Springs of water wisdom

A Vijayanagar time tank

It was entirely by chance that we stumbled upon the kere. We were in Chikkabenakal, a small village to the northwest of Hampi, in 2008, looking for the megalithic site that was said to exist nearby. Chikkabenakal is accessed from the highway connecting Koppal with Gangavati, and the megalithic site there is a smaller version of the better-known site at Hirebenakal. Our arrival was greeted with much suspicion initially, for many treasure-seekers have vandalised the megaliths in the past, in misguided quests for imaginary hoards buried in these prehistoric funerary monuments. However, soon we seemed to have passed some test, for the villagers suddenly decided that we were harmless and two of them volunteered to lead us to the site.

As Honnappa and Linganna led us through the starkly beautiful countryside with low, boulder-strewn hills of granite baking under the harsh sun, they pointed out some of the spots of importance locally, one of them a sacred spring called Maleyammana Ooti. Noting that we seemed to be besotted with the idea of ancient stone structures, they also mentioned a place with “two very tall stones.” My mind being full of megaliths at the time, I jumped at the possibility that these would be two tall menhirs.

The megalithic site at Chikkabenakal left me feeling very depressed. I could discern the remains of 15 megaliths which, when intact, would have resembled the dolmenoid cists of Hirebenakal. However, not a single one of them was intact. To quell the surging wave of disappointment, I asked Honnappa to lead us to what I thought was a site with two menhirs.

Artificial embankment

So, imagine my amazement when they led us up an obviously artificial embankment to see a structure that was a far cry from the humble constructions of prehistoric people — two tall uprights of dressed granite supporting a carved granite crosspiece. We quickly realised that these uprights were the supports of a contraption which once controlled the sluice gates of a vast rain-fed tank. Honnappa said that the tank is called Rayana Kere. We were standing on top of a bund, which was constructed by bridging two hillocks, to collect and contain the waters that drained from the chains of low hills all around, and from seasonal streams that flowed in the monsoon. The tank was defunct now, and small pools of water here and there in the water-holding area were all that remained of what must have once been a large body of water. The granite uprights were mind-boggling — each was a single piece of hewn granite, embedded firmly in the floor of the kere.

Each of the uprights was 11 metres in height and measured roughly 60cm x 60cm in cross-section and were spaced 2.6 metres apart. When the tank was full, a large part of the uprights would have been submerged, and from the crosspiece would be suspended the mechanism that worked as the sluice gates at the base of the uprights. This controlled the flow of water through a stone-lined tunnel under the embankment to the distribution canal beyond.

Being roughly 10 km from Hampi, we were very much in the Vijayanagar country and were aware of a large number of tanks built under the patronage of the empire. In an arid land which was dependent on the vagaries of the monsoon, apart from River Tungabhadra, for irrigation, it made sense to build reservoirs to store water. The topography, with chains of low granitic hills, was amenable to the construction of such tanks, and during the reign of the Vijayanagar kings, methods of tank construction and their upkeep became pretty much standardised.

The Indian subcontinent has a long history of the construction of structures to store and distribute water for irrigation, but it is under the Vijayanagar Empire that tank construction became very widespread and assumed magnitudes comparable to modern irrigation projects. Archaeologist CTM Kotriah has discussed these in detail in his book on irrigation systems under the Vijayanagar Empire. The increasing needs of a growing population under a vast and thriving empire, encompassing large regions with scanty rainfall, forced the rulers to take the problem of irrigation very seriously.

The main categories of irrigation work popular during the reign of the Vijayanagar kings were either river-fed or rain-fed. The former employed small dams called anicuts to channelise river water to canals which enabled large tracts of land away from rivers to be brought under cultivation. Some tanks also utilised river water channelled to them, such as the Kamalapura tank near Hampi, which is fed by the Raya Canal coming from the Kuradagadda anicut across Tungabhadra. Rain-fed tanks, such as the Dannayakanakere in Hospet taluk of Ballari district, are judiciously sited to receive the runoff from a large catchment area during the monsoon. Sometimes, tanks are arranged in such a way that the overflow from one forms the input for other tanks downstream. The Daroji tank, also in Ballari district, is an example of this, being the last in a series of seven tanks fed by a stream called Narihalla.

As we were leaving, Linganna pointed out a curious looking boulder on the slopes to the south of the kere. “That’s where the stones for the uprights were quarried from,” he informed. We were running short of time, so I reluctantly left the inspection of the boulder for another day. I didn’t realise then that it would be over 10 years when I would get an opportunity to do that! On a recent trip to study the megaliths of Mallapur village, I decided to squeeze in time to attend to the unfinished job at Chikkabenakal.

Chisel marks

The boulder lay on the slope of a hill to the south of the kere, some 160 metres from the spot where the uprights are. On the way up to it, scattered about were quarried pieces of stone bearing the unmistakable marks of the chisels of Vijayanagar artisans. The boulder itself is an elongated granite tor, some 13m long, 5m wide and just under 5m high. The blocks for the uprights had been neatly cleaved away, the cut surface looking as if it had been quarried just yesterday. The dimensions of the removed blocks were a bit larger than the size of the uprights, the artisans having left some leeway for trimming to the required size. I recalled a famous inscription from near the Porumamilla Tank near Cuddapah, dated to 1369 CE, during the rule of Bukkaraya I, which lays out the requirements for building a tank in a given place. One of the 12 requirements is that there should be a quarry containing straight and long stones, which this location obviously complied with.

These tanks, which were an important part of the lives of both cities and citizens, occupied prominent places in the cultural fabric, too. Many are the legends of selfless sacrifices given to ensure the safety of these structures, and a bountiful supply of water, like Keregehaara, Kere Honnamma and Madagada Kenchavva.

As one stands beside the enormous quarried boulder, looking out at the deserted tank drained of its waters and surrounded by a necklace of hills which once formed the bounds of the reservoir, one cannot but admire the ingenuity and labour of an unknown, intrepid group of people centuries ago, at this lonely spot visited only by cowherds and their charges today.


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