For 2,000 years, Karikala's bunds stopped Cauvery flood

ByMT Saju, Mar 25 2016 : The Times of India (Chennai)

An advanced irrigation system existed during the time of the Pandyas, Pallavas and Cholas, say historians and cholas, say historians. Engineers specialised in the construction of tanks and dams were known as `jalasutrada'. From the days of the early Chola king Karikalan, meticulous planning went into the construction of irrigation works on both sides of the river Cauvery, according to N Rajendran, professor of history at the Bharathidasan University. The Veeranam tank, created by Parantaka 1, towards the tail-end of the Cauvery delta near Kattumannakoyil is one of the largest tanks in Tamil country. “Organised irrigation system began in south India during the megalithic times. But historical records prove that the kings and princes of south India paid great attention to irrigation from the early centuries of the Christian era,“ said Rajendran, who was speaking on “Historicising environmental management in ancient and medieval Tamil country“ at the department of ancient history and archaeology, University of Madras, recently. 

Rajendran said the three major ruling dynasties -the chera, chola and pandyas -ruled near river valleys. The Cheras were in the Periyar valley, the Cholas in the Cauvery valley and the Pandyas in the Vaigai and Tamiraparani valleys.

In the Chola country, even prior to the time of Karikala, the Cauvery and its numerous branches were the source of agriculture. Rajendran said the main reason for the frequent floods in the Cauvery was that the river had changed its course time and again during the past.

“The overflow of water in Cauvery used to cause havoc in the Chola country. The diversion of the main river was undertaken and the branch came to be known as Kollidam (Coleroon). Reference to Kollidam could be found in the hymns of Appar and Thirunanasamandar. It was Karikala who raised the bunds on both sides of the river Cauvery thereby preventing the annual inundation for nearly twenty centuries,“ he said.

A careful study of the 7th and 8th century records shows that in the Pandya country two distinct technical advances were made in the course of time, said Rajendran. For the construction of tanks and river embankments or bunds of channels, dressed stones were used in place of the traditional rubble and laterite material; and the stones were laid with precision using the string-line technique.

“This technique is mentioned in the record as “nulitteruvitta“ (string-line). In most of the cases, stone-sluices (kartthampu) were used instead of the usual palmyra tree trunks of uniform size.They were installed at suitable places to regulate the supply of water from the tank.The same `string-line' technique was no doubt followed by the other rulers, more so by the later Pandyas,“ he said.

The Pallava rulers were directly responsible for the creation of several fine reservoirs, some of which are still in the best state of preservation in the northern part of Tamil Nadu, according to Rajendran. “The most notable work of the period was done by Mahendravarman-I (AD 600-630), who created the first large irrigation work called Mahendratataka at Mahendravadi in the northern part of Tamil Nadu,“ he said.

The imperial cholas of the line of Vijayalaya came to power in the second quarter of the 9th century; and the seat of power was from the neighbourhood of Uraiyur on the banks of the Cauvery.“The tradition set by Karikala of the sangam period was assiduously followed and practiced by them. This is well confirmed by a network of canals and branch channels from the Cauvery, besides a number of reservoirs of immense size. With the expansion of the Chola empire, irrigation facilities also increased manifold under their patronage,“ he said.


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