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A brief history of Karnataka’s water managers

Updated: Jun 24, 2023

For millennia, humans have been harnessing water in a myriad number of traditional methods, for water is the very essence of life. Apart from thousands of stone inscriptions describing acts of building tanks and reservoirs, India’s ancient texts also contain references to these systems as a matter of duty, alluding to these practices all the way back to prehistoric times.

In fact, the Arthashashtra (300 BCE - 300 CE) stipulates that it is a king’s obligation to build water sources that remain full throughout the year to provide for his people. The Agni Purana even says that “a person who constructs a tank receives 100 million times more merit than those who perform the Ashwamedha yagna” .

South India was considered to be at the forefront of constructing water-harvesting systems as early as the Megalith (<3000 BC) and Bronze (3300-1200 BC) ages. By 300 BC and throughout the Mauryan age, there are plenty of inscriptions that detail every aspect of constructing and maintaining tanks, including costs, canals, bunds and water depths.

Such was the importance of these water harvesting systems, that those who constructed and maintained tanks were held in high regard and richly rewarded, from being given tax exemptions to getting land grants. While community tanks were built and maintained locally by common folk, large irrigation projects which served vast areas of their kingdoms were generally carried out under the auspices of a ruler.

The tanks built by the Chalukyas (c. 1055 - c. 1355) served as important sources of water to present-day Dharwad, Bellary, Chitradurga and Shimoga. The reservoirs constructed by the Hoysalas, renowned for their architecture, were often so vast they were compared with the seas and were even named so (Vishnu Samudra, Hoysala Samudra). The expansive reservoir building continued with the The Vijayanagara Empire (1336 - 1646), whose rulers built more than 4,500 lakes and tanks across Karnataka.

Over the centuries, extensive efforts to maintain these reservoirs have been made by kings, landowners, citizens and rulers. While the local community often came together to care for the tank, the person at the helm of efforts on the ground was called a ‘Neeruganti’ in Karnataka.

It’s not clear where the name originated from or when. What is clear is the role a ‘Neeruganti’ played in the community: tank management and the equitable distribution of water in the village. Given how crucial water is, the Neeruganti was effectively maintaining harmony and prosperity in the community. Venkatappa, 70, Neeruganti of Doddammanna Kere in Chikballapura, says the tanks have survived this long under their watchful care.

“All community members used the tank water as directed… In the past, water was used very judicially. Farmers were united in sharing water and we would also save water for livestock to drink. We released more water to higher areas and less water to lower areas depending on the topography of the land and proximity to the lake. Even if the water level was very low, we ensured that all farmers still received water.”

The Neeruganti had many duties and rituals that served the community they were in. Most Neeruganti were from Dalit communities and worked closely with other villagers on major decisions regarding water supply. The Neeruganti were the ones who decided what crops were to be planted, based on water levels. They also kept a watchful eye on crops and alerted farmers to pests or diseases. They would also rally the village to repair and desilt the tanks when necessary and organise ‘Ganga pooja’ to honour the holy river and seek blessings.

“Gangamma is the home deity of the Neeruganti family,” reminisces Venkatappa. “When the tank is full, we stay in the temple and keep a watch for 10 to 15 days. Every Tuesday and Friday, we pray to her; she protects us all. When we had festivals, the Neeruganti would take responsibility, announcing and collecting items for celebrations and sheep needed for sacrifice. When the tank was full, we would first pay obeisance to the Goddess of the lake, Gangamma. Only then would the tank start.”

The Neeruganti is a hereditary profession, with responsibilities typically inherited by the male heirs. They hold a treasure trove of knowledge about the locality they have lived in, passed down orally through the centuries. For their work, they were paid in grains and portions of harvests. Some were even given lands, a clear mark of the honour and importance the position held.

“If there is no control by the Neeruganti, there will be no water in the tank and no crop for the farmers,” says Venkatappa. If the tanks are the lifelines of the community, they are the doctors that keep the system healthy and wealthy.

Abhiram Nandakumar with Caitlin Blood in collaboration with the Foundation for Ecological Security

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