Urban nature and Chennai’s water archive


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THE greening of urban eviction is underway in Chennai. At the centre of this green urbanism is not tree cover, walking trails, or parks but a shift in the aesthetic and economic value of water. Like many other Indian cities, Chennai, formerly a British colonial bridgehead known as Madras, has witnessed a long history of hydro-degradation, environmental desiccation, and inventive hydro-engineering to harness water supply and create property. Failed river clean-up campaigns, flood protection, draining of wetlands and seasonal lakes for urban infrastructure and housing, and the hunt for fresh water all mark Chennai’s tryst with water.

In the past fifteen years or so, possibly following the widely publicized rainwater harvesting campaign after the drought of 2004-5, Chennai’s waterbodies have become charismatic objects of conservation. In public culture, hydro-conservation is driven by a nostalgia for lost rivers, disappeared seasonal lakes called eris and the revitalization of tanks, or kulams. This nostalgia resonates with similar conservation movements in Chennai’s Deccani cousins, Bengaluru and Hyderabad. As the monsoon’s unpredictability has intensified, the reliance on water tankers has increased and so has the belief, fortified by old images, that Chennai was the Venice of the East replete with boats, canals, rivers, and lotus-filled tanks. Volunteers now restore tanks and conduct clean up campaigns.

Official policies partake of this popular imagination too. Government policy signposts many complex hydrological interventions to enhance water flow that range from dredging waterways, expand storm water drains, and treating sewage to harvest, conserve and restore water.

As Krupa Ge writes, rivers do remember.1 But to the degree that ‘making water’ by conservation and engineering accommodates rather than unsettles the logics of property, Chennai’s pivot to water conservation will not result in a more equitable city. Rather, it will continue to illustrate the contradictory pulls of social justice and environment conservation qua climate resilience policy in a postcolonial urban context. This is because, as Karen Coelho and Nithya Raman show, the new shift in the value of water continues to draw on a long-standing practice: violent resettlement.2 The unsanitary ‘encroacher’ who appears all over colonial documents has now appeared as the environmental degrader. The eviction of those who precariously occupy urban water shorelines is the underbelly of Chennai’s hydro-conservation.

Chennai’s precarious settlements are less of a threat to the city’s future than the vast state and private urban projects, port terminals, middle class layouts, high-tech parks and industrial zones that sit atop ecological sensitive wetlands.3 Coelho clarifies that the mobilization of water-as-nature in contemporary Chennai merely shifts the locus of value from one side of the line (land) to another (water) by drawing on the ideology of hydro-conservation.4 The transposition of property logics from land to water in times of weather uncertainty reifies the urban geography of mass precarity in Chennai: water distribution remains iniquitous and river restoration continues to displace.


We can juxtapose these insights from Chennai’s present with a question posed by Henri Lefebvre to consider: What is urban nature? Lefebvre, in his essay Le Droit à la ville asked: What is the right to the city and who enjoys it? Among other things, Lefebvre elaborated the anti-urbanism of urban nature. ‘Strangely’, he writes, ‘the right to nature entered into social practice thanks to leisure, having made its way through protestations becoming commonplace against noise, fatigue, the concentrationary universe of cities (as cities are rotting or exploding). […] Nature enters into exchange value and commodities, to be bought and sold.’5 For Lefebvre, the commodification of nature occurs when the right to nature unfolds as the social practice of the consumption of nature as leisure.

The urban makeover underway of Indian cities today imagines urban nature in the mirror of leisure which is consumed such as nature themed eco-parks in the heart of the city. It is instructive, then, that Lefebvre concluded that the claim to nature and the desire to enjoy it displace the right to the city. What is the right to the city in the wake of the dominant desire to consume urban nature? To Lefebvre the right to the city was not a call to return to a traditional city. There was no going back. The right to the city had to also carry with it the idea of a city as a co-created material space by its working inhabitants. Labour and work, instead of leisure, offered Lefebvre a vantage point from which to imagine a transformed city to come.


Lefebvre’s urban fabric of encounter, social conflict and use-value resonates in some respects with the burgeoning literature on the Indian urban commons. This literature has differentiated what Amita Baviskar calls the ‘republic of the street’ from cordoned and regulated public space.6 It also identifies the loss of the urban commons as alienation from nature with a moment when waterbodies were divested of their sociality by a shift in hydro-infrastructure of urban livelihoods.7 Piped water displaced the ways in which lakes and tanks supported entire urban communities. What interests me in Lefebvre’s commentary is a related but different point. Can considering the right to nature within the urban fabric reprise the enormous archive of retrofitted hydro-infrastructure and stories of its maintenance for a new urban imagination? If so, what might we glean from Chennai’s archives of water?


Chennai’s hydrological archive is dense with re-engineering plans like any other modern urban settlement. The thick files of flood protection, sand dredging, canal digging, river improvement, pipes and sewage present a discordant history of urban water infrastructure and environmental transformation. These are now staple sources for urban environmental history. But this was not always the case.

Urban environmental history was forged at a difficult intersection of two distinct entities in Euro-American history: environmental histories that privileged agro-ecology and urban histories that privileged the built form. In its early iteration the historian bridged town and country by assessing their mutual influence. What was the impact of the natural environment on cities and vice versa? What was the response of society to these impacts? How has the built environment shaped the context for urban society to evolve?8 Such concerns animated Reyner Banham’s exuberant Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (1971) and Mike Davis’ noir-ish City of Quartz (1990). In Nature’s Metropolis (1991), William Cronon drew out the linkages between Chicago and the Midwest hinterland as evidence of the economic and ecological transformation of human relations to land in North America.

By the mid-2000s environmental urban history took a network turn.9 Infrastructure preoccupied urban environmental historians who increasingly brought the methods of Science and Technology Studies to bear on the archives of cities. Pipes, sewage systems, cables, and lines of transport that made up the invisible networking of the city were identified as fundamental to urban reproduction. They were capital intensive, durable. Although infrastructure networks were subject to contingency, they implied path dependence because they limited future room of manoeuvre and stimulated endless retrofitting. The water cycle, the disposal of waste and toxics is at the heart of these systems and therefore this scholarship.


The interest in the environment is also evident in another strand of urban history that has favoured the study of governance. Urban historians writing in the wake of Michel Foucault’s elaboration of governance identified population management, i.e. racially and caste freighted understandings of sexual and bodily sanitation to be central to urban planning and colonial governance. The spatialization of systems that process water, air and carbon and create waste are anchored in social norms, population control and beget new imaginaries. In this context, the environment was elaborated as an (unsanitary) milieu to remake the city.10 In In the City, Out of Place (2015), Awadendhra Sharan draws on these concerns to unearth a contemporary history of environmental issues in Delhi. The infrastructural and governance approach unsettles the nature/city distinction by proposing a new understanding of ecology as the simultaneous re-engineering of society and nature for the creation of value.11

The path dependence demanded by desire to make property does not entail an omnipotent intent. Rather a systemic assemblage of incentives and proclivities harness value by ‘fixing’ fluidity, something explored in detail in Vera Candiani’s for Mexico City in Dreaming of Dry Land (2014) and Debjani Bhattacharya’s Empire and Ecology in the Bengal Delta (2018), a study of Calcutta. The effort to fix water by hydrological engineering, law and cartography tamed just enough to generate speculative opportunity and value. At one level, the hydrological infrastructure of Chennai followed similar trajectories of this path dependent valuation described in these studies. This is why colonial urban infrastructure mediated by race and caste norms, as we see in Chennai, is punctuated by crisis, periodic failure and speculative renewal.


Revitalization and retrofitting animated the work of colonial engineers, and it would persist after the formal withdrawal of the British Empire. But as Candiani notes, colonial Mexico’s great drain, the Desagüe was more than an infrastructural node of environmental struggle between man and nature. It was also a site of production and accumulation of knowledge wielded by craftsmen, peasants, and practitioners of technology. Similar to France’s Canal du Midi studied by Chandra Mukerji, tacit knowledge, notes Candiani is only available in practices and physical structures of dams, ditches, levees. Is it possible to write tacit knowledge and its keepers into histories of retrofitted hydro-infrastructure from where they have been erased? Can this history push against the consumption of nature and re-situate the right to urban nature?


Chennai’s modern colonial hydro-infrastructure was entirely premised on the work of a variety of occupational castes of which the upparavar, the salt makers, and ottar or tank diggers were prominent.12 Specialists in making salt and digging the earth, these castes began to work on the East India Company’s hydrological projects in the early 19th century. At this time, Madras, as Chennai was called then, had been in existence as a British colonial port town for about a hundred and fifty years. By 1800 Madras was the most populous city in India which, while smaller than London’s one million, was substantially bigger than New York. Most people in the city were of the labouring and subaltern, including Dalit, castes who worked as soldiers, weavers, washers, fishers, boatmen, servants, butlers, horse-keepers, weavers, market gardeners, waste-workers, and manual load lifters for merchants, missionaries, Company officials and their upper caste employees.

Madras’s Hydrogeography under-went a substantial change during these years. Between 1800 and 1860 the city’s water landscape was transformed. A landscape of seasonal streams, tidal rivers, small tanks, and large eris filled by monsoon and used to irrigate large floodplains morphed into a city of interlinked grid of channels and canals and dotted with private and semi-public wells.13 Chennai’s water machine privileged flow and ground water and reorganized drainage. The geographical reset did not mean the end of seasonal water flux obviously. Nor did it extinguish livelihood activities by city workers. But the built form of Chennai’s drainage stimulated a modern hydro-geographic imagination that normalized the idea that rivers should flow, canals ought to be navigable and tanks should be full despite periodic droughts, flood and tidal fluctuation. This expectation would endure in popular perception and drive hydrological policy.


The extensive hydrological restructuring undertaken at this time can be gleaned from historical maps of Chennai and its changing cartographical practices. The eri-kulam seasonal landscapes of shallow sheets of water, swamps and sand ridges evident in late 18th century watercolor maps were replaced over the early 19th century by engravings of bounded tanks, bridges, sinuous canals and drainage channels and rivers.14 The change was also material.

The seasonal water landscapes in the Coromandel region had been worked for centuries by men, patrons and sovereigns. Travelling in the heat in April, Francis Buchanan Hamilton came upon tank irrigated rice near Chembarapakkam eri which had been maintained by the Chola kings. He writes that small canals from the eri supplied a constant supply of water to adjacent fields yielding a double crop of paddy – the harvest would commence in June. The Chembarapakkam eri was a large seasonal lake made by artificial embankment placed between two ridges and was let out in the dry season.15 Lionel Place, the Company collector of Chingleput Jaghire also maintained this eri.


The change in water-making coincided with the consolidation of property-making in land. The vast floodplains of the eri-kulam was settled with garden houses from the mid-18th century by European and rich Indian merchants.16 A tussle had unfolded when the working castes also began to enclose land by building gardens and speculation drove up land value.17 Hydrological change coincided as well with the severe restrictions placed on working caste claims to gardens and land.18 Chennai’s hydrological remaking intended to protect land against sea and flood, create wells for drinking and to water gardens, and transport goods, created a seamless flowing system of waterways. But these water projects equally intended to shield its European inhabitants from the stench of raw, untreated, stagnant waste that collected on the beds of seasonal streams. Hydrology, in short, was part of the process of urban eviction that shielded and benefited property owners.


A prominent army hydro-engineer of Madras and responsible for many of the engineering projects, Thomas de Havilland writes in 1826 of Madras’s hydro-transformation as a necessary intervention. Writing of the Cooum, he notes that ‘the small seasonal Chennai River prone to monsoon floods and sandbars had to be kept open to prevent annual floods. The bar made by the surf was manually dug by hundreds of men and the force of water such that the colour of the sea was transformed.’19

Havilland’s depiction calls forth an image of the monstrous power of nature: the immense force of eroded sand and silt that coloured the sea water. It also installs the Company’s hydro-engineer’s majestic power to marshal large corps of hardworking earth digging men to protect the city from tumultuous nature. It is especially telling that this was the time when with the great recruitment of the upparavar and ottar and other groups into the Company’s military and civil engineering labour force. Squeezed out of salt-making by the Company’s monopoly, the upparavar entered employment in their hundreds. This was also a time, when Company civil hydro-engineering, dominated by the military, underwent a technological change.

The pivot in building technology was not so much the grand arrival of European technique but the modification of existing techniques under the sign of European ingenuity.

Till about 1815 or so, the bridges and earthworks of the city were entirely prepared by maistries or master masons who preferred brick masonry piers and wooden bridges. They would periodically get washed away. Army engineers like Havilland wanted permanent masonry structures and a technological solution emerged.20

The mortar was made in a mill and no longer beaten by stampers, usually women and children in the ‘Indian style’. But raw materials came from nearby sources. Havilland writes of experiments with lime using shells brought from the sea. Glue for the mortar came from traditional techniques like using jaggery. Indeed, historical maps of the city detail many lime and brick-kilns and the archives hold petitions from limekiln firers and brick makers. Havilland’s commentary clarifies that the materials widely used for house building in the Madras style were now used to re-engineer urban hydrology.


Alongside the building and digging of earthwork to train, make, drain water came an important shift in norms or expectation of a waterbody stimulated by British hydro-engineering. This hydrological expectation of clearly demarcated and plentiful water imprinted in Chennai’s modern imagination derived from both the physical experience of crossing the city’s bridges and many European landscape paintings of bridges over water that date to this period. So much so that Chennai’s memory is now entirely founded on an iconic image of itself as a city of water and bridges crossing rivers and canals.


‘View of St. Andrews Bridge Madras’. Engraving. Dehavilland, Descriptions and Delineations (1826), plate facing p. 23.21


That the visual production of Chennai as a watery city is connected to its hydro-restructuring is given away by Havilland writing of Chennai’s infamous and iconic river Cooum. The Cooum is a relatively long seasonal stream that, unlike a perennial river like the Ganges, has no discernable point of origin. It emerges from a network of underground streams of the larger Palar drainage network and is part of the eri-kulam landscape of the Coromandel. Temples and agricultural settlements that dot its path were likely sustained by ingenuous water management linking the Cooum with tanks and channels on the lines described by Francis Buchanan when he visited Chembarabakkam. Before it was substantially re-engineered, the Cooum mingled with the sea as a series of tidal brackish waterscapes dotted by islands just south of Fort St. George.


Havilland’s commentary contains an interesting account of a bridge built across the Cooum. Through much of the 18th century the Cooum’s waters would flood the embankments that protected the settlements near its mouth. Havilland’s account clarifies that the Cooum was a ‘river’ in the sense of a constantly flowing entity only in name. He writes that ‘the river was also one in name, it was filled with effluvia and miasma, because it had no defined bed as it flowed around the village. An extensive sheet of water [my emphasis], it shrank when dry and the filth deposited in it accumulated. The bed was widely dug for soil and sand. When these holes filled with water, walking across the bed became hazardous.’22

After severe flooding in 1817, the Cooum was dredged and a large eri nearby was filled by raising the ground gained by the river. It was then levelled and enclosed with a rail and new roads were built. The bed was dredged and the soil piled on banks to prevent floods. Havilland recommended that every opportunity offered by drought and by a want of work for the poor in times of famine and scarcity should be seized and government should take these alluviations [sic.] and spread them over the esplanade of the fort and black town. Dredging remains key to Cooum restoration today.


Considering Havilland’s writing or the seasonality and shallowness of the Cooum, the engraving of the bridge, stands before us, transformed. The image of the city as the Venice of the east produced by the circulation of such images can now be read as evidence of water-making. The muddy foreground of a dug-out canal in the engraving takes on a new significance. Colonial hydrological intervention appears less monumental and more as refitting through a series of strategically placed low elevation bridges, earthworks, canalization, digging, plumbing and mounding of earth by hundreds, if not thousands of workers.

In face of this pettiness, the monumentality of hydrological restructuring was the display of labour control and then its erasure in the visual imagination of urban nature. The permanent bridge allowed an unpredictable shallow sheet of water to be experienced and known as a tamed river. A series of pastoral landscapes of Madras narrated that experience as urban nature. The monumental transformation lay in the transformative work of the colonial hydrological on the mental map and imagination of Chennai.


The capacity to make water is a long-avowed mark of kingship and urbanism. Rainmaking and water-making ceremonies remain symbols of political plenitude. Every year, the ceremonial release of waters from the Mettur dam and the arrival of the Kaveri waters in the Tanjavur delta is a sight to behold. As the plough inscribes culture on land, so do waterworks build the temple and the city.23 This civitas can be discerned in the Tamil literary corpus from any number of legendry tales in which kings and warriors magically divine sweet water and establish temples and cities instructed by goddesses who appear in their dreams.

Chennai’s hydrological archives shows us that the modification of the hydro-landscape by colonial engineers sparked a profound change in how the city came to be imagined. In place of the seasonal tank, a geography of bounded water came up in distinction with one another. Much of this hydrological remaking of Chennai’s landscape, the dredging, the building of earthworks, the digging of the ground utilized the knowledge, skill and physical labour of specialists and then famine starved inhabitants who worked for food. Chennai’s image as the Venice of the east is materialized on their backs. In forgetting them in the history of Chennai’s urban infrastructure we erase key workers who are not just builders of the city but the knowers of its hydrology from urban environmental history.

To the degree environmental history remains bound in its methods to environmental transformation without probing the transformation of the urban imagination, hydro-conservation can only propel the logics of property making and accumulation.


* My thanks to Aditya Ramesh, Karen Coelho, Nityanand Jayaraman and the editors of the special issue for comments. Errors remain my own.


1. Krupa Ge, Rivers Remember: Lessons and Stories from #Chennai Rains. Context/Westland, Chennai, 2019.

2. Karen Coelho and Nithya V. Raman, ‘Salvaging and Scapegoating: Slum Evictions on Chennai’s Waterways’, Economic and Political Weekly 45(21), 2010, pp. 19-23.

3. Nityanand Jayaraman, ‘Disaster by Design, Seminar 690, February 2017, pp. 29-34.

4. Karen Coelho, ‘Lines in the Mud: Tank Eco-restoration and Boundary Contestations in Chennai’, Urbanisation 5(2), 2020, pp. 121-139.

5. Henri Lefebvre, ‘Right to the City’, Writings on Cities 63, 1968. Introduced, edited and translated by Eleonore Kofman and Elizabeth Lebas. Blackwell, Oxford, 1996, pp. 157-158.

6. Amita Baviskar, Uncivil City: Ecology, Equity and the Commons in Delhi. Sage, Delhi, 2019.

7. Hita Unnikrishnan, B. Manjunatha and Harini Nagendra, ‘Urban Commons in a Globalizing City’, Seminar 690, February 2017, pp. 63-67.

8. See Christine Meisner Rosen and Joel Arthur Tarr, ‘The Importance of an Urban Perspective in Environmental History’, Journal of Urban History 20(3), 1994, pp. 299-310.

9. Dieter Schott, ‘Urban Environmental History: What Lessons Are There To Be Learnt’, Boreal Environment Research 9(6), 2004, pp. 519-528.

10. Stephen Legg, ‘Foucault’s Population Geographies: Classifications, Biopolitics and Governmental Spaces’, Population, Space and Place 1(3), 2005, pp. 137-156; Prashant Kidambi, ‘"An Infection of Locality", Plague, Pythogenesis and the Poor in Bombay, c. 1896-1905’, Urban History 31(2), 2004, pp. 249-67 and Stephen Legg, Spaces of Colonialism: Delhi’s Urban Governmentalities. Blackwell, Oxford, 2007.

11. Chris Otter, ‘Locating Matter: The Place of Materiality in Urban History’, in Tony Bennett and Patrick Joyce (eds.), Material Powers: Cultural Studies, History and the Material Turn. Routledge, London, 2010, pp. 38-60. For Benguluru see, Aditya Ramesh, ‘Flows and Fixes: Water, Disease and Housing in Bangalore, 1860-1915’, Urban History (Forthcoming).

12. Francis Buchanan Hamilton, ‘A Journey from Madras Through the Countries of Mysore’, Cañara and Madras (Volume 1). Bulmer and Co., London, 1807, p. 204.

13. On the demise of tanks in Madras’s rural hinterland, see Prasannan Parthasarthi, ‘Water and Agriculture in 19th-Century Tamilnad’, Modern Asian Studies 51(2), 2017, pp. 485-510. doi: 10.1017/S0026749X1700 0129.

14. Map of Red Hills, Conoor, by John Mustie, possibly dates to 1791-1800. Fair copy likely made in 1803 when Mustie served as a draftsman for Colin Mackeznie. British Library WD 2698. http://www.bl.uk/online gallery/onlineex/apac/other/019wdz 000002702u00000000.html

Plan of the town of Madras and its limits, as surveyed in 1822 for the use of the Justices in Sessions by Captain W Ravenshaw, Engraved by J. Walker. Kingsbury, Parbury & Allen, London, 1824. https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/btv1b530986164

15. Francis Buchanan, ‘On the Dams and Sluices of the Saymbrumbacum Tank, Near Madras’, Journal of the Franklin Institute of the State of Pennsylvannia (Vol 1), Franklin Institute, Philadelphia, 1828, pp. 400-402.

16. Joanne Waghorne, ‘The Diaspora of the Gods: Hindu Temples in the New World System 1640-1800’, Journal of Asian Studies, 1999, p. 661.

17. Bhavani Raman, ‘Sovereignty, Property and Land Development: The East India Company in Madras’, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 61(5-6), 2018, pp. 976-1004.

18. Ravi Ahuja, ‘Expropriating the Poor: Urban Land Control and Colonial Administration in Late 18th Century Madras City’, Studies in History 17(1), 2001, pp. 81-99.

19. Thomas Fiott de Havilland, Descriptions and Delineations of Some of the Public and Other Edifices at and the Vicinity of Madras, With Other Objects Near That Presidency. Kingsbury, Parbury, and Allen, London, 1826, p. 23.

20. Ibid., p. 25.

21. St. Andrews Bridge was one of the first to be built by the East India Company and was supervised by Dehavilland. The engraving by Mr. Maxwell for Havilland is of a water-colour by draughtsman and surveyor John Gantz made in 1821. For details see http://peppiatt-fineart.co.uk/display.php? KT_artists= John+Gantz

22. Havilland, Descriptions and Delineations.

23. The legendary Chola patron of the Koneswaram Temple, Trincomalee in Sri Lanka, Kulakkottan was named for the kulams or tanks he made and restored.