The Origin of Sacred Tanks


Janak Kunda and Garden (Ramayana)
Miniature Style Lithograph, c. 1910

Feb 5, PURI, ORISSA (SUN) — The manifestation of sacred kundas and tirthas.

According to Rigveda, Aryans were nature worshipers. Whatever they feared, they tended to make an object of their worship, including the natural powers like Fire, Water, Wind, Sun, Rain and Rivers. Among these, water is one of the most important elementals. In the Vedic culture, water was associated with worship of the demigod Varuna. Many religions accept water as a symbol of spiritual purification, and it has come to be used by almost all religions in the performance of different rituals. Many traditions applaud its divine virtue. [1]

Water has many curious aspects. It is universally present and has remained unchanged over millions of years. It is at once the servant and the master of humanity, yet a common man tends to only be aware of its importance when it fails or endangers him. The most noteworthy trait of water is its use as a purifying and cleaning agent. Without clean water we canít think of a clean and healthy environment. It cleans the dirty things of our body, then destroys the filth it acquires from us. Fresh water has a remarkable ability to absorb the wastes, transform them into useful substances, and thus clean itself. Water is a storehouse of energy. The climate of the world is tempered by the ability of water to soak up and store the sunís heat and to release it slowly. The efficacy of water is increased by its contact with the sunís rays. [2]

Like the other elements and aspects of nature, water has inspired man's spiritual sentiments for millennia. Realizing the utility of water and wishing to keep the water places clean and safe, he clearly understood its importance on a religious level and offered worship to the presiding Deities of various places.

All around the world, water places attract large number of people. Gradually, along with the progression of religion and civilisation, various religious sects, social beliefs and customs, social laws and convictions became manifest. Social patterns, trade prosperity and many other social traits of the people residing around water sites have developed the mood of their water worship. [3]

The Rigveda describes the cold water treatment of febrile diseases, just recently introduced in the field of medicine. The Rigvedic seers called the waters Goddesses as they quenched the thirst of their cows. Rigveda praises water as Apsaras (the anthropomorphic form of water). They are mothers or young wives; they flow in channels to the sea, but they are also celestial. The waters bestow long life, wealth and immortality. They clean and purify the worshipper, even from moral sins such as telling lies, cursing and violence. The Atharva Veda also praises water as a purifier. [4]

Many other epic Vedic literatures also praise water. The Mahabharata gives many instances of the miraculous powers of water. In the Vana Parva of Mahabharata, Bhima goes in search of Kuberaís lake, where the most beautiful and heavenly lotuses grew. When he reached the lake he fought with the demons. Afterwards, to heal his wounds and recover strength he plunged into the lake and his energy was again fully restored. [5]

In the Puranas, we find the most elaborate form of worship of water. Here, waters are considered as most miraculous, holy, supernatural and divine. They have various gods as their presiding deities, and the demigods and sages glorify them as having many blessed powers and attributes. Many waters are described in sastra as having divine origin, or are attributed with mystic virtues, thus being regarded sacred and worshipable.

Concept of Tirthas

Because of the holy and divine nature of certain waters, they have been given the name of Tirtha. Tirthasare said to be holy on account of the peculiar strikingness of a particular water place, or on account of the fact that some holy saints took shelter of them for bathing, penance etc. Tirtha, therefore, means a locality, place or expanse of water which gives rise to the accumulation of righteousness (merit) owing to its own peculiar nature without any adventitious circumstances. The Skanda Purana says that a place on earth resorted to by pious men for the collection of merit is calledTirtha, and the main thing is to see those holy men, as pilgrimage is only a secondary object. In the Rigveda, tirtha signifies a ford or a passage in river. According to Manu, a Brahmana who had studied the Vedas is also a tirtha. [6]

In some places, even a devotee is called a tirtha. Padma Purana refers to the teacher, mother, father, husband, and wife all as tirthas. Kautilya has denoted all the persons in power as tirthas. The Brahma Purana classifies tirthasinto four categories, being: Daiva, Asura, Arsa and Manusa, created by gods, asuras, risis and men respectively. The Vedas also state that sacrifices were performed on the banks of such water places. [7]

The Stagnant Waters

The stagnant waters are of various kinds, such of kundas, ponds, lakes, wells, tanks, pits, etc. It was tradition to excavate a kunda or a tank at the holy places, and such kundas have sprung up due to manifold reasons. Some were said to have been dug up by the Deities or sages for the welfare of the people, some by the saints who practised penance, to take bath themselves or to bath their favorite Deities. Later on they were bestowed with miraculous powers by the Deities and they became famous holy water places. [8]

Some of the tirthas are believed to contain the water of all the tirthas, for example Kotitirtha at Bhubaneswar and Panchatirthas at Puri. Most of the kundas are connected with sacrificial altars, like Markandeya and Swetagnaga tanks at Puri. Sacrifices were performed there, and after the successful completion of the sacrifices, the Deities blessed the performers as well as these kundas, tanks etc. It is clear that a water place was dug nearby or the sacrifice itself was performed near a well or water tank (kunda) which was already there.

Now these kundas, ponds and tanks are holy places where a bath is recommended. And while some of these tirthasare of stagnant waters, it is clearly mentioned in some accounts that the waters therein are not to be considered polluted. [9]

The qualities of the purity of the waters in the ponds has a long history in belief. We have indicated that it is the solar fire, or brilliance that comes into contact with the open terrestrial water places and makes them pure. Such waters, though stagnant, are rarely closed or covered. They appear to be invariably open to the sun, wherein lies the support for the belief that stagnant waters are pure. It was a custom in the Vedic period that one should take a dip after the end of sacrificial session. The epics and other Puranas have praised the tirthas but they do not give in detail the legendary accounts associated with them. The Skanda Purana, however, gives various information about these tirthas so we may sufficiently glorify them. [10]

Social Motifs Connected with Tanks

In Ancient India many social motifs were performed at the bank of the tanks after the ending of rituals, festivals etc. Among such social motifs are dana, salvation, transmigration, sin and expiation, curse and blessing are most important. Of these dana is most common. After bath, danais the most important feature of the holy waters. Various kinds of danas are frequently mentioned in Skanda Purana, as follows: Pindadana, Annadana, Godana, Suvarnadana, Ratnadana, Tiladana, Kanyadana, Gandhadana, Phaladana, Siladana, Dipadana, Guptadana, Rajatadana, Tuladana, Bhudana, Daksina, etc. [11]

Origin of the Tanks

The trace of modern water storage tanks, i.e., the Great Bath, dates back to the Harappan civilization. During the Puranic period we find many instances of water storage practices. A place named Sringaverapura near Allahabad (where Lord Rama crossed the sacred Ganges in Guhakaís boat) yielded water storage tanks with hydraulic technology of 1st century B.C. The city was provided water from the river Ganges, taken through several channels and silting tanks. [12] The Tamil Sangam literature also refers to tank irrigation.

As regards the origin of the tanks, it may be said that every temple must have had a device to take very heavy blocks of stone to a great height. This could be done only on earthen ramps which could be raised as the height of the temple increased. The inside of the temple must also be filled with earth to prevent collapsing before the temple was completed. The stones were placed on wooden rollers and rolled up the ramps. The earth for these was dug, so that a tank could be formed. That's one of the reasons why every big temple or group of temples has a tank in the neighborhood. The surplus stone brought for building the temple was used for linking the embankments and building the steps. After the temple was completed the earth was removed from the ramps as well as from inside the temple and spread outside, leaving the temple floor lower than the surrounding ground. Sometimes there was so much of surplus stone that the only way to dispose it of was to build temples around the tank. [13]

According to Silpa Sastras, tanks should be established on the Southern side of the temples. There are several types of tanks. Among these the Sarbatobhadra type was most popular. Besides this, Bhubanabarga and Bisamatobhadra types can be found. Generally size of the tanks varies from place to place, but most of them are of square and rectangular size.

Tanks are found over all of India, not only in Orissa. There are many big and ornate tanks in the states of Gujurat and Rajastan. In these areas the tanks are isolated. The state of Tamil Nadu is also famous for many big and old tanks. Interestingly, these tanks are mainly located within the temple compound, unlike in Orissa. The Chola kings constructed large tanks for irrigation purposes. Besides these, the inscriptions of Karnataka region speak about the large irrigation tanks. With the gradual march of time the concept of sacred tanks became more popular, and tanks were also constructed by Sultans and noble persons to cater the needs of the people.

Tanks in Indian Art

Like other panels and sculptures, the impression of tanks can be found throughout Indian art. A panel of Sanchi (2nd BC) depicts a lotus tank with a decorated boat. The front portion of the boat looks like a face of tiger and the back portion of the boat has a fishtail look. A wooden cell situated centrally in the boat contains an object of veneration. It is observed in the figure that some people are swimming by the help of wooden logs which implies it might be a view of a Chapa festival of that age. [14]

Two guard rooms flanking the main wing of Rani Gumpa cave of Udayagiri, Bhubaneswar depicts a lotus tank, in which are sporting elephants. [15]

A painting of Cave number two at Ajanta also depicts a tank full of lotuses and lilies. [16] The paintings from the cave of Sittanvasal, Tamil Nadu shows a Tirthankara in a lotus tank. Fishes and lotuses are clearly depicted in this mural. These are only a few of the many depictions of tanks in Indian Art.


1. Kumar, Savitri, V, The Puranic Lore of Holy Water-places, pp. 1, Delhi, 1983.
2. Ibid. pp. 3.
3. Op.cit, pp. 3-4.
4. Op.cit, pp. 6-7.
5. Mahabharata, Vana Parva.
6. Kumar, op.cit, p-8.
7. Op.cit, p-9.
8. Op.cit, p-11.
9. Op.cit, pp.12-13.
10. Op.cit, p-14.
11. Op.cit, pp.22-39.
12. Sunday Express, p-14, Bhubaneswar, January 5, 2003.
13. Senapati, Nilamani, Puri District Gazetteer, p-755, Bhubaneswar, 1977.
14. Panda, D.C, Prachina Bharatiya Kalakrutire Naujatra 0 Naubanijyara Drusya (Oriya), of Balijatra Smaranika, Cuttack, 2001.
15. Mitra, Debala, Udayagiri and Khandagiri (A.S.I.), 3rd Edition, p-25, New Delhi, 1992.
16. Mitra, Debala, Ajanta, (A.S.I.) 9th Edition,-p-31, New Delhi, 1983.


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