Rivers and Riverbanks are the cradles of human civilization. You can see many examples like - Ganges of India; Nile of Egypt; Thames of London etc. Likewise Vaigai River is the base for the existence of Madurai, a heritage city of 2500 years’ background, in Tamilnadu, India.
Madurai has seen many ups and downs for centuries, with change of rulers. So also Vaigai River, which was once upon a time flowing full, when the people of Madurai found the river very useful for various purposes – irrigation; bathing; drinking and so on. But as of today, what you see is only a skeleton of a river with sands and patches of stagnated water, used by washer-men to wash clothes.
In the ancient days, Tamilnadu and Kerala States were not as they are today. The region was known as three powerful kingdoms – Chera Nadu; Pandiya Nadu; and Chola Nadu (Nadu means country). Roughly the Chera Nadu was present Kerala State; Pandiya and Chola Nadu are within present Tamilnadu State. Vaigai River started from Chera Nadu and was flowing into the Pandiya Nadu, with Madurai as its capital, and made the region very fertile, before emptying in Palk Strait, in Ramanathapuram District, adjacent to Madurai.
Vaigai River has its origin in the longest Periyar River of Kerala – which empties at Periyar Lake – wherefrom water is being let out into Vaigai River. Over the centuries, the population explosion to manifold proportions, had it that Dams were to be constructed across the rivers, to regulate the flow and save water in reservoirs for irrigation and power generation purposes.
Unlike the ancient times, where Rivers were flowing in their natural course, these man-made developments changed the entire scenario. Border disputes and sharing of river waters between the riparian States have become political problems of today. The Mullai-Periyar Dam issue is a heated up dispute between Kerala State and Tamil Nadu. Result is Vaigai River has been left “high and dry” in the true sense of the phrase.
Tamilnadu built the Vaigai Dam, across the Vaigai River to feed irrigation waters to many areas like Theni, Kambam etc., which are on the upper portions of the River than Madurai City. This is also another reason why Vaigai River, which flows in the centre of present Madurai City, has gone dry.
All in all Vaigai River gets water, if only the Dams are full during rainy season and otherwise for many months in a year the river looks pathetic. Worse still if the monsoon fails and the Dams – Periyar and Vaigai – do not get any water at all.
The annual Chithirai Thirunall Festival, (during the hot summer month of April) conducted to enact the divine marriage of Meenakshi Amman with Sundareswarar, during which time the Kallazahar (Lord Vishnu) is brought to take a holy-dip in Vaigai River, is also getting jeopardized because of this. This is a famous festival at Madurai, when hundreds of thousands of people from various parts of not only Tamilnadu but also from other States converge at Madurai.
To tide over the crisis of acute water shortage, the authorities select a specific place in the middle of the river and pour water brought through hundreds of vehicles, to make an artificial pool. It is here Azhagar dips into Vaigai River – not to forego a religious ritual of centuries old!
Madurai is a prominent pilgrimage center, situated 498 Kms (308 miles) south-west of Chennai (formerly Madras), the capital of Tamilnadu State.