A group of youngsters is giving a new lease of life to forgotten temple ponds and lakes across Karnataka.
These lakes are now brimming with water, thanks to Yuva Brigade’s cleanup drive.
Gone are the days when a visit to a far off temple meant much more than just paying respects to a deity and clicking selfies outside its premises. A temple visit earlier mandated a plunge into the temple pond, a nice stroll in the garden around it, resting by the trees in the vicinity and feeling all charged even before one could have ‘darshan’.
But as lakes made way for land sharks and temples, especially in cities, turned almost into shopping complexes, the dip is now tokenistic sprinkling of water from taps positioned at the entrance. Temple ponds/lakes or kalyanis as they are called in Kannada are still found all over the state, but mostly in ruins. Most of them have dried up for decades, some even for centuries, and many even forgotten.
These were also key players in the management of the underground water table, and were sources of water to houses in the vicinity and at times for irrigation too. Destruction of such a systematic mechanism of water conservation is the most visible cause for the water woes of the state. Fixing this is also the easiest available solution.
With an urge to reverse this situation, a youth group in the state took it upon itself to get its hands dirty quite literally and clean up these lakes. In the last few months, member of this group have managed to clean around 124 kalyanis and are working on 30 more as we write.
Under the mentorship of columnist, orator and activist Chakravarthy Sulibele, groups of youngsters across the state got down to cleaning the muck that had collected in the temple ponds and stepwells. These volunteers of Yuva Brigade, an organisation led by Sulibele, have been spending all their Sundays religiously cleaning up these lakes and making them fully functional again with many of them now brimming with water.
“It begins with identifying a lake, getting our local volunteers together, arranging for the necessary equipment for the cleanup, as well creating awareness among the locals about the importance of not just cleaning them, but also preserving these water sources, explains Yuva Brigade state convenor, Chandrashekhar who has been coordinating this effort.
The images of the dirt that was taken out of the Ramateertha Kalyani at Jamkhandi taluk are not a pretty sight, some even evoke a disgusted reaction.
It’s no mean task to get down into such stepwells, and cleaning them relentlessly for weeks together and ensuring they are not just clean but also flowing with water again.
Every time a lake that has been in disuse is brought to its notice, the local volunteers of Yuva Brigade get together, seek permission from authorities if need be, try and involve the people living around them but most importantly get ‘working’. Every Sunday sees a team of these volunteers, devoting certain hours to this cleanup task.
They also plant trees around these lakes, and in places where possible, facilitate the flow of water, make scope for river water harvesting in neighbouring areas, such that the natural flow of water into these ponds is enhanced.
Koneri Honda, the lake at Gadag, which is in the centre of the city, had turned into a swamp, and had remained a garbage dump for over six to seven decades. An effort by this team for around 300 days has now given the city a lake filled with over 10-12 feet of water, and has the locals worshipping it as a ‘teertha’ (holy water source).
While Sunday ‘ shrama daana’ would have a minimum of 15 to 20 people volunteering, there would be two to three of them who would devote three hours every single morning, from 6 am to 9 am, and get their hands dirty before heading to work. Sulibele’s presence on certain weekends would bring in more than a 100 volunteers from around the region. The testimony to their effort is the way in which the lake, situated next to the famous Veeranarayana temple, is now brimming with water and has locals also taking to rain water harvesting to keep it that way.
“The Gadag lake is said to be the place where Kumaravyasa took a dip and wrote his Bharata. It took us 276 days of manual work as no machinery can be used at the site. All our effort seems worth it when we now see youngsters swimming in the pond that had turned into a cricket ground for over two decades,” says Sulibele hopeful of steering more such action.
While Vijayanagara reign gave the region kalyanis, those parts of the state where the Marathas under Shivaji ruled, in regions around Belagavi, for instance, saw the construction of stepwells, most of which lie in a shambles, today. But efforts of youth groups like these, are the silver lining as they are not just reviving these sources of life sustenance, and beautifying them but also ensuring they are taken care of and maintained by people in and around. Revival in its truest sense.
I visited the Kavaledurga fort in Tirthahalli last year and was saddened to see the state of the kalyanis within the multi-tier fort and tweeted pictures of the same. And in no time, the volunteers of Yuva Brigade responded saying that they would soon take it up.
These volunteers get down into the wells, and ponds and sieve through all that has been dumped there for decades, yet rarely do the locals pitch in, let alone the authorities. The Akkamahadevi lake at Haveri, was an exception, which, once cleaned, was turned into a tourist/leisure spot by the city corporation.
But this was one of the very few cases as most other sites the group has cleaned up have seen minimum followup from local authorities. “It is their job and the least they can do is to pitch in or support our efforts but sadly that is not the case and that is what should change first,” laments Sulibele. “There are rare cases like one in Hubli where the local MLA and MP on seeing our efforts have joined in and sanctioned Rs 50 lakh for the development of the stepwell, which would have been filled and turned into a plot in another six months had we not intervened as the locals were complaining of stench from the debris in it,” he adds.
The team also cleaned up seven rivers at spots across the state, and had to clear around 250 tonnes of waste from the Cauvery alone, while Netravathi had around 220 tonnes of waste. Interestingly, a considerable portion of the waste is of photo frames of gods that people dispose into the river. The volunteers have taken care to gather them, and separate the glass, the picture and the frame and bury the photo in the soil along with a sapling and use the frames to create a fence around the sapling.
These lakes and rivers haven't only held water, they have held history for generations, civilisations ‘bloomed’ around them, they sustained society. Sites of river banks, many of whom are home to ancient temples, turning into spaces that hold mounds of garbage, clothes, even medical waste is distasteful, to say the least.
“‘Until now our focus was on discovering these forgotten sources of water and rejuvenating them on your own and had left it to the locals to take it from there, but we see that hasn’t worked in many places and hence we plan to conduct re-cleaning or maintenance of the ones we have cleaned so far,” signs off Sulibele as he heads to steer his large group of volunteers, “to not complain but be part of the solution”, the one thought that he says started this entire cleanup campaign.
One lake at a time, one temple pond at a time, for the last four years now, this group is doing what it can to save water and its sources. So the next time you are upset about any lake, river or stepwell in your vicinity being destroyed or in need of rejuvenation, you know this bunch of youngsters is just a tweet away.