Consigned to history

Once lifelines, now forgotten

Tanks around Bengaluru are not only vital for the city’s environment and climate but are a pointer to its very origin and antiquity. Almost every tank in the city has an inscription which tells a story of the waterbody and its genesis. The tanks are also evidence that water management was a well-evolved science among the city’s forefathers.

Early settlers and administrators made use of the undulating terrain to harvest rainwater. The physical features of the region, with slopes running east and west, meant that the rainwater drained into valley systems like the Vrishabhavathy, Hebbal, Koramangala and Challaghatta.

P L Udaya Kumar, who has been studying such inscriptions, says, “From available inscriptions, we can deduce that some of the oldest tanks are the ones at Agara, Vibuthipura, Ramasandra near Kengeri, Hebbal and Allalasandra. They are as old as 600 to 1,100 years.”

Adds Meera Iyer, convenor of INTACH’s (Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage) Bengaluru chapter, “We know from inscriptional evidence that people have been building keres since at least the 7th century, if not earlier, in this area around Bengaluru. The older keres, like the ones near Manne or Begur, are larger.”

How techniques evolved

According to S Vishwanath, who has been studying the city’s tanks for the past 30 years, tanks were mainly made for agriculture and built by Mannu Vaddars who also dug wells. The techniques of tank building evolved through much trial and error. “Many old tanks did not incorporate the concept of waste weirs, and during excess rains, many tanks breached,” he says.

Echoing Vishwanath’s observation, Meera Iyer says, “We must not think that our ancestors were infallible. There have been several cases where tanks were built which were faulty in design or silted up too much to be of use and so were abandoned.”

However, most tanks incorporated sluice gates or tugus as they are called, which were operated by the villagers to irrigate their fields. The bunds were lined by boulders and crude stone steps were provided at convenient places to help villagers access the tank to draw water for washing and drinking.

“From the construction style, the Hosakerehalli sluice gate appears to be from the Vijayanagar period. You can see other sluice gates in Bengaluru in Madiwala lake, two near the Kempambudhi Kere and some others of a different style of construction in Kaggalipura, Kudlu, OB Chudanahalli, etc,” says Meera Iyer.

Almost every ruler, right from the Gangas and the Vijayanagar kings to the British, contributed to tank building.

Meera Iyer says it was remarkable how they built so many tanks. “In the late 1800s, Major Sankey, who was a chief engineer with the public works department, noted that there were about 26,450 tanks in Mysore state, which works out to about one per 2.5 sq km approximately. He remarked how it would be difficult to find a spot to build another tank, because there were already so many tanks built to store water!”

Precursors to dams

The proliferation of tanks could also be attributed to the rulers those days, when they gave incentives to build tanks. People were either exempted from paying taxes or were given grants to build temples if they cleared forests to bring more areas under irrigation by building tanks. “Hence, in a way, there was nothing benign about the tanks,” Vishwanath says. “In fact,” he adds, “tanks were precursors to dams, which interrupted the natural flow of streams and rivers.”

It was not only the rulers who had a role in tank building. The Sulekeres that are found in the region were built with contributions from courtesans. There is also a mention of philanthropists contributing to tank building. When the region was in the grip of drought, a betel leaf merchant called Yele Mallappa Chetty is said to have raised funds on his own to build a tank, in northeast Bengaluru. The tank was eventually named after him.

Most tanks also had a temple in the vicinity and there used to be rituals and festivals associated with lakes. Villagers performed the Gangamma puja when tanks filled up after copious rains.

Kalyanis or sacred temple tanks are large wells next to temples with stone steps leading to the water. The source of water for these kalyanis is groundwater. Most kalyanis are downstream of lakes, which ensure there is enough groundwater for the kalyanis.

Some kalyanis have steps leading down to the water on all four sides, while some have them on three sides and there are some with steps on just two sides and even just one side. Some kalyanis have a mantapa right in the middle of the waterbody.

These kalyanis generally served for bathing, where priests cleansed themselves, and to water the temple gardens. Many of these kalyanis are ancient and the stones that make them up have interesting inscriptions.

There are still many well-preserved kalyanis in and around the city. The Bhoga Nandeeshwara Temple Kalyani is in a good condition and stands amid impressive surroundings of the Nandi Hills and the ancient temple. Among the notable kalyanis within the city is  the one at Subrahmanya Temple in Halasuru.

The Dakshina Mukha Nandi Tirtha Kshetra in Vyalikaval, Malleshwaram is tucked away in a small bylane, and goes unnoticed. It would have been consigned to history had it not been salvaged and excavated around a decade ago.
As the name suggests, the temple features a Nandi facing the south, with water spouting out of its mouth on to a Shivalinga, and then into the kalyani, from where it is said to flow into a stormwater drain.
The water emanating from the Nandi’s mouth is said to be the runoff from the upstream Sankey Tank. The kalyani, with steps leading to the water, is in the heart of the temple, which is lined by pillared corridors. While some sources say the temple is over 400 years old, others feel it is of more recent origin, around the late 19th century.

Other quaint kalyanis include the one within the Chikkajala Fort and the one in a village called Sultanpet near Devanahalli. The Chikkajala Fort kalyani on the highway to the international airport dates back to the early 1800s. While a part of the fort was razed to widen the highway, the kalyani within has been spared. This is a fairly large and deep kalyani with several steps leading to its bed. This fort and the kalyani are probably built by a local chieftain.

While kalyanis are generally part of a temple complex, there are some that are built independently of any shrine. While the one in Devanahalli is in a sad state with garbage dumped in it, there’s another one which is not attached to any temple, but has been restored recently.

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