A lost name, a vanishing ecosystem
In the Kannada language, the word kere means a man-made or natural water tank, and the word for the numeral nine is ombhatthu , pronounced colloquially as vombatthu . The author's surname, which means nine water tanks, is derived from the fact that in the 19 th and the early 20 th century his family resided in a house attached to which were nine keres. The house was located in Dakshin Kannada district of present day Karnataka, on a coast about three kilometres south of the Netravathi river. Therefore his family took the name of Vombatthukere, or more easily to the tongue, Vombatkere. The family tree shows the name of Vombatkere Lakshman Rao who lived around 1850. The author is his grandson's grandson.
The property comprised a spacious tiled-roof house in a tract of land adjoining the seashore, planted with coconut and arecanut, with nine keres to collect rainwater needed for cultivation. The area had (and still has) snakes of many types, including cobras. But legend has it that cobras would never bite a member of the Vombatkere family. The family was large and very poor, and when the author's grandfather was still a boy, around circa 1900, they had to sell the family home and property and leave in search of work.
The house was then occupied for some years by the family that purchased it. But they too fell upon bad times and due to local superstitions associated with the house, it has remained vacant since the 1920s. Consequently it is in a state of extreme disrepair and on the verge of collapse. However, the open well between the gate and the house still has good, sweet water even though it is barely 100 metres from the Arabian Sea.
The property is presently cultivated by some families who have been in posession of the land since the 1940s. But with the introduction of chemical fertilisers and pesticides that demand much more water and availability of electric power to supply larger quantities of water from borewells, the keres fell into disuse and neglect. And like hundreds of water bodies all over Karnataka, the nine tanks began getting filled with silt, refuse and building debris. Today not even one of the nine keres that gave a family its name, survives.
Because of the scenic location of the property on the shores of the Arabian sea, it is being eyed by real estate developers. And, if and when it is taken over for use as a beach resort, condominium or golf course -- in gross violation of the coastal exclusion zone rule (according to the lawless way of the big corporates) -- it will make one more name meaningless, like the Park Suburban Railway Station in Chennai for example -- named after a large park that has long since vanished as the metropolis grew.
The sad part of growth in today's globalised world is not that names lose meaning or vanish (for after all, what's in a name?), but that ecosystems are vanishing. The ecosystem in Vombatkere supported a certain lifestyle and a certain type of cultivation which was dependant on available surface and ground water. With increase in intensity of water exploitation, due to modern trends, the keres have vanished. If and when the land is converted to non-agricultural use, the entire ecosystem comprising the trees, plants, snakes and other wild life, insects, etc., will vanish. Stored rainwater is implicit in the name Vombatkere. But now the name is losing its meaning because the ecosystem that gave it a cultural resonance is vanishing.
Scarcity of drinking water has become a major problem in Dakshin Kannada area for several years now. Even though the area receives heavy rainfall as a result of the south west monsoon, rainwater just runs off and is lost since there are no keres to store it and recharge aquifers. Meanwhile groundwater is getting depleted as tube wells pump out the aquifers. Neglect of traditional rainwater harvesting systems and blind use of modern technology has caused water scarcity in the midst of plenty, making life increasingly difficult for people.
S G Vombatkere retired from military service in 1996 and has settled in Mysore where he is engaged in voluntary work concerning people, the environment and society. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org