Lost and Found in Time

Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim. This claim cannot be settled cheaply.
Walter Benjamin, Theses on the philosophy of History


The oldest well in Karnataka, which is over a thousand years old is located in a temple in Kolar district. The group of temples called the Ramalingeshwara group were, according to Archaeological Survey of India, dated to 399AD. It was later renovated by the Chola Dynasty, perhaps the most prominent of South Indian empires.

We were visiting villages around Kolar district to look at tank restoration efforts undertaken by communities. Most of these tanks, that were being renovated primarily for irrigation, date from the Chola period. With careful observation, ancient embellishments can be seen around these tanks. A carved elephant on a tank Madagu (irrigation gate) transports one back a thousand years when the grand vision of an emperor found resonance among local communities. Naively, you can imagine a time when the objectives of the state were aligned to those of rural communities. To a cynic, a state is always a hegemonic entity – bent on imposing its world view – economically, culturally and spiritually. Yet in India, a narrative of of the self-sufficient village persists to this day. There is a sense that kings and emperors were satisfied with a transactional relationship with the villages. The state would invest in village infrastructure and the village would in-turn pay taxes in the form of produce to the king.


We were curious about myths the way we were about History. In the Indian myth, villages were allowed to retain their organisational and economic structure, which was primarily driven by the caste based occupational system. The exploitation, that is deeply rooted in the caste system has been well understood for some time. Yet, for centuries the caste system has been the primary organisational mechanism in India. It is therefore deeply entangled with the village ecosystem. The positive aspects of the Indian village such as sustainability, preservation of nature, a vibrant local economy cannot be understood outside of the caste system. We witnessed an illustration of this interweaving relationship during our visit. The distribution of surface water resources for irrigation has traditionally been the occupation of a relatively lower caste in Karnataka. The distributors, called Neerkanti, are required by their occupational code to be fair in the distribution of surface water for irrigation. Once this occupational structure breaks down – in the absence of a community that is instructed to be fair by divine order – the trust in the system is eroded. More recently bore-wells dot the village landscape. Bore-wells are essentially a race to the bottom with every new well digging deeper till the ground water is exhausted. Bore-wells allow for no trust or co-operation. They foster a sense of competition that is eventually destructive to the entire eco-system. There is no convincing organisational system that has been found yet that can successfully replace the Neerkanti.


As we were driving back at the end of our day trip, before the city landscape had swallowed whole the rural, we noticed a raised small stone tank with a tiny hole plugged with a wooden stick. There were two small pillars on the side. We discovered that it was a Silendra, an ancient water container that travellers could utilise. The stone pillars on the side were there so that those carrying a heavy load on their heads or shoulders could find support while they drank water. Villagers would fill these tanks in hopes of accumulating divine blessings by helping a thirsty traveller who they would rarely see.  Hardly anyone, even villagers know what they are anymore. They stand abandoned, somehow they have physically survived all the progress around them but functionally they have been lost to time. Suddenly we realised – it is no surprise that the oldest well in Karnataka is within a temple. The religious lives of people in India have always been intricately linked with the village economy and wellbeing. What pride, what ambitions did those villagers find in their minimal frugal lives? It is the non material, the intangible, the spiritual that has always been central to the Indian story. Without these aspects the village lives and value systems seem unsustainable. The market economy with its strategic efficiency and focus on productivity may be fundamentally at odds with the Indian village. Perhaps, this is the reason that many believe that the Indian village is disappearing. The government of India has promised a hundred new cities to the people of India. Are we moving towards a time when the entire population of India will be living in cities? Maybe there is hope because the village as eco-system is resilient. It has suffered urbanisation, invasions and empires. The modern Indian state is less than a century old. Who is to say that the village will not outlive this modern onslaught?