A dried up reservoir in Chennai (@Jay_Apoorva18/Twitter)
Snapshot
  • Some Marxist writers and their allies in the media claim that the reason for Tamil Nadu’s water crisis is the ‘Hindu Bhakti movement’. The facts of history however are unambiguous, and they invalidate any such claims.

Tamil Nadu and its capital city Chennai in particular is facing its worst-ever water crisis. So whom should we blame for this? If we are to believe a leftist website and a Marxist Member or Parliament from Tamil Nadu, the answer is the ‘Bhakti movement’.

So, prior to the Bhakti movement, there was the ‘secular’ Sangam culture where the humans had a harmonious understanding of nature. Actually, for Marxists of this generation from Tamil Nadu, the Sangam Tamils were almost dialectical materialists who announced the arrival of Marx and Engels much like John the Baptist announcing the arrival of Jesus.

Anyway, the Sangam Tamils were not much contaminated by “other-worldly” Brahminism and Vedic rituals. So they developed a wonderful water management system. The entire Sangam literature and the Tamil epic, Silappathikaram, show a great love for water and nature. And with such love comes both efficient water conservation and water management. And then came the dark age of Bhakti, laments the Marxist politician.

This cherished, celebrated bond between human beings and nature was lost when Bhakti literature took over, says Venkatesan. In Bhakti, it was replaced by god. For the next thousand years, there was hardly any mention about nature in Tamil literature.
Venkatesan MP, quoted in Kavitha Muralidharan’s ‘From Sangam era to Silappadhikaram: What Tamil literature tells us about harvesting water’, www.thenewsminute.com, 3 July 2019. 

The journalist approvingly adds to this statement the punch line: “The price of which we seem to be paying now.” So now, you have the reason for the water scarcity in Tamil Nadu — the Bhakti movement, which is more than a thousand years old.

This was not an isolated event.

Advertisement

There has been a concerted attempt to project the Sangam age of Tamils as ‘secular’ as against the later ‘Bhakti’ movement. Recently, for example, Sikkil Gurucharan, a Carnatic musician wrote, Musical lessons on secularism from Sangam era (Times of India, 25 June 2019). In the article, the musician alleged that the excerpts he rendered from the Sangam work were about ‘the secular themes such as unity, love and togetherness’.

But the truth is something entirely different.

Universal vision and other values of Sangam poetic cosmos are predicated on the Dharmic and Vedic core. Universal vision and other values of Sangam poetic cosmos are predicated on the Dharmic and Vedic core.

The Sangam poets lived in a society where Vedic values defined values such as ‘unity, love and togetherness’. The ‘secular’ Puranaanooru, from which the musician cherry-picked to show that much quoted line ‘all world is my own home town’ and ‘all beings are my own kith and kin’, repeatedly glorifies the so-called ‘secular’ values through the Vedic frame and core.

So the greatness of the king is in protecting ‘those four primordial Vedas which having six limbs and have sprung from and never leave the mouth of the great One with the matted hair’.

Avvaiyar of the Sangam age in the same Puranaanooru praises the Chola king for ceasing quarrels with the other two major Tamil kings (Chera and Pandya). She appreciates the togetherness, peace and unity of the three kings. How? By comparing the three together to the three fires of sacrifice by the twice-born Brahmins.

Muranchiur Mudinagarrayar sings about the fearless, peaceful lives of the subjects of Chera king Perunchootru Udiyan. And how fearless and peaceful are his subjects? They are as fearless and peaceful as the deer which sleep around the three-fires which the Brahmins adore in the mountain valleys of Himalayas and Pothigai.

Advertisement

Thus, togetherness, unity and love in Sangam literature are as much ‘secular’ as Sahanavavathu ...’, the Vedic hymn that is as secular as it is sacred. And the poets of the Sangam age would be horrified to consider their core values as ‘secular’ and not Dharmic or Vedic.

Far from being a break from the Sangam worldview, the Bhakti movement actually re-vitalised the Sangam worldview, which was not at all different from the worldview and values that existed in the rest of India at that time — largely Vedic. And the feeling of the sacredness of nature including its water bodies as well as flora and fauna that one sees in Sangam literature in its core exhibits great resonance with Vedic poetry and the Upanishadic worldview. In fact, without the understanding of Vedic and Puranic knowledge, it is impossible to enjoy the full beauty of Sangam poetry.

Consider, for example, the poet Kaari Kizhar, who sang for the Pandya king, Pal-Yagasalai-Muthukudumi Peruvazhuthi.

Pura-Naanooru : setting Puranic boundaries of India in a Vedic universe Pura-Naanooru : setting Puranic boundaries of India in a Vedic universe

The poet wishes the fame of the Pandya king to spread beyond the north of the snow-clad Himalayas and beyond the south of Kanyakumari. Now comes the interesting part: It should also spread to the east of the ‘dug-up’ sea and the west of the ancient sea. It should further spread above the three-layered world unto the realm of the cow-world, and the realms below.

Now, why is the eastern sea called the ‘dug-up sea’? According to tradition, Sakaras dug up the eastern sea in search of the sacrificial horse hidden by Indra. So, that sea was deepened by human activity unlike the western sea, which was untouched and hence, ancient.

The three-layered cosmos is the Vedic cosmos as any Indologist, even Michael Witzel — consumed as he is by Hindu-phobia — might tell you. And above this, the fame would extend to Aa-nilai-Ulagam which, when translated into Sanskrit, straight away becomes Goloka.

Advertisement

Unless one understands these aspects, which would come naturally to a Hindu Tamil, one cannot enjoy this poetry. The same can be stated again and again for the greater and essential part of Sangam literature.

In fact, far from being disconnected from Bhakti literature, Sangam literature anticipates and defines the literary and mystic developments of the Bhakti in them. Let us consider another poem by Kaduvan Illaveyinanaar in Pari Paadal.

Paripaadal is an invocation to Vishnu — connecting the past and the future Paripaadal is an invocation to Vishnu — connecting the past and the future

Here, the poet enumerates the places where the divine resides — the banyan tree and burflower-tree, the islets in the middle of a flowing river, and in the serene mountain tops where even the wind seems not to blow, and in other such diverse places. The common denominator in all these is a kind of solitude that surrounds the natural places. Then the poet says:

In diverse places You abide with different names. And all worshipers come to You. You fulfill the needs of Your devotees who worship You with folded hands. You are their servant and You protect them.

The poet addresses this poem to Vishnu. That the divine exists in different places with different names and, yet the deity is the same as the Rig Vedic statement made by Dirghatamas : Ekam Sat Vipra Bahudha Vadanti, which translates as “The Truth (Sat) is One and the wise call it by many names” (Rig 1.164.46).

Now, consider the statement that the deity is the servant of His devotee — a bold statement indeed. After almost 1,800 years, Tamil poet, Subramaniya Bharathi (1882-1921), would sing some of the most melodious devotional songs on Krishna, where the Lord comes as a servant to the household of the devotee!

Advertisement

So, let us come to the larger question. How did Sangam Tamil society view nature and the divine? And did Bhakti movement replace nature with an extra-cosmic or a transcendental god, as claimed by the Marxist writer Venkatesan, and affirmed unquestionably by the journalist?

Let us consider the invocation written by Perundevanar for Nattrinai — another Sangam work.

Nattrinai : All Nature is the body of Vishnu Nattrinai : All Nature is the body of Vishnu

Here, the poet makes the entire physical nature the body of Vishnu. All earth is His feet. All oceanic waters with the shells form His garment. The space is His body and the directions are His hands. He is the principal deity of the Vedas and in Him are contained all the manifest existence. Now, this view of nature is very much part of the Sangam Tamil worldview as it is of the overall Hindu worldview.

Dr. Lance E Nelson, Professor of Theology at the University of San Diego, considers the envisioning of all physical nature as the body of Vishnu as ‘a striking metaphor adumbrated in the foundational scriptures of the Hindu tradition: the Vedas, the Upanisads, and the puranas.’

Within and Beyond all existence - Tamil word ‘Kadavul’ , wrongly translated as god, is a crisp formula, bringing out the Upanishad vision of the divine. Within and Beyond all existence - Tamil word ‘Kadavul’ , wrongly translated as god, is a crisp formula, bringing out the Upanishad vision of the divine.

The very Tamil word for the divine, Kadavul (கடவுள்), is the combination of both immanent (உள்) and transcendent (கட) presence of the divine essence with respect to all existence. It is a crisp formula that expresses in one word the Isavasya Upanishad statement that the divine is within everything and transcends everything.

It should be remembered that Mahatma Gandhi, whose thoughts form a major basis for modern Hindu ecological vision and movement, considered the Isavasya statement of divine pervading all of dynamic existence as the foundational statement of Hindu Dharma.

Paripaadal again gives a very detailed poetic rendering of this vision of the divine. Here, Vishnu is shown as the essence in all diverse forms we see around us — both tangible and intangible.

<i>Paripaadal </i>describes the immanent nature of Vishnu as revealed by the musical <i>Sama Veda</i>. Paripaadal describes the immanent nature of Vishnu as revealed by the musical Sama Veda.

The poet sees Vishnu as the master-originator of Time. And the Sangam poet says that through the musical Sama Veda, He is known thus:

In the fire You are its burning quality; In the flowers You are its fragrance; Among the gems You are the ruby/or its inner shine; Among the words You are the Truth; In Dharma You are Love; In valour You the strength; In Vedas You stand as the Upanishads; You are the first of the primordial elements; You are the hotness in the sun and You are coolness of the moon; All that is, is You and You are also the inner essence of all existence.

Resonating with  Upanishadic ‘<i>Purnamadham</i>...’ verse, Paripaadal’s lines anticipate the comparison Bhaskaracharya II employs in <i>Bijaganitha</i> when defining Infinity. Resonating with Upanishadic ‘Purnamadham...’ verse, Paripaadal’s lines anticipate the comparison Bhaskaracharya II employs in Bijaganitha when defining Infinity.

Paripaadal goes on to describe His attributes as abiding in and animating all the natural phenomena. Thus, it is His heat and light that is in the sun; it is His cool breezy healing nature that is experienced in the moon; His non-discriminatory love towards all without exception is in the rain; His protective and sustainable nature is in the earth; His expansive form is in the ocean; His subtle form abides in vibrations and its medium, the space; such being the divine presence in nature, all nature, this and that and the other — all originate in Him and being sustained in Him, ultimately merge into Him.

Centuries later, mathematician, Bhaskaracharya, in his famous definition of Infinity as a special mathematical category, would employ this vision of nature as originating from and being sustained in and dissolving back to the divine:

In this Infinity (khahara), there is no change, even as quanta of entities enter and exit, just as how the infinite Acyuta (anante achyute) at the time of dissolution and origin, when many sets of entities (bhutaganesu) merge into Him and emanate from Him.
Bijaganita: verse 6

To Sangam Tamils thus, the divine was more a dynamic divinity embedded in nature and the processes. Paripaadal envisions the Yagna process as Vishnu emanating, mounted on His Garuda. For a Tamil who lived in the Sangam age, Yagna was a symbolic ritual reenactment for all the processes, inner and outer, natural and social. The Vedic fire ritual also brought rain and represented the cyclic relations of nature. Silapathikaram describes Havis-fed smoke as fertilising the womb of the cloud for rain.

Yagna brings rain, say Silapathikaram and Bhagavad Gita Yagna brings rain, say Silapathikaram and Bhagavad Gita

The lines in Silapathikaram describing the city of the Cholas speak of the smokes from the Yagna where the Brahmins offer the Havis, spiraling above the towers of the city, reaching the rain-carrying clouds, fertilising them to provide rain. The resemblance of these lines to Bhagavad Gita (3:14) is unmistakable. As an aside, let it be known that Dr A P J Abdul Kalam was very much fond of this sloka from the Gita that emphasises the cyclic web of relations with respect to human activity and rain.

So, the Sangam age had no secular-sacred binary. Chera king, PalYaanai Chelkezhu Kuttuvan, conducted Yagna that sustained the Devas. Also, the limitless food he gave to all people is described as Yagna-havis, thus making Annadana itself a Yagna.

Pathittrupathu points out that feeding the people was also a <i>Yagna </i>— same as the Upanishadic dictum that producing and sharing food is a Vrata — a sacred obligation.<i></i> Pathittrupathu points out that feeding the people was also a Yagna — same as the Upanishadic dictum that producing and sharing food is a Vrata — a sacred obligation.

The great Karikala Chola, who was renowned for laying down the initial Tamil irrigation systems, also conducted Vedic Yagnas along with his queens. The ‘secular’ Puranaanooru describes this Yagna that Karikala conducted.

Puranaanooru gives a detailed description of Vedic Yagna conducted by Chola king Karikalan, known for his irrigation works. Puranaanooru gives a detailed description of Vedic Yagna conducted by Chola king Karikalan, known for his irrigation works.

The poet, Perunkuzhalaathanaar, who sang lamenting the demise of his dear friend the great Karikala Chola, speaks of how being virtuous and understanding in Dharma, the king had a Vedic Yagna conducted by knowledgeable Brahmins. The king, along with his wives, participated in the Yagna and the Yagna-Vedi was in the form of an eagle. The Yupa was installed and the king completed the Yagna.

So, was there a break between the Sangam tradition and Bhakti movement? Was ‘god’ substituted in the place of ‘nature’? The answer is definitely in the negative. On the contrary, we see the same worldview being sung by Aazhwars and Nayanmars.

Nammalzhwar sees Vishnu as invisibly permeating all existence as its life - resonating with the Sangam view of nature. Nammalzhwar sees Vishnu as invisibly permeating all existence as its life - resonating with the Sangam view of nature.

The great poet-seer, Nammalzhwar (9th century CE) considers Vishnu to be inseparably permeating the entire existence just as life is present in the body. Here, he resonates with the Vedic and Sangam worldview. This, in turn, does not lead to relegating nature to a secondary place as against an extra-cosmic transcendental creator god. Instead, it leads to a great fascination with the dynamic processes of nature and a keen observation of the same. This comes out so aesthetically in the poetry of Aandal, which is filled with observations of natural phenomena — astronomical to ornithological.

Aandal has produced some of the most original and everlasting poetic celebrations of nature ever produced by humanity. Aandal has produced some of the most original and everlasting poetic celebrations of nature ever produced by humanity.

The famous Thirupaavai of Aandal is filled with such wonderful descriptions and keen observations of natural phenomena that even today innovative teachers, passionate about teaching, do not hesitate to employ her hymns to give the children a poetic version of the hydrological cycle. With a wonder-filled eye of a little girl, she describes how the rain clouds darken themselves with water taken from the oceans and with lightning and thunder pour torrential rain. The poetess contrasts the impersonal destructive power of a deluge-like stormy rain to the human expectation of it becoming beneficial.

Again, Kambar, who lived in the 13th century, sang of nature in his epic poem Iramavataram in such an exquisite manner that can be rarely matched elsewhere in the world.

Kambar actually takes the Sangam poetry’s nature appreciation further forward in his poetry. Kambar actually takes the Sangam poetry’s nature appreciation further forward in his poetry.

In the Sangam period, Marutham is the land associated with agriculture. Kambar, for the first time in the Tamizh tradition, views Marutham as a maiden seated in glory and how! The peacocks dance and the bright lotus plants appear as the lighted lamps while the scented water lilies of the ponds look like the gazing eyes. The small waves which form in the pond appear like a light, transparent veil. The humming of the bees is as musical as the traditional string instrument. In such glory is seated the maiden that is the Marutham land. And it is not just poetic appreciation of nature.

Kambar also takes forward the organic worldview of Sangam poetry where the divine permeates within and without of all existence. Kambar also takes forward the organic worldview of Sangam poetry where the divine permeates within and without of all existence.

Kambar also shows in his poetry the same Vedic and Sangam worldview of all physical existence being inseparable from the divine. He combines in his lines an overarching Sankhya evolutionary scheme with the divine permeating all forms, both within and without, like the body, vitality and awareness.

Even in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, we see Tamil literature vibrantly singing of nature and, as if anticipating the soon-to-come colonial alienation of forest-based communities and their violent banishing from forest lands, the poets have sung of the inalienable natural bonds and love that the tribal communities have for the beauty of the forests and the hills.

Thus, Pillai Perumal Iyengar, who lived during the reign of Thirumalai Nayakkar (17th century), uses a genre where the tribal chieftain rejects the royal proposal for the hand of the tribal princess. When, with such notions, kings entered the forest, their crows became the millet-measuring tools for tribal women, the poet says. Though a spiritual work, Thiruvaranga Kalambakam, also subliminally insists on the fierce independent nature of forest communities and the virtue of non-forest dwelling communities of respecting their rights.

Advertisement

In the 18th century, Thrikoodarasappa Kavirayar, who lived in south Tamil Nadu, sang Kuttrala Kuravanchi, which to this day, has served as one of the most lyrical hail of the nature of Kuttralam — a famous holiday destination as well as a pilgrimage town — known for its waterfalls and serene beauty. A tribal woman describes to an urban girl the beauty of the forest and the people living there.

The tribal woman (Kurathi) speaks of how the male monkeys try to court their females by offering them the juicy fruits of the forest. Even the Devas desire the fruits that spill from the hands of the female monkeys. The tribal men invite the Devas with just their eyes. And in the forest, sages with divine powers grow herbs repeatedly. The mist from the waterfalls can make the Sun’s chariot wheels and His horses’ hooves slip. ‘Such is the greatness of Kuttralam hill country of ours where resides Siva who has a cute little crescent moon adorning His matted hair.’

The appreciation of nature continues well into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Tamizh literature. The appreciation of nature continues well into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Tamizh literature.

She further boasts that the only thing that runs in her country is the new flood water with flowers (meaning there is none who has to run out of any fear); the only thing that diminishes is the mind of the yogi in meditation (not the wealth and health of the people); only thing that is slender are the waists of young women; only thing that has a fall are the grains sown on the ground. And so on.

Such is the great Kuttralam, south Aryan country, says the tribal woman. (Note also that the notion of Aryan as ‘upper caste’ or ‘North’ was unknown to traditional Tamil mind even in the eighteenth century). To this day Kuttrala Kuravanchi provides an excellent model for a literature that can attract nature enthusiasts, pilgrims and tourists to a remote town in large numbers. One can safely say that no modern advertisements by governmental and commercial tourism promoters have beaten Kuttrala Kuravanchi in that.

Given such a rich tradition of celebrating nature and communities living in harmony with nature in Tamil literary history, it needs extreme confidence on the part of the Marxist writer-politician, and abject ignorance or dishonesty or both on the part of the reporter to state that 'the cherished, celebrated bond between human beings and nature was lost when Bhakti literature took over’ and that 'for the next thousand years, there was hardly any mention about nature in Tamil literature’.

These visions of the embedded divine in nature is not limited to poetic celebrations. All the rulers of South India competed with each other and previous generations in creating traditional water management systems. These traditional water management systems were not charity works done by kings, but organically integrated with the local communities.

The Sthala Purana narratives associated with the water bodies made them sacred and the non-translatable Punya in turn made the meta-organism of local community and water body flourish through centuries.

Advertisement

In the period the Marxist writer-politician as well as his admiring reporter claim as ‘water neglected due to Bhakti’, huge water harvesting and water conservation systems were created. Hindu texts on town and village planning have actually necessitated that at least two water bodies should be created in every human habitat to be merited as a village or town.

From epigraphic data for the same period, we know that water bodies of different types existed with their own purposes. They are: ponds (Kulams); pools and channels (Vayakkal); drinking water tanks (urunikulam), sacred bathing ponds (thirumanjanakulam) and small tanks with filling and discharging pipes and sluices (EndiraVavi). The last thousand years in Tamil Nadu actually saw the continued development of water conservation as a combined science, art and a way of life.

Traditionally, trees were planted along the bunds of the water harvesting structures. Where they continue to exist, these have medicinal values and are used in the traditional, ethnic medical systems. Some of the most common trees thus found by the tanks because of this tradition are as follows: Gallnut (Tamil: Kadukkai; scientific name: Terminalia chebula); Indian gooseberry (Tamil: Nelli: scientific name: Phyllanthus emblica); Bedda nut tree (Tamil: Tanri ; scientific name: Terminalia bellirica); Indian Beech (Tamil: Pungam, scientific name: Pongamia pinnata); Fig Tree (Tamil: Arasu, scientific name: Ficus religiosa); Neem tree (Tamil: Vembu, scientific name: Azadirachta indica).

According to C P Venkatarama Iyer, who was a historian of ancient town planning in the Deccan, the trees at the banks of water bodies served to also clean the water of impurities in the same way as alum.

Far from being neglected after ‘the Bhakti movement’, the water conservation and management structures went on increasing and specific rules, regulations, legislation and community contracts to protect the water bodies also came into existence. Just consider the following inscription from Rajendra Chola, who succeeded the great Raja Raja:

The lands of this village shall be irrigated by canals dug (proportionately) as per water assigned; others shall not be permitted to cut branches from these canals, dam across, put up small piccottas, or bale water in baskets. The water (thus) assigned shall not be wasted. Such water shall be used for irrigation (after) being regulated. Channels and springs passing across the lands of other villages to irrigate (the lands of) this village, shall (be permitted to) flow over and to cast up silt. Channels and springs passing across the lands of this village to irrigate (the lands of) outside villages shall (also be permitted) to flow over and cast up (silt) — reservoirs and wells shall be dug. The embankments of the tanks of this village shall be permitted to be raised within their (own) limits (to any suitable height) so as to hold the utmost quantity of water that may be let into those (tanks).
South Indian Inscriptions Vol-III, p. 487.

What one sees is an evolution of a water management system so thorough and more importantly so de-centralised and centred on local communities and their needs. It was in the centuries after the so-called ‘Bhakti movement’ that even elected local bodies get recorded in inscriptions to manage the water bodies.

In his authoritative work on economic conditions in Southern India between 1000 to 1500 CE, Dr. A. Appadorai (Vol. I, University of Madras, 1936) brings out these aspects very thoroughly:

The Mitaksara classes the person who breaks reservoirs with the one who causes the destruction of a child in embryo, and one guilty of man-slaughter, and the punishment enjoined on him or her is tying a stone round the neck and plunging into water so that they might not float up. Mutual agreements among people were intended to achieve the same object. It was covenanted by the inhabitants of Kiranur that they should not cause any damage to the trees, wells, tanks, etc., belonging to them, during any strife that might arise among them.

The importance given to repair and preservation was such that even the taxes meant for the palace would be directed for tank repairs when the latter demanded it:

The common way of providing for the maintenance of irrigation works was the gift of land — severally called erippatti, goddage and kulappatti . Sometimes, the land assigned was earmarked for specific pieces of work in connection with the upkeep of the tank, e.g. ‘keeping up a cart for the Agara tank’. In 1471, we are told that an officer remitted the taxes hitherto paid to the palace, viz., vibhuti-kanikkai, jodi, sulmari, etc., to help in the repair of the breached village tank.

So much for the supposed neglect of water bodies after the Bhakti movement!

When the British colonial administration got itself established in South India in Madras in the nineteenth century, they found 50,000 tanks. Almost every British engineer or colonial administrator who studied the Hindu irrigation system in South India, had marvelled at the extreme optimal efficiency with which the system worked, which harmonised the water cycle, human constructions and the local communities. Col. J. Anderson of the Madras Engineers was quoted in Macmillan’s Magazine of January 1878 in an article entitled Famines and Floods in India thus:

In no other part of the world has so much been done by ancient native rulers for the development of the resources of the country. The further south one goes, and the further the old Hindoo polity was removed from the disturbing influence of foreign conquest, the more complete and elaborate was the system of agriculture and irrigation works connected with it.... Every available source of supply was utilised, and works in advance of supply have been executed, for tanks [reservoirs] have been very generally constructed, not only for general rainfall, but for exceptional rainfall.... Irrigation from rivers and channels, or by these and combined, was also carried on.
Col. J Anderson quoted in Mike Davis ‘Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World’, 2001

Horsley, the engineer of the Pandyan canal, made the following observation:

In other countries, and in India also, an engineer generally works on his own lines in developing any large scheme of irrigation, and naturally credits his own skill and perseverance with the success of his undertaking. Here, however, I have no hesitation in saying that it has been an unmixed pleasure to me, from a professional point of view, to merely follow the lines of the original constructors of the Pandyan canal and Pulpanabapoorum Poothenaur, because the evidence of their skill and almost superhuman perseverance was so marked; and I have, in carrying out the works, felt contented and fully satisfied to follow in the footsteps of those whom I cannot but consider to have been masters in their art and facile princeps in irrigation engineering
A Appadorai Ph.D, ‘Economic Conditions in Southern India (1000-1500 AD)‘ Vol-I, University of Madras, 1936, pp.211-2

Sir Arthur Cotton openly acknowledged the indebtedness of British engineers to the irrigation constructions of Hindu Tamil Nadu.

These are noble works, and show both boldness and engineering talent. They have stood for hundreds of years ... it was from them that we learnt how to secure a foundation in loose sand of unmeasured depth. In fact, what we learnt from them made the difference between financial success and failure. ... With this lesson about foundations, we built bridges, weirs, aqueducts, and every kind of hydraulic work ... we are thus deeply indebted to the native engineers ...
Claude Alvares, ‘Irrigation in India and Sri Lanka’ in ‘Encyclopedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures’ (Ed. Helaine Selin), Springer Science, 1997, p.450

However, two centuries later and almost a decade ago, in 2008, Er. Madhavi Ganesan from Centre for Water Resources of the College of Engineering Guindy at Chennai, in a paper on The temple tanks of Madras would point out that now there are merely 39 temple tanks in Chennai and even if they had been protected properly and traditionally, Chennai would have had better water management:

There are 39 temple tanks in the city of Madras, most of which have been dry for the past one decade due to rapid urbanisation and continuous withdrawal of groundwater. ... The study analysed both the quantity and quality aspects of the tanks. ... Through these 39 tanks it is possible to harvest and conserve about 1,300,000 m^3 rain water. ... This study has shown that the tanks of Chennai, act as water conservation structures, apart from serving their traditional function. They can be filled to their capacity by having storm drains from the surrounding urban area directed to the tanks
‘The temple tanks of Madras, India: rehabilitation of an ancient technique for multipurpose waterstorage’, Indian Journal of Science and Technology, Vol.1 No.7 (Dec 2008)

What is true of Chennai temple tanks is also true for every temple tank in every town and village of Tamil Nadu. For example, this is what Er. Alagurai has to say in a paper after studying the Chandrachoodeshwarar Temple Tank in Hosur:

In these times of severe water shortages, we realise that it is the over exploitation of the aquifers that have caused our dire situation. Temple tanks could be looked upon as available infrastructure to help replenish the ground water levels. If we could only drain the rainwater from the surrounding areas, with minimal filtration, the design of the temple tanks would encourage percolation, and in a few years, water tables would rise.
‘Surface Water Wonder: Chendrahchoodeshwarar, International Journal of Advances in Science Engineering and Technology, Vol.VI, Iss.1, 2018

But what happened to these water bodies and traditional water harvesting structures?

Sir Cotton himself gives the reason as the ‘most unaccountable neglect.’ In Salem district alone, he pointed out that under the British rule ‘8,864 wells, 218 dams, 164 small channels and 1017 small tanks’ had been left to ruin. In 1865, William Wedderburn appealed to the British to continue ‘the system put into place by the native rulers in the Ceded Districts which granted a reduction in the land-tax rate to induce the ryots to undertake the repairs themselves’, only to be rejected by the government.

It was with the deadliest 1877-78 famine that the British famine commission came up with a scheme to improve the condition of the tanks: the Tank Restoration Scheme. But it remained more in paper and got entangled in the web of government fund crunch and bureaucratic hurdles.

Mike Davis further points out that the colonial system ripped apart the reciprocal relationships within the village communities, pushing the water management systems to neglect and giving priority to land ownership.

In short, the traditional water management and conservation system of Tamil Nadu which had both continuity and evolution from the Sangam age through the ‘Bhakti movement’ right till the coming of colonial era provided one of the finest demonstrations in the science, art and way of life of water management.

Advertisement

This traditional water management system of Tamil Nadu was destroyed by British colonialism from the eighteenth century onward in pre-independent India. It was Karl Marx who then was a cheer leader for the British destruction of self-reliant villages of India.

Marx wrote with contempt of ‘these idyllic village communities’ which he stereotyped as ‘had always been the solid foundation of oriental despotism’ and having ‘restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it the unresisting tool of superstition, enslaving it beneath traditional rules, depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies.

With pathologically genocidal Euro-centrism, Marx cared little about the millions of human lives that the British destruction of indigenous systems was killing in India and cheered Britain to effect ‘the annihilation of the old Asiatic society and the laying of the material foundations of western society in Asia’.

In post-independent India, the destruction has been continued by Dravidian pseudo-rationalist movement that appropriated temple lands, destroyed Hindu value systems like Punya. Marxists like Venkatesan and his army of admiring journalists continue the support of ‘Breaking Hinduism’ onslaught today and bamboozle the English-educated but culturally illiterate gullible readers.

Get Swarajya in your inbox everyday. Subscribe here.
Comments
Be a Partner, Reader.
Support a media platform that will bring you ground reports that other platforms will try every bit to avoid.
Partner with us, be a patron. Your backing is important to us.

Become A Patron
Become A Subscriber