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India-centric Hydraulic Civilization
of the Old World
by Dr. V. Sankaran Nair Bookmark and Share

Nalut, situated on the top of a mountain, about 800 m above sea level, is one of the oldest pre-Saharan cities. Built of mud, lime and palm-tree trunks, a huge fascinating kasr (grain store), more than 3,000 years old, was a special attraction. The kasr/ qasr perched precariously on the edge of an escarpment, consisting of 400 ghurfas (chambers), which were used mainly for storing and protecting grain and oil.

In the past, when the climate was wetter, the small town Nalut, on the extreme western edge of Libya, was a fertile area extending over several thousand acres. This site of Allah's garden was 'once watered by natural springs arising in the hills to the south and flowing down through the Nalut area. Cultivation around Nalut began about 4400 BC. As the climate became more arid, one of the ancient world's longest and deepest Qanats was constructed underground in an effort to resist the effects of the encroaching Sahara desert, running from some hills to a town with irrigated fields. Running through the earth was a horizontal bore with vertical well- like shafts, extending to the surface very so often all along its length' to quote the Twice Blind, part mystery, and part techno-thriller of James Forester. To continue, 'Built about 700 B. C. E. the underground tunnel from the hills is as much as 300 feet under the surface in places. Although increasing aridity is steadily reducing the flow of the springs, the Nalut qanat still carries water the 12 miles from the springs in the southern hills providing the only water for the oasis town, which is now comprised of about 500 people'.It's hard to believe men could have built such a thing 2700 years ago; 'Men were just as intelligent and resourceful 2700 years ago as they are today, and they just lacked the technically sophisticated understanding inherent in the accumulated stored knowledge we have today. That is to say, they simply lacked books.' These lines depict the history of the Middle East, nay the ancient world, in a nutshell. In the distant past, agriculture with the help of natural springs was prevalent. Later, with the advent of arid climate, aqueducts and Qanats were introduced. This fact takes one's imagination to an age 30 centuries behind. Like a trickle Qanat geared the growth of agriculture. With the passage of time, the technology crossed borders and began to engulf the region and beyond.

Conduit is something like a tube or pipe by means of which a fluid is conducted, for example, an aqueduct. A Qanat is an underground aqueduct. They are water catchment and distribution systems found in hot arid and semi-arid regions from ancient times. They tap groundwater from the cliff, or base of a mountainous area, following a water-bearing formation (aquifer) where ancient water is naturally trapped underground. This water, routed through a series of massive, man- made horizontal drainage tunnels that connect the bottom of a well in the underground, flows through the catchments of humidity and hidden precipitation. Qanat, typical of the desert environment, serves as an integral part of agricultural landscape in the arid regions of the world for centuries. Most of them, excavated in the distant past, using manpower and very primitive tools, remain intact even today. The roughly horizontal tunnels with a gentle slope, allow water flow on gravity gradient to an oasis, without any mechanical use, providing a reliable supply of water for food production that sustains human settlements. The long history of tunnel digging, employed in mining in Armenia, has been attributed to the origin of this concept. This amazing hydraulic feature, considered to be the oldest feat of human engineering, is known to have developed and existed in many areas of the ancient world. This system of irrigation can be found functioning well in North Africa, China, Afghanistan, Iran (Persia), Egypt's western desert, Bahariya, Farafra, Kharga, the Arabian Peninsula, western Mexico, Peru, Chile and beyond. The adoption of this technique in a big way transformed many parts of the arid Arab world into a sort of oasis of date palms or other crops.
A natural spring that sustains a natural oasis can be considered as a natural Qanat. These man -made underground aqueducts turned other oases into splendid areas, enabling settlers to find pastures new in the arid zone of the desert. The first settlers who lived in the natural oases might have developed the idea of Qanat to bring other fertile terrains in the neighborhood under cultivation and sustain their life. Building up and maintaining Qanats is not labour intensive. But the steady supply of water across a wide area of Asia moulded an agricultural society, which is labour intensive. The Qanat system comprises a human culture as well as physical ecosystem and the nature of the Qanat supplies set a rhythm to life in the village.

The two main components of the Qanat are the vertical dug well that tap water, and the gently sloping tunnels that conduct the water from higher lands down to the place where it is required. That presents the picture of a cave with so many entrances. The length of a Qanat from mother well to the outlet point varies from 1 to 50 kms. Significantly it depends on the topographic and geological characteristics and also on the precipitation of the site. The average time to build a Qanat also varies from 2 to 7 years.

Water harvesting is a method of collection and storage of rainwater that can be used to meet household, agricultural and navigational needs. As early as 4,000 years ago, people of the Negev Desert in Israel stored rainwater to meet household and irrigation requirements. Qanat is another traditional method of groundwater extraction. This system is still active today, and has 170,000 miles of active underground canals in Iran alone, and supplies 75% of the water used in that country.

The ancient Persian Empire is a conglomeration of parts of Turkey, Afghanistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and parts of the southern former U.S.S.R. As early as 3000 BC, a system of irrigation began in Persia called the Qanat. This came to our knowledge when a devastating earthquake of 26 December 2003 uncovered an old city and the Qanat system in Bam. The preliminary studies held by the Archaeologists discovered this Qanat to be the oldest one, belonging to the time of the Seleucids-Achaemenids who devised Qanats to bring water to remote areas throughout the empire. Polybius credits the Achaemenids with the origin of Qanats and draws a direct connection between the spread of a technology and a political initiative. 'At the time when the Persians were the rulers of Asia they gave to those who conveyed a supply of water to places previously unirrigated the right of cultivating the land for five generations, [so that] people incurred great expense and trouble making underground channels reaching a long distance.' In Central Asian states with hot and arid climate, people harvested water in underground tunnels, which were also used to transport water to long distances. Iran has 22,000 tunnels called Qanat comprising more than 273,000 km and supplying about 75% of all water used in the country.

Persian Empire emerged in the 6th century BCE under the Achaemenid dynasty, controlled vast areas from present day Greece to northwestern India. The name Persia is a derivation from Persis, the ancient Greek name of the empire. In Iran, which traces its national origin to Persia, the oldest remains of Qanat go back to 3,000 years. This traditional system of water provision was adjusted to the harsh and hostile environmental conditions of the country and in some regions provided irrigation water for as much as 80% of the irrigated area. In Iran, up to 50,000 ranges of Qanat with 22,000 still in operation have been recorded with a total annual discharge of 16 billion m3, which is equivalent to 75% of the total discharge of Euphrates River.

Qanat, a multi-mile subterranean structure, was invented about 750 B.C. for transporting water efficiently in the dry desert climes of the Middle East. The shaft-tunnel structures run for miles. They represent a prodigious amount of labour. The longest runs more than 40 kilometers into the mountainsides. End to end, it is said; they would reach two-thirds of the way to the Moon. In the 1950s, it is estimated that one in seven of the population in some areas of Iran was a Qanat digger, a member of the Mughani caste. Qanats rank right up there with the 'Inca roads and the Great Wall of China as wonders of the ancient world'. No wonder, Iran minus Qanat will be a desert.

Throughout the world, Qanats are known as filtration galleries, foggara, fuqaras, water mines, madjrat, minas, Crevillente (Valencia), apantles con tragaluces, pozer'a, Tehuac'n, Puebla, fuques; picos and by many other names. They are described in Asia and North Africa with alternative terms such as karez, kakuriz, chin-avulz, fugara, mayun, and falaj. The word Qanat is pronounced as kanat in Arabic, but it's spelling varies in English: k(h)anat, kunut, kona, konait, ghanat, ghundat, and quanta.

They have been widespread since the 1st millennium B.C. with different names: The comparable systems that still exist in many parts of the world are known in each place under a different name. Other local nomenclature is Foggara/ fughara are the French translation of the Arabic Qanat, used in North Africa. The existence of Qanats in 34 countries of the world has been confirmed. An attempt is made here to enlist them. Afghanistan/ Pakistan: karez; Algeria/Libya: foggara; Baloch: kahn; Bahrain: Qanat; Cambodia: China: kanerjing/ kanjing, karez; India: surangam; Iraq: khariz/ Qanat; Japan: mambo, mappo; Jordan/ Syria: Qanat romani; Korea: man-nan-po; Oman: falaj; Pakistan: Palestine: Saudi Arabia: Syria: The United Arab Emirates: falaj; Turkey: Turkmenistan: Yemen: felledj, a ghayl/ miyan; Algeria/ North Africa: foggara; Libya, khettara/ khattara, rhettara, hattaras (Morocco); southern Morocco: Marrakesh/ Tafilalet; Egypt:..; Sahara:..; Tunisia:..; Europe: Cyprus:..; Czechoslovakia:..; England:..; France:..; Germany:..; Italy: Ingruttato..; America: puquios/ pukios (Peru); Latin America, Spain, Canary Islands: galeria; Chile and Mexico: pozer'a (sic), picas; Southern Morocco: Marrakesh/ Tafilalet; Madrid: viaje/ viajes de agua; Southeast Asia: Bahariya: manafis; Farafra: jub; Kharga: manawal, so on and so forth.

The Spaniards obtained the technique from the Arabs and built themselves Qanats in the New World. The Tehuacan and Parras in Mexico are of Spanish origin. Qanats found in Peru and Chile are considered as pre-Columbian. 'It will not be possible to resolve definitively the origins of these putatively Inca systems without documental evidence, or without comparing the institutions of Qanat management and water distribution with those of the Madrid and other Old-World systems'. Qanat technology came before aqueducts and remains as an ancient mystery. All the irrigation water for a small village can be met by a pair of good well made Qanats and can be used by many families for many, many years.

The widespread distribution of Qanat, known in each place under a local name, has confounded the question of its origin. The variety of names suggests that different people at different points of time introduced this technology in the wake of human migration in search of new fields for cultivation. In this background an investigation on the origin of Qanat is a journey back in time.

The Qanat captures hidden waters present in alluvial fans, and the tunnels excavated, using mining technique, conduct water to the destination. Many investigators cite ancient Persia (Iran) as the home of the Qanat. From Persians, Qanats expanded to the east along the silk route to China and spread to Arabia, Egypt, North Africa, Cyprus, the Canary Islands and Spain and even to the New World. Geographer Paul Ward English considers the realm of the Persians as the core area with numerous old and fully developed Qanats.

The Persian construction techniques are old and their language rich in words relating to Qanat technology. Of course, the answer to this question also holds the key to unlock the prehistory of mankind. An attempt is made here to fix the place of origin of this system of irrigation following the pattern of word formation, pertaining to men and material, technology and water distribution. Qanat is an irrigation system found not in Iran alone but everywhere in the Middle East. When the terms connected with the construction of a tunnel are examined, we come across many words that rhyme with Dravidian and Sanskrit words. In this background if we examine the philological details, the historical background of the Qanat will become clearer.

Men and Materials


The Muqanis are the hereditary class of professionals engaged in divining dowsing in Iran where they are asked to find a place with abundance of underground water and traditionally build/ repair these systems. The water has to be taken to the place to be irrigated by means of a tunnel provided at the bottom of the well. The Qanat is in the shape of a kendi. The tunnel is the spout, which conducts the water to the place to be irrigated. Pranamukham is the spout of a vessel. The mouth of a river, point of discharge, is embouchure.

Muqhanis are paid high wages and command respect. They have inspired a body of folk custom and belief. 'A muqanni will not work on a day he considers to be unlucky, or if he sneezes on that day. Floods and cave-ins in the Qanat tunnels are frequent, and deaths among muqannis occur. Older muqannis are considered blessed or at the very least lucky. Prayers are performed each time a muqanni descends into a Qanat. This ceremony makes a deep impression on Iranian villagers.'

In Malayalam, mukkaniyan is a Brahmin who came from abroad. He is also known as aaryappattar. Choziyar is Tamil Brahmin. The males among them wore a tuft of hair on the front of their head. Choziyan, also known as Choziyappattar, are Brahmins from Chozadesam. Here, no investigations are made in regard to the relations of these words. Gundert speaks about Brahman being called aaranan, when entering the peninsula ...perhaps the name by which they called themselves when entering the peninsula. The fact that the word mukkaaniyan rhymes with muqanni is noteworthy. Aarya(m)pattar is a kind of foreign Brahmins. Aaryavartham, the gathering place of the Aryas, is the country between Himalayas and Vindhyas.

Muqhani is a person who fulfils the job of a tunnel. In Malayalam muzu means full, complete, and perfect. In Tamil the corresponding word is muzukuthal. Kham holds the meaning such as well, cavity, hole. Khanitra is an instrument to dig or scoop. Khanitraka is a small shovel or scoop. Khanya is anything being dug out. Khanya/ khanitri is a digger. Khanaka is one who digs, an excavator. Khanana is the act of digging or excavating. Khaanam is tunnel. Khaanakan is one who digs. Mukya means chief, eminent, leader, guide, being at the top or head, being foremost etc. Mukyanrpa is paramount sovereign. Mukyamanthri is prime minister. Perhaps the word Muqani might have originated from the importance of being the prime person in excavating the mine.

In Sanskrit, one who digs or mines a well is known as koopakhanakan. In Iran, the Qanat digger is muqanni, an amalgam of two words, mu+khani. One who mines a tunnel is Khaani/ Khaanakan. The word mu can be either muzu/ mukya. Whereas mukhya means the main person, muzu has several meanings such as perfect, complete, drown in the water, fulfill etc. The meaning attributed to muzu and mukhya are fitting to the expertise of muqanni. This conveys that the word under discussion is a Sanskrit word analogous to the mughanni in Iran.

Their counterparts in Morocco, until a generation ago, were the haritin, whose task was generally agricultural maintenance. An entire class of haritin was known as khattater from khettara. The khettater/ haritin in general were a social class held as chattel and were viewed with contempt. But now they are a liberated caste. But the mughanni, in spite of their low caste and crude work, are still held in esteem for their skill and performance.

Oman's divine dowsers are the Awamir. A special guild of water diviners as they are, they have achieved fame for their ability to find hidden sources of water. With their experience and instinct they generally scrutinize the topography, soils, vegetation and finally the presence or absence of certain types of plants. These observations enable them to locate the place to sink a trial shaft. If they adjudge that the flow will likely be constant, the construction of a mother well (umm al-falaj), a vertical shaft down to the aquifer will commence.


The mattock is a domestic/ agricultural tool used for digging and mining. Its head, terminating in a broader blade rather than a narrow spike, makes it particularly suitable for breaking up moderately hard ground. The tankam, a Sanskrit word for a hatchet or a hoe, is also known as a crow bar. While breaking a stone, the instrument produces a sound 'tung,' hence the name, tankam. The word mata in Malayalam means a sluice or water channel. The tankam used to excavate a sluice mata came to be called mattock, amalgamating the two words mata and tankam.

Charkha (Windlass)

With a small pick and shovel, the Muqani heads the team to construct a Qanat. While he excavates the tunnel, his apprentice packs the loose dirt into a leather bucket. Two labourers at the surface of the shaft, pull this dirt up, using a hoist. This windlass known as charkka in Persian is charkha. It is familiar everywhere in India, as the spinning wheel noolchakram/ charkka. The principle applied in the windlass and the spinning wheel are the same.

Wells dug near the paddy fields are found shallow. In hilly areas their depth goes around 100 metres. In these cases, halfway down the vertical shaft, a notch is dug to fit a second carkha to facilitate removing the dirt from one bucket to another at this point. This dirt piled up around the mouth of the shaft gives the appearance of a little mount. For a one-kilometer long tunnel with one-half meter diameter, the removal of rocks amount around 3,000 and 4,000 tons.


Madari chah

A well with a depth of 300 feet, capable to accumulate 2 mts of water overnight situated uphill to the area to be irrigated is the right kind of mother-well. Before taking up the actual construction of the Qanat, the Muqanni decides the site of the mother-well ammakkinar known as maatarisa (madari chah). Matiram is sky. Sunan is wind. The wind as he breathes in the atmosphere is known as maatarisva(n). Maataa: is atmosphere. Svas means to breathe. The Qanat originates at the extreme end from the settlement and is known as maatarisa. Maatiri antareekshesvayateeti says Patanjali.

The god of wind is known as maatareesvaa(v) and it rhymes with madari chah. The word means he who enriches in the mother's womb, in the atmosphere. Sir Monier Williams defines maatareesvan as the name of Agni or a divine being closely connected with him. Water is enriched in the mother-well dug in the cliff. In this context maatareesvaa(v) must be the original word for the mother-well and the madari chah must be its metamorphosis.


Once the potential site for the madari chah is decided, the muqani concentrates on digging one or more trial shafts. Entrances to these trial shafts are known as gamaneh. The mother shaft has to make a way into a relatively constant source of groundwater penetrating the water table, after weighing a variety of geographical factors. The factors are local slope conditions, the surrounding landscape, and subtle changes in vegetation, available groundwater, and the anticipated destination of the water. Then only it becomes the mother well of the Qanat. Kamaan is supposed to be a Persian word found in circulation in Malayalam. Its meaning is a bow, an arc. Kamaanam means an arched door. Kamaanatturavu is arched door. Gamaneh is the arch door bored into the mother well to make way for the water to enter the tunnel.

The mother well (umm Al falaj) is the main source of Qanat with considerable volume of water and its quality is high. But its yield varies from Qanat to Qanat. Ground-water characteristics, porosity of the soil and the season are the determinants in this regard.


At mazhar, water is diverted into lateral tunnels. Then the small channels lead the water to only one individual garden at a time. The water of the Qanat at the place where it emerges on the surface is not used profusely. It is consumed in plots of land under cultivation miles away. This tunnel adit is the exit of a Qanat similar to a mine entrance and is known as mazhar, the cave in the mount. This cleft is malamuza in Malayalam, and rhymes with mazhar.

Devaguhi is Saraswathi. Likewise, a cave is Devakhaatam built by Devas. A natural lake or a pool before a temple is akhaatam. They were dug by the Devas and not by mortals. As such they are known as akhaatam/ devakhaata(kam).

Access shafts

A Qanat consists of an angled tunnel bringing water from a source to fields or villages. Periodic holes or shafts connect the tunnel with the surface. The trial shaft that struck water becomes the mother well of the Qanat. Once the collection gallery of the mother well is dug, the builders move down slope and decide the destination point, where water surfaces. The distance between mother well and the mazhar, is the length of the well. The excavation of the tunnel starts by burrowing from there, back; they hollow it out with hammer and chisel (rukhani). Crouching in the tunnel, just enough for the worker to crawl through is dug back almost horizontally toward the mother well. The length of the tunnel can be determined by measuring from the mother well to the place where water surfaces (mazhar).

This distance between the place where water emerges on the ground and the place where it is used is known as Heranj. The tunnel is necessarily dug at a slight incline, say, at a gradient of 1/500 to 1/2,500, to enable gravity to convey the water from the source to its destination kilometers away and to prevent erosion and siltation. The length varies according to the nature of the terrain. Successive vertical shafts connect the tunnel with the surface every 20 meters, and they vary in their depth according to the depth of the underground tunnel. In some cases, these shafts are dug first, and the tunnel is chiselled subsequently connecting their bases.

At the mouth of these shafts a ring of burned clay is built to prevent flood water from entering the tunnel. These rings also provide a protective cover to prevent animal and people from falling into it. The tunnel that passes through a deposit of soft sand is likely to collapse. The baked clay hoops, inserted in the tunnel to provide extra support, are called nays. In Arabic nai is reed pipe. In Malayalam naali/ naalam is pipe.

These holes of the successive vertical shafts sunk to excavate the horizontal tunnel of a Qanat, appear to one viewing from the air like a line of anthills, stretching for miles. They indicate the course of the Qanat from the source to the oasis. Correct alignment of the Qanat will connect the water-filled base of the mother well with a point on the surface immediately above the settlement by means of a gently sloping tunnel. If it fails, the Qanat emerges some distance away from the settlement, with hazardous effects.

The holes, left open after the underground canal was completed, enabled subsequent inspection and repair. The access shafts built along the tunnel are used both in the initial construction of the tunnel and for purposes of maintenance, as it is necessary to clear the silt from the channel regularly to maintain the flow of water and also to provide ventilation as well.


Once the main well is dug, naturally, search for the opposite bank where the water is required has to be determined. The opposite bank of a river is known as apaaram. The fathomless and impassable ocean is also known as apaaram. The near bank of a river is avaaram. Aavaaram is the bank from which the other bank with no water is determined. Aavaaram is proximal shore and avaak is distal shore. Once the mother well at the proximal shore is dug the next step is to reach the water to mazhar at the distal shore. The earth between these two shores has to be excavated. The awamir are particularly accomplished at excavating Qanat, through a hard rock - a frightening task. The Sanskrit word avaaram conveys the meaning for the word awamir. Removing the cover, opening is apavaaram. Avaacheena is downward, headlong, being or situated below. Avaanmukha is having the face turned downwards, looking down. Avaak is downwards, headlong.


In case at the end of a larger Qanat the channel is bifurcated into two, provisions for drinking, bathing, separate for men, women and children, are built. The channel then passes through the forts, mosques and reaches to the mughisla, a place for washing the dead. The room or space in the front of a building is mukhasaala. Portico or fa'ade is mukhapp. The front porch of a temple or palace is mukhamantapam. Washing the face is mukhakshaalanam. To fill the mouth with water is mukhapooranam. Mukhaagni is the fire ignited at the time of cremation to burn the corpse. The above words rhyme with maghsala, which is associated with funeral function. Sala is water.

Badgir/ Farsi/ Barjeel

Vaatham is wind. Giri/ garanam is swallowing. Vaathagir (Badgir/ Windcatchers) are small windows. Houses built near these tunnels have these wind catchers vaathagir, which serve as air conditioners.


Continuous flow of water, especially during periods of low water use in fall and winter is viewed wasteful. As such, it is controlled to a large extent, using watertight gates that seal off the mazhar. In spring and summer, night flow is stored and held in small reservoirs (ambar) at the mouth of the Qanat, for daytime use. Such reservoirs are known as ambar. Cornstack is known as ambar/ ambaar. It means multitude. Service of a granary keeper is ambaravrthi. Ambarakesan is Lord Siva.

Ambaram in Sanskrit is sky, atmosphere, ether and water. Am means go. Since water is moving, flowing, it came to be called as ambu. The horizon is Ambaraantam. The heavenly Ganga is ambaraganga. Ambaramstali, ambarathatini, ambaranadi, are the names for the heavenly Ganga as well as for the river Ganges. Ambarasthali is the earth. Water emerging from the sky is meeting the earth. As such ambaram can either be water or the point where it meets the earth.

Lance is a long shaft with a spearhead, used as a thrusting weapon. To pierce with lance, to cut or to open with a lancet is lancing. Kuntam, tomaram is an iron club or iron crow bar. It is a lance or a javeline. Kuntam, is cuntus. Kuntalam is a drinking cup. A country in south India is known as Kuntalam.

A lancet arch is an acutely pointed Gothic arch, like a lance(t). Gothic arch is a pointed arch, usually with a joint (instead of a keystone) at the apex (lancet window). Lancet is a surgical knife with a pointed double-edged blade, used for punctures and small incisions. Surgical knife is a very sharp knife used in surgery. A surgeon's two-edged cutting or bloodletting instrument is a lancet. In architecture lancet shaped or acutely pointed window is called lancet window, an acutely pointed arch. In fact the Qanat is lanceted. The tunnel is lancet- arched. The literal meaning attributed to Qanat as lance or conduit, is becoming obvious here. Saktigraha holding a spear or lance, taking hold of the force or meaning (of a word or sentence &c.), a spearman, lancer, is name of Karttikeya and Siva. It has also meanings such as perception or apprehension of the force or sense (of a word &c.). Who or what causes to apprehend the force or signification (of a word or phrase), determining or establishing the meaning of words (as a dictionary, grammar &c.) is grahaka/ Saktigrahaka.14 One who uses a lancet is a lancer. Lord Siva is known as Tomadharan/ Kamandhaludharan. He is also known as Vyomakesan ' one who has hair covering the expanse of the skies. Devakulya is heavenly Ganga. If we look at the whole theme of the Qanat, starting from the high place and reaching the earth by means of underground conduits, we can imagine the river Ganges hiding in the cliff of Lord Siva and emerging out to the land. Not only that, he is a well-known lancer too. A reed at times can be a pipe as well as a canal. It is a common scene in Indian forests, among tribals, to extract water from an aquifer by piercing a reed, which will serve as a pipe allowing fresh water to come out. This can be a prototype of a Qanat.

Ownership, Public Rights and Distribution

Body of Customs and Law

Once the water is trapped, it becomes a public property; no individual has a particular right in it. Use of water for domestic purposes and watering needs of animals is free for all.


In fact Qanat is a mine and the water that flows out from a mined Qanat is naturally 'mineral' water. The water scooped from the mother well, situated at the highest peak is called sharia. This is the first permitted place from where water can be used profusely by anyone, free of cost. Saraasari, a loaned Persian word in Malayalam conveys this position. It means, in toto, equally, without any disparity etc., in northern Kerala kalameni is the word in use to describe average. Its meaning is from end to end, medium between two extremes, become equal or equipoise, equality, parity and so on.

A special distribution system was evolved over the centuries to distribute the irrigation water; on it's reaching the garden. Qanat, a canal system, provides water for a community of farmers for domestic and/or agricultural use. Distribution of the water from the Qanat, around the irrigated land is based on a complex system but ensures a fair and adequate water supply for all farming lands. The system is known as Dawran cycle.


A water pot is dhaarakam. A possessor or holder is dhaarakan. Continuous flow or current of water is dhaara. A narrow stream of any liquid flowing through a small hole constantly is dhaara. Dhaaram is rainwater. A violent shower of incessant rain and rainwater is dharam. A house with cooling systems using running water is dhaaraagrham. A bath with shower bath is also called dhaaraagrham. A cloud is dhaaraadharam/ dhaaraadam. Downward stream, shower, rain are dhaaraapadam. Air/ wind is dhaaraavani. That which is incessant and continuous is dhaaraavaahi. Dhaarana means agreement or understanding between two parties. Right of possession on land is dharanaadhikaaram. Possession of land is dhaaranam. According to dawran system, water is distributed to the field based on a cycle and the cost of the water flown to an area of field is determined on the time taken by it. Dhaarana means firmness, stability, and state of being indebted. Another word in this regard is dhaaranaapatram, which means memorandum of understanding, documents in vogue on property, agreement on paper etc. Each piece of land or a farm is allocated water for a certain period of time based on sun-clock in the daytime and the stars in the night. The body of custom and law (shari'a) relating to Qanats codified in the Kitab-i Qani (Book of Qanats) in the ninth century strives to protect the investment of Qanat owners in permanent agricultural settlement. The founders of the Qanat, on the basis of their contribution in the making of the Qanat - their share of money or labour, owned part of the water permanently. This inherited right known as mulk, rarely changed hands. The remaining part is rented out from regular auctions to those who have no share in the Qanat or to those who need extra water than the allocated. A well-constructed Qanat irrigates so long as its mother well has water. Two or three Qanats can meet the irrigation requirements of a small village. Muluk/ mulkk is a loaned word in Malayalam from Arabic. Its meaning is a country/ government.

The water distribution is based on either time or volume, and it depends on the size of the Qanat. The time-based type is more common. The income from the water allotted on rent (by auction) is used for the repair and maintenance of the Qanat. The date palm or trees along the channel, irrigated by the Qanat are the properties that fetch additional revenue. This system of water management helped the survival of Qanat, and had a telling impact of the falaj system on the organization and community development of the settlers for centuries. Qanats help to create particular societal relationships and socio-economic conditions in the villages they serve.

In Oman, the age-old rotational water supply system prevailed to apportion falaj water and irrigated gardens for a certain time. Religious authorities arbitrate disputes over water rights. This time-share called an athar was based on sundial and stars. The use of watch in modern times has fixed the period to be of 30 minutes. In Oman the dawran is found divided into many subdivisions of time. After dawran is worked out, water share is divided between falaj owners using unit of share athar. Each full day is divided into one or two badda. Each day should be equal to 48 athars, so if the day is one badda, badda will be equal to 48 athars. If it is two badda then, each badda will be equal to 24 athars. The day is divided into the day badda and night badda. Wilkinson (1977) reported a falaj, which has 34 badda in each day. In this falaj, each badda has 16 athars so the full day is also equal to 48 athars.

'Athanayilae nalanadutha nanatalkkaaya' The word athana from Ramacharitham is an old Malayalam word that means atra, athana, athanai 'Tamil) mean of such size, or measure, so much, this much, so many. Atracha means so much to each. Atrattolam means so much, to that extent. Atramaatram means so much only. Atrolam means up to that time. Batha (batt) means allowance and batta atramaatram means so much, so much only, very much. Atrayum so much, wholly, entirely, fully atraykkatra only a little. Atrolam upto that (place, time), so much, this far. Atra of such size or measure, so much, this much, so many, very much, sufficiently, properly. Bhitti is partition, dividing.

Those aflaj supplying one or two families are smaller systems that can be manned by individuals. But there are aflaj-providing water for several thousands of people and gardens. They are looked after by a management committee comprising mostly elders and consist of (a) wakil, (b) qabidh, (c) two arif and (d) workforce of bidars. Madaar

Water from Qanats, owned communally, distributed to community members, on a rotational basis over a period 10-14 days is known as 'madaar'. The equivalent word in Malayalam for madaar is maathi. Maathi in Sanskrit means measurement of area, weight, size etc. In Tamil it means number of times. It also covers meanings such as order, rule, custom, turn of shift, fixed time or turn, installment, number of times. It corresponds to the Arabic meaning of rotation. A portico or porch of the shape of a howdah is ambaari. Ambaaram/ vattam denotes number of times, mura turn or shift, a period of eight days. Thavana is fixed time or turn, installments. Maathi is vattam in Tamil. In Sanskrit, measure, define, regulate and so on. Ambar is sky, atmosphere.

One Well, So Many Names


The technology of the Qanat in Iran and Oman is the same. But in Oman they are known as aflaj (plural), falaj (singular). Oman has both vertical and horizontal wells. From time immemorial the people of Oman harnessed water from these sources for both domestic and irrigational purposes. Aflaj in Oman are classified according to the depth of the water sources. The two important types of aflaj in Oman are Daudi (Qanat /Iddy) and Ghaily. The meaning of the Sanskrit word aaranam is depth, abyss, and precipice. Aarani is an eddy. Hrdam is depth of a river or lake, an eddy. Ancient spring is called Ain Romani in Kharge. The meaning of ain is well/ spring. It might be related to aarani.

Ainy falaj, the third category, is one that originates from groundwater springs. Their length is insignificant, places of occurrences very limited.

Ghaily falaj are dug close to the ground surface. They collect water from wadi (valley) bottom, which accumulates water after incessant rainfall. Since the Ghail aflaj depend on water that accumulates after an incessant rainfall or on shallow underground water table, they are bound to dry out after a long spell of drought with low rainfall. Quantity of water that it could collect from the wadi determines the width of aflaj. The water is not consumed for domestic purposes as it is normally found in open places.

Kheyam means a trench or a ditch to conduct underground water from one place to another. About 55% of the total aflaj in Oman are Ghaily aflaj. The remaining is Iddi/ Daudi aflaj, which are usually perennial in nature. They serve as the main and permanent water source of the irrigated lands to get water from the mother well dug at a great distance through the under ground channels, and help Oman to carry out agriculture in the face of conditions of drought.

Dahanan is Agni. Since water is his enemy water came to be known as dahanaaraati. Water in the aflaj flows on gravity gradients. Daaraasrita is gravity. Dahanaaraati, daaraasrita/ dari these words are similar to dadi (Daudi).

A cave, a crevice in the mountain is dari. Daram is cave, crack, flow, and peak of a mountain. Dari can be a hole in the mountain with or without water, natural or artificial- man-made water channel. Like a cave dareemukham is the mouth of the cave. Mountain is dareebhrtt .

In the slopes of mountains, the shallow places where water is collected during rainy days are known as playa. Aaplavam means ablution, bathing and immersion. Aaplavanam is immersing, bathing. Plavanam, aaplavikkuka, aaplava(nam) / aaplaava(nam) in Sanskrit denotes inundation, to overflow. Pl(aa)vanam means pravaham, incessant flow. These words rhyme with afalaj.

Ammayam (ap+maya) means watery, formed from water. Any form of water like vapour, ice etc are Aapyam. Aap+maatram/ ammaatram is merely water. These ideas are consolidated in the word umm Al falaj (ammakkinar mother well). Of the five elements water is known as app. That, which is related to app, is apyam, in fact, watery. Apijam means taking birth in water. The month of mithunam (is apijam. Apaam (water) naathan (guard) is apaamnaathan. Lord Varuna, the guardian of the west as well as the Lord of waters is apaam and is known as apaamnaathan, appati apaampati, yaadasaampatirappati. yaada:patirapaam pati saampati yaadasaamrapati. Any form of water is aapyam. Ocean is apaamnidhi. Water is known as app (Sanskrit), appos (Greek), aqua (Latin), Aflaj (Arabic).

The word phalaaj means vessel, pot. Paligham means water pot made of glass. Watery sign of the zodiac is apyam. Name of an asterism is apyam. Belonging/ relating to water, watery is apya. Here aapyam means all drinkables, which digested, produce urine, blood. The western direction related to Varuna is apyam. To be attainable, reached is apya.

The English word playa denotes a plain in the desert with hard clayey surface intermittently covered by a shallow lake. Lowland and river valley is pallam. Palak in Malayalam is water. But in the context of a system for dividing or distributing water, the Malayalam word is synonymous with the word Plg. Palakk means water bubble. Pank means part, share or portion. Pakukkuka means the act of dividing (between), share, allot. Plg, pank paku(kkuka) means divide (between), share, allot. Pank means share, portion, pakuttat. Pankital sharing, apportioning, distributing. A partner is pankullavan/ pankukaaran. Pankam is mud. Pankilam is muddy place. Panki means muddy. Falaj might have derived from the word palak but later on the word assumed the meaning pank. Apomaya means consisting of water. Aapyam is bow of Sagittarius. Aapaya is river.

Ancient aflaj still course like arteries beneath the hills and plains of Oman, twisting along precipitous cliffs and threading villages and date-palm groves, bringing to the parched land water and coolness and life itself. The word aflaj itself denotes not only the water canals but also the irrigation network that relies on them and the social system that apportions water to the owners of water-shares. The aflaj have helped to shape the history and settlement patterns of oases, and they continue even now binding together each community that draws upon the water from the falaj.

The shallow or surface waters found in the mountain wadis, or valleys, are lined with gravel and silt. They overlie consolidated rock in the valley floor. Water flows perennially through the surface layers of the wadi deposits. A ghayl falaj taps and conveys the water in an open channel to an oasis. Kazhani is mud, mire. It also includes rice field, fertile or cultivated land. Kayam is a fountain from which water is led elsewhere. The word kayam means great depth. Still other aflaj simply conduct water above ground from a spring.

The irrigation systems, introduced before Islam, formed the basis of agriculture and rural settlement. The several kilometers of underground channels tapping one or more mother wells gave birth to a system of water distribution in one-source/ multiple-users systems based on water rights. This context enabled some to attribute the origin of the ancient term 'falaj' to the ancient Semitic root 'plg' which has to do with divisions - to divide. It denotes division pankituka. 'The related Arabic three-consonant root flj signifies the division of property, suggesting the falaj's purpose as a system for dividing or distributing water'. No wonder, the watershares in aflaj is divided between the owners and the local nomenclature, the falaj implies it.


In the northern section of the Tafilaft oasis in southern Morocco, agriculture was practised during the 14th century with the help of Qanats. With the passage of time, they became extinct and were abandoned. Qanats are locally known as khettara. The Malayalam kottathalam means the floor of bricks or granite built around a well in the form of a platform, that is, a paved place near the well. Stone flooring of a bathroom is also known as kottathalam. A wooden trough is kottalam. Kottakkorika/ sira means a bucket for drawing water from a well. Kettara may be a transformation of the word kenar.


Palmyra City in Syria owes its present prominence to Qanat. Many of its Qanats are now out of use. Those who are responsible to keep them up have left the place in search of new places. As such, they became defunct. In the absence of proper maintenance they have become a threat to environment. This factor also compels youngsters to leave the place in search of pastures new.

Brahmaputra, one of the three sacred rivers in north India, is known as lohita(ni)ka. Artery or vein is lohiniki. Blood vessel (artery) carrying pure blood is known as rakta lohiniki. The vein that carries impure blood to the heart is neelini. A hollow tube is naali. Any blood vessel, veins, artery, nerve is known as dhamini, sira. Like the nervous system in the human body, the underground tunnels carry pure water from the mother well to the oases. This may be the reason for the name Syria. Selemiya is a plain in the Central region of Syria. A century ago, an abandoned Byzantine water tunnel, a product of the 16th century, was discovered in the North Syrian village named Salala saagaraga. Salala saagaraga means a little waterfall. Salam, in Sanskrit is water.

Shallalah Saghirah

Water, that which flows is sa(li)lam, sarilam, sa(ri)ram, sarilam. Sal is to flow. Salati gaccati nimnam iti salila: It means, flowing downwards is salilam. The ocean is known as salilanidhi, salilaraasi. Saagariga river/ Ganges. Saagara gaamini is river. Ganges is a saagaragaamini. Saritt is river. Sarass is that with waves. Artificial pool is a sarass. Water is also known as saralam, saralam, sarala(la)kam. Lord Varuna and Ocean are Salilapati, Salilanidhi, Salilaraasi, Ambhonidhi are the names of the Ocean. Salilakriya means udakakriya, washing the corpse.


Many tribes of Afghanistan today are traced back to the Vedic period. They participated in the famous Ten kings war of the Rig Veda lore. The name of the nation itself is rooted in the ancient Indian literature. The sixth century Indian astronomer Varaha Mihira in Brhat Samhita refers about a people belonging to avagaana. This word became Avagana and later became Afghan. Modern Afghanistatan was known as ava(pa)gaana(m) in ancient times. This is known derivation of the place name Afghanisthan. The following is another probability on this matter.

Rainy season is khanaagamam/ khanakaalam. The cloud season is khanasamayam. A dark cloud is khanasyaamam. A cluster of clouds is khanakhata. Khanambu is rainwater. From this word formation we can understand ghanam is synonymous with cloud. Failure of rain, drought is Ava(pa)gaaham. Avakhattam/ avatakacchapam. A hole, cavity, well avatam. A hole in the ground, a well is ava avatu(ti). Avaghattam is a ditch. A deep ditch is avakhaatam. Ava(pa) is a prefix in Sanskrit to denote devoid of. The 'va' in the prefix 'ava' is transformed and became apa. The state of being cloudlessness is apakhana. A reservoir like pond, lake, etc is jalasthaanam. But the word apakhana becomes a synonym of destitution when applied to denote the name of a nation. What is lacking in Afghanistan is fertile land and females. So the demand for both fertile land and females is great. What is not lacking and found in abundance is cloudless, clear, blue sky. Hence, those who are aware of the importance of destitution might have named the nation as Apakhanasthaan, which later came to be known as Afghanistan.


China doesn't have Qanat technology. But it has an oases town named Turfan. Qanat is locally known as qarez. Qanat technicians brought from Persia were the architects of Qanat, which came into being in the 18th century. Eastern most is the one found in Turfan and on the western side found on the southern Spain is the Qanat that the Moores built, at a later period. In Malayalam Dictionaries the word Qarez occurs to mean spring fountain. Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Afghanistan, Russia, Sinkiang province of China, in sum, the Qanat spread all over Asia like a vein has a single mission, to turn the desert into an oases. That might have begun from a single Qanat.


The land on the top of the mountain is adhithyaka and the low land is upathyaka. River valley turns splendid with plenty of vegetation and it becomes a wadi. Land at the foot of the mountain valley is vale or a valley is wadi. With granite at the bottom and gravel, coarse sand and silt above is the peculiarity of the low land or river valley. At the bottom of this wadi water accumulates after rainfall or through higher water table that percolates water to the lower levels of wadi. The Arabic wadi is a watercourse canyon, which is dry, except during the rainy season. Canyon is kantaram in Sanskrit. It means a glen, a small-secluded valley. A valley is a depression of the earth's surface, through which a stream flows.
In India

We have seen that Qanats are underground tunnels, with a canal in the floor of the tunnel, to carry water. Between the source of water and its destination, at regular intervals, well-like openings extend from the surface to the tunnel floor. Through these openings the tunnels were built and on its completion it is retained to maintain tunnel. The underground nature of the canal reduces evaporation in the hot and windy desert. Qanats originate in highlands, with a mother shaft, the deepest among them being 400 meters below ground. The tunnel floor slopes at a gentle angle toward its destination, miles and miles away. The Qanat can get water from an underground aquifer. As such a surface river or stream is not needed. The Qanat tunnel becomes humidified by the water, then further evaporation of water ceases. Since it travels at a slope independent of the surface features, it can go in a straight line. The water-carrying canal in Qanat is usually lined with stone or tile to reduce water loss.

Unlike the desert, the Qanat like structures are not required at India on large scale. But they are found random in some places. One introduced during the Mughal period and another at Kasaragod whose origin is uncertain.

Khooni bhandara

Khooni bhandara is a unique underground water management system built in 1615 at Burhanpur city, in Madhya Pradesh, by Tabkutul Arj, a Persian geologist, to meet the water demand of the Mughal army. Its mysterious system of tunnels brings water from nearby catchment areas and supplies clean and adequate drinking water all the year round. Burhanpur, the base for the expansion of Mughals in south India, was situated on the river banks of the Tapti and Utavali. Khooni bhandara consist of 103 kundis (well -like storage structures) constructed in a row. They are interconnected to each other through a 3.9 km long underground marble tunnel. This system would check the flow of rainwater from the Satpura hills flowing towards the river Tapti. The design is based on the simple law of gravity.


Surangam is a man-made horizontal tunnel pierced deep into the water bearing rock in the hard laterite formations, until sumptuous water is struck. Its width is about 0.45-0.70 metres (m) and height about 1.8-2.0 m. But the length of the tunnel varies from 3 to 300 m. Ground water pattern changes with the passage of time. But the availability of water depends on the season as well as on the peculiarities of the earth. All these affect the seepage inside the surangam. This situation is managed by opening fresh areas to intercept the natural flow of groundwater. Several subsidiary surangam make the tunnels lengthy. Those tunnels with 100 mts or more in length are provided with a number of vertical airshafts to facilitate air circulation as well as to regulate atmospheric pressure inside the tunnel. This helps the movement of the people inside the tunnel for the purpose of maintenance. The distance between successive vertical airshafts with a dimension of 2 m by 2 m, varies between 50-60 m. Its depth also varies from place to place. All these factors set the pace of excavating surangam and take generations to complete. The tunnel collects water that seeps out from the hard rock and flows out to an open pit and to then carried forward by means of a pipe for onward transmission to the desired destination. It is a mine; no doubt it is a mineral water source too. Many such surangam have been made by private landowners irrigate a considerable area in Kasaragod district. It is noticed that the hillocks of Kavvayi watershed region has no surangam.

Laterite as Building Material

The laterite soil peculiar to this region ensures that the tunnel does not collapse while drilling. The Latin word for brick is later. Lateritis is brick stone. Webster's Dictionary defines Laterite as a residual product of rock decay that is red in colour and has a high content in the oxides of iron and hydroxide of aluminum. Dr Francis Hamilton Buchanan (1807), a medical officer of the East India Company, who conducted studies in and around Angadipuram in Malappuram district in 1800 AD, called this porous rock material laterite. He speaks about Laterite as 'nearly devoid of bases and primary silicates and commonly found with quartz and kaolin and developed in tropical or warm temperate climatic regions. It is capable of hardening after the treatment of wetting and drying and can be cut and used for bricks, and is brick red in colour'.

The red/ brown laterite stone, rich in iron, is found in many tropical regions like India, Sri Lanka, Burma, Central and West Africa and Central America. Red laterite stone, a cost- effective, local material is easy to quarry and dress. In Dakshina Kannada and Udupi districts and the mainland areas of Kerala laterite is a local material used in constructing buildings and gives an enticing look, to the building.

Even before the British 'discovered' laterite, it was profusely in use as a building material in Kerala, as is evident from the still existing illam, mana and ancient temples in Kasargod and Kannur built centuries ago. Carvings, as well as sculptures, made out of this material are marvellous. The laterite is known as chhekkallu. 'Chhekkallinl kothalangalum thherthu' Chhekkallu in this citation, also known as chengallu/ vettukallu in Malayalam, (moorakallu in Karnataka) is the laterite block used as a building material in Kerala for centuries. Laterite monuments include the Bekal Fort, laterite wall enclosures of Gajaprishtam temple, Tippu's fort in Tellicherry, Fort St Angelo in Kannur (in Kerala), the Basilica of Bom Jesus ( Goa) etc.

Laterite hillocks

Such surangams are built through the numerous laterite hillocks in the area and their distribution in Kerala is mostly confined to less than 600 m. altitude. The low undulating hillocks found in Kasaragod, comprised of this peculiar soil or rock formation is intersected with rivers. The fascinating midland terrain of Northern Kerala is extended between Malappuram district in the south and South Karnataka in the north. Of the nineteen rivers between Manjeswaram and Mahe, five originate from the highlands of the Western Ghats.

The hilly terrain of Kasaragod experienced high discharge in rivers during the monsoon and low discharge in the dry months. Laterite hillock allows rainwater to recharge the earth and the scanty vegetation on the surface of the hill stops the water from flowing out through its slope. Rainwater that is stored in the spongy laterite soil oozes out in the form of springs to the tunnels' wall and flows. The perennial nature of water flow from Surangam, made on the slopes of laterite hillocks, is proof enough to show the water holding capacity of the laterite and these streams turned the vast stretches of valleys into agricultural fields.

On the matter of surface water, Kasaragod with laterite forms as a residual deposit all along the midlands poses a peculiar problem. Failure of the hard laterite soil of the hillocks to retain enough water during monsoon closed the chances of harvesting water by means of well. In addition, the peculiarities of the geography of Kasaragod left the villagers in an embarrassing position. These peculiarities of the earth compelled the men in the distant past to exploit the hydro-riches in the laterite formations using traditional wisdom, resulting in the construction of eco-friendly, flowing wells, called surangam, the special kind of water harvesting structure, similar to Qanat. Tribals of Kerala preferred running water to the stagnant water of the wells. But in Kasaragod the vertical wells are not found feasible. Ground water is generally encountered under water table condition in the laterite aquifers of about 10- 20 m thickness. Dug wells of relatively large diameter of about 4-6 m are found in this region. The laterite is often under laid by weathered rock and a lithomarge clay zone separates these, which is prone to caving. In the highland, groundwater occurs under water table condition and it can be extracted through dug wells. Though the past generation of people of Kerala did not have much knowledge in hydrology, their practical skill and experience helped them in selecting the best possible source for meeting the fresh water requirements.'

The vegetation helps the rainwater to recharge the soil of the hillocks and make the spring perennial. With the deforestation and depletion of ground water, days of Surangam have begun to be numbered.

Continued as Origins of Surangam

More by :  Dr. V. Sankaran Nair
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Solitude and other poems by Rajender Krishan 

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