- Ankit Biswas
Wells and Vavs - A Walk back through the History of Water Conservation in Gujarat
That day doesn’t seem very far off, when we may see countries getting hostile with each other over water consumption. Many parts of India are already facing acute water shortage and drought-like situations due to wastage and authorities are trying various strategies to inculcate awareness amongst people to avoid such a crisis. If we look back there are encouraging examples of water management and conservation through the course of Indian history. One such region is the present state of Gujarat.
Gujarat is dotted with awe-inspiring ancient structures that are related to water conservation and management. I would like to embark on a journey to take note of these magnificent water monuments through different cultural periods. Particularly an interesting piece of evidence from Saurashtra which speaks loads on how ancient rulers understood the importance of water and probably the best gift in the form of water monuments to the people. Gujarat -a very unique region that has seen chronological continuity of Water Monuments from ancient to medieval and modern times. It is the westernmost state of India, a semi-arid climate with prolonged summers for nearly nine months of the year. High temperatures result in a depletion of the groundwater content which then can only be found stored in aquifers way below the surface of the earth. So, one can see that to get water throughout the year has been a prime concern for rulers and they have taken all the initiative to construct various types of water monuments for the region like wells, lakes, tanks, and step-wells. There are archaeological and inscriptional pieces of evidence that give many details about their work.
Our journey starts in the proto-historic times at important Indus valley (2600-1900 BCE) sites like Dholavira famous for advanced water conservation techniques with series of water reservoirs and Lothal, another site famous for a structure interpreted to be a dockyard. Extremely interesting evidence comes in form of inscriptions seen at present Junagadh district of Saurashtra region earlier known as Girinagara. It is here that a monolith has a set of 14 major rock edicts of Mauryan emperor Ashoka (268-232 BCE). This same piece of rock has been used by Western Kshatrap ruler Rudradaman (around 131CE -158 CE) where he inscribed his contributions and achievements. It is amazing to note that this inscription by Rudradaman talks in detail about the construction of a dam and repairing work of a water reservoir called Sudarshan. It is in the form of a royal prasasti (eulogy) written in Sanskrit. It is one of the major contributions that the emperor takes pride in and while doing so he gives the history of Sudarsana lake. It is from his inscription that one learns that this lake was originally built by Chandragupta Maurya and later beautification was done by emperor Ashoka who added channels to the tank. Unfortunately, in the winters of 150 CE, this dam suffered considerable damage due to heavy untimely rainfall and floods. It was under Rudradaman and his able governor Suvisakha that the dam was rebuilt, beautified, and Rudradaman made it three times stronger with no extra taxation on the people. Such efforts by ancient kings show the importance attached to water conservation and the care taken to the restoration of water structures. The story doesn’t end here. The Western Kshatrapas were defeated by the imperial Gupta dynasty (4th Century CE) and again one of the Gupta monarchs named Skandagupta added his inscriptions on the very same rock as on which Rudradaman and Ashoka have their inscriptions. It's fascinating to see that Skandagupta’s inscription again talks about the Sudarshan lake. In 455 CE this lake once again burst its embankments owing to excessive rains. It was Parnadatta, who served as governor of Skandagupta saved the people by repairing the embankments right in time under his able leadership. However, there are no remains of this lake anymore.
Around the sixth century, CE Gujarat was under its local rulers belonging to the Maitraka dynasty. The Maitraka rulers issued a lot of copper plate inscriptions recording various types of grants primarily. Here again, we see the kings donating step-wells for the common people. Balawar ni Vav in Bhavnagar district is one such structure that might have been standing since Maitraka times. Following this several local dynasties like the Saindhavas, Chavadas have contributed to the number of step-wells that stand all over the region.
More recent Solanki dynasty kings who ruled from Patan from the tenth to the thirteenth century have built several reservoirs and step-wells which are standing strong and extremely beautiful to look at. Many of these are built by their queens and ministers. Rani ki Vav, a stepwell which is also a world heritage site at Patan in Gujarat was built by queen Udayamati in memory of her husband King Bhima I in the eleventh century. These step-wells were not only sources of water but spaces to live in, a cool retreat for many particularly women who came to collect water, merchants, and travelers.
There is again another interesting story associated with yet another water monument of Gujarat. This is Malav Talav built by Minaldevi mother of Solanki king Siddharaj Jayasimha at Dholka. In the first place, it had all the architectural elements associated with water reservoirs like channels, inlet sluice channels, spill channels, etc for maximum water conservation. There is a legend which says how Minaldevi saved an old woman’s house which was coming in between during the construction of the reservoir. Though Malav Talav could not get a perfect circular shape as intended, however, Minaldevi is hailed for her sense of justice with Gujarati sayings like “Nyay jovo hoy to jao Malav Talav” which means “If you want to see justice, go to Malav Talav”. These words are inscribed on a pillar at the lake. Another beautiful water monument in Patan is the Shahastralinga tank was built by Siddharaj Jayasimha in the eleventh century. The name itself means that this beautiful structure was adorned with a thousand temples containing Shiva lingas. The tank is an engineering marvel with its numerous channels, sluice gates, and spill channel bringing in water from the nearby Sarawati river. It was interesting to know that Bairam Khan, the chief mentor, and guardian of Akbar was resting by the banks of the reservoir when he was killed by Haji Khan to avenge Hemu’s death. Unfortunately, this tank has silted up and had to be abandoned. Even Post Solanki period, the Islamic rulers from the thirteenth century onwards patronized several water monuments in Gujarat like Adalaj ni Vav, a beautiful stepwell at Adalaj, close to Ahmedabad, and the helical stepwell at Champaner, Pavagadh, close to Vadodara are some prominent examples.
Therefore, such a rich chronology associated with water-related monuments in Gujarat points to the importance attached to water as an important resource through ages, and how sovereigns and leaders understood this and took all care to build structures to hold water and then add inscriptions so that their noble deeds remain immortalized in the sands of time.
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5. Thapar Romila 2003. Early India, From the Origins to AD 1300, Penguin