In search of a legendary river

Lost lines:The Kiruthumal turns into a garbage dump at Achampathu near Madurai.— Photo: G. Moorthy  

Its present condition makes it eminently mistaken for a storm water drain carrying sewage. At another level, people do not know whether it is a channel or a river. The legendary Kiruthumal river, which was revered as an equal to the ancient Vaigai, is hard to be seen in Madurai. In its name, a dry track trails suburban areas and a long winding open sewage is seen in the city, till it regains its glory as a river outside Madurai.

Kiruthumal, as old as the Vaigai, is said to have wound its way around the Koodal Alagar Temple in the heart of Madurai. To reaffirm this point, references to the river on Srimad Bhagavatham and Narayaneeyam as the place where Lord Vishnu's ‘Machavatharam' (fish), one of the ten incarnations, took place, are cited by S. Venkataraman, a resident of Thuvariman from where the river is supposed to have originated. There is also a reference in ‘Paripaadal' to Kiruthumal, whose water was used to fill the moat around the Madurai fort.

The point of origin is still accessible to people. By taking a detour on the Melakkal Road and walking a couple of kilometres into coconut groves and banana fields, one can find two stone slabs at one end of ‘Periamadai.' This is the place where the surplus water from the Thuvariman Periakanmai (big tank) forms into a stream and winds up to join ‘Keni Vaikkal' at a distance. ‘Keni Vaikkal' is a surplus carrier from the Vaigai. The two streams join to form the Kiruthumal, which runs through Erkudi, Achampathu, Ponmeni, SBOA Colony, Subramaniapuram, Makalipatti, Keeraithurai and Samanatham, before merging with the Gundar. The Thuvariman tank gets its supply from springs like Kakka Oothu and Pulloothu in Nagamalai.

Locals say that there is evidence to show how Kiruthumal served as a lifeline for the fertile Thuvariman and surrounding villages. Even in the absence of the river, the area is so fertile.

“We get ground water at less than 10 feet and wherever we drill there is sand at a depth of 7.5 to 15 feet,” says S. Rajendran, former president of Thuvariman panchayat. The ground water is not polluted and is fit even for drinking, residents say. During rainy season, the surplus water from Thuvariman tank flows into the Kiruthumal but otherwise its course remains dry. “Four decades back, I have seen a wider Kiruthumal but now it has shrunk to a few feet width,” says I. Krishnan. Mr. Rajendran recalls how he accompanied the Jeer of Ahobila Mutt in the 1950s to the point of origin of Kiruthumal. The Jeer had his bath at this point.

Many factors have led to the demise of the river. First, it was a Pandya king who blocked the flow from the Nagamalai springs into the Kiruthumal by constructing a channel to take water to Koothiyarkundu, a village on the southern outskirts of Madurai. However, provision was made to divert a portion of the flow into the Kiruthumal. The current practice is to block the flow into the channel and divert it into the Kiruthumal. The river remains unpolluted till it enters Achampathu, where one can find plastic and other waste materials dumped in the concrete-lined ‘channel.' As it goes further, the Kiruthumal serves as a storm water carrier and an open drain. It is filled with storm water and sewage as it crosses the Bypass Road near Sringeri Nagar.

The significance of the Kiruthumal is realised only during years of monsoon failure or on occasions of abundant rainfall. Whenever there is water shortage, consequent to a monsoon failure, the absence of an additional water source is painfully felt.

At present, Madurai and its suburbs are fully dependent on the Vaigai alone for drinking water needs. “If Thuvariman tank is desilted and properly maintained, it can be an alternative source of drinking water supply for Madurai,” says Mr. Venkataraman. “It can also be preserved well to recharge ground water a la Vandiyur tank,” he adds. Above all, Thuvariman tank and the Kiruthumal should be preserved as remnants of our ancient heritage. There should be serious attempts to rediscover the ancient river, says V. Vedachalam, senior epigraphist.