It all started during the pro-Jallikattu movement in January 2017. Inspired by the massive student movement in Chennai, Thangadurai, a school van driver in Tirusulam, decided to form the Tirusulam Ilankaalaiyar Podhunala Arakattalai (Tirusulam Youth Public Welfare Trust). They were 15 young men (“Ilankaalayar”) who decided to work towards the welfare of their town. They decided to start with clearing up the Tirusulanathar Temple tank.
“It took us three months to just pump out the contaminated water. We’ve managed to build an 8-foot high wall inside the tank. We also repaired the sewage pipe. But the rains of the last few days have damaged it,” says Thangadurai.
No health issues have been reported yet.
“We are stopping people from going close to the tank,” he says.
On the edge of the tank, spilling on to the road, one can see heaps of garbage.
“The garbage clearance trucks do not come to this area as often as they should. People end up burning the garbage as a means of managing it,” says Thangadurai.
He says he petitioned the Collector for four consecutive years, with little effect.
“Funds to repair and conserve this tank were sanctioned to the town panchayat each time. I don’t know where the money went. The Panchayat workers would come, pump out water, and desilt, but then the rains would come and they would stop all activity,” he says.
This time, he decided, his Trust would make it happen. They placed a banner inside the Tirusulanathar Temple, requesting donations. They managed to collect Rs. 15 lakhs, which was used up for pumping out the water and repairing the sewage pipe and the tank.
Administrative pressure to give up
Thangadurai, his friend Sasikumar, and a few of the volunteers were taken by surprise when the Tirusulam Police landed at their doorstep at midnight to arrest them.
“The local leaders did not want us to do the clearing up, as it would bring their inefficiency and corruption to light. But the womenfolk banded around us and made the police retreat,” Sasikumar says proudly.
“This caught the attention of the media. The attention worked in our favour,” says Thangadurai.
The Tirusulam Town Panchayat has been sanctioned funds to start cleaning up the tank immediately.
An outcome of negligence of heritage
“The tank has been in poor condition for as long as I can remember. This temple is of historic importance, yet it suffers from negligence,” says Thangadurai.
The earliest available historical evidence of the temple’s period is the inscriptions on the temple walls. It places the temple in the reign of Kulothunga Chola I (c. 1070-c.1120 A.D.)*, according to an information panel inside the temple.
The tank too, situated half a kilometre away from the temple, is believed to have been excavated by the king. Today, the space between the tank and the temple is dotted with encroachments. One would hardly connect the sorry-looking tank to the temple if they came across it.
“The temple tank is not just for religious purposes. It replenishes the water in wells that are situated within a 100 feet radius of it,” explains Thangadurai, “which means there is a good chance that people who use those wells are drawing contaminated water.”
A tale of three tanks
He explains that during heavy rains if the temple tank fills up, the excess water would automatically flow into a small eri (reservoir) closeby. This small eri, in turn, would flow into a bigger eri, located further down, once it reaches its maximum level of capacity. This larger eri, dubbed “Periya Eri” (literal meaning: “big reservoir”), was once used to supply water to agricultural lands beyond its northern bund.
This description fits the typical non-system tank irrigation mode that was in use in pre-British India and was prevalent during the Chola period. The term used back then for referring to the maintenance of the tanks, “maramathu”, is still used to denote the same activity. In fact, a petition by the temple, submitted to the Town Panchayat, requests funds for maramathu activities. While this may in all probability be the ancient water harvesting and irrigation system, the links between the temple tank and the eris remain to be confirmed.
Not a drop to drink
Until four years ago, the people of Tirusulam depended on Periya Eri for water supply and fishing, says Thangadurai. The smaller eri is completely contaminated, as a result of which the flora and fauna it supported are all dead. Much of it has also been filled with sand, and tenements have cropped up on it.
The contamination, naturally, spread to Periya Eri.
“When we realised that the water was contaminated, we submitted a petition to the Collector. Our water source was immediately switched to the borewells situated close to Periya Eri”.
The agricultural lands were sold by the farmers and are being developed for real estate, Thangadurai says remorsefully. Explaining that the water deficit forced farmers to take up an alternative occupation, he said that they took up jobs at the stone quarry that came up in Tirusulam around the same time. The quarry was shut down by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board, the reason being that it was increasing the pollution levels in the area and affected the airport situated approximately 1.3 kms away.
“Explosions at the stone quarry have also damaged the ancient Tirusulanathar temple. But the authorities took no measure to prevent further damage. Once the airport was developed, things changed,” says Sasikumar, one of the residents who volunteered to clear up the temple tank.
The stone quarry collects rainwater and is a major source of water supply for Chennai.
“We have so much water around, yet we can’t consume a drop from any of them,” he tears up.
Work will commence soon, says Panchayat official
Sundaramurthy, an official of the Tirusulam Town Panchayat, said that Tirusulam always got its water from the borewells near Periya Eri.
He denied the claim that the temple tank was part of a water harvesting and irrigation system. He also denied that wells in the perimeter of the tank were affected.
“The temple tank is in no way connected to the reservoirs or wells,” he said.
Speaking about the Panchayat’s plan of action, he said the MLA of Pallavaram, I. Karunanithi, has promised to talk to the Collector and get the Panchayat a sanction of approximately Rs. 25 lakhs for the clean-up and conservation of the temple tank. He said that the Panchayat plans to construct a sewage pipe 111 metres in length and 6 feet in height (earlier, the height of the sewage pipe was 3 feet).
“The Panchayat will raise the height of the tank’s inner wall to 12 feet from the current 6 feet. Additionally, we plan to create a footpath around the tank,” Sundaramurthy said.
Whether the Panchayat will put the plan into action, remains to be seen.
*The consensus among historians regarding Kulothunga Chola I’s reign is 1071–1122 A.D.