Said to have originated in Iran, Surangas–a sustainable water harvesting system is now sadly overpowered by borewells. Many of the existing surangas have become futile. But it has found a saviour in 67-year-old Kunjambu, in a village in Kerala’s Kasargod district.
Digging through the ‘suranga’ cave wells is one of the oldest water harvesting systems found in the regions of north Kerala and Karnataka.
Kunjambu, however, dug out over 1000 of these cave-like wells and has provided the villagers of Kundamjuzhy with water for over 50 years.
‘Suranga’ in Kannada (or ‘Thurangam’ in Malayalam) means a narrow cave-like structure dug into the lateral sides of hills. They are unique cave wells that are 2.5 feet wide and can be dug up to 300 meters until a water spring is found. They are considered the most sustainable water harvesting systems in these regions.
The water that flows into the tunnel is then channeled into a reservoir that is built near the tunnel. Once the water starts flowing freely from the springs, there is a steady supply of freshwater for years, without the use of motors or even pumps.
“This job requires a lot of strength and determination. I always set out with a pick-axe and a candle with a hope to complete digging these caves in one go. When you’re digging a cave that’s almost 300 meters deep, the oxygen levels tend to drop. To ensure that I don’t end up suffocating in these caves, I carry a matchbox and a candle with me. So if I’m not able to light the match, it means the oxygen levels are deficient, and I have to exit immediately,” Kunjambu explains.
To find the right place to start digging and ensure that the caves don’t collapse, Kunjambu says that all the steps to the suranga system require the digger to be aligned with nature.
“For instance, if I want to find the right place to start digging, I look at the plants nearby. If these plants are flourishing and the soil has a certain amount of wetness, then it means we have found the spot. This knowledge can only be obtained through years of experience,” he explains.
“When I initially started, surangas were an essential part of our culture, especially because of the need for water for agricultural purposes. But soon, borewells began popping up and became the alternative. “ Kunjambu explains.
As surangas require manual labor in comparison to the digging of borewells, the rates are much higher. Kunjambu explains that this may be one of the reasons for the sudden switch to borewells.
Consequently, many diggers, including Kunjambu, who do not support borewells, had to take up the job, as it was the only means of livelihood available.
“Borewells are very harmful to our nature, unlike surangas. When digging for borewells, you strike right at the heart of the earth, leading to the draining out of the groundwater. It can also make the nearby areas prone to earthquakes because it disrupts the natural way of things,” explains Kunjambu.
“Although the suranga system is slowly dying, I want to continue my journey in the depths of the earth as long as I can, in hope that this system can be revived again,” Kunjambu concludes.