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Holy Drops: A Perennial Leakage in Preservation

In a country ensnared by bountiful, yet variegated precipitation, the uniform preservation and dissemination of water resources remains as a seemingly perennial stumbling-block, accentuated by the masses’ aversion from cooperation. In a retrospection of how ancient Indian architectural paragons answered the questions to environmental and depletional crises which, well, did not even exist during the times, Perspectoverse’s Raeeka Sengupta brings to us more on this quandary.


History highlights how both floods and droughts were anticipated occurrences in ancient India. Perhaps this is why every region in the country has its own traditional water harvesting techniques that reflect the geographical peculiarities and cultural nuances of the regions. The key blueprint of such geological and architectural coherence was the people’s endowing utmost importance to the aspect of rainwater harvesting.

Archaeological evidence shows that the practice of water conservation was vigorously predominant in the science of ancient India. “Dhandhyaymanayshu yashashyam” (an incantation derived from the ‘Yajur Veda’), explicitly upholds the importance of an efficient water-harvesting system as it consists of the “veins of the Earth”.

Excavations show that the cities of the Indus Valley Civilisation had excellent systems of water harvesting and drainage. The settlement of Dholavira, laid out on a slope between two storm- water channels, is a masterpiece of water engineering. Chanakya’s Arthashashtra mentions irrigation using water harvesting systems. Sringaverapura, near Allahabad, had a sophisticated water harvesting system that used the natural slope of the land to store the floodwaters of the river Ganga. Emperor of the South-Indian Chola dynasty, Karikala built the Grand Anicut or Kallanai across the river Cauvery to bifurcate water channels for irrigation (functional to the present date) while King Bhoja of Bhopal built the most expansive artificial lake in India.

Drawing upon centuries of experience, Indians never abandoned their ubiquitous streak of building structures to ensnare, hold and reserve monsoon rainwater for the dry seasons to come. These traditional techniques, though dwindling in utilisation today, are exemplary in efficiency.

Jhalaras are typically rectangular-shaped stepwells that have tiered steps on three or four sides. These stepwells collect the subterranean seepage of an upstream reservoir or a lake. Jhalaras were built to ensure easy and regular supply of water for religious rites, royal ceremonies and community use. The city of Jodhpur has eight jhalaras, the oldest being the Mahamandir Jhalara that dates back to 1660 AD.

Talabs are reservoirs that store water for household consumption and drinking purposes. They may be natural, such as the Pokhariyan ponds at Tikamgarh in the Bundelkhand region or man-made, such as the lakes of Udaipur. A reservoir with an area less than five bighas is called a talai, a medium sized lake is called a bandhi and bigger lakes are called sagar or samand.

Taanka is a traditional rainwater harvesting technique indigenous to the Thar desert region of Rajasthan. A taanka is a cylindrical paved underground pit into which rainwater from rooftops, courtyards or artificially prepared catchments flows. Once completely filled, the water stored in a taanka can last throughout the dry season and is sufficient for a family of 5-6 members. An important element of water security in these arid regions, taankas can save families from the everyday drudgery of fetching water from distant sources.

A kund is a saucer-shaped catchment area that sublimely slopes towards the central circular underground well. Its main purpose is to harvest rainwater for potability. Kunds dot the sandier tracts of western Rajasthan and Gujarat. Traditionally, these well-pits were covered in disinfectant lime and ash, though many modern kunds have been constructed simply with cement. Raja Sur Singh is said to have built the earliest known kunds in the village of Vadi Ka Melan in 1607 AD.

There are several other hyperlocal versions of the traditional method of tank irrigation in India. From keres in Central Karnataka and cheruvus in Andhra Pradesh to dongs in Assam, tanks are among the most common traditional irrigation systems in our country.

Needless to reiterate, the exigence of efficiently utilising rainwater for bolstering the rapid degradation of water resources, has not been implemented to the fullest. Largely, the negligence of the masses apropos the dire need, is not negligible. As accurately tracked by Sandeep Chatterjee (Co- founder of Envirowaste), “The reason is lack of interest and knowledge”.

These ecologically safe traditional systems are viable and cost-effective alternatives to rejuvenate India’s depleted water resources. Productively combining these structures with modern rainwater-saving techniques, such as percolation tanks, injection wells and subsurface barriers, could be the answer to India’s perennial water woes. Must we continue to ignore these marvels and refuse to put these riveting mechanisms to good use?

The solutions to our modern and even future complications often lie in our past, just a little out of reach. Whether we wish to spade our way to enlightenment or remain in oblivion, is a choice resting on us.

Written by Raeeka Sengupta

Illustrated by Anannya Pincha

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