World’s oldest dam is in India; it is still in use

By Niranjan Shah
My dear Alina:

After graduating in Civil Engineering from the Faculty of Technology and Engineer-ing, M.S. University of Baroda, Vadodara, Gujarat in 1954, I worked for sometime as an engineer with District Panchayat, Vadodara. Finding it too simple and unchallenging, I took another job of constructing an earthen irrigation dam on river Shetrunji at Palitana in Saurashtra. Later  I was involved in the construction of yet another irrigation dam in Maharashtra, known as Vir Dharan near Pune. Meanwhile I had worked on some other projects like Durgapur Steel Project in West Bengal, a canal project on river Mahi in Gujarat and Air-India quarters in Chakala and Vacola in Mumbai, Maharashtra. Until I moved to the USA, I was involved in planning and execution of high-rise buildings in Baroda. Your grandparents Priya and Ashok Sheth, who knew about my work related to construction of dams, suggested writing about the oldest dam of India.

A dam is a barrier that impounds water or underground streams. Dams generally serve the primary purpose of retaining water, while other structures such as floodgates or levees, also known as dikes, are used to manage or prevent water flow into specific land regions. Hydropower and pumped-storage hydroelectricity are often used in conjunction with dams to provide clean electricity for millions of consumers.

The Grand Anicut, Kallanai, is the oldest dam in the world that is still in use today. It is located on river Kavery, about 15 miles from Trichirapalli, Tamil Nadu. This is one of the greatest engineering marvels of India. Additions have been made in the form of a road bridge on top of the dam. This is a good picnic spot for those not familiar with south India. The Kavery is a perennial river in the south plateau, which starts near Mysore in a place called Talaikavery then flows to Salem and Karur and then to the delta. The Kavery delta area was often subjected to floods in the older days, and Karikal Cholan built this dam to divert flow to Kollidam, another branch and facilitated irrigation. This also brings to limelight the engineering marvel and the culture and civilization of yester years. This should be declared a heritage site.
It was built in 2nd century B.C. by unhewn stones across the historic Kaveri river. It is 329 meters long and helps in the irrigation of 1,000,000 acres of agricultural land. It is the only oldest dam still in use by the government of Tamil Nadu, India.  This dam is considered the oldest water-diversion or water-regulator structures in the world, which is still in use. River Kaveri forms the boundary between the Erode and Salem districts. River Bhavani joins Kaveri at the town of Bhavani, where the Sangameswarar Temple, an important pilgrimage spot in southern India, was built at the confluence of the two rivers. Sweeping past the historic rock of Tiruchirapalli, it breaks into two channels at the island of Srirangam, which enclose between them the delta of Thanjavur (Tanjore), the garden of South India. The northern channel is called the Kollidam; the other preserves the name of Kaveri, and empties into the Bay of Bengal at Poompuhar, a few hundred miles south of Chennai (Madras). On the seaward face of its delta are the seaports of Nagapattinam and Karaikal. Irrigation works have been constructed in the delta for over 2,000 years. The Kallanai is a massive dam of unhewn stone, 1,080 feet long and 60 feet wide, across the main stream of the Kaveri.

The purpose of this dam was to divert the waters of the Kaveri across the fertile Delta region for irrigation via canals. The dam is still in excellent shape, and supplied a model to later engineers, including the Sir Arthur Cotton’s 19th-century dam across the Kollidam, the major tributary of the Kaveri.
— Grandpa’s blessing

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