Telling Otherwise: A Historical Anthropology of Tank Irrigation Technology in South India


A significant number of influential critiques of modernity, the modern state, or modern science and technology are premised on the assertion that the pre-modern was environmentally non-intrusive and harmoniously embedded within a culture. The way these critiques pose the substantive distinction between the modern and the pre-modern through the reading of technology and knowledge systems insufficiently engages, this essay argues, with the history of pre-modern technology and knowledge creation. This paper draws an alternative picture of the social shaping of tanks (irrigation reservoirs) in south India in pre-modern times by using folk literature as primary source. The essay ultimately challenges any fundamental ontological contrast between a pre-modern and a modern technology and demonstrates instead that values emerge from historically situated actors and not solely from the artifacts or knowledge systems themselves.