‘Thanneer kudathil pirakirom, thanneer karayil mudikirom’
Life begins in a pot of water (amniotic sac) and ends on the seashore
From Nadhiye Nadhiye, written by Vairamuthu
In six words, Tamil poet Vairamuthu encapsulates human existence on earth. We rise from water, we are returned to it. Our cultures too made this journey with us. Civilizations evolved around rivers, whether in the Indus Valley, ancient Egypt or Mesopotamia. Great metropolises from Mumbai to Manhattan flourished along the sea. World trade has always flown through the waterways that link cities to countries to continents.
Religion validates the timeless human connection with water. ‘In the beginning, when there was darkness, the world was covered by water; there was water alone’. A version of this idea is found in many sacred texts, from the Mayan Popol Vuh to the Rig Veda to the Hebrew and King James bibles. The Quran says, ‘We have created every living thing from water.’
In India, where both droughts and floods are common, water is regarded by many cultures as the manifestation of divine will. Religious centres are built around or near water-bodies like tanks, stepwells, rivers and seas. For centuries, these have served ritualistic, spiritual as well as social functions.
These sacred waters tell us a lot about Indian culture. On the one hand, they serve as symbols of our heritage of water conservation and architecture. On the other, they reflect the injustices of our society with caste order dictating access to both freshwater and holy sites.
Let’s travel to some picturesque and iconic Indian destinations where water is worshipped as saviour, sustainer, and bringer of salvation.
Tanks of Tamil Nadu
In Hinduism, water serves as a metaphor for the Holy Trinity of Brahma-Vishnu-Maheshwara because it holds the power to create, sustain and destroy life. A Hindu temple complex will often include a water feature and in the south, this takes the form of tanks.
Starting around the 16th Century, temple tanks began to gain prominence and became the locus of festivities and rituals in Tamil Nadu. Theppa thirunal is an occasion centred around the tank, on which the processional deity is taken out in a float. The 17th-Century Mariamman Theppakulam in Madurai, built by the ruler Thirumalai Nayaka, still hosts a vibrant float festival every year.
Temple tanks in South India are usually large in size; originally, they served the purpose of providing villages nearby with water for bathing and farming. Some are built outside the temple complex while others are within, like the Golden Lily Tank of the famous Meenakshi Temple at Madurai.
Tanks are not unique to Hindu temples in Tamil Nadu. One example of this is Our Lady’s Tank or Madha Kulam, part of the 16th-Century Velankanni Church. Another is the Shahul Hamid Dargah tank at Nagore. Named for a 15th-Century Sufi saint from Ayodhya, the dargah is built on land gifted by the ruler Achutyappa Nayaka in gratitude for being cured of a long-term illness. The Shahul Hamid Dargah tank is believed by devotees to be as miraculous as Zamzam, the revered well at Mecca.
Rock-cut cisterns of Maharashtra
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Rock-cut water cisterns are exemplary examples of water harvesting in Ancient India. Podhis, meaning ‘cistern’ in the Prakrit language, are found at the 2nd-century Buddhist cave complex of Kanheri in Mumbai and at the 6th-century Ellora, a Hindu and Jain cave complex in Aurangabad. At both sites, these cisterns are the major source of water and positioned to collect every drop of rain.
Baolis of Delhi
Stepwells are traditional structures designed exclusively to recharge and replenish groundwater. The secular 14th-century Nizamuddin baoli in Delhi is the only one to still be fed by natural underground springs. Read more about the baolis of Delhi in our Reads section.
Kunds of Gujarat
Kunds, like stepwells, are stepped tanks. Surya Kund at Modhera, built during the Solanki dynasty, is one of the most spectacular examples. Temples to the sun typically have a tank reflecting because it is believed that the Sun God emerged from the cosmic waters. One of the most ornate stepped tanks, Surya Kund was used to store clean water and devotees would stop for ceremonial ablutions before proceeding to worship.
Pushkarnis of Karnataka
Fed by Tungabhadra river, the pushkarnis at Hampi were built by the Vijayanagara kings in the 15th Century for ritual bathing and cleansing purposes. Some of these stepped tanks were built exclusively for the use of the royal family. Only some pushkarnis are functional today, still being fed by ancient water routes.
Sarovars of Punjab
The lake or sarovar at the Golden Temple in Amritsar was constructed in the 16th Century, making it nearly as old as the city itself. It is sacred not only for the Sikhs but for Hindus too. Amritsar was founded by Guru Ram Das and its name is a portmanteau of the words ‘amrit’ (nectar) and ‘sar’ (short for sarovar or lake). It is believed that Valmiki wrote the Ramayana near this sacred place and that the tank has been purified with the addition of water from the Ganga, thereby sanctifying anyone who takes a dip.
The quenching of thirst is the raison d’être of at least two religious centres in India. The Bindusagar Tank of Bhubaneshwar marks the site where Lord Shiva struck his trident into the ground to bring forth water for his wife, Parvati. The Ganga is believed to be sprung from the earth at the place in Mumbai where Lord Rama shot an arrow into the ground. The name of Banganga Tank is a clue to its divine origin.
Springs of salvation
Rivers are revered as goddesses in India and many faiths hold the belief that they can wash away all sin. The Sanskrit treatise Hari Bhakiti Vilasa describes the power of the great Indian rivers in this way: “River Saraswati purifies one after three days, Narmada river purifies one after seven weeks, Ganga purifies one immediately and the Yamuna purifies one who beholds it.”
In Benares, the ghats or steps leading to the Ganga are shrines where ceremonial aartis to the river are offered. In Tamil Nadu’s Tirunelveli, the Papanasanathar Temple is situated on the banks of the Tamirabarani river. This powerful riverine entity is believed to have washed away the sins of Lord Indra, the god of thunder. Similarly, the tirthas at Rameshwaram are sacred ponds where devotees bathe and conduct the last rites of loved ones, so water may be erase all earthly debts.
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