"In traditional societies water was sacred and, concurrently, rivers were deified. This has many implications for the protection and management of water supplies," says Dr. R Nagaswamy, former Director-General of the Archaeological Survey of India and author of books on epicgraphy. "For example, Rajendra Chola I, one of the greatest emperors of South India, marched on a conquering quest right upto present day Bangladesh, which was then known as Vangaaladesham. This is a historically documented fact. From this triumphant journey, he brought back the waters of the sacred Ganges and constructed the incredible temple at Gangaikondachozhapuram (The Chola land where the Ganges Was brought by conquest).

Now, obviously, he could only sanctify the temple tank with the waters he had carried. Yes, it was notional - but it was also absolute. It was a matter of faith. This tank, then named Chola Ganga and now referred to as Ponneri, is immense. It traverses virtually the entire land South of the temple, covering vast areas of cultivable land. It had stone duct inlets and outlets covered on all sides, plastered by lime mortar, of such superb standards that not a drop of water could enter from outside. Today we speak about pure and safe water but the delivery system already existed in 1020 AD. During the British rule, a road was constructed across the Chola Ganga, the ducts were allowed to be encroached and littered in disuse. Where waters once lapped as far as the eye could see, all that remains is parched earth and a few dried up shrubs. The duct system still exists - we excavated it when I was with the Archaeological Survey of India - its potential is immense but what we lack is the will to set matters right.”

Dr.Nagaswamy is underlining the importance of temple tanks, sacred structures that served a very practical purpose - that of maintaining ground water tables and replenishing community water supplies. In ancient days, temple tanks were constructed to the east of every village, and multipurpose tanks to the west. Today, many are abused or in a state of disuse, their potential and original purpose all but forgotten.

The perennial tank Nithyapushkarani at Thirukannapuram"

Says Dr. R Sakthivadivel, Professor at the International Water Management Institute, "There are a lot of funds earmarked for creating infrastructure - borewells, tubes, pipes, taps - but there is still no water. Besides temple tanks, Tamilnadu has close to 39,000 ooranis, common ponds. Today, in most cases ooranis are the only ones that have water in them when it rains. They are also deteriorating, if not defunct already, but restoration, like elsewhere, is not happening. Originally tanks were common property. Then the ryotwadi system transferred ownership. So multipurpose tanks became irrigation tanks.

Temple tanks are more for ground water replenishment. Water has to remain trapped for a little while. But nowadays, it simply becomes run off instantaneously. Also, the parched land sucks everything in. Even for percolation, water must stay for some time. Thanjavur always had plenty of water and the land is made of flat, alluvial soil. So common tanks were not built here in a major way. That makes the temple tanks all the more important. The Thanjavur delta arguably has the largest number of temple tanks anywhere in the country. They have not been studied properly. If one sees the urban example of Chennai and other cities like Trichy, and towns like Kumbakonam, unchecked development has taken over tanks. Efforts at revival must be decentralised. Their management has to be scientific with a focus on storing, augmenting and utilizing water.”

Srikumar is an engineering contractor who has taken up the renovation of the temple at his native village of Thirumarugal in the Thiruvarur taluk of the Thanjavur delta. The tank here is being desilted, inlets and steps repaired, and the structure provided with a boundary wall. It is presently dry.

He says, “The Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department has no funds for renovation. Even if a major proposal is undertaken, they are able to give only 25% of the money required. Where is the money for renovation? For as long as I am here, I don’t let the work stop. I underwrite expenses with my personal funds. I have put in a lot of my own money. Due to the Cauvery crisis and the failed rains, agricultural labourers are living in poverty. Money is coming only from those who have migrated, many abroad. This is the first generation that has left its roots behind. They still feel commitment to their native land. But in another generation or two, this affinity may be diluted. What happens then? It is good that we will not be around to see that happen.”

He adds, "Not that there isn't life in the villages. But with migration, not too many people are left. In the days of the old, all activities were dedicated to the temple. These are extraordinary temples, marvels of architecture and design. People still throng to the temples, particularly those sanctified as paadalpatta sthalam (shrines where famous saint-poets sang or gave up their life) or divyadeshams (divine lands based on mythological legends). Whenever I go to the city, I use every contact I have to raise funds. I don't hesitate to become a beggar, for this is something that has to be done."

In a controversial move some years back, the state government took over the management of temples which had hundial (cash box) collections, across the state. Matters have only deteriorated since then, as the maintenance of the temples and their highly vulnerable tanks has been badly affected.

Some years back, the state government took over the management of many temples. Since then, the maintenance of the temples and their highly vulnerable tanks has been further affected.


 •  Cauvery delta: a new reality