Etymological Conduit to the Land of Qanat

Qanat is an ancient system found in arid regions that bring groundwater from the cliff, or base of a mountainous area, following a water-bearing formation (aquifer) or rarely from rivers, and emerge at an oasis, through underground tunnel or a series of tunnels. The tunnels perhaps several kilometers long, are roughly horizontal, with a slope. This allows water to drain out to the surface by gravity to lower and flatter agricultural land. Considered to be the oldest feat of human engineering, this system can be found still working in Iran, North Africa, China, the Arabian Peninsula, and Afghanistan and beyond.

In the plateau regions of Iran water obtained in this way from the subsurface is used for domestic and agricultural purposes. The adoption of this technique in a big way transformed the entire arid Arab world in to a sort of oasis of date palms or other crops. While a natural spring sustains a natural oasis, it can be considered as a natural qanat. But a man made tunnel, has made it possible for other oases to come up enabling settlers to find pastures new in the arid zone of the desert. First settlers who lived in the natural oases might have developed the idea of qanat to bring other arid but fertile terrain under cultivation and sustain their life.

The word qanat, pronounced as 'kanat' in Arabic and karez in Pashto is referred to by different names in different regions: Qanat (Iran); karez (Afghanistan and Pakistan); kanerjing (China); qanat romani (Jordan and Syria); khettara (Morocco); galeria (Spain); falaj (United Arab Emirates); Kahn (Baloch). Foggara/ fughara is the French translation of the Arabic qanat, used in North Africa.

The widespread distribution of qanat known in different places in their local names has confounded the question of its origin.

The earthquake of 26 December 2003 uncovered an old city and the qanat system in Bam, dating to more than two thousand years. The preliminary studies held by the Archaeologists discovered this qanat to be the oldest one, belonging to the time of the Seleucids-Achaemenids.

Polybius credits the Achaemenids with the origin of qanats to bring water to remote areas throughout the empire through the use of qanats. He 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."

From Persians (Iran) Qanats expanded east along the silk route to China and spread to India, 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 of qanats with very numerous and old qanats. The Persian construction techniques are old and fully developed, 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.

Men and Materials


The Muqannis are the hereditary class of professional qanat diggers in Iran who build and repair these systems. Their work is hazardous and they are paid high wages. They command respect and 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.'

Their counter parts in Morocco, until a generation ago, were the haritin. The agricultural maintenance in general was their task. An entire class of haritin was known as khattater from khettara, analogous to the mughanni in Iran. Thekhettater/ 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. (Moroccan Khettara: Traditional Irrigation and Progressive Desiccation, Geoforum (27:2), 1996, pp. 261-273).

In Sanskrit, one who digs/ mines a well is known as Kupa khanakan. In Iran, the qanat digger is Muqanni, an amalgam of two words, Mu+khani. Khani is khanakan one who mines a tunnel. The word mu can be either muzhu, or mukya. Where as mukhya means the main person, muzhu has several meanings such as perfect, complete, drown in the water, fulfill etc. The meaning attributed to muzhu and mukhya are fitting to the expertise of Muqanni. This conveys that the word under discussion is a Sanskrit word.


The mattock is a domestic/ agricultural tool used for digging and mining. The head terminating in a broader blade rather than a narrow spike, which makes it particularly suitable for breaking up moderately hard ground. Tankam is a Sanskrit word for a hatchet or a hoe. It 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 in a sluice (mata) came to be known as mattock amalgamating the two words mata and tunkam.


The construction of a qanat is a teamwork headed by a muqanni, who excavates the tunnel with a small pick and shovel, while his apprentice packs the loose dirt into a leather bucket. Two laborers at the surface of the shaft, pull this dirt up, using a hoist. This windlass is known as charka in Persian language. It is familiar everywhere in India, as the spinning wheel. The principle applied in the windlass and the spinning wheel are the same.

For a tunnel measuring one kilometer long with one-half meter in diameter the removal of rocks amount around 3000 and 4000 tons.


Madari chah

Before taking up the actual construction of the qanat, muqanni decides the site of the mother-well, known as madari chah. This forms the origin of the qanat and lies at the extreme end from the settlement.

The god of wind is known as matharisva (v) and it rhymes with madari chah. The word means he, who enriches in the mother's womb, in the atmosphere. Water is enriched in the mother-well dug in the cliff. In this context matharisva must be the original word for the mother-well and the madari chah must be its metamorphosis.


After deciding the potential site for the madari chah, the muqanni concentrates on digging one or more trial shafts (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 being local slope conditions, the surrounding landscape, subtle changes in vegetation, available groundwater, and the anticipated destination of the water. Then only it becomes the mother well of the qanat.


After the collection gallery for the mother well is dug, the builders move down slope and decide the destination point, where water surfaces. The excavation of the tunnel starts from there, by burrowing back almost horizontally toward the mother well. Crouching in the tunnel, they hollow out with hammer and chisel (rukhani). Successive vertical shafts connect the tunnel with the surface every 50 to 100 meters or so and extend the under ground tunnel toward the point at which it surfaces kilometers away. In some cases, these shafts are dug first, and the tunnel is chiseled subsequently to connect their bases.

Where the tunnel passes through a deposit of soft sand, the tunnel is likely to collapse. The baked clay hoops, inserted in the tunnel to provide extra support, are called nays.

The exit of a qanat is known as mazhar. This tunnel adit is similar to a mine entrance. This cleft is malamuzha in Malayalam. This word rhymes with mazhar. In fact qanat is a mine and the water that flows out from a mined qanat is naturally 'mineral' water.

Once a trial shaft has struck water, and the shaft becomes the mother well of the qanat, the length of the tunnel can be determined by measuring from mother well to the place where water surfaces (mazhar). In the event the alignment of the qanat fails to 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, the qanat emerges some distance away from the settlement, with hazardous effects.

These holes of the successive vertical shafts sunk to excavate the horizontal tunnel of a qanat, will look like a line of ant-hills, stretching for miles, when viewed from the air, They indicate the course of the qanat from the source to the oasis. The holes were left open after the underground canal was completed, enabling subsequent inspection and repair.


The Awamir are particularly accomplished at excavating qanat, through a hard rock - a frightening task. The Sanskrit word avaram conveys the meaning for the word Awamir. Avaram indicates the bank from which the opposite bank is fixed. That means the bank where there is no water.


Continuous flow of water is viewed wasteful. As such, it is controlled to a large extent, especially during periods of low water use in fall and winter, 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.

Ambaram in Sanskrit is sky, atmosphere, ether and water. Ambarakesan is Lord Siva. He is also known as Vyomakesan. Ambaraganga is the heavenly Ganges. Ambaratatini/ Ambaranadi means the heavenly Ganges as well as the 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.

If we look at the whole theme of the qanat, starting from the high place and reaching the earth by means of underground conduits, one can imagine the river Ganges hiding in the cliff of Lord Siva and emerging out to the land.

Body of Customs and Law


Qanats help to create particular societal relationships and socio-economic conditions in the villages they serve. 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.

Water, drawn from the site where the mother well is situated is known as sharia. This water gives the first opportunity for every one to use the water and it is free for every one. The word sarasari is a Persian word used in Malayalam profusely. It's meaning is from end to end, medium between two extremes. Become equal or equipoise, equality, parity and so on.


Water from Qanats, owned communally, is distributed on a rotational basis over a period (10-14 days) to community members. This is known as 'madaar'. Equivalent word in Malayalam for madaar is Mathi. Mathi in Sanskrit means measurement of area, weight, size etc. In Tamil it means number of times. It also covers meaning such as order, rule, custom, turn of shift, fixed time or turn, installment, number of times. It corresponds to the Arabic meaning of rotation.


Means firmness, state of being indebted. Another word in this regard isdharanpatram, which means memorandum of understanding, documents in vogue on property, agreement on paper etc.

One Well, So Many Names


In the slopes of mountains the shallow places where the water is collected during rainy days is known as playa. Plavanam and aplavanam in Sanskrit means inundate, to overflow. These words can be attributed to the origin of the word falaj and aflaj. Qanats are as Aflaj in Oman.

Ammaya (ap+maya) means watery, formed from water. Ammatram (ap+matram) merely water. These ideas have been consolidated in the word Umm Al falaj that means mother well. Water is appu in Sanskrit, appos in Greek, aqua in Latin and Aflaj in Arabic. Lord Varuna, the guardian of the west as well as water, is known as appathi, apam nathan and apampathi.

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 form 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. The word kayam means great depth. Still other aflaj simply conduct water aboveground from a spring.


The 'aflaj' irrigation systems, introduced before Islam, formed the basis of agriculture and rural settlement. They often have several kilometres of underground channels tapping one or more mother wells. These water management systems are one-source/ multiple-users systems. Distribution of water and water rights is a key issue and it is therefore most appropriate to use the ancient term 'falaj' as it is derived from the ancient Semitic root 'plg' which has to do with divisions - to divide. (Wilkinson 1977:258-65, Dybro, Jens E. (1995) Islamic Law and the Development of Agricultural Settlement in Oman; On the Question of Tradition and Development Conference: Presented at "Reinventing the Commons," the fifth annual conference of the International Association for the Study of Common Property, May 24-28, 1995, Bodoe, Norway).

The word Plg is division and is said related to Arabic three-consonant root flj signifying the division of property. 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.

Panku means part, share, and portion. Pakukkuka means the act of dividing (between), share, allot. Falaj might have derived from the word Palak but later on the word assumed the meaning Panku.


In the northern section of the Tafilaft oasis in southern Morocco, qanats are locally known as khettara. The Malayalam word kottathalam means the floor of bricks or granite built around a well in the form of a platform. Kottakkorika means a bucket for drawing water from a well.

Shallalah Saghirah

A century ago, an abandoned Byzantine water tunnel was discovered and brought a lease of life to the village on the edge of the desert in Northern Syria. The village is called Shallalah Saghirah and it's meaning is 'Little Waterfall'. This word itself is a Sanskrit word. Salam is water. Salila is water, that which flows. Samudra is known as Salilanidhi, salilarasi. Sagaraga and Sagaragamini is river.


Great importance attached to irrigation from karizes in Balochistan can be gauged from the Baloch saying: 'A mosque should be demolished if it obstructs the course of kariz.' (Makran District Gazetteer, p. 187,1906, reprinted 1986).

Sura is water. When water makes its passage through a tunnel, it becomes a horizontal well. This flowing well is called surangam. The tunnel constructed for a flowing well, is therefore known in Sanskrit as Sravikupam.

In Malayalam, the common word for a well or a mine is kinar. Kera(n)tu, kenatu, are some other words having the same meaning. Kinduka means to dig out, to scoop out. The root of the word kinar is kinduka.

The word Quilon, a southern district in Kerala, is the anglicized form of Kollam. A Keralite will read the Arab Qanat only as kenat. He will not pronounce it as 'quinat,' owing to his familiarity with the kinar. For him, keni, kenatu, kera(n)tu are the household words for well. The word karez occurs in Malayalam dictionaries to mean horizontal well. The word qanat, pronounced as 'kanat' in Arabic and karez in Pashto is kanerjing in China, qanat romani in Jordan and Syria. These are but continuation of keni, kenatu, kera (n) tu and not otherwise.


More by :  Dr. V. Sankaran Nair

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