Can droughts experienced centuries ago teach us ways to handle the present ones? They can if we care to look in the right place — for instance, the walls of temples in Tamil Nadu. Temples today are primarily religious monuments, occasionally visited for their art and architecture. However, in the past, their walls served as record-keepers. Inscriptions on Tamil Nadu’s temples record administrative and social decisions from a time when they were a seat of authority for the local community.
Inscriptions connected to irrigation in Tamil Nadu concern two broad zones, the Cauvery delta and the Tamirabarani delta. The Cauvery delta was more fertile and larger — with more tributaries — but the number of drought-related inscriptions here are more in number than the Tamirabarani delta.
About 1,000 years ago, during the zenith of the Chola power, irrigation in the Cauvery delta was through the many tributaries of the river and smaller canals.
Reverence for the resource
The Tamirabarani region was much more water-starved and gives us astonishing data on what we need to do. Inscriptions from 700-1,000 years ago, connected to water conservation in temples at places like Mannarkovil, Cheranmahadevi, Tirukurungudi, Kovilpatti, and Pudukkottai, attest to a few aspects.
Temple inscriptions were always documents connected with the sale, transfer and maintenance of irrigated lands. Today, we consider water to be a right. However, in the older traditions, it was a representation of god that residents were duty-bound to protect and conserve.
Further, the respect for water transcended the public sphere and was part of individual homes as well. As recently as the 1970s, it can be seen that an older women drawing water from the wells pouring the first pot back into them.
In the Pandya empire, water conservation was a completely local affair. The entire community, through the elected temple mahasabha, managed it. This meant that there was constant supervision, ownership and responsibility. All systems and processes were sustained through an emotional connection with the resource.
Water from the Tamirabarani and the Vaigai rivers was taken through channels into formations like eris (small lakes) and per-eris (bigger lakes). Channels created square parcels of lands called sadirams and they were subdivided into smaller padagams of land, all of which had numbers. There were as many as 20-24 padagams in a sadiram. They were taxed differently based on how fertile they were — a system far more complex and farmer-friendly than today!
Care for the local terrain
Every tank had multiple weirs, always built in consonance with the local terrain, to drain out excess water. Using these, farmers irrigated the fields.
There were complex calculations on allocation by turns (murai) and hours of supply (nir naligai). The interests of the boatmen in the lower estuaries and ports were also taken care of so that there was enough water there to permit them to bring boats up the river.
The upper reaches had a higher number of large tanks which fed water into the smaller ones, tanks and ponds before it finally drained into the sea. As a result, during floods, the limits were rarely breached, and during droughts, each tank had water.
Maintenance of the tanks through desilting and enlargement and building and maintaining of new canals was a continuous process. More than a hundred inscriptions across the region deal exclusively with this. Fishing rights for the lakes helped defray maintenance costs. Revenues were high enough for the excess profits to be deployed in building larger halls in temples that could be used for public functions.
In Srivilliputhur, every able-bodied man was expected to participate in such operations. Some inscriptions show that maintenance was a local responsibility and not that of the king. In fact, many capital-intensive projects were funded by the dancing women of temples.
Many inscriptions also talk of reclaimed lands and tax concessions provided following natural disasters and how, after a disaster, the community quickly acted together to set the system right.
True, the inscriptions don’t paint a utopian world. They talk about disputes related to water sharing and taxes; deaths that happened during desilting; and fights over excess water for more rounds of crops. However, these disputes were quickly resolved and in a way that the river or tank was respected.
Today, we may have advanced in technology but we could pick some best practices from long ago.