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Lessons from the Grand Anaicut of Tamil Nadu


One rainy evening almost 2000 years back, a dark, well built man with a distinctly thick beard walked up to the banks of the River Cauvery near modern day Tiruchirapalli, deep inside the then Tamil country. He looked across the vast river anxiously. Rough white water raged through with such fury that it threatened to breach the mud banks as it did every year, flooding numerous villages and fertile farmlands.

It was time to make a decision ‘I have to do this for the future of this land and its people’ he told himself as he picked up a small stone and hurled it into the water. That man was none other than Karikala Cholan, the mighty emperor of the Chola Dynasty who built The Grand Anaicut or Kallanai (Stone Dam) which is arguably the world’s oldest man made Water diversionary and water Regulating structure which is still in use.

The Cauvery River, as seen in the image above is split into two channels by the island of Srirangam. While the southern channel retains the name Cauvery, the northern channel is called as Kollidam or Coleroon River. These two channels come close again downstream and it is at this strategic meeting point that Karikala Cholan decided to build the Kallanai. Karikalan built the Kallanai for mainly two reasons: Flood control and Irrigation. Having witnessed the river causing great floods during the rainy season and also forcing droughts during the dry months, he and his advisors devised this grand project to maintain a steady flow of water throughout the year. The dam was constructed from unhewn stone and is 329 m (1,079 ft) long, 20 m (66 ft) wide and 5.4 m (18 ft) high. The dam has since been developed by the British who laid the grid separators and a bridge on top of the old dam.

The story of the Kallanai imparts some very important lessons for the Design world. Foremost is the amazing vision that Karikalan possessed. When he decided to build a dam across the Cauvery River he could have easily just thought of something a little less grand and achievable based on the technical and monetary reservations of his time but Karikalan did not just think of the near future. When he stood on the mud banks and pictured his dam, he imagined it to stand for a very long time to come. And it is his extraordinary long term planning and foresight that is reflected in the fact that the Kallanai is still in excellent condition even after almost 2000 years.

Next is the fact that Karikalan saw opportunity in the face of Disaster. I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I call Karikala Cholan the single most important reason why Tanjore is today called the rice bowl of South India. That’s because the Kallanai helps irrigate more than 1 million acres of fertile farmland even today! Karikalan did not just want to build a structure to divert excess flood water but he also realized the tremendous opportunity to utilize that water for irrigation purposes across the fertile delta of Tanjore. A series of well planned and distributed canals as seen in the image above were created throughout the delta ensuring maximum benefits.

Karikalan’s story of an extraordinary long term vision, meticulous planning and astounding execution of an engineering marvel makes sense even today. A culture of long term thinking with the ability to look at the long term benefits becomes more vital in a world today that seems content with temporary solutions. The design field particularly can learn a lot from examples such as the Kallanai about the importance of vision in Design.

  • How relevant are the long term benefits of any product or service?
  • What solutions can a Design provide and how permanent is it?
  • Can our service or solution add more value than what is expected?
  • How much more effort do we need to put in to turn an ordinary solution into a more robust, long term and innovative one?
  • Is it all worth it?

These are some of the questions that every Designer should ask themselves at work and in their life in general. At the end of the day it all comes down to how many lives you touch by your deeds and actions.


The Cholas were great disciples of the arts and crafts despite being fierce warriors and conquerors. Literature and the arts flourished under their patronage and have given Tamil culture many gifts over the ages. The enormous temples built by some of the even more popular Chola kings like Raja Raja Cholan and his son Rajendra Cholan stands testimony to their engineering, artistic and architectural brilliance. But many today feel that a King such as Karikalan who built something that virtually feeds an entire state deserves much more credit and appreciation than he has sadly obtained. That also highlights the fact that Karikalan did not seek a place in history through grand, crowd pulling monuments. Karikalan’s place in history has been cemented by the endless stream of the Cauvery that shall continue to flow through his Dam enriching the delta that he carved.

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