Tamil Nadu

Much water has flowed

The illustration of a Kumizhi Thombu by Engineer S. Rajendran.

The illustration of a Kumizhi Thombu by Engineer S. Rajendran.  

Turn the pages of history to see how we have lost the excellent network of ponds and lakes

This is the second and concluding part of the story on the significance of temple tanks in water management. The first part was published last week.

Kudavayil Balasubramaniam explains how water in lakes was used to irrigate lands, using kumizhi thoombu (see illustration). Two hundred ft from the bank of a lake, a granite platform was built on the lake bed. Two stone pillars were erected on the platform. Two horizontal stone beams were fitted to the pillars. A box of stone was built at the foot of the pillars, with a hole on top and smaller holes on the side. An iron rod, to the end of which a stone was fixed, passed through the horizontal beams. The stone served to plug the hole on top. When water had to be let out for irrigation, the stone plug was lifted. The force of the water that gushed into the hole drew sediments through the holes in the side of the box, and the slurry got carried along with the water, and reached the fields through canals. Thus fields were provided with both water and rich soil. There could be eight to ten kumizhi thoombu in a lake, covering different areas under cultivation. Every lake also had a granite channel called ‘kazhivu’, through which excess water flowed out, to avert flooding.

Natural resources were used cleverly, so that nothing went to waste. Veeraraghavan, who, with his wife Mangaiyarkkarasi, has recorded 25 Pallava and Chola period inscriptions about thoombu in Villupuram, Kanchipuram and Chingleput districts, points out that the Pallavas built lakes between hills for two reasons – rain water flowing down the slopes would fill them; with hills on two sides, there was no need to build bunds.

Historical records show that people had a great sense of social responsibility. Veeraraghavan says that in the 13th century, when the Chandramouli river was in spate, in order to save the Tirukkuvalai temple, Tirumalaikaadan, a resident of the village, diverted the river towards the South. Lands belonging to the temple were submerged under water, and one street was totally destroyed. An inscription in the temple says Tirumalaikaadan repaired the street, and also donated land to the temple.

“There are inscriptions in Uthiramerur about the contributions of citizens for kuzhi kuthudhal — deepening the lake”, says Balasubramaniam. He says inscriptions in the Tiruvannamalai temple record the services of a resident of the area called Narpathonnayiram Pillai and his sister Mangaiyarkkarasi. In 1202 C.E, the 24th regnal year of Kulottunga III, a severe famine hit Tiruvannamalai, and about 400 grams of rice cost a gold coin! To relieve the suffering of the people, brother and sister sold all their property and built a lake, for irrigation. They also established a trust for the maintenance of another lake. When their descendants could no longer run the trust, they handed over the trust and all its properties to the Tiruvannamalai temple, which was thereafter, to be responsible for upkeep of the lake. To ensure that there was no pilferage of funds, all temple officials were signatories to the transfer deed.

How many of our historical lakes and ponds have we lost? The terracotta channels through which water was taken from Sivaganga kulam to other ponds, and which helped recharge wells in Thanjavur, have been blocked by those who built houses on the land under which the pipes passed. The Sevvappa Nayaka lake, which was in existence until about 50 years ago, is now a residential colony. Parts of the Samudram lake in Thanjavur have been encroached upon. “The Tribhuvana Mahadevi lake, built by Rajendra I, which irrigated 52 villages, and the Siva temple in the middle of the lake have disappeared,” says Balasubramaniam.

In the Anusasana Parva of Mahabharata, Bhishma tells Yudishtra the merits of building ponds: “He whose tank is full of water in summer and is used by human beings, animals and birds to slake their thirst, acquires the merits of an Aswamedha yaga. The gift of water is superior to every other gift.” While the Mahabharata emphasises the importance of the gift of water, inscriptions show that those who plundered natural resources were looked upon as sinners.

In 1192 C.E., during the reign of Kulottunga III, Thiruvekampan donated 40 gold coins for the maintenance of a lake near Kanchipuram. The village council signed an agreement deed with the donor. The deed says that those who hinder the efforts of the council to maintain the lake will be considered sinners across the length and breadth of the land - from the Himalayas to the Sethu, and that they are certain to go to hell. History shows that our ancestors never allowed self-interest to take precedence over the interests of society at large. They left behind for us an excellent network of lakes and ponds, a portion of which, we have lost, through apathy and greed. Isn’t it time for us to take stock of our losses and resort to remedial measures? Otherwise, we will have very little to leave behind for posterity.

On a river trail

The Tamil inscription on the Nandi near Nagalapuram dates back to about 9th to 10th century C.E. While this Nandi still has water gushing from its mouth, a similar arrangement that once existed in Thakkolam, near Kanchipuram, no longer works. In Thakkolam, on the banks of the Kallaru, stands a Siva temple. There used to be a time when water would gush out of the mouth of a Nandi here, flow alongside the circumambulatory path around the Linga in the temple, emerge out of the mouth of another Nandi, and reach the Kallaru river. But while the Nandis can still be seen in Thakkolam, water no longer spouts from them.

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Printable version | Feb 18, 2020 3:31:45 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/much-water-has-flowed/article8417860.ece

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