Digging through the ‘suranga’ cave wells, one of the oldest water harvesting systems found in the regions of north Kerala and Karnataka, 67-year old Kunjambu has singlehandedly provided water to the villagers of Kundamjuzhy, a village in Kerala’s Kasargod district for more than 50 years.
Kunjambu, who started digging at the age of 14 is now one of the very few suranga diggers left in the country and claims that thus far, he has dug out over 1000 of these cave-like wells.
What are Surangas?
‘Suranga’ in Kannada or ‘Thurangam’ in Malayalam is a narrow cave-like structure dug into the lateral sides of hills.
These unique cave wells are almost 2.5 feet wide can be dug up to 300 meters until a water spring is found, and are considered to be one of the most sustainable water harvesting systems in these regions.
The water that flows into the tunnel is channeled into a reservoir that is built near the tunnel. Once the water starts freely flowing from the springs, there is a steady supply of freshwater for years, without the use of motors or even pumps.
Said to have originated in Iran, this sustainable water harvesting system is now sadly being overpowered by the borewell culture, and many of the existing surges have become futile.
“This job requires a lot of strength and determination. I always set out with a pickaxe and a candle with a hope to complete digging these caves in one go,” begins Kunjambu.
“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,” he adds.
From finding the right place to start digging, to ensuring 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’re found the spot. This knowledge can only be obtained through years of experience and along with that you get also develop a certain amount of faith in nature,” he explains.
Rise of the Borewells
“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. Slowly, we started losing our jobs, “ he explains.
As surangas require manual labour 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 borewell culture, had to take up the job became it the only means of livelihood available.
“Borewell culture is 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.
Benefits of Surangas
“Surangas have been an ideal resource for farmers for a long period of time. They are a perennial source of water, and borewells can never become a replacement to this system, especially in regions like Kasargod where the tendency for a collapse is much higher,” explains Shree Padre, a renowned writer from Kasargod.
Today there are more than 5,000 surangas in the Kasargod district, but most have become ineffective because of its decrease in popularity. However, people like Kunjambu are not ready to give up, yet.
“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.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)