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A temple in Tamil Nadu. Pixabay

Chennai, July 30, 2017: The droughts that affected the civilizations centuries ago can tell us about ways to handle the present ones.To have a better understanding, we need to look at the walls of temples in Tamil Nadu.

Today, temples or any religious monuments are occasionally visited for spiritual significance attached to it, their art and architecture. But, in the past, the walls of it were used to serve as record keepers. Inscriptions on Tamil Nadu’s temples are a record of administrative and social decisions made from a time when what was written on them was controlled by the local community.

Tamil Nadu is divided into two broad zones, the Cauvery delta and the Tamirabarani delta as per inscriptions on irrigation. The Cauvery delta was more fertile and larger with more tributaries still, the number of drought-related inscriptions here is more in number than the Tamirabarani delta. About 1,000 years ago, during the peak of the Chola power, irrigation in the Cauvery delta was through the many tributaries of the river and smaller canals.

The Tamirabarani region was much more water-starved and gives us a surprising data on what we need to do. There are Inscriptions from as old as 700-1,000 years ago, about various ways to conserve water in temples at places like Mannarkovil, Cheranmahadevi, Tirukurungudi, Kovilpatti, and Pudukkottai, indicates few aspects.

Temple inscriptions also included documents connected with the sale, transfer, and maintenance of irrigated lands. Today, we look at water as a right but in the older times, it was a representation of God and it was the duty of residents to protect and conserve it. Further, the respect for water reached the public sphere and became part of individual homes as well. In the 1970s, when the older women drew water from the wells, they poured the first pot back into them.

Water is precious. Pixabay

During the reign of Pandya Empire, water conservation was a completely local affair. The entire community, through the elected temple Mahasabha, managed it. The responsibility of constant supervision and monitoring was on local bodies. All systems and processes sustained due to an emotional connection with the resource.

Water from the Tamirabarani and the Vaigai rivers in Tamil Nadu was taken through channels into formations like small lakes called Eris and bigger lakes called per-eris. These channels created square parcels of lands called sadirams and they were subdivided into smaller padagams of land, all of which had numbers. There were around 20-24 padagams in a sadiram. They were taxed on the basis of their fertility. A system far more complex and farmer-friendly than today!

Every tank had multiple weirs to drain out excess water, built in agreement with the local terrain. 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 higher number of large tanks was in upper reaches which fed water into the smaller tanks and ponds before it finally drained into the sea. The result of it was- during floods, the limits were rarely breached, and during droughts, each tank had water.

Maintenance of the tanks was done through desilting process, enlargement, building, and maintaining of new canals, it was a continuous process. More than a hundred inscriptions across the region dealt exclusively with this. Fishing rights for the lakes helped to cover maintenance costs. Revenues were good enough as the excess profits were used in building larger halls in temples that could be used for public functions.

In Srivilliputhur, Tamil Nadu, every able-bodied man was expected to participate in such water conservation methods or operations. Some inscriptions indicates-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 talk of tax concessions provided following natural disasters (and after a disaster, the community used to quickly act together to set the system right) and a note of reclaimed lands.

It is true that the inscriptions don’t paint a utopian world. They also talk about disputes related to water sharing and taxes; deaths that happened during desilting; and fights over excess water for more rounds of crops. But such disputes were quickly resolved and the river or tank was respected.

Today, we may have advanced in terms of technology but we could still pick some of the best practices from earlier times.

prepared by Kritika Dua of NewsGram. Twitter @DKritika08

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