It is well known that human civilization has been linked to the availability of freshwater resources, with many a great civilization and empire having risen and fallen due to the power of water — the great equalizer.
Hundreds of years ago, when the spectacular array of temples, amongst the greatest expression of religious creativity, were being built in the vast, dry plains of Tamil Nadu, the creators of those magnificent temple complexes had, at the same time, also excavated sizeable water-tanks around the temples. Not only had these people understood the significance of water, but, more importantly, had elevated it to great sanctity. Water was treated as the foremost of the five elements (panchatattva) and perhaps the primary reason in constructing these tanks must have been functional and entirely logical.
Going back in history across other parts of India too, one can trace the existence of water storage facilities at Mohenjo Daro and Harappa, and nearly every reign and kingdom has helped advance this concept of water storage, for domestic use and for agriculture. In Arthashastra, there is description of a well-organized system of specially created water tanks while the Padma Purana mentions in detail about the conservation of water tanks. Manu takes water tanks very seriously and recommends the imposition of the death penalty on anyone found damaging or destroying a water-tank.
Much of the plains of Tamil Nadu are characterized by an average rainfall of under 1000 mm and a near absence of perennial rivers. Not surprisingly, this region was described as vaanam paartha bhoomi (land that looks at the skies – for rain!). In this context, creation of several kinds of water tanks made practical sense. The best known water-holding structures were the specially excavated water tanks around the many temple sites.
The two entities, the temple and the water-tank complemented each other, both serving an essential part of rural and urban life, of rituals and domestic use.
The temple and the tank are linked in the term kovil kulam, meaning temple tank. Sacred place, deity and sacred water, the temple and the tank fulfilled all the requirements of pilgrimage.
Several temples had two tanks, one of which served to cleanse the pilgrim while the other was used for the deity’s ritual bath or abhishekham and the site of the float festival; also, these helped nurture the gardens which provided flowers for the many rituals. More than just the ritual needs; they played an important role in the prosperity of the area by recharging the groundwater level and proved to be a boon for local ecology as well. There are more than a hundred water-tanks in the Chennai region alone, though most of these have fallen into a state of utter neglect in recent times.”
Made of brick or plain earth, most temple tanksare rectilinear in shape. The original structure was a beautifully planned affair, with appropriately situated inlets to gather rainwater from surrounding areas and outlets for excess water. Even surrounding architecture was made in sync with the objective of enhancing the rain-harvesting potential of these tanks. For instance, many of the older homes had sloping roofs that facilitated the flow of rain-water into the tanks, some of which were even connected with one another through channels to enable optimum harvesting and use of water.
While religious and practical functions may have been instrumental in the evolution of this concept, the sacred tanks even became a social necessity, offering a meeting place for village people, an ideal location to spend long hours on hot evenings and an open-air theater for dance and music programmes. In the hot weather of this part of south India, water loss due to evaporation can be high and so, by introducing proper aquatic flora such as the lotus and water lily, steps were taken to reduce water-loss from evaporation.
Interestingly, the original names of many of the tanks too were sacred, a few of them even named after a sacred tree. Thiruvallikeni, the original name of the Parthasarathy temple tank at Triplicane, means ‘tank of the sacred white lily’.
Alas, unplanned development and growth of the urban areas around the temple complexes has ruined many of the sacred tanks and while steps have been taken for the restoration of this beautiful concept, there is obviously a very long way to go because every day, fresh detergents, plastics and so much other refuse continues to flow into and corrupt our traditional wisdom, turning these sacred tanks into sewage tanks and adding to water woes
An urgent programme to revive Chennai’s templetanks is essential to stave off the ever-increasing water shortages and droughts. Maintenance and regular cleaning of the inlet and outlet channels should be strictly followed. Recreation spaces around tanks must be developed to inspire and force people to keep them clean, and concrete flooring in the tanks must be avoided.
TemplesTanks in Arid Lands Eco News, Vol. 18, No. 1 April - June 2012