Tamil Nadu is in on the streets looking for water, and experts blame it on poor management of water resources by the people and the government. The past, however, holds a remarkably different tale.
Thousands of years ago, Tamils were endowed with distinctly rare and exemplary knowledge in water management. Ancient Tamil literature speaks eloquently about Tamils’ knowledge in judicious use of water. History is awash with evidences. Kings have built tanks and lakes to store water, some of which continue to exist and serve till date, well beyond a thousand years. Water, to them, was sacred.
Munneer Vizhavu (the festival of three waters) is a celebration of water in the Sangam era. Experts say the three waters are those that create the soil, nourish, and erode it. The idea, experts say, was to preserve water bodies from being polluted. Ancient Tamil literature had different terms to connote different types of water. Munneer refers to the sea – a convergence of water from rains, river and spring. The term also refers to its antiquity, implying that the sea was formed before the lands. Water from river was called Nanneer (good water) and water used for drinking purposes was called Inneer (sweet water).
That Tamil literature mentions 47 water bodies is an endorsement of the prescient wisdom of Tamils on harvesting water. The names hold evidences to the keen interest the kings and commoners took in harvesting water. While some names continue to be in existence as names of water bodies, several other names have been relinquished to the pages of history and literature. Some have assumed different connotations.
So Agazhi (moats) around forts of the kings no longer exist. Kuttai (now referring to sewage water) was originally a water body intended to bathe cattle.
Ooruni was a source of drinking water. Eri (lakes) were used for agricultural purposes. Thangal also refers to lakes and was a term predominantly used in the northern part of Tamil Nadu.
But today, residential places that have suffixes like Eri or Thangal (Velachery/Iyappanthangal for instance), are as starved as the rest of the city.
Writer and CPI(M) MP from Tamil Nadu Su Venkatesan says there was a rather philosophical understanding of the importance of water in the past, the evidence for which can be found in Sangam literature. “Sangam believes a person’s character is shaped by water and soil. Life centered around water. The kings built villages around water bodies. They would first construct a well, and houses were built around the well. Water holds an important place in almost all the rituals from birth to death.”
Senai Thottu Vaithal, a ritual that has changed forms today with changing times, was originally intended to feed the village’s water for a baby as soon as it is born. Today, the ritual is done with honey and ghee, sometimes smeared on gold. When a woman gets married and shifts to her husband’s place, one of the first post-wedding rituals is to worship the water source. “She has to throw a betel leaf into the well, and has to pray to the well to accept her as its daughter,” Venkatesan says. When a woman passes away, water is brought from her birthplace to wash her before the funeral.
Almost every celebrated author in ancient Tamil literature has spoken about the importance of water, if not directly, by drawing comparison to human virtues.
In simple yet profoundly striking language, Avvaiyar illustrates how if the ridge is prosperous, it leads to better level of water and consequently better produce, and better standards of living of the citizens. And in turn, it leads to prosperity of the scepter and the king:
Thiruvalluvar perhaps recorded the universal truth in his remarkably brilliant words – Neer Indri Amaiyathu Ulagu. There is no world without water. The couplet goes on to say how there will be a collapse of morality if the rains fail. Interestingly studies linking climate change to increase crimes have begun to emerge in the recent months.
நீர்இன்று அமையாது உலகெனின் யார்யார்க்கும்
வான்இன்று அமையாது ஒழுக்கு
Akanaanuru from Sangam is introspective, yet the songs are informed by a very sensitive concern for nature and environment. A song in Akanaanuru mentions how a mother would sacrifice on her sleep to protect her newborn, just like a man appointed to keep guard at the lakes.
பெருங்குளக் காவலன் போல
அருங்கடி அன்னையும் துயில் மறந்தனளே
The earliest of Tamil literature, Tolkaapiyam, draws comparison between a warrior marching to take on a mighty army, and the dams that stop the force of flowing water. In doing so, the song elaborates on the importance of dams (karsirai as they were called in those days).
வருவிசை புனலைக் கற்சிறை போல
ஒருவன் தாங்கிய பெருமையானும்
Several poems speak virtuously of kings who focus on water bodies. Some in Puranaanuru (Sangam poetry, but extrospective) illustrate the points to be considered in the construction of lakes. Some hail as immortal the king who has built water bodies in low-lying areas.
Celebrated as one among the five great epics, Silappadhikaram by Ilango Adigal speaks of the king who makes his country fertile by harvesting the rain water through construction of lakes and tanks, and puts them to good use.
இடியுடைப் பெருமழை எய்தா ஏகப்
பிழையாவிளையுள் பெருவளம் சுரப்ப
மழைபிணித்(து) ஆண்ட மன்னவன்
To many poets, as is evident from many poems, water was as personal as it was political or social. It was as important to protect and nurture a waterbody like a newborn, as it was to feel proud about it, like a warrior taking on a mighty army.
This cherished, celebrated bond between human beings and nature was lost when Bhakthi literature took over, says Venkatesan. “In Bhakthi, it was replaced by god. For the next thousand years, there was hardly any mention about nature in Tamil literature.” The price of which we seem to be paying now.
“Today, it is not about nature. We have failed in understanding nature and using the resources as judiciously as it was done in the past. Our rulers today seem to have no idea of the concept of water management. They should take lessons from Sangam,” he adds.
Kavitha Muralidharan is a journalist with two decades of experience, writing on politics, culture, literature and cinema.