Water conservation in ancient India- Prof. Indrayani Joshi

As conservation architects we get to work on a variety of projects ranging from a single building to a residential area to even a town or a city and we are exposed to many nuances of culture. A whole new perspective opens up to so many aspects of the same culture that we have been dealing with on a daily basis but have chosen to ignore the details of. We come across with architecture and spaces and a new angle reveals many a thing that we have overlooked so far. I have worked on projects in different regions in India. On this journey I have come across with many aspects of Indian culture in the form of festivals, people and architecture.

The most intriguing aspect was the design and utilization of spaces, especially the spaces around water sources. These spaces respond to culture in many ways. The aspect that fascinated me most was the practice of water conservation that had been followed for generations in all parts of our country. And the practice had become a part of the lives of the people. We can find the reference to this practice in ‘Aaj bhi khare hain taalaab’ a book written by Dr. Anupam Mishra.

In the traditional settlements, there used to be a single source of water supply for a particular area, mostly a community well or a lake. This area used to be demarcated by planting a tree and constructing a platform, where women could rest for a while to take some time away from their daily chores. This is very common in many parts of the country. The common reason for having one source of water was that there was no pipeline water supply in earlier times. The space had different terminologies in different parts of the country, for example, ‘panavthha’ in parts of Maharashtra, ‘baoli’ in Rajasthan and Gujarat, and ‘johra’ in parts of Rajasthan.

Over time, this space became an integral part of the lives of women, and also culture so much so that there are many rituals woven around these spaces.

The design of ‘a baoli’ or step well in the parts of Rajasthan & Gujarat is the indication of the connection of these spaces with culture. As these structures were located in the hot and dry climatic zone, evaporation of water had to be reduced. Also deep digging was required for obtaining water. To achieve both these targets the baolis were dug deep and pavilions were constructed around the well at different levels. A person had to climb down three or four stories to reach the water level. The pavilions were designed for resting as the baolis were located away from the settlements. Pavilions were also constructed around the lakes for the same purpose. Similar types of structures are also found in other parts of Rajasthan.

In Fatehpur town in the Shekhawati region of Rajasthan, the ‘johra’ is located almost on the outskirts. This ‘johra’ was the main source of water supply for the town when there was no system of piped water supply. This is a water tank with underground water sources and a pavilion around it. The rituals of Navratri and Dassehra still take place within the pavilion. A procession for the Navratri travels through the town and culminates at this place. It is currently used only for these rituals for only particular parts of the year and otherwise lies absolutely neglected.

In Jodhpur, water conservation, circulation and supply was worked out so efficiently that the entire walled city never faced any scarcity of water. There were seven lakes within the city which collected the rain water. All these water tanks were connected to each other through channels. As the tanks were the sources of water, their maintenance was also a part of the lives of the people. Many rituals were planned around these lakes so that the entire surrounding area was used and maintained. All these lakes currently lie in a state of neglect currently.

As we travel to the rural parts of the country we come across different elements in architectural setting compared to cities. This is owing to the different lifestyles as compared to the city dwellers. But the concern for water conservation remains the same. I have travelled to the rural parts of Rajasthan and Maharashtra for my projects. I have found that each village or a group of two or three villages always had a lake which served as a major source of water supply. And it was always surrounded by structures for resting, where rituals could take place. Similarly there were also measures taken to recharge the ground water. Care was also taken to reduce the amount of water wastage.  Most of these water sources in current scenario lie in a state of neglect. 

When I see such fine examples of water conservation I really wonder about the mindset of the people who made these things happen. I also wonder what went wrong over time that we are not only incapable of doing such a fine job, but also incapable of maintaining these fine examples. I feel it is time that we start taking steps that will at least revive these wonders not only as part of our heritage but also as a moral and social responsibility for conserving water.