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The Indian Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar states that “There is no life without water”. Well said, water is one of the most essential elements of life. All major civilizations took place along water beds. Water resource is largely used for consumption and agriculture. Since ancient period, man has formulated the methods of storing and re-directing excess water for future use. Hence, dams were built and few of them still exist and serve mankind. One such structure is Kallanai – The oldest dam of India.

Kallanai Dam photoPhoto by A Jaye Vigneshwar

Kallanai – The Oldest Dam Of India

The ancient dam of Kallanai is the oldest dam of India and proudly stands fourth in the list of “oldest functioning dams of the world”. It was built by Karikalan around 2nd century A.D. The dam was renovated with a few changes in 18th century under the rule of British. The design of this amazing structure is an architectural marvel.

The dam was originally built using unhewn stones. This dam is known for its structure which is composed of stones entirely. But later on, during the British rule, the structure and design of Kallanai were altered to meet modern requirements. Kallanai dam also goes by the name “Grand Anicut”.


Karikalan or Karikala Chozhan is one of the mighty rulers of Chozha kingdom. His name glitters in Tamil history due to his main contribution – the dam of Kallanai. According to the Sangam literature, he might have ruled around 2nd century A.D. and the dam was built during his reign.

His name Karikalan literally means “one with a burnt leg”. According to a myth, he acquired this name due to a fire accident when he tried to escape from his enemies. A memorial for Karikalan is built near the dam. It features a large statue of Karikalan mounted on an elephant.

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Though very little information is available about Karikalan, his name still remains in the memory of Tamil people due to his great contribution to society.


The dam is located at a distance of around 20 km from Trichy, one of the main cities of Tamil Nadu. The dam covers a vast area of around 1000 ft. by length and 66 ft. by width. Initially it was used to irrigate around 28,000 hectares but from later on, around four lakhs hectare of agricultural area benefits from the dam.

The course of river Cauvery

The river Cauvery is the main water resource for the people living in the states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. The river is mainly used for irrigation, power generation and daily living. It originates from the Thala kaveri, Kodagu in Karnataka. It enters Tamil Nadu at Hokenakkal. At a point, the river splits into two – the upper part is named as Kollidam which re-joins Cauvery on the south-eastern side. This splitting of water forms an island called Srirangam, which is surrounded by water on all sides.
At the junction of these two rivers, the dam Kallanai is built. During ancient times, dams were originally built for the purpose of flood management. By diverting the flow of river, excess water is drained. During the course of time, dams acted as water reservoirs which are used for irrigation. Moreover, retention of excess water would help to manage water crisis during dry months.
The Cauvery river is used to irrigate the delta regions of Thanjavur district. It finally drains into the Bay of Bengal at Poompuhar.

Functioning of Kallanai

The Kallanai dam splits the river into four parts – Kollidam, Vennaru, Pudhu aaru and Cauvery itself. As the Cauvery river is shorter by width, its water has a high possibility of causing flood and damaging the crops. On the other hand, major agricultural regions of Thanjavur delta lies on its north eastern side. The Kallanai dam diverts the flow of Cauvery into the delta region of Thanjavur and thus helps irrigating a larger area.
This dam is no doubt, a life saving innovation of mankind. Such ancient structures should be rightly used and maintained for centuries to come.

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Featured Photo by Kumaravel

Kallanai – The Oldest Dam Of India

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