I recently went to Jaisalmer, Rajasthan, to meet a friend. When I visited his house, I was served water and my companion was served buttermilk. I was surprised at the injustice done to me. But later, I found out to my utter amazement, that here it is a common practice to serve buttermilk to ordinary guests. Special guests are served water only once, and that too, in a tumbler, which is held a little above the mouth while drinking, so that someone else can consume the remaining water! Water harvesting is deeply rooted in the social fabric of Rajasthan. Even its mighty forts that stand witness to innumerable wars, symbolise judicious use of their scarcest resource: water.
Rajasthan, located in the northwestern region of India, is divided into two climatic and geographic regions by the Aravalli range: Thar Desert in the northwest, and the semi-arid region in the southeast. It is known for its splendid forts and palaces all over the world. Some forts lie on the summit with their palaces on the hillside as in Amber and Bundi. Some had entire settlement within the fort as in Kumbalgarh, Chittorgarh (or Chittor Fort) and Ranthambhore. But this extravagance stand in contrast to their water wisdom.
These forts witnessed fierce battles and were often under siege for months. During such times, there had to be enough water inside the fort. The only solution was their elaborate water harvesting system. Here are a few examples:
The oldest fort of Rajasthan, constructed on the top of a hill around 152 m high, saw three ferocious battles in its history. It was a stronghold of the Rajputana state, and no invader could subdue Mewar unless Chittor and Kumbalgarh forts were conquered. At least 50,000 people lived in it at a single time, along with a large number of elephants and horses. So how did they meet their water requirement? There were 84 water bodies in the fort. At least 22 of them still exist, which include talabs, kunds, baoris (stepwells) and wells. All talabs have natural catchments, and kunds and baoris located below them harvest surface water and ground seepage. Even if a talab dries up, its seepage could still be harvested. The rainwater that can be collected, falling over an area of 400 hectares (ha), with an average annual rainfall of 700 mm, is around 3 billion litres. The reservoirs can store about 4 billion litres of water. Thus, an army of about 50,000 people, and animals could live in the fort for nearly four years without any fear of thirst!
About 5,000 people once lived in the fort, which is now situated in the Ranthambore National Park. It has five large water bodies – Jangali Talab, Suksagar Talab, Kalasagar, Padmala Talab and Ranee haud – that have a natural catchment, a perennial spring named Gupt Ganga, and a large tank. Water was taken from the wells next to talabs that later recharged wells. All major structures in the fort are around these welldistributed water bodies. During war, water would be released from the fort openings to ward off the advancing enemy. Another tactic was to throw boiling water onto the enemy from above!
Amber and Jaigarh Forts
The Jaigarh fort, 400 feet above the ancient capital of the state Amber fort, was built to enhance the strength of Amber. It has wide water channels, and three underground tanks. The largest tank could store 60,00,000 gallons of water! Rumours abound that it contains hidden treasure. But, the Indian Government searched for it in 1976 and found nothing. To sum up, the forts of Rajasthan made excellent use of their natural catchments. Some areas were contoured to help in collecting runoff. Wells and kunds on their tops never even dried up. Stone quarrying for building purposes was done in such a way that the pit could later be used as a reservoir. Water from some reservoirs overflowed into another. Even if a reservoir dried up, its seepage was harvested. Thus, the forts could withstand wars and sieges for years without difficulty.
It is not a daydream, nor a mirage. There are fountain springs in palaces and forts in the desert of Rajasthan such as in the Nagaur Fort!
Nagaur fort used underground water, drawn mechanically and channelled by gravity flows, to create fountains with the aid of pressure differences. There were hot and cold water supply arrangements in the hammams (bath houses) as well!
It is hydraulics at its best, in terms of design and execution.