Monday, July 27, 2009

Kallanai - for UNESCO Heritage ??

Most of the Tamilians have grown up on a nutritious diet about the greatness and more importantly the “accomplishments and antiquity” of their kings, their religion etc. But in general, it appears that adequate enquiries have not been made to purport them with scientific evidence. Kallanai – ‘Dam built with Stones’ is a classic example.

Kallanai is always linked to the Chola King Karikal Valavan , thanks to the text books and one is a little disappointed that there is nothing except a nice statue near the present day Kallanai as a record of his exploits. Said to belong to 2nd Century AD, this oldest functioning water structure is certainly a marvel and in my view should have had the UNESCO heritage tag ahead of the trinity of Thanjavur/Darasuram/Gangai Konda Cholapuram temples atleast on account of its chronology. A quick visit to the UNESCO website reveals that a man-made structure like Kallanai would have certainly qualified, but there is a catch.

First the stories as we know : The king built this dam with hewn stones to divert the waterflow to avoid loss of crops due to floods in the downstream Cauvery. Unfortunately, we don’t seem to have historical records researched well enough to know in detail about the dam, its builder and the structure or the date. References are abundant in literature but UNESCO (and may be even GoI ) may not consider it as a historical evidence. Many of the references available in the internet also use terms like ‘Said to be...’, ‘ believed as ..’ etc citing other sources, eventually becoming a circular reference.

In this context, it is remarkable to know that a PhD thesis has become a key source of analysis and that too emanating from an IIT. Chitra Krishnan has done a remarkable job of modeling the workings of the anicut. “….By combining such varied sources as a farmer’s family archive, letters from British engineers, her own field measurements, and scale-model research, she succeeded in reconstructing this artifact that then tells stories about Indian agricultural history as well as hydraulic innovations”. Her main argument is that the structure was built with a lot of knowledge about the flow of water, taking advantage of its natural flow, imaginative use of slopes to control sedimentation etc, but the later day administrators have destroyed it because of lack of understanding.

After the British arrived, they had to intervene as the original structure could not deliver its utility (due to vagaries of time, uneven maintenance). Sir Arthur Cotton (who later went on to design the famous Godavari barrages) who was just 20 years old when he arrived at Kallanai to study the water structures, took part in the design modifications later in 1839. There are three additional strucures today covering Cauvery, Vennar and Kollidam that one cannot even see the ‘original kallanai’. A helpful engineer at the site informed us that it is still the same structure at the Foundation and the other structures have been built around it and even pointed to its ‘right’ direction. But there are a few that argue that the Kallanai referred in literature and the present structure are two different things. I wonder why we cannot conduct an underwater study to know the facts and publish it for the benefit of all of us. In absence of concrete evidence, one cannot hope to get pass the rigorous evaluation process of UNESCO. The process is very clear with the State initiating the application process and making a claim, followed by a panel of experts ascertaining its validity based on the evidence presented. As an aside, the application for the temples of Darasuram and Gangai Konda Cholapuram to be included was made only in 2004, even though the UN resolution, to which India was also a signatory, was passed in 1972.

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