Neeruganti Venkatappa, now 70 years old, is one of an ancestral line of tank managers called Neeruganti, who preside over the ancient human-made lakes of Karnataka. This 400 year-old lake, Doddammanakere, is one of over 4,500 built during the Vijayanagara Empire (1336-1646), forming a cascading system with a recorded history of over a thousand years. Speaking from the knowledge preserved by centuries of Neeruganti, Venkatappa shares their history,
“The generals realised that storing and harvesting water would allow the empire to practise agriculture and benefit future generations. Since water management was key, our profession – Neeruganti – came into being. Water is always a community resource and should be accessible to everyone. Hence, we regulate the water flow and ensure that there is no mismanagement.”
Neeruganti, like Venkatappa, were responsible for the livelihood and well-being of their communities, and the delegation of the waters from the tanks to agricultural lands in the command area.
“In the past, water was used judicially and farmers were united about sharing water. We would save water for the livestock to drink. We released more water to higher areas and less water to the lower areas depending on the topography of the land, and proximity of the land to the lake. Even if the water level was very low, we would make sure that all the farmers still received water.”
Based on rainfall, the Neeruganti advised farmers on diverse crop cultivation, and choosing water-efficient and indigenous varieties fit for local consumption. Tank system maintenance was also directed by the Neeruganti, specifically tank desiltation, revegetation at the bunds to reduce erosion and improve water filtration, and feeder channel maintenance.
As Venkatappa says, “If there is no control by the Neeruganti, there will be no water in the tank and no crop for the farmers.” While the cascading system of tanks are known as the lifeline of this region, the Neeruganti are its life force.