These 2 coastal Karnataka towns are reviving their millennia-old water bodies; here’s how

Residents of Moodbidri and Karkala have taken it upon themselves to reclaim their natural heritage  

By M Raghuram
Published: Friday 22 December 2023
Bettekere tank. Photo: M Raghuram

Moodbidri and Karkala, two small towns located 32 and 60 kilometres respectively from Mangaluru in coastal Karnataka, are doing a ‘Bhagiratha’ act. They are reviving water bodies built thousands of years ago, just as the ancestor of Lord Rama brought his ancestors back to life in the Ramayana.

Thirteen of Moodbidri’s 18 ancient and historic water bodies, are on the revival path. This is thanks largely to a committed group of citizens who are sparing no effort in reclaiming their natural heritage.

Five of the 13 bodies have returned to their pristine beauty this monsoon. The remaining eight are in different stages of revival.

The town is known as ‘Jain Kashi’ (Benares of the Jains). It is home to Jain temples (Basadis and Nishidis) as well as monasteries. Moodbidri draws Jain pilgrims from across the world and has also grown into an educational hub in recent years.

Presently, the town draws water from the Puchchmogaru dam built on the already slimming Phalguni river. During the summer and the tourist season, water consumption jumps by 30 per cent.

“If we were to reduce our dependence on the augmented water supply, we must create alternative water sources. We must effectively recharge underground water through revitalising our water bodies. In the last two years, we have seen that the water levels in hundreds of dug wells around the revived water bodies have risen. These wells provide water for individual households, making them independent to a great extent,” PK Thomas, who is leading efforts to revive Moodbidri’s water bodies, told this reporter.

Reviving heritage

One instance of Moodbidri’s stellar work is the Bettkere water body. It is spread out over little more than one acre, of which 60 per cent is covered by the water body and the tank.

According to local oral historian, Amruth Malla, the tank is an important part of Jain history, not just in Karnataka but in the entire country.

It was in existence in the 12th century BC. Bettkere is a modified form of ‘Bhattaraka Kere’. ‘Bhattarakas’ are the chiefs of Jain monasteries, and this tank was reserved for their use. The elaborate steps and embankments built in locally available stone are called ‘Mura’, according to Malla.

The tank had been in a bad state for over 70 years. The people of Moodbidri had taken up a crusade to revive it. They petitioned the ASI from time to time, and finally got it revived to its original condition.

Hariyappana Kere. Photo: M Raghuram

“Thanks to the public initiative, Bettkere now holds water till the end of February,” Malla said.

Another example is Mohalla Kere, in the heart of town. This is spread over a little more than an acre, with its natural embankment. It was filled with municipal waste and undergrowth.

The tank had gone dry for over half a century and had been used as a dump. Maqbool Hussain, a resident and local water activist, stirred up a local movement to revive the Mohalla Kere.

“I had help from the local people who helped with cash, kind, and manual labour. After removing the debris from the catchment area, we desilted it and opened up the clogged inlets (rainwater drains). The following monsoons, we found out that all the stormwater drains built hundreds of years ago were still in good shape, and gushing water from the drains was a sight to see. Today, clean and potable water is stored here till the end of summer,” Hussain said.

Thomas also cited the example of Kadalakere, the largest among Moodbidri’s water bodies, spanning 40 acres.

Kadalakere was successfully rejuvenated by the local community. It is now a thriving bird sanctuary and tourist destination. Notably, Kemplaje Kere, an ancient agricultural water body once in disuse, has been fully rejuvenated with the support of the people of Moodbidri and the Rotary Club.

Malla highlighted the importance of Basavanakaje at Alangaru village, which is over 10 acres in size. CDD India, a non-profit organisation dedicated to water and nature conservation, has expressed interest in conserving the Basavanakaje lake, emphasising the need for embankment, desilting, and area fortification.

Buoyed by the revitalisation of the multi-level water body, not one but three tanks are now brimming with fresh water.

However, the rejuvenation efforts are not easy.

The release of untreated sewage water into the Aane Kere and Sigadi Kere water bodies in Karkala town caused them to decline.

“The town municipality ignored the signs that the twin water bodies displayed with the growth of water hyacinth. Youth from colleges try to clear it now and then. But without the regulation against the effluvium flowing into them, there is no point,” said cadets from the National Service Scheme.

“All the tanks have not been de-silted by the government for ages. Tanks and water bodies need desilting regularly. If not every year, it is advisable to do so once every three years at least to retain the water at the optimum level that can be used for micro-agricultural and micro-domestic uses,” Thomas claimed.

He also alleged that there appeared to be a great deal of official neglect towards water body maintenance in the state. This is despite there being policy expertise and knowledge about the importance of water bodies in Karnataka.

“At this point, when the rains have failed and delayed, it is needless to say that the government should immediately take up the desilting of urban and rural water bodies and nourish them back to their pristine health,” Thomas said.

The people of the two towns, however, are looking at continuing their efforts. They have identified Subhashnagar Kere as their next summer revival project, with the Dharmasthala temple trust already pledging support.

They also are continuing desilting and resurveying efforts around water bodies including Ankasaley, Gowri Kere, Subhashnagar, Kadedabettu, Kalyani Kere, Basavana Kaje, Uliya Kere, and Aramane Bagilu Kere.

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