Saturday, September 12, 2015

Water Tax in ancient India / Tamilnadu

An article that I recently read about water tax collected in Turkey of the 2nd century CE made me curious to know whether similar types of taxes were collected for use of water in ancient India.

This article is about an excavated marble block that contains ‘water laws’ in force 1900 years ago in the Turkish province of Denizli..

As per this excavated block, those who damaged the water channel or polluted water or broke the seal of the water pipes or drew water illegally were fined. The interesting part of it is that those who used water for personal use were also fined. This makes it appear that the water under consideration of the water law is not meant for all and sundry but might have been meant for some specific purpose such as maintaining a fountain ( mentioned in the edict).  This water was flowing from the nearby Karci Mountains. These waters were either polluted or used without permission. So the strictures were laid by means of these water laws. 

There is also a rule mentioned in these inscriptions that those who denounced the polluters will get 1/8th of the penalty (to polluters) as reward. Two citizens had been appointed to safeguard the water pipes and water. And strangely enough, the water was not supposed to be used by the farmers. The inscription says that “nobody who has farms close to the water channels can use this water for agriculture.”

This shows that water from this source was indeed abundant enough to irrigate the fields and at the same time, the need for water also had existed for cultivation purpose in this area. Though Turkey is served by the two famous rivers Euphrates and Tigris, I am not sure about the water availability in this specific province of the then empire. But the excavated edict seems to indicate that water theft was common.

In that sense, I think our ancient land particularly Tamilnadu was wise enough to find ways to get water for all the people and for all types of water needs. The very emergence of the river Cauvery itself was a case in point as the actual geological implication of the story of Cauvery is that a spring restricted within the peak of Kodagu hills was made to flow down by making a hole in the mountains. The story of Cauvery being held in the Kamandal of sage Agastya and getting released by the toppling of it by Lord Ganesha in the form of a crow seems to indicate a deliberate (or manual) work of tapping of the mountain to release Cauvery which was flowing within the kamandal shaped mountains after it left Talakaveri.

Talakaveri – Cauvery at its birth place as a spring!

From then onwards, until it reaches the Bay of Bengal, the river had offered its bounties without fail which is made out from an expression வான் பொய்ப்பினும் தான் பொய்யாக் காவேரி. (The rains may fail, but Cauvery never fails).

Perhaps Karikal Cholan was the first prominent king to have laid the ‘water laws’ 2000 years ago by building a dam across the river but not to restrict the use of water as in the Turkish edict but to facilitate the use of water for large purposes such as irrigation.

When I scurried through the inscriptions for water tax, I found many terms for water distribution through canals, channels etc. Taxes were of course collected, for maintenance of the water channel and water bodies.

There was something called “Neer nilaik kaasu” (நீர் நிலைக் காசு) that was collected for the maintenance of lakes and tanks. Perhaps this was not paid by everyone but only by those who drew water for their use. The cultivators had to pay “Neer nilaik kaasu” (நீர் நிலைக் காசு) based on the proportion of water they drew from these water bodies.

There was another type of water tax levied on cultivators. It was calculated on the basis of time that water was drawn. Time was measured in Nadi (naazhigai) in those days (like minutes and hours now). Based on the Naazhigai, the tax was collected. It was known as “Vaddi Naazhi” (வட்டி நாழி  ).

Sometimes entire water bodies were leased out to cultivators who paid “KuLavadai” (குளவடை). At some places, the maintenance of water bodies was funded not by taxes but by donation of lands. Such land grants to take care of maintenance of water bodies were known as “Eri-p-patti” (ஏரிப் பட்டி ). There was a water board to manage these kinds of water bodies. Those who used the water from these water bodies paid the tax by means of the produce from their cultivation. Such payments were known as “Eri aayam” (ஏரியாயம்). Those who wanted to fish in these water bodies had to pay “Eri meen” (ஏரி மீன்).

In general someone who wanted to use the common water body had to pay a tax  as money or by means of the produce they made using the water. The tax amounts were used for the upkeep of these water bodies. This also shows that common folks who drew water for household use were not taxed. But polluting the waters was something unheard of and everyone knew their responsibility in keeping the water bodies free of pollution. The absence of mention of any penalty or fine for misuse or pollution of the water bodies testifies this.  

There were exclusive water channels for drinking purpose. They were known as “Chenneer podhuviLai” (செந்நீர் பொதுவிளை ). Chenneer means clear water. For the maintenance of these clear water bodies, a tax was collected by name “Chenneer vettti” (செந்நீர் வெட்டி ).

Apart from Chenneer from fresh water flows or rivers, common wells and wells in individual houses fulfilled the need for drinking water. Womenfolk had used rivers for bathing purposes which is made out from the last verse of the Thiru-p-palliyezhuchi verses of Thondar adi-p podi Azhwar. 

So far I have not come across water tax for drinking and household purposes. Water conservation by means wells and tanks had been a norm everywhere. The protection and growth of trees that help to detect underground water veins is also a feature we come across in ancient Tamil texts. The scenario of the ancient Tamil lands gives an appearance of an informed society that protected and worshiped water.

Marble block inscribed with 'water law' found in Laodicea

A marble block, considered the “water law” from 1,900 years ago, has been unearthed in the ancient city of Laodicea in the western Turkish province of Denizli.

The marble inscribed with the 'water law' found at ancient Laodicea [Credit: AA]

The block, which is 90 centimeters in height and 116 centimeters in width, has revealed the use of water in the city had been managed by law, which involved a penalty ranging from 5,000 to 12,500 denarius. The “water law” marble block dating back to 114 A.D. included strict measures regarding the use of water coming from the Karcı Mountain through channels to the city, as well as the use of a fountain dedicated to Roman Emperor Traianus.

The rules were prepared by Anatolian State Governor Aulus Vicirius Matrialis. The excavation works, led by Pamukkale University and supported by Denizli Municipality, have continued on Stadium Street in the ancient site. Excavations head Professor Celal Şimşek of Pamukkale University, said, “The Laodicea Assembly made this law in 114 A.D. and presented it to a Roman governor in Ephesus for approval. The governor approved the law on behalf of the empire. Water was vital for the city.

This is why there were heavy penalties against those who polluted the water, damaged the water channels or reopening the sealed water pipes. Breaking the law was subject to a penalty of about 12,500 denarius.” Şimşek said the 1,900-year-old rules to prevent water pollution had a very special place, adding, “The fine for damaging the water channel or polluting the water is 5,000 denarius. The fine is the same for those who break the seal and attempt illegal use. Also, there are penalties for senior staff that overlook the illegal use of water. They pay 12,500 denarius. Those who denounce the polluters are given one-eighth of the penalty as a reward, according to the rules.” Some of the rules, written in Greek, included the following:

“Those who divide the water for his personal use, should pay 5,000 denarius to the empire treasury; it is forbidden to use the city water for free or grant it to private individuals; those who buy the water cannot violate the Vespasian Edict; those who damage water pipes should pay 5,000 denarius; protective roofs should be established for the water depots and water pipes in the city; the governor’s office [will] appoint two citizens as curators every year to ensure the safety of the water resource; nobody who has farms close to the water channels can use this water for agriculture.”

 In the last seven years, excavation work in the ancient city of Laodicea has unearthed some 2,300 artifacts as well as the Laodicea Church, the monumental columns of North Sacred Agora and Central Agora and half of Stadium Street, along with others.

The Laodicea site’s excavation work was also known as the largest systematic excavation organization in Turkey and has hosted thousands of tourists in the last seven years, in addition to inspiring hundreds of scientific articles along with six scientific books.

Source: Hurriyet Daily News [August 21, 2015]