14 Dec Kallanai Dam – The Oldest Dam in the World Still in Use
India is a land rich with history, and one of its many wonders is the Kallanai Dam. Also known as the Grand Anicut, the dam is thought to be the oldest dam in the world that’s still in use. The dam is now in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, but its history goes back around 1,750 years before the creation of the state.
The dam is truly a sight to see. It is around a third of a kilometer long and twenty meters wide, or 1,079 feet long and 66 feet wide. It stretches across the Kaveri river and is said to spread water from the river over 400,000 hectares of land, or 1,544 square miles!
Anyone who sees it is likely to find themselves marveling at how such a grand structure was built thousands almost two thousand years ago, and how it has managed to continue its work through modern times.
The Man Behind the Dam
Karikala Chola is known as the man responsible for the Kallanai dam. As King of the Chola Dynasty during the Sangam period, Karikala came into power sometime around 190 AD. Karikala’s reign was defined by trade, war, and construction. He filled his kingdoms coffers by expanding trade with the Roman empire. He then took the wealth gained through that trade and used it to fund wars and construction projects. Stories tell of Karikala fighting many battles and expanded the territory controlled by the Chola dynasty into the territory known as Ceylon, but his most lasting contribution to the area is the Grand Anicut. Today a statue of Karikala Chola stands at one end of the dam. His goal was to shift the flow of water from the Kaveri river to help irrigate the dry areas around the Cauvery Delta.
It’s simple for anyone who visits the Kallanai Dam to learn about the man who ordered its construction. The Karikala Chozan Memorial Building is located on the Eastern side of the Grand Anicut. The Dravidian architecture of the building makes it look ancient, but it was actually opened up to the public in 2014.
The Construction of the Dam
The Chola king Karikala might have ordered the construction of the Kallanai dam, but as the king, he wouldn’t have done the work of actually building the dam. It seems as if that duty actually felt to prisoners of war. Historical and physical evidence suggests that construction of the Grand Anicut took place around 200 AD. It following the wars in which Karikala lead his forces to conquer the Singalese kingdom. Captured Singalese soldiers were brought back to Chola and forced to build the dam. It’s a dark history for a beautiful structure, but it’s important to remember that such practices were all too common throughout the ancient world. Few ancient wonders were completed using voluntary labor alone.
How the Dam Worked
The original dam was built as a check dam. It was built using unhewn stones that were laid against the flow of the river water to divert the flow. The dam would limit the water that flowed from the Kaveri into the Kollidam most of the year while allowing excess water to flow into the Kollidam during floods. This would allow more water to continue down the Kaveri and into tributaries and manmade irrigation canals. The main genius of the original design is that it worked with the natural flow of the Kaveri and the Kollidam, achieving its results by making small changes rather than trying to force nature to dramatically change its course. That allowed the dam to continue to do its work for a thousand and a half years with minimal upkeep.
The Dam Through History
The Kallanai dam has stood the test of time, continuing to perform its intended purpose more than 1800 years after its original construction.
However, the dam hasn’t stood untouched all that time. As with any modern dam, the Grand Anicut required upkeep. The biggest changes occurred in the 1800s when the British decided that the dam needed modernization. The main change was the addition of more stones to raise the dam and increase the amount of water being diverted.
This shouldn’t take away from anyone’s appreciation of the dam, most ancient dams that are still standing today have gone through similar updates at some point in their history. The fact that the original design lasted for around 16 centuries is a testament to the incredible minds of the ancient Indian engineers who designed the structure. Also, it is said that famed British irrigation expert Sir Arthur Cotton modeled his own dam designs after the Kallanai.
An Indian Marvel
Today the Grand Anicut is a functioning dam, a tourist destination, and a symbol of Indian history. During the years of British rule, it was common for the intelligence and ingenuity of the Indian people to be downplayed by their colonial rulers. In truth, the ancient Indians were ahead of their European counterparts in many ways, and structures like the Kallanai dam have become important reminders of the region’s rich history.
The dam is a source of pride for residents of Tamil Nadu in particular and Indians in general. And rightly so, it’s a true marvel, and updates like the nearby Karikala Chozan Memorial Building have only added to its appeal. It’s a dam worth study for anyone interested in the history of water dispersal or the Indian subcontinent.