Kasaragod district in the northern Malabar region of Kerala is an area whose people cannot depend directly on surface water. The terrain is such that there is high discharge in rivers in the monsoon and low discharge in the dry months. People here depend, therefore on groundwater, and on a special water harvesting structure called surangam.
The word surangam is derived from a Kannada word for tunnel. It is also known as thurangam, thorapu, mala, etc, in different parts of Kasaragod. It is a horizontal well mostly excavated in hard laterite rock formations. The excavation continues until a good amount of water is struck. Water seeps out of the hard rock and flows out of the tunnel. This water is usually collected in an open pit constructed outside the surangam.

A surangam is about 0.45-0.70 metres (m) wide and about 1.8-2.0 m high. The length varies from 3-300 m. Usually several subsidiary surangams are excavated inside the main one. If the surangam is very long, a number of vertical air shafts are provided to ensure atmospheric pressure inside. The distance between successive air shafts varies between 50-60 m. The approximate dimensions of the air shafts are 2 m by 2 m, and the depth varies from place to place.

Surangams are similar to qanats which once existed in Mesopotamia and Babylon around 700 BC.1,2 By 714 BC, this technology had spread to Egypt, Persia (now Iran) and India. The initial cost of digging a surangam (Rs 100-150 per 0.72 m dug) is the only expenditure needed, as it hardly requires any maintenance. Traditionally, a surangam was excavated at a very slow pace and was completed over generations. Today, engineers such as Kunnikannan Nair are faster and keep the tradition alive.
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