In the early part of the 20th century, the former Princely State of Mysore, covering the southern part of the Deccan plateau, had an excellent network of water tanks (lake), with water overflow from one tank draining into a downstream tank, and so conserving water to the extent possible without any modern technology (see Annex for more details.
However, since these tanks, with their stagnant water, were also associated with malaria, over time many of the tanks within and near the major towns were drained out.
By the time I was ten years old, in the 1940s, in Mysore city we had only the Kukkarhalli tank at the western end and the Karanji tank at the eastern end near the zoo. Both were in disrepair, yet they were the source of pleasure and adventure for boys like me who loved the outdoors. These were the places where boys from the poorer families could learn how to swim, perform crude aquatics, and catch fish. Though there were a few swimming pools in Mysore, they were in palaces or hotels, and few people had access to them. So, the tanks did attract a sizable number of people.
This story is about the Kukkarhalli tank, which has a circumference of less than 5 km. I estimate that it is about 1 km long and 0.6 km wide, with a maximum depth of about 8 m. In those days, the Kukkarahalli tank was in the late stages of decay, abandoned by the town as a source of drinking water. Its revetment, sluice gate and tower were dilapidated, with the stone lining giving away at places, weeds growing with abandon in many places, and the dirt of washing and bathing and the silt accumulating in some corners. Yet, it was the hub of activities, social and private. It reverberated with sounds of children and youth diving from the parapet of the sluice tower, the echoing guffaw and the mirth of the learners as they mastered some new techniques of swimming – at least during the morning hours when I used to go there.
What prompted my intense desire to learn swimming? I am not sure even now. Was it a natural urge within me as a son of a migrant from coastal district, or was it the pubescent desire that awoke after I clandestinely saw the movie Bathing Beauty, starring Esther Williams, with a friend? We had just entered our teens and it was our first exposure to curvaceous women in bikinis, aquatic musical, her macho escort and such other things that you could only see in Hollywood movies. A few days after seeing the movie, both of us thought that we should learn swimming. When I asked my mother (my father had died a year ago), she was horrified. “NO,” she said, very sternly. My friend also got the same answer from his family.
That perhaps made us even more eager to learn swimming. My grandmother, who lived with us, supported me. She had grown up as a child on the sands of famous Ullal beach near Mangalore. Her older brother was a good swimmer who was able to swim in high and turbulent waves. We had heard his brave deeds of rescuing drowning men. Therefore, it was no surprise that she thought every boy and girl should know how to swim. She often said even an animal knows how to swim from birth. In spite of her prodding, my mother was adamant. Perhaps being a widow with the responsibility of bringing up two sons and two daughters, she had pinned her hopes on her sons, and did not want them to do anything dangerous.
But, when something is forbidden to a teenage boy, his mind often works in devious ways to do what is forbidden. Soon, my friend and I declared that we needed to study together for the coming examinations. Our plan was simple. We would get up early, tuck in a thin towel and a loincloth under our shorts or pyjamas, carry a few books, and leave the house, announcing loudly, “I am going out to study.” Then, we would meet on the road, and quickly make it to the tank. After swimming, we would carefully comb our hair, dry the towel in the sun on the banks, and return. No studies – only swimming!
In our days, a tank was a miniature social amphitheatre. It had unwritten but well-understood demarcation for areas for use by different groups. The dhobis occupied the lowest and most dilapidated corner of the tank, to which all the dirt and water gravitated. The corner at the entrance was rumoured to be haunted, as many persons who wanted to commit suicide either by drowning or by hanging made a quick work of it by jumping in at the nearest corner or tying a rope to a tree and swinging by it. It was said that young men frustrated in life and unwed mothers who took their life would become evil ghosts and trouble people by entering them. So, no one in his right senses entered this part of the tank even though it was near the entrance. This was certainly the case for my friends and me, as we feared that these evil ghosts might enter us.
The central portion of the tank was monopolised by orthodox Brahmins and high caste persons who believed tap water was impure because it came through valves and taps sealed by leather washers. There was a women’s area, where lower caste women came for bathing, washing and gossiping. In this area, there would also be some upper-caste women, who would come during their menstrual periods. In those days, women were considered impure during their menstrual periods, and had to stay away from others. The bund with stone benches and trellised work around was monopolised by people of higher status who came there for their walks, discuss town politics or hatch plans for scoring over their adversaries. Only a small stretch between the women’s section and the high-caste area was free for swimming.
At the tank there would be many kids and young adults, all eager to learn. Two brothers from the Bhavsar Kshatriya clan (warrior caste) were self-appointed coaches. To us youngsters, they were experts. They could swim 10-15 light pole lengths and back, disappear into depths, stand on the parapet of the sluice and dive into depths and bring coins or lost articles, swim to a small island midway in to the tank, and occasionally save a hapless drowning boy.
These two coaches divided the bunch of kids in two groups of newcomer novices and advanced learners. First, they would take the learners one by one, show them how to progress to the next step, and answer their question, and observe their swimming for some time. Then, they would take the novices, make them stand in a line and lead them step by step. On the first day, the novices would get into the water only up to hip level. The next day, they would dip fully into the water, and so on. After about half an hour of coaching, they would leave us alone and go on to complete their routine swimming long distance, going across the tank, and dive from the tower.
Swimming under these conditions left us more or less to our own. I have a feeling that this method is better than learning from a formal coach. The responsibility to survive belongs to you and you alone. It also makes you learn the hard fact of life that no one can stretch your wings for you. If you experiment in the right way you progress; if you are rash, you pay for it – as I once did.
Once I tried to dive from the parapet of the sluice chamber and got struck on the nose bridge by a sharp stone protruding from the underwater revetment. I blacked out, with a stream of blood flowing out. When I woke up, I was lying on the bank and one of Bhavsar brothers was rubbing my hands, shoulders and chest, while the other brother was trying to stop the blood flow. As no first aid material was available, one of the brothers carried me to the nearest house, which was the residence of a manager of the Government printing press. The people there applied a lot of tincture on my wound, and covered it with some cotton. I howled at the shooting pain when the lotion was applied.
After an hour of rest I was escorted to my house. Mother showed no outward sign of anger but thanked the boys who brought me in. After I changed my clothes, she gave me a bowl of ganji (hot rice gruel) and asked me to go to bed.
I do not remember my mother scolding me over this incident. She never asserted herself. Instead, she would repeat some advice or instruction once or twice, and then say, “I am telling this for your own good. It is up to you think and follow.” She was generally successful, as I do not remember going against her advice except on rare occasions as this one. Perhaps the conflicting views of my grandmother and my mother, and the attraction of Bathing Beauty, made me disobey her in this case. After the wound healed, I did not go the tank - perhaps for three weeks. Then, the call of the water and my friends’ requests lured me back.
At another time, while we were swimming, my friend, who was floating on his back, came very near a snake that was cooling off in the water. It was only the shouts of the other boys that saved him from touching the snake. Did it deter us from swimming in the tank? No. It was all part of fun, assertion of independence, and adventure.
Recently I went with my six year old grandson to a summer camp conducted by a harassed looking official coach in an overcrowded swimming pool in a club. The way the coach was pushing children either into the pool or off the diving board made my grandson revolt. His learning of swimming was set back three years before the boy resumed swimming again under my persuasion and guidance.
Let me share with you my memories of the morning activity at the Kukkarahalli tank when I was a boy. Around six-thirty in the morning, an upcoming musician would come in spotless white dhoti and kurta. His flowing hair and manner reminded us of a popular Tamil movie star – Honnappa Bhagavatar. He would undress, neatly fold his clothes and tuck them into a recess in the banks, and swim for some time. Then, he would stand up to his mouth in cold water, make all kinds of musical notes and sounds, and sing. It seems that he believed this would improve his voice.
Some of us would mimic him with crowing or braying sounds. This would sometimes get one or two donkeys to join the chorus, and some people would laugh, which would annoy the musician. He would then curse us, using foul language. This would set the stage for further laughter and mock abuses, until an elderly Brahmin would counsel him not to lose his temper. Years later when I went on a vacation to Mysore, I learnt that the musician had become famous, and earned titles such as Astan Vidwan (a scholar recognised for his ability by the royal court), and Sangeeta kalanidhi (a treasure house of classical music).
There was a Brahmin, perhaps over sixty years old –thin, lean and straight as a bamboo. He would come in a wrap-around ochre dress, undress, go to the cleanest part of the Brahmin section, get into the tank, part the onrushing water by his hands, and dip in to the water three times holding his nose. After that he would, come out, dry his pigtails, and tie them. Then, he would stand looking at the rising sun; pay his obeisance to the Sun god, occasionally taking some water in hands and pouring it out. Following this, he would spread a towel, squat on it in semi-lotus pose, make a paste of various colours, and draw namams (lines) on different parts of his body. Then he would sit in a lotus pose and chant hymns, slokas, etc., in a voice as sonorous as the priest in the Mysore Palace’s Hanuman temple. He would then close his eyes and sit still for few minutes. Finally, he would gather his clothes, fold them neatly, and leave.
Around the same time, a lower caste middle-aged lady wearing rags would come to sit on the banks, cry for someone dear and departed, suddenly pick some stones and throw them here and there, while shouting abuses all the time. After some time, she would calm herself, and sit quietly, burying her face into legs. How long she sat there, none of us boys knew, as we all left around eight AM, when she was still there. Occasionally, someone would narrate her tragic tale – how her husband was murdered, and how she was stripped of all her belongings, and driven out by her relatives. For us youngsters, this was a form of diversion every time this story was told as there was some variation, but we did not feel that we had to do anything to help her.
Occasionally, we would see a dead body floating in the tank in various stages of decay, possibly eaten by some fish or crocodile. While we boys huddled on the revetment in some fear, the police would arrive. A havildar (constable) would write the Panchnama (first report). Then the body would be dragged out, wrapped in cloth, and dispatched by an open bullock cart, with all this work done by scheduled caste, as no upper-caste person would touch the body. Sometimes there would be a body of a newborn child floating in the tank. The police drill would be same, except that the police, along with some elders in the crowd, would curse the presumably unwed mother who had created extra work for everyone. We did not know many of the curse words they used, but our curious, enquiring eyes would be met by senior boys with knowing smile and silence.
Epilogue. Recently I went to Kukkarahalli with a relative on a nostalgic trip. After three to four decades of neglect, the tank had been cleaned. The bund and the revetment had been renovated. Concrete benches had replaced rough granite slab benches. Creepers had been planted and some of them had climbed on to the trelliswork around the benches. The jungle on the other side of the tank had been cleared of undergrowth. A moorum (brown earth) path went round the tank like a ribbon tied around it. Modern streetlights had been installed on the bund. It was completely a different ambience. A large number of morning walkers went round the tank talking and gesticulating among themselves. Swimming had been banned, I was told. Anyhow, there were no boys in the tank, nor were there any dhobhis (washermen). A few rowboats bobbed lazily in the water, tied down to the bank, waiting desolately for users.
When I started walking back, my relative asked me “Isn’t this pleasing?” I heard myself mumbling, “Yes.”
Was it? I felt a void. Somewhere within me, an impish voice was saying “NO.” I heard it say, “It is too sanitised for my liking.” The laughter, the mirth of the youth, the merriment of the urchins, the rhythmic beating of the soiled clothes brought by dhobis brought for washing from the town, the braying of the donkeys unburdened of the load and limping around for the grass, the mooing of the buffaloes in the mud – they were all missing. While the younger generation and the tourists may like the present, I dream of my teenage years, which I still relish.
Tank is a term of Indian origin that describes a man-made storage reservoir for surface water run-off in India. It is an ancient system of harvesting and preserving water that has survived over centuries. The tank system of Deccan plateau, particularly of Karnataka state, consists of tens and hundreds of reservoirs linked together and forming a continuous chain, which is able to store a large part of precipitation in the catchment of one river. Major Sankey, one of the first engineers to have worked in former princely Mysore state, studied the tank system and restored many of them. He is said to have stated “The principle of storage seems to have been perfected to such an extent that it would require some ingenuity to discover a site within this area for a new tank.” According to one estimate, tanks irrigate about one third of all the irrigated area in South India.
A typical tank would be built by erecting an earthen bund (barrier) across two or three mounds to the required level of water storage. The core of the bund consists would be an impervious barrier of puddle clay (finely ground clay). Normal soil would be would be dumped in layers on both sides of core and consolidated by driving a herd of sheep back and forth. This process would be repeated until the bund reached the desired height. A small part of the bund would have a lower height, and there would be stone masonry crest and other protective works on this part. Surplus water would flow out from here. The water retaining side of the bund would be protected by boulder lining and grass grown on the leeward side. Along the periphery of the tank, there would one or two sluice gates, through which water would be drawn for irrigation.
Since ancient times tank building has been an important sacred act for Indians. Participants in tank construction was said to bestow on a person punya (holy merit) and provide an easy passage to heaven. Princes, Merchant princes, village heads vied with each other in financing the construction where as ordinary citizens contributed their labour. Tanks use to be cleansed of all dirt, silt and weeds and repaired once a year prior to chariot festival of the village.
The management of the tanks rested with the village panchayat (elders). It was a low-cost, effective system of community water management that fell into disuse wherever large dams replaced them.
© M. P. V. Shenoi 2007