 46 tanks

Farmers allege that the Kiruthumal lost its significance after construction of the Vaigai dam. Neglect of the Kiruthumal deprived 46 tanks in Virudhunagar, Sivaganga and Ramanathapuram districts of supply and about 15,000 acres of arable land the source of irrigation, they say.

Water does not flow in the Kiruthumal even when there is surplus storage in Vaigai dam. S. Venkataraman, a native of Thuvariman, says flow of surplus from the Vaigai has stopped after its level went down due to rampant sand mining.

He is of the view that construction of a check dam across the Vaigai at Kodimangalam to supply surplus water to Thuvariman tank will revive the defunct river.

Mr. Venkatraman says very rarely a city like Madurai has a river flowing across it. Revival of the Kiruthumal will recharge the groundwater table significantly in the urban areas, he adds.

Instead of feeding the river with surplus flow from the Vaigai, untreated sewage is discharged at Ellis Nagar and Keeraithurai, the study points out.

Shrunk all the way

The river has also shrunk in width at several places. In the 1970s, it was 21 metres wide at its origin and an average of 15 metres along the urban stretch. Now it has an average width of 10 metres and a minimum width of 3.66 metres. The factors attributed to this reduction are solid waste disposal along the banks, construction of culverts and roads and encroachments. Another factor that has damaged the river is the concrete lining that has completely isolated it from its flood plain, says the study. “This lining prevents the excess water from entering into its banks and also the sub-surface run off into the stream from the catchment area.” Sedimentation chokes the flow and impacts the health of residents living nearby. Accumulation of plastic waste prevents the movement of water to the vegetation present inside and along the banks.

Water activists are of the view that the best intended initiatives of the government and the civic body will succeed only with people’s cooperation.

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Printable version | Jun 4, 2020 5:25:52 AM |

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