issue 179 - January 1988
The village of Palapatti was agog with excitement. Could it really be true that the tall white dorai, dressed in shorts and a cricket cap, had come to give them a new well of their own? It was early and some women were still returning from their two-mile walk to the nearest well that still had water. In the morning sunshine their faces seemed stoical as they carried the heavy brimming pots balanced gracefully on head and hips.
The dorai was Brother James Kimpton, a monk who has devoted the last twenty years to helping the poorest of the poor in the dry lands at the foot of the Kodai Hills in South India. Recently he has been concentrating on providing villages with bore-holes for drinking water. This area has not had proper rain for five years and many old wells have dried up. Now news of his skills has begun to spread like a bush-fire: not his skills as engineer or missionary - his skills as a water diviner.
It seems strange for a monk to have become so involved in this ancient local tradition. But is that such a bad thing?
Geophysical methods of water prospecting are expensive, poorly understood and often inappropriate for use in rural India. And their success rate in locating a good water source is often as low as one in three.
But in the six weeks before I met him, Brother James had found over 70 new sources of water by the method of divining - or dowsing - using a simple traditional pendulum. Of these only five failed to produce good water. And in these cases he was convinced that members of the dominant Naicker caste had placed curses on the wells. They were seething with resentment, he explained, because of the attention he had been paying to the Harijans - people so poor as to be considered outside the caste system altogether.
Palapatti was to be another success story. Brother James held his pendulum aloft for a minute and concentrated on it intently, counting silently to himself as it gyrated. Everyone watched, mesmerized.
Then suddenly the gyrations came to a halt.
'Seventy feet,' Brother James announced confidently. 'You'll find good water down there. And it's coming from a different direction from the old well, so it shouldn't take water from that well when the rains finally come to fill it again.'
Without hesitation his team put their mobile drilling rig into place and began passing lengths of piping down the shaft Two hours later there was a triumphant shout as onlookers were soaked by the first spout of water - just as the predicted depth of 70 feet was reached. And by early afternoon the villagers had a new well of their own for the first time since their old well dried up in the second of their five long drought years.
More unbelievable to the villagers even than the great gush of water was that Brother James had come so quickly - just a day after they had first asked for his help.
They had been pestering the local government for four years without result. To them this was a far greater miracle than predicting water exactly 70 feet below the ground.
But if the Government had provided a well, they would almost certainly have 'cheated' in Brother James' eyes by simply drilling a deeper well beside the old dry one, so preventing it ever becoming usable even when the rains finally came. A true diviner always tries to establish the direction of underground streams to make sure no two wells are tapping the same finite water source.
One would have thought that Brother James' successes might have interested local government planners. His wells, after all, are located simply and swiftly, with the minimum of fuss and at one third of the cost of those provided by the government. But, although many a village in South India has its own local water diviner, their skills are consistently ignored by local and national bureaucrats.
Instead millions of dollars have been spent prospecting for water during the United Nations Water Decade. But virtually none has been earmarked for researching these centuries-old dowsing methods. Yet there are thousands of practitioners worldwide who are consulted - often clandestinely - by water boards, electricity companies and farmers in countries as scientifically sophisticated as the UK and US.
A sceptic, I was not entirely convinced of Brother James' legendary skills: neither he nor I knew what the chance would be of locating water by drilling 70 boreholes at random. But even if dowsing is based on fallacious reasoning and superstition, at least the faith of the diviner, and the villagers, creates an impetus to drill much-needed boreholes. Without the help of someone as confident as Brother James, it is likely that the women of Palapatti would still be walking two miles to fetch water, while geophysicists and local government bureaucrats pondered the matter.
Neil Thin is an anthropologist who lived for three years in Tamil Nadu in South India.