Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV (r. 1894 – 1940) became the ruler of Mysore when the Princely State was in dire straits. The state, whose fate and fortunes depended heavily on the waters of the Cauvery River, was reeling from a series of natural calamities and the people looked to the Maharaja as a saviour.
In 1874, excessive rainfall had destroyed all the stored grain, and between 1875 and 1900, famine had wiped out almost one-fifth of the population. Fortunately, Krishnaraja Wadiyar, the 24th Maharaja of Mysore, was a very progressive ruler and he cared about the well-being of his people.
Mysore was also lucky because, in 1909, Sir M Visvesvaraya had been appointed Chief Engineer of the state, now in present-day Karnataka. One of the most brilliant engineers of his time, and having worked on large reservoir projects in the Bombay Presidency and Hyderabad, he didn’t take long to present a blueprint to save Mysore from nature’s wrath.
Visvesvaraya’s solution was to build a dam across the Cauvery in the village of Kannambadi in present-day Mandya District, around 20 km from Mysore city. He chose this village as the region was blessed with rich natural resources and with three prominent tributaries of the Cauvery. He pointed out that harnessing the river would bring Mysore prosperity.
Impressed, the Maharaja promptly sanctioned the dam even though its estimated first cost was a whopping 2.53 crore rupees. It was to become one of the largest dams of its time, financed largely by Krishnaraja Wadiyar IV.
There was just one problem – the Madras Presidency was also planning a reservoir on the Cauvery, at Mettur, about 95 km south-east of Kannambadi, and they were concerned that the Kannambadi dam would harness too much water, leaving too little for the reservoir at Mettur. Eventually, the engineers of both dams worked out these difficulties.
Construction of the Kannambadi dam began in November 1911. Around 10,000 workers were employed, many of whom had been displaced from Mysore and Mandya due to the monsoon. Also, the thousands of people who lost their homes to the reservoir that was being built to harness the Cauvery’s water were rehabilitated and provided agricultural land in nearby areas. And, to save the cost of importing cement, Visvesvaraya used locally made mortar called surki for construction.
Next, the project was hit by a financial crunch but the Maharaja was so committed to building the dam that he sold jewellery from the treasury of the royal family to raise funds for the project. It is said that the people were so moved by this gesture that many came forward to donate money as well.
The dam was completed in 1931, making it the largest reservoir in India at the time. Naturally, it was named after its benefactor, the Maharaja, and was christened the Krishnarajasagara Dam (KRS).
The construction of the KRS was a turning point in the history of the region. It irrigated more than 100,000 acres of agricultural land and facilitated the setting up of the Mysore sugar mills industry. It also generated power for cotton mills and other industries in Mysore and Bangalore.
The existing hydro-electric dam constructed at the Shivasamudram Falls on the Cauvery, about 77km from Mysuru, was already supplying electricity to the region but the power constantly fluctuated and was insufficient to meet the growing needs. The new KRS therefore became a major source of power supply, specifically for the cities of Mysore and Bangalore apart from several towns and villages. It is still a major source of drinking water for Mysuru and Bengaluru.
More than a century later, the KRS dam is an important lifeline for farmers in the region. Credit, of course, goes to a visionary Maharaja, who transformed Mysore into a model modern state, a ruler whose administrative and social reforms earned him the title ‘Raja Rishi’ or ‘Saintly King’ from Mahatma Gandhi, no less.
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