For centuries, the waters from the tanks have breathed life into the ecosystems that sustain rural indigenous communities throughout the state, and the Neeruganti have been tending to this life force. Under their care, these lakes sustained the lives of all those connected to them. Ramesh, 41, the Neeruganti of Dhanamittenahalli reminisces, “We have many emotions attached to our tank. Our childhood is connected with this tank, we played here, we learnt to swim in this tank. It has given us life, and food to eat.”
The lakes were once the centre of diverse rural ecologies, economies, and spirituality. As conductors of not only the labour that sustained lake infrastructure, but the cultural practices that honour its deities, the Neeruganti wove the threads that formed the fabric of the local community. Neeruganti Venkatappa continues these spiritual practices,
“Gangamma is the home deity of the Neeruganti family. Every Tuesday and Friday we pray to her, she protects us all. When the tank is full, the Neeruganti first pay obeisance to the Goddess of the lake, Gangamma. The Neeruganti calls out to the deity, reassuring her that he is there to protect her. Gangamma protects us in return.”
This cultural diversity supported local ecosystems. Under their care, the lake habitat flourished, sustaining extensive biodiversity that in turn fed the local community. Farmers relied on the water for irrigation, and the silt removed from the tanks as manure. Shepherds used the grass surrounding the tank for grazing. Fishermen caught and sold a multitude of native fish from its waters. Memories of the abundance and diversity of grains, fish, and other resources that these tank systems provided, still find reflection in the everyday practices of the communities.
Since falling out of scope of community management, the lake’s ecosystems have broken down. It is almost impossible to find native species of fish these days. The presence of native species was a sign that the lake was healthy. If the fish Poojappa was found in the lake, it was considered equivalent to Goddess Lakshmi (Goddess of wealth) being present in the lakes.
Ecosystems which flourished for centuries, owing to traditional rainwater management practices, have deteriorated in a matter of decades.
However, the current generation of Neeruganti need not be the last. Should government officials acknowledge the sovereignty of these indigenous communities, and return the management of natural resources to these original keepers, local biodiversity can still be restored.
Caitlin Blood with Abhiram Nandakumar in collaboration with Foundation for Ecological Security