Sponsored By: Infinity Foundation

Channeling Nature: Hydraulics

Infinity Foundation sponsored new book project titled: 
“Channeling Nature: Hydraulics, Traditional Knowledge Systems, And Water Resource Management in India – A Historical Perspective”
by Rima Hooja, PhD


The importance of water for basic existence is a universally recognised fact – which does not, perhaps, require stressing or re-iteration here! Nor does the fact that access to water has long determined the positioning of habitational (and work-related) sites of humans (and, for that matter, of birds and animals). This applies to sites attributable to the prehistoric (i.e. Palaeolithic, or ‘Old Stone Age’, Neolithic, or ‘New Stone Age’, and Mesolithic) phases of human existence, as much as to the rural settlements, towns and cities that came up in different parts of South Asia in subsequent millennia. As such, one of the areas in which India’s traditional knowledge systems have developed and survived from pre-historic to contemporary times is that of the development and management of water resources. This has enabled, even in zones marked by an absence of perennial rivers, a range of human activities, including agriculture, animal husbandry, different types and levels of economic and manufacturing activities, and the existence of prosperous kingdoms and states.

In the context of South Asia, a wide variety of engineering and water-related systems were developed at different geographic locations over different periods. For instance, during the third millennium BC (now often referred to as BCE to denote ‘Before Common Era’), farming communities in Baluchistan impounded rainwater using stone rubble dams (known in later centuries as gabarbands, in this region), and used it for irrigation. Archaeologists have reported similar, roughly contemporaneous, structures – variously of stone or mud and brick – from parts of Kutch, Sabarkantha and Bhavnagar (all in Gujarat) and from near Karachi.

During the circa 3rd to 2nd millennia BC period, the urban sites of the Harappan Civilisation demonstrated a high degree of hydraulic engineering skills. One of the best known examples of this is the ‘Great Bath’ at the site of Mohenjodaro. This has a pool or tank portion measuring 12 metres in length (north to south), 7 metres in width, and 2.5 metres in depth, within a larger building complex. It was accessed by steps, to which wooden covers were fixed by bitumen or asphalt. The bricks used in constructing this Great Bath were laid on edge, and the floor and sides of the pool were waterproofed through the addition of gypsum in the building-mortar, with a backing of a bitumen course for further damp proofing. The sides of the pool were backed by a secondary set of walls, with the intervening space between the two being filled with a bitumen coating and earth, to ensure total waterproofing. Water for filling the pool of the ‘Great Bath’ came from a large well situated in one of the rooms fronting the open courtyard of the building-complex, while a corbelled baked-brick drain in the south-western portion of the Bath served to carry away the used water.

The ‘dock-yard’ (or water-reservoir according to some), found in the excavations at another well-known Harappan Culture site, namely, Lothal, is also worthy of especial note. Irrespective of the controversy about whether the structure was a dockyard or merely a reservoir, this remarkable lined structure, with evidence of channels for inlet and outlet of water, is a pointer to the hydraulic knowledge of protohistoric India! The presence of marine organisms in this complex strengthens the argument for its having been a dock. The structure – roughly trapezoidal area (western wall 218.23 m; eastern wall 215.03 m; southern wall 35.66 m and northern wall: 37.49 m), is enclosed by a 1.2m thick lining made up of a four-course wall of kiln-baked bricks, within broader mud-brick embankment walls. There are two inlets to this enclosure, one each in the northern and southernmost portions of the eastern side.

Towards the southern part of the eastern wall of this ‘dock-yard’ there is a 7 metre wide gap. Excavations further to the east, in continuation of this opening, have yielded the bed of a channel, 7 metres in width. As such, the excavators have surmised that this ‘spill-channel’ connected the Lothal dockyard with the nearby Bhogavo river, and thence with the Gulf of Cambay. It has been suggested that boats could enter the Lothal dock at high tide using this channel, when the tide waters swelled the channel’s natural flow and pushed the extra water upstream. In a like manner, the boats could make the return-journey back to the river when the tide ebbed. To take care of the problem of the discharge of extra water, a sizeable spill-channel was built in the southern wall of the ‘dock’. The water level could be partially regulated by means of a wooden sluice gate fitted across the spill-channel. A mud-brick platform (12.8 m wide and 243.84 m long) adjoining its western embankment possibly served as a ‘wharf’ for the loading and unloading of goods.

In a like manner, the still-emerging evidence from the excavations at the Harappan Culture site of Dholavira, in Gujarat, also indicates a complex system for collecting and storing rainwater within several reservoirs, and in part within a partially encircling moat that may have doubled as a defense mechanism. Dholavira lies in an area that presently receives less than 160 cm of annual rainfall, and has a history of prolonged droughts. Its climate and precipitation levels during the period that the Harappan city of Dholavira flourished is believed to have been not very significantly different either. As such, water management seems to have been an issue that the Harappans were acutely aware of. This is reflected in the occurrence of several rock-cut reservoirs or cisterns – about 7m deep, noted around the inner side of the outer wall of the settlement. To fill these, the rainwater in the catchment areas of the site’s two local seasonal rivulets – the Mandsar (which lay outside the walled area of Dholavira, and to its north-north-west) and the Manhar (flowing through the south-eastern part of the walled area), was collected and brought to the reservoirs.

This was achieved through an ingenious system involving stone bunds or dams (reminiscent of the gabarbands of Baluchistan), that were raised across the streams at suitable points. From these, the monsoon runoff was carried to a series of reservoirs, gouged out in the sloping areas between the inner and outer walls of the Harappan period city, through inlet channels. These water reservoirs were separated from each other by bund-cum-causeways, which also served to facilitate access to different divisions of the city. The Dholavira excavators claim that at least 16 water reservoirs were created within the city walls. These covered some 17 hectares, or 36 per cent, of the walled area. In the southeastern corner of the city there was a reservoir covering about 5 hectares. The reservoirs had 4.5 to 7 m wide bunds around them, protected by brick masonry walls.

A network of storm-water collection drains was also laid out, criss-crossing the citadel/ ‘castle-bailey’ area, to collect rainwater. These brick-and-stone-built drains were not used for sullage at all, but only to collect and carry rainwater to a receptacle for later use. At least one of them was large enough to permit a human standing upright, and most of them had surface apertures. The apertures served as air ducts to facilitate the easy flow of storm water. (Household drains, in contrast, were linked to cesspits or soak-pits at Dholavira). In this manner, every effort was made to preserve rainwater in an area where there is no perennial source of surface water and ground water is largely brackish.

At Mohenjodaro and various other Harappan sites (e.g. Kalibangan, Lothal, Surkotda, Chanhudaro, etc.), buildings have also yielded evidence of individual wells serving residential units. In fact, an archaeological survey suggests that, generally speaking, every third house had a well. Besides private wells, there were also public wells. Evidence from one of the smaller Harappan Culture sites – Allahdino (near Karachi), suggests the possibility that the Harappans may have used wells for irrigated agriculture too. Besides this, individual houses possessed paved bathrooms with drains to carry out sullage water from the houses into the local city drainage system. This drainage system entailed well-covered street drains made of kiln-baked bricks, with covered manholes at intervals for purposes of cleaning and maintenance.

Though the decline of the Harappan urban centres marked a temporary eclipse in large-scale hydraulic works, evidence shows that during the ensuing period, attention continued to be paid to the development of water-resources. The excavators of Inamgaon – a chalcolithic site in Maharashtra, with three successive cultures dating between c.1600 to c.700 BC – have found evidence of a stone rubble and mud embankment and channel which suggests that during the c.1400-1000 BC period artificial irrigation probably facilitated agriculture at this site (Dhavalikar 1988, 1997:19; Dhavalikar et.al. 1988).

Further archaeological work in other parts of South Asia (and re-appraisal of old reports), may bring to light other examples and aspects of early hydraulic engineering. In this context, one major thrust of the proposed book will be to document and discuss the hydraulics of pre and protohistoric South Asia, particularly on the basis of archaeological data. This is a field that requires considerably more attention than it has hitherto received.

The same applies to our knowledge of hydraulics in the historical period. In fact, probably as a natural corollary to the expansion of lands under cultivation in different parts of the Sub-Continent, a range of hydraulic techniques and technologies came into prominence during the early historical period. Literary references and archaeological data from about c. 6th Century BC onwards indicate the development of embankments, canals and other hydraulic works, sullage devices like soak-pits (or ‘ring-wells’), and protective moats outside the towns which sprang up in the wake of the ‘Second Urbanisation’ of South Asia.

For example, during the 4th century BC Nanda dynasty kings (c 363-321 BC), built irrigation canals to carry water from river to agricultural tracts. Their successors, the Mauryan dynasty rulers (c.321-185), built many more irrigation works to facilitate agriculture (besides providing wells for public use alongside roads and accompanying traveller’s rest-houses). Details about irrigation and water harvesting systems of this period can be found in Kautilya’s ‘Arthashastra’ – a text believed to have been written in the 3rd century BC by the minister-mentor-cum-advisor of the founder of the Mauryan dynasty – Chandragupta Maurya. The book indicates that people knew about rainfall regimes, soil types and irrigation techniques. It also mentions that the state rendered help for the construction of irrigation works, initiated and managed by the inhabitants of a newly settled village. State officers were appointed to superintend the rivers, measure the land and inspect the sluices by which water was let out from the main canals.

There are many other instances that emphasise the hydraulic knowledge and skills known in early South Asian history. For example, the Hathigumpha inscriptions, dating to the 2nd century BC, include descriptions of the major irrigation works of Kalinga (the modern Orissa area). Artificial reservoirs or tanks too were built for irrigation purposes – often through damming smaller streams. (One of the largest and oldest of such irrigation tanks known from present-day Sri Lanka was the Abayawewa of king Panduwasa, built near the capital-city of Anuradhapura in 504 BC. In the latter half of the 5th Century BC, two further tanks, the Jayawewa and the Gamini, were constructed in the same region by a successor, king Pandukabhaya).

One may also note here a series of tanks excavated at the site of Sringaverapura, near Allahabad, which reportedly date to the end of the 1st century BC. (B.B. Lal, ‘Excavations at Sringaverapura’, 1993; & ‘ABC of Sringaverapura’, in Agrawal & Narain (Eds.) Dying Wisdom, 1997, p.16). This remarkable example of hydraulic engineering entailed a tank – described as “…the longest of its kind discovered so far – more than 250 m long” (Lal, 1997:16). The Sringaverapura tank-complex obtained water from the nearby river Ganga during the monsoon season, when the level of the river usually rose by about 7-8 metres. As a result, excess water used to spill over from the Ganga into an adjoining stream (nullah). From this stream, an 11m wide and 5m deep canal carried the water further into the Sringaverapura tanks.

The water first entered a settling chamber to enable the silt and debris to settle. The relatively clean water then entered a rectangular tank made of bricks. A stepped outlet from this tank allowed only clean water to trickle through to a second tank, also rectangular in shape. This second tank apparently constituted the primary source of water supply for Sringaverapura. There was also a third tank – this time a circular one – at right-angles to the second tank, which possessed an elaborate staircase allowing access to the lower levels of the water in that tank. The excavators of the site suggest that some shrines stood along the edge of this circular tank, and that the waters of this tank were used for ritual bathing and prayers. (Lal mentions terracotta sculptures, including of Siva and Kubera, recovered from the debris of this round tank). An elaborate waste weir, provided at an end of this tank, carried water out from the tank. This consisted of seven spill-channels, a crest and a final exit channel. The excess water was returned to the river, through this final exit channel. A series of wells in the bed of the tank allowed access groundwater even during the hot summer months. (Though no inscription associated with the tank has been found, Lal [1997:16] suggests, on grounds of circumstantial evidence, that a king Dhanadeva of Ayodhya built it).

Besides canals and tanks, artificial ponds and lakes were created too during ancient times by stopping the outlets of streams and rivers. From such water-bodies, water was lifted by counterpoised ‘sweeps’, or other devices, and fed into smaller channels. These, in turn, carried the water into fields. (Such methods have been used in Indian agriculture up to contemporary times). Along with these and other types of water bodies attached to sacred groves, religious centres, towns and fortified settlements, large artificial lakes came up across South Asia.

One of the earliest artificial lakes known from ancient India – the ‘Sudarshan’ lake in Gujarat’s Girnar area – is datable to the early period of the reign of the Mauryan dynasty emperors. This was first excavated during the reign of Emperor Chandragupta Maurya by one of his subordinates – an officer named Pushyagupta. Supplementary channels were later added, along with other improvements to the lake, by one ‘Yavanaraja’ Tushaspha during the reign of Emperor Ashoka (Chandragupta Maurya’s grandson), in the 3rd Century BC. Nearly four centuries later, the lake was repaired by the Saka king, Mahakshatrapa Rudradaman of Ujjain, as is recorded in his Junagarh (or Girnar) Inscription of AD 150. The lake continued to exist over the ensuing period, as is attested by an inscription of AD 455, dating to the reign of Emperor Skanda Gupta of the Gupta Empire. This records that when the embankment-dam at Girnar broke, it was rebuilt in 455 AD by the local city governor, a man named Chakrapalita, son of Emperor Skanda Gupta’s Provincial Governor, Parnadatta. Much later, the great embankment, over 100 feet thick at its base, holding back the waters of the lake at Girnar finally gave way sometime in the 9th century AD. It was never again repaired.

Such a tradition of creating large lakes may be noted in many other areas, particularly – but not solely in the drier zones of the Sub-Continent. The largest known artificial lake of India was created in the middle of the 11th century by king Bhoj Parmar, the ruler of Dhar, at Bhojpur, near Bhopal, by constructing a vast embankment across two hills. The lake apparently received water from as many as 365 streams and springs. Though the lake has vanished, following the breaching of its embankment in 1434 AD, its traces indicate that the lake originally covered no less than 250 square miles, or over 65,000 hectares.

Numerous other examples of artificially fabricated lakes are known from different parts of the land and it has been estimated that, over time, there have existed nearly 1.3 million human-made lakes and ponds across India. While the existence of such lakes, in a pan South Asian context is mentioned in literary, oral, historical and archaeological traditions, at present there exists no full listing, in chronological and spatial order, of such water-bodies. (The lacuna needs to be filled, since analyzing the creation, maintenance and management of such water-bodies in a historical perspective could helps us in a better understanding of the hydraulic traditions of South Asia, as well as the attitude of the State and general populace towards its water-resources).

Among such lakes, those known from what now comprises the State of Rajasthan include the 12th century Ana Sagar lake at Ajmer; the Ghadsisar reservoir-lake built at Jaisalmer in 1367 AD by Bhati ruler, Rawal Ghadsi; and various lakes at Udaipur city. (Among the last-named, Udaipur’s famous Picchola lake is popularly believed to have been constructed not by the State, or ruler, but by a wealthy Banjara trader). Another of Rajasthan’s better-known artificial lakes is the Raj Samand, built at the command of Maharana Raj Singh of Mewar, and completed in 1676 AD This is a large water-body of conserved fresh-water, created, in part, through damming the waters of a small rivulet, and augmented by excavation of a large tract in which rain-water could be collected. (Some historians believe that this work was carried out during a prolonged drought that affected the region between c.1661 to 1666 period, so that employment and food could be provided to about 60,000 of the famine-affected populace of Mewar).

Scores of other examples from different geographical areas and chronological time-periods emphasize India’s rich, technologically excellent and varied hydraulic tradition. This entailed, broadly speaking, a range of effective rain-water harvesting, collection, storage, and management strategies – including rotated use of ponds etc. – which developed, evolved and thrived in South Asia over the centuries. For example, a complex network of irrigation and water management systems were established by the Gond kingdom of central India together with the necessary social and administrative systems needed to sustain them (Agrawal & Narain (Eds.) Dying Wisdom, 1997, p.398). Similarly, various Sultans of the Delhi Sultanate, including Iltutmish, Alauddin Khilji, Ghiyas-ud-din Tughlaq and Feroz Shah Tughlaq built and repaired various tanks, water-collection systems, and canals etc. during the c. 13th to 15th centuries.

Kalhan’s 12th century text, the ‘Rajatarangini’ (composed around 1148-1150 AD), which chronicles the history of Kashmir, describes a well-conceived and maintained irrigation system. Not only does the ‘Rajatarangini’ provide information about various canals, irrigation channels, embankments, aqueducts, circular dykes, barrages, wells and waterwheels, it also details numerous hydraulic works executed during the reign of various different rulers of Kashmir. These include a vast embankment, known as the ‘Guddasetu’, built by king Damodara II; and the construction of series of arghat or waterwheels, by the 8th century AD king Lalitaditya Muktapida of the Karkota dynasty. These waterwheels were constructed in order to lift the waters of the river Vitasta (Jhelum), and channelise their distribution to villages near Chakradhara (now called Tsakdhar).

One of the most notable names of an irrigation engineer that is recorded in the ‘Rajatarangini’ is that of Suyya. Suyya worked for, and was a contemporary of, king Avantivarman of the Utpala dynasty (855-883 AD), and he is credited with ‘draining the water of the Vitasta river and controlling it by constructing a stone dam, and clearing its bed’. Suyya also ‘displaced the confluence of the rivers Sindhu and Vitasta’, and constructed stone embankments for seven yojans along the Vitasta in order to dam the vast Mahapadma lake (now famous as the Wular lake). In fact, Suyya is credited with having made, “…the streams of Indus and Jhelum flow according to his will, like a snake-charmer his snakes” (A.L. Basham, ‘The Wonder that Was India’, 1967, p.195). The system of irrigation established by Suyya was designed in such a way that everyone was supplied with a fair share of water.

One must underline here that it was not just kings, queens, or rich merchants who concerned themselves with the development of water resources. Communities and collectives too did the same. Thus, in addition to the lakes, reservoirs, water-mills (panchakki), check-dams and other irrigation-works etc. usually built by the State, or from endowments by local chiefs, wealthy merchants, etc., various other indigenous water-harvesting / collection techniques and lifting and conveyance devices evolved in response to regional geographical realities and ecological considerations.

For example, in the desert areas of the Thar region of what now constitutes the State of Rajasthan, and in its neighbouring State of Gujarat, where water is a scarce and much valued commodity, tanks, kunds, step-wells or baolis/ baoris, vavs, wells, ponds etc., were built. Besides these, specific indigenous water-harvesting and collection methods were developed / evolved in direct response to local geo-physical conditions. This led to systems like johadhs, anicuts, check-dams, khadins, tankas, adlaz, jhalara, modhera, vapi, medhbandhi (earthen structure on fields to prevent water from flowing out), the virdas of the Kutch region, etc., being developed and maintained. Water-lifting devices like draw-wells, ‘rahat’ (a ‘Persian-wheel’ like system, derived from what is described in Sanskrit terminology as the ‘arghat’ water-wheel), and ‘dhekli’ systems were developed too. Between them, these systems met the drinking water, irrigation, agricultural and other water-related needs of the people of the area even in years of lesser than usual rainfall.

Other parts of India, similarly, developed traditional mechanisms for collecting and accessing water over the ages. The southern part of India, under the Chola, Pandya, Pallava, Chera, Vakataka, Kakatiya, etc. dynasties, developed a vast network of tanks and canals, famed the world over, that served to irrigate crops and enhance agrarian production. (The large tanks of Sri Lanka demonstrate a common heritage). The tradition continued into the 16th-17th century, as exemplified by the Vijayanagar kingdom, where a mighty reservoir was built using the labour of 20,000 men during the reign of king Krishna Deva Raya. In a similar manner, in northeastern areas of the Sub-Continent, and the foothills and lower slopes of the Himalayas, different local communities devised indigenous methods of collecting and channeling rainwater to meet their agricultural and drinking water requirements. Here, and elsewhere, practices like contour-bunding and local-level lift-irrigation schemes have used available water-resources in ways suitable to the local terrain and economy. (CSE’s Dying Wisdom, 1997; among others provides details covering traditional water harvesting practices known in the many different geographical zones of India).

Most of these devices and systems remained in use, with modifications, over the ensuing centuries. These include the khadin-based cultivation, tankas, nadis etc of Rajasthan, bandharas and tals of Maharashtra, the bundhis common to Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, and Bihar’s ahars and pynes. These also include the kuhls known in Himachal Pradesh and the kuhals of Jammu & Kashmir, the ponds used in the Kandi belt of Jammu, the eris of Tamil Nadu, surangams of Kerala, and the kattas of Karnataka, which are still in use today. (Agrawal & Narain Eds. Dying Wisdom, 1997, provides an invaluable record). As many of these were the result of local community action, their management and maintenance often vested locally.

Water was used not just for agricultural, irrigation, occupation and industry-related and domestic needs. Since water generally held importance in ritualistic practices, structures like tanks, reservoirs, wells, step-wells, southern India’s temple tanks (kalyani tank) etc. were invariable accompaniments to religious complexes, temples and sacred groves etc. Besides this, the royalty and aristocracy (alongside with endowing public reservoirs, wells and step-wells etc., and providing State patronage to larger irrigation works, ‘bunds’ and embankments, etc.), combined water bodies with their palaces and gardens. Thus, there developed a vast range of water-related architectural features – both religious and secular, with regional and sub-regional styles.

Examples of water-related architecture include lateral steps built on the banks of rivers, reservoirs and dams – or ghats, which form a characteristic feature at various pilgrimage sites and religious enclosures; wells; royal pleasure pavilions fronting or situated on islands within rivers and lakes; and ornamental pools and water gardens attached to palaces. Other types of water-related architecture include deep stepped basins; village tanks and wells which served as community areas for bathing, watering animals, and meeting places etc. for rural communities; and hunting pavilions used by royalty and aristocracy at water-holes frequented by animals. The often ornate step-wells of Rajasthan and Gujarat, which tapped deep aquifers, evolved in time into elaborate structures, with a series of steps leading down, past pavilions, platforms for drawing water by a rope, balconies and corridors, to lower levels, and subterranean chambers, kept cool by the very nature of the structure. These step-wells not only fulfilled the water needs, but also served the concerned populace as gathering places. (There exists a large body of literature on these step-wells [including Jutta Jain-Neubauer’s ‘Water Pavilions’, 1997, pp.144-145], which shall be referred to in the proposed book).Unfortunately, not all the water-architecture of South Asia has been fully documented, and there is an urgency to do so before this aspect of the land’s hydraulic past is lost in the face of rapid modernisation and the destruction of many old buildings and sites!

Alongside this, since the palaces and forts of the rulers and their feudatories incorporated water-bodies to meet drinking water needs as well as for aesthetic and weather-conditioning purposes, elaborate systems of transporting water within palaces and forts, and of fountains and water-channels that ran through chambers and gardens were devised. (In the context of Rajasthan, for example, forts like Jalore, Siwana, Ranthambore, Jaisalmer, Bikaner, Mandore, Jodhpur, Chittorgarh, Kumbhalgarh, Amber, etc. all combined functional tanks, reservoirs, storage-tanks, etc. with architectural features and devices that served to hold and transport water, and please the eye). Within the palaces of the Mughals, Rajputs, and other ruling dynasties variations on systems of copper pipes carrying water for cooling terrace pavilions, channels flowing through royal chambers, fountains and water-gardens, and under-water collection tanks were the norm. Thus, here too, various water-storage methods were devised, as were a range of water-lifting mechanisms. The fort of Amber, near Jaipur, capital of modern Rajasthan, for instance, has an ascending chain of water-lifting buildings dating to the 16th century. These served to lift water from a reservoir at the base of the fort to its very peak, and thence to the upper-most chambers of the hilltop palace. Similar systems are known from practically all the medieval fortresses of South Asia.

(Interestingly, various hydraulic devices may be noted in the foreground or background of later medieval Indian miniature paintings. For instance, Andrew Topsfield has discussed a Mewar painting of c. 1740, depicting one of Udaipur’s lake palaces, in which a lakeside irrigation wheel-house, which used bullock power to draw water for the gardens, is prominent in the foreground of the painting. (See, Topsfield, ‘City Palace and Lake Palaces: Architecture and Court Life in Udaipur Painting’, in Tillotson (Ed.). Stones in the Sand, Marg, Bombay, 2001, p.63). This aspect of the depiction of India’s hydraulic history in paintings and sculpted friezes etc. requires fuller documentation! It is hoped to take up this aspect too in the proposed book).

Many of traditional and /or local systems of water-collection, storage, and development and management of water-resources, unfortunately, fell into disuse with the onset of ‘modernisation’ during the colonial period. For instance, during the 17th century AD, Bengal’s traditional system of overflow irrigation proved an efficient system that not only enriched the soil but also controlled malaria, since the fishes that automatically entered the inundated fields fed on parasites and mosquito larvae etc. The system came to an end after the advent of the British. Elsewhere too, the traditional methods were over-shadowed, reduced in status, or openly discouraged due to the march of ‘Western’ technology. The situation did not alter with the coming of Indian Independence, and the process has continued into the late 20th Century, with a basic reliance on big dams, inter-basin transfers and surface transport of water through canals and watercourses.

Fortunately there has been a revival of interest in traditional water systems in recent years, both for theoretical and practical purposes, especially by development activists (including organisations like the CSE, Alwar’s Tarun Bharat Sangh (TBS), etc. and people like Anna Hazare etc), scientists, environmentalists and many others associated with the cause of sustainable development. Issues emerging from the debate on environmental protection and community empowerment have resulted in a strong need to have a fresh look at these older and time tested practices and utilize their benefits for meeting the present day needs of rural and urban areas.

While such work has led to the partial documentation and, in cases, modified revival, of some of the traditional water-harvesting and watershed development practices, India’s long history in the field of hydraulic engineering, water-related architecture, water resource management and traditional knowledge systems needs a fuller study, from a wider historical perspective. It is with this aim in mind that the present project has been formulated.(One may also add here that relatively less is known about ancient hydraulics and water-related technology of India than is the case for ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, Europe, etc. My proposed work will, thus, attempt a brief, comparative, global perspective on the history of hydraulics as well).

Aims & Objectives Of This Study:

My proposed book, thus, seeks to document South Asia’s traditional knowledge base pertaining to hydraulics, water-related architecture, water lifting techniques, and the development and management of water resources, across the centuries, in a historical perspective.

This is hoped to be achieved through:

  • Documenting the hydraulic technology of India from pre-historic through to contemporary times (with a brief comparative global perspective).
  • Analysing the working and effectiveness of various strategies adopted for the creation, development, maintenance and management of water-resources in India
  • Examining their role and relevance for contemporary India


  • As a first step, the study will draw upon the existing body of literature, including archaeological and technical reports on ancient hydraulic practices, as well as various Govt., NGO, and specialist study-centre (e.g. Inst. of Development Studies, Jaipur, where I was a Visiting Fellow in 1993-94; & 1995-96), publications to tabulate and document the available information, both chronologically and area-wise.
  • This will be followed by some limited fieldwork, both to add to the data-base, as well as to understand the processes and techniques of hydraulic practices; (including through interactions with people still using traditional methods, or where such systems have been revived).
  • I also intend holding consultations and interactions with environmentalists, historians, archaeologists, hydrologists, watershed development and irrigation related experts, traditional users, and development studies institutions, etc., in order to comprehensively and systematically understand and analyze the hydraulic technology of South Asia and the effectiveness (or otherwise) of the traditional water systems in meeting the multifarious requirements of the people.

The study would, thus, hope to highlight a lesser discussed aspect of the Sub-Continent’s traditional knowledge systems, through focussing on the long history (and effectiveness) of the hydraulic technology and water resource management practices of South Asia, thereby enabling these their due recognition in the wider world of universal science and technology.


It is visualised that the final document, which will take the shape of a published text of about 250-300, shall take a minimum of 18 months to complete. The work will include relevant maps, photographs and other illustrations.


The tentative chapterization of the work (subject to modification), is as follows:

Channeling Nature: Hydraulics, Traditional Knowledge Systems, and Water Resource Management in India – A Historical Perspective

Name of Chapter/Contents to Include:

1 (SECTION 1) Introduction Background Setting; Aims, objectives and methodology of the study; an overview of the situation; hydraulics in general, etc. Summarized global perspective / history of hydraulic technology – covering ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, Persia, Greece, Roman Empire, medieval Europe, Meso-America & South America etc.

2 Aqua Vita: Tapping A Resource About development and management of water resources. Distinction between constructing (or ‘developing’) a hydraulic structure/ system, and its long-term ‘management’ (maintenance, repair, role of State and/ or community participation, etc). Examples of former include making reservoirs, irrigation systems, dams, check-dams, tanks, kunds, baolis, underground storage, inundation systems, lift irrigation, systems of drainage, etc. Examples of ‘management’ will discuss various cultural and social practices, rotational use of resources, religious beliefs, administrative structures, role of State/ Government, and of community, etc.

3-6 (SECTION 2) Hydraulics And Water-Related Structures And Architecture In South Asia – A Chronological/ Historical Overview Pre-Harappan, Harappan, Inamgaon & other proto-historical sites; Sringaverapura tank system of c. 1st century, using water brought through a canal from the river Ganga into a series of tanks, with an outflow system for excess water. Use of archaeological reports/ field studies/ data; other early historical urban sites & water usage; hydraulics in medieval, pre-modern, colonial & post- colonial South Asia. Historical, epigraphic, literary, archaeological etc. evidence; the ‘arghat’ or Indian version of so-called ‘Persian wheel’ etc.; tank irrigation practices, especially in Southern India etc.Traditional architecture and weather-conditioning/ air-conditioning using water; knowledge of fluctuating water tables etc.

7 (SECTION 3) Water Management Strategies And Traditional Knowledge Systems In Different Geographical /Spatial Regions Of South Asia (Western India; Northern India, Hills, Central India, the Deccan, South India, Eastern India, the North-East etc.) Practices from different geographical regions and sub-regions. Re: traditional methods of collecting water; rainwater harvesting etc.; filtering etc methods of water treatment etc; transportation from collection areas into storage tanks. Different traditional /indigenous means of short and long-term water-storage. Distribution, Control and Management Strategies in Pre-Modern India. Role of State; local participation

8 (SECTION 4) Transition, Tradition, and Contemporary Relevance Adaptive Strategies, Rejection of Traditional Practices, and Modified Revival of some of the traditional hydraulic technologies; Debate on development; efforts by environmentalists, NGOs, Govt. (the building of Johadhs in Alwar (Rajasthan); Ralegaon Siddhi, Haryana etc.)

9 Towards The Future Concluding chapter

10 Bibliography & References

Starting References and Initial Readings

1. Various volumes of ‘Indian Archaeology – A Review’.

2. Rao, S.R. 1979 Lothal – A Harappan Port Town, 2 vols, Delhi.

3. Articles on Dholavira (E.g. Bisht, R.S. ‘Dholavira – New Horizons of the Indus Civilization’, Puratattva, 20, pp.71-82, 1991; ‘Dholavira’, Indian Archaeology – A Review 1991-92, pp.26-35, 1996; ‘Dholavira’, Indian Archaeology – A Review 1992-93, pp.27-31, 1997; etc.)

4. Fairservis, W.J. 1982. ‘Allahdino: An excavation of a small Harappan site’, In G. L. Possehl (Ed.) Harappan Civilization: A Contemporary Perspective. Oxford & IBH, New Delhi, pp.106-112.

5. Agrawal, Anil & Sunita Narain. 1997. Dying Wisdom: Rise, fall and potential of India’s traditional water harvesting systems. (State of India’s Environment – A Citizens’ Report, No. 4), Centre for Science & Environment (CSE), New Delhi.

6. Lal, B.B. 1993. Sringaverapura Excavations (1977-86). Vol. 1, Delhi); & 1997. ‘ABC of Sringaverapura’, In Anil Agrawal & Sunita Narain (Eds.) Dying Wisdom. CSE, New Delhi, p.16.

7. Pande, B.M. 1997. ‘Traditional Water Harvesting: A Multi-millennial Mission’, In Agrawal & Narain (Eds.) Dying Wisdom. CSE, New Delhi, pp.11-23.

8. Chakrabarti, D.K. 1999. India – An Archaeological History: Palaeolithic Beginnings to Early Historic Foundations. Oxford Univ Press, New Delhi.

9. Dhavalikar, M.K. 1988. First Farmers of the Deccan, Ravish Pub., Pune; 1997. ‘Harappan Harvests’, In Agrawal & Narain (Eds.) Dying Wisdom, p.19.

10. Dhavalikar, M.K., H.D. Sankalia & Z. Ansari. 1988. Excavations at Inamgaon. Deccan College, Pune.

11. Central Board of Irrigation and Power .1965. Irrigation in India through the Ages, Central Board of Irrigation and Power, New Delhi.

12. Indian Council for Agricultural Research. 1964. Agriculture in Ancient India, Indian Council for Agricultural Research, New Delhi, pp.113-133.

13. Kangle, R.P. 1963. The Kautilya Arthasastra, Bombay (Mumbai).

14. Kielhorn, F. Junagarh Rock Inscription of Rudradaman, in Epigraphia lndica, vol. VIII, pp.36-49.

15. S.K. Misra (Jaipur) recent book on Jaigarh water-tanks & structures.

16. Historical studies pertaining to Water Architecture.

17. Reports of International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage.

18. Reports of Center for Science and Environment (CSE), New Delhi.

19. Studies of Irrigation and PHED Department – various State Govts.

20. Habib, I. 1963. Agrarian System of Mughal India. Asia Pub H., Bombay.

21. Hegewald, J.A.B. 2001. ‘Water Architecture in Rajasthan’, in G. Tillotson (Ed.) Stones in the Sand, Marg, Bombay, pp.78-89.

22. Hegewald, J.A.B. Unpub. Ph.D. dissertation, Oxford University.

23. Hegewald, J.A.B (forthcoming). ‘Diversity and Development in South Asian Kunda Architecture’, South Asian Archaeology 1997.

24. Livingston, M. 1995. ‘The Stepwells and Stepped-Ponds of Western India’, Asian Art and Culture, pp.3-19.

25. Eck, D. 1981. ‘India’s Tirtha’s: ‘Crossings’ in Sacred Geography’, History of Religion, vol.20, no.4, pp.323-44.

26. Topsfield, A. 2001. ‘City Palace and Lake Palaces: Architecture and Court Life in Udaipur Painting’, in Tillotson (Ed.) Stones in the Sand, Marg, Bombay, pp.54-67.

27. Meister, M.W. and M.A. Dhaky (Eds.) Encyclopaedia of Indian Temple Architecture (2 Vols) Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1991.

28. Subramaniam, C.N. ‘Aspects of the History of Agriculture in the Cauvery Delta c.850-c.1600’, Unpub. M.Phil dissertation, JNU, New Delhi, 1983.

29. Basham, A.L. 1967. The Wonder that Was India, Fontana, London, and Rupa & Co., Calcutta.

30. Jain-Neubauer, Jutta. ‘Water Pavilions’, Agrawal & Narain (Eds.) Dying Wisdom, CSE, 1997, pp.144-145; Also, her book on stepwells.

31. Works on watershed development, Participatory Irrigation Management, etc.

To view a copy of author’s CV, please click here.