Digging up wells from our past
They provide water for households, for irrigation, and quench the thirst of tourists like me. India has a fascinating tradition of wells. Want to dig deeper? them? Then join me in this ride!
Pandit ji has just gotten off the bus, a little ahead of his actual destination, Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of Kerala. He is walking through Palayam, a village which lies in the outskirts of the city, on a tiny hillock. Pandit ji is lost in the midst of stretches of lush green rubber trees. Ah, he can spot a teak as well! But the uphill journey on foot has now made him thirsty… (no, he isn’t carrying a mineral water bottle). Hmm… there it is. A tubewell, tucked away in that corner. The parched Pandit ji rushes to draw water from it. But, hey, the handle is broken… and falls out as he tries to move it. As he looks closer, he realises that the tubewell is rusty, covered with layers of dirt. “Doesn’t anyone use this?”, he mumbles as he moves ahead, “Looks like it hasn’t been touched for months”. He comes across a row of huts, each surrounded by a patch of green. Pandit ji is now desperate for a drink of water and stands in front of the first cottage, hoping that someone will notice him. Then a woman comes out of the hut. Pandit ji gestures with his hands and looks pleadingly at her. She nods her head, asking him to enter. And then leads him to the backyard… and, hey, here is a dugwell… with a rope and a bucket, hanging at the side. And this time there is water. Plenty of it! As the woman draws water and Pandit ji drinks thirstily, he watches the surrounding cottages. Each one of them has a dugwell, mostly at the back, but some in the front yard as well. “So wells are where they get their daily supply from,” says Pandit ji to himself, “For drinking, cooking and for latrines”. Yes, Pandit ji, and for much, much more.
A ‘well’bred nation
In India people have been using wells for household needs, for irrigating their crop lands, and even to feed industries. The Indian well culture dates back thousands of years. These man-made structures used for extracting water from underground aquifers were probably a Harappan invention. An archeological survey of the Indus Valley Civilisation reveals that every third house had a well. There is more evidence from pre-historic times. The Purana, Mahabharata, Ramayana, and various Vedic, Buddhist, and Jain texts contains references to wells, along with several other highly sophisticated water harvesting structures.
More recently, the official documents of the colonial rulers describe how digging wells was common practice in Bihar and Bengal. Well water was used for drinking and irrigating small plots of land adjoining the village homesteads, where vegetables, poppy and sugarcane were grown round the year.
Interestingly, wells played a key role in village economy. Since they could be built cheaply, as compared to other water structures like tanks and ponds, they were traditionally dug by village families – without the aid of a king or a zamindar.
But lifting water from wells is labour intensive, so they were not used to water foodgrains but valuable market crops. For instance, the Shanars of Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu, were well known as commercial cultivators, growing palmyra palm and tobacco. They were also the famous ‘well-diggers’ of this region. So, historically, well irrigation is linked to growth of commercial cultivation.
No wonder, therefore, that the people took care of their wells. Digging, cleaning, and de-silting wells were celebrated as social events, and local communities took part in them with gusto.
And most significantly, the users had managed to grasp the importance of maintaining a balance between extracting groundwater, and replenishing it through a myriad homegrown water harvesting techniques.
Wells were probably a Harappan invention. An archeological survey of the Indus Valley Civilisation reveals that every third house had a well. Digging, cleaning, and de-silting wells were celebrated as social events, and local communities took part in them with gusto.
Stepwells are a unique form of underground well architecture, which has survived from the 7th century onwards all over Rajasthan and Gujarat. They were not only a source of water, but a meeting and resting place for people while drawing water, and for travellers and caravans. And they were believed to be abodes of various spirits with life giving powers. Many medieval texts and inscriptions mention that a person who constructs a pond, well or stepwell attains a higher merit (punya) than one performing a sacrifice.
In fact, with its major part built underground, a stepwell resembles subterranean temple.
Often, walls of the wells are found covered with sculptures of major Hindu gods and goddesses, emphasising the fact that the enclosure filled with water is the most sacred part of it.
So well-culture and well-economy flourished in India for many centuries. The techniques of building them were different everywhere, and they were used for a variety of purposes. The remnants of this immensely water literate lifestyle can still be found in almost all the states of the country. Lets take a look…
MAHARASHTRA: BAORIES, KUNDIS
Traditionally, well irrigation was the principal form of irrigation. Well water was used for drinking and washing cattle. In Amravati, brackish water from wells was used for producing salt.The famous Daulatabad fort has four wells, which, along with a tank, are its main sources of water supply. In the Ramtek waterharvesting model, runoff is harvested through tanks, supported by high yielding wells and structures like baories, kundis, and waterholes.
In Andhra Pradesh, small tanks were built to feed bavi (wells) by percolation. Kunta, a system of storing rainwater in a percolation tank, recharged the groundwater table. And Revu, a process of collecting streamwater, diverted it into a nearby well through a connecting channel. Wells dotted the districts of the erstwhile Hyderabad state, Atraf-I-balda, Nizamabad, Medak, Mahbubnagar, Nalgonda, Warangal, Karimnagar and Adilabad.
ANDHRA: BAVI, REVU
Various types of wells are found in Rajasthan - kua, kui, beri, kohar, baoli, bavdi, jhalara, dakeriyan, and so on...
RAJASTHAN: KUA, KOHAR, JHALARA, BAVDI
Rajasthan is one of the most well-rich states. It offers an amazing variety. A kua (well) is usually owned by an individual. There are the larger kohars, which are owned by the community. Then there are baolis and jhalaras (stepwells, but different in structure and architectural pattern). Baolis usually have a religious significance and were constructed as a philanthropic deed for punya. People have also named various wells, such as sagar-kakua, seer-ka-kua, sajay-ka-kua, and so on.
Smaller wells and stepwells (kuis and beris) were built below tanks and other types of water storage structures like talabs to collect the seepage from them. All the major forts of Rajasthan had an intricate system of wells and stepwells.
In western Rajasthan – the state’s desert tract comprising of Bikaner, Jodhpur and Jaisalmer – wells were the most important source of water, both for irrigation and drinking purposes. The early British gazetteers report that villages (clusters of huts) were established around a well. The eastern part of Jodhpur was full of wells and the land irrigated by wells was referred to as chahi.
Irrigation by wells was also very common in Aravalli hills and the associated highlands. Numerous wells and bavdis were built here. In Udaipur, there were as many as 100,000 wells around the turn of the century. The seepage from the lakes collected by wells and stepwells was used for drinking purposes.
Then there were emergency wells known as dakeriyan. These were shallow wells dug in harvested fields where rainwater is impounded for kharif cultivation. The water that seeped into the ground was, after the harvest, harnessed through wells.
GUJARAT: VAVDI, VIRDA
It was widely believed that the water of a stepwell called sari, in southern Saurashtra, added to the temper and sharpness of swords. Minerals and salts dissolved in it had the quality of making metals stronger and brighter.
Wells and tanks were the principal means of water harvesting. Stepwells are found all over the state, and are known as vav or vavadi. They are used for various reasons – for cooling, as resting places for travellers, for irrigation and so on. It was widely believed that the water of a stepwell called sari, in southern Saurashtra, added to the temper and sharpness of swords. Apart from vav, there are shallow wells dug in low depressions called jheels (tanks) known as virdas.
Watering holes across India
There are many baolis (stepwells) in Delhi built by sultans and their nobles. These baolis were secular structures from which people of all communites could draw water.
Some examples are Gandak-kibaoli, Rajon-ki-baoli, Muradabad-ki- Pahad-ki-baoli, and so on. The Tughlaqabad Fort contains ruins of three extensive baolis, besides numerous deepwells.
Wells were a major source of water
in the rural areas as well as the main city. Like the Indara kuan near the present Jubilee cinema, Pahar-wala-kuan near Gali-pahar-wali, and Chah Rahat near Chhipiwara (feeding water to the Jama Masjid). In 1843, Shahjahanabad had 607 wells, of which 52 provided sweetwater. According to the early gazetteers, 19 per cent of the irrigation was done using wells.
Springs locally called talpariges were used for irrigation. Though quite common, they were not the chief source of irrigation. Channels or pats carried water from them. Many dugwells in Kolar district have a garanda in them. Garanda or Pilla bhavi is a mini well constructed within a dugwell to capture lower level springs and percolation water. In Shahapur, Ali Adil Shah I (1557-1580) built a large well known as Chand’s well, and made channels to lead the water through the town.
Various taxes, like Kulia sunka, were imposed on wells in a garden to encourage judicious use of water, and prevent wastage by excess use.
PUNJAB: KUANS & JHALARS
The cultivated area in Punjab was traditionally irrigated with the help of wells. British documents report that irrigation in the Beas-Sutlej doab (the elevated region between two rivers) was almost entirely done by wells. During a drought year, hundreds of lever-wells were run. In Kapurthala, irrigation was done by floodwaters of the rivers using wells and jhalars. Jhalars are shallow wells excavated on the banks of the streams, from which water was lifted using Persian wheel. The Punjab Malwa plain was also irrigated by wells.
The digging of a well was a major occassion. People would consult priests before sinking the cylinder for making a well, and celebrate it in a grand way.
Flowing through tradition
TAMILNADU: KINARU, KENI
Wells were generally known as kinaru or keni. Their water was profusely used in Coimbatore. The number increased after 1800. Water was stored behind small bunds to recharge the wells. The ancient tanks, eris, recharged the groundwater in the surrounding areas. As much as 10.5 per cent of the dry area was irrigated by wells, and these supplemented tank water supply which was often scanty.
Ancient tanks called eris recharged the groundwater in the surrounding areas, which in turn, fed the wells.
Wells played a major role in irrigation. Waters from tanks called abi were mainly used as an auxiliary to wells situated in homestead lands. A unique kind of abi irrigation was practised on the Ghaggar and its tributaries. Wells, sometimes lined with masonry and sometimes kuchcha, were dug near the banks of the river, and carried down to a level lower than its bed. In the case of a masonry well, its mouth was exposed on the river side, and a channel from the river led water into the wells through an arch or jharokha.
UTTAR PRADESH: KUAN
Wells were a major source of irrigation because the groundwater level was very high, and hence boring of wells was easy and cheap in most districts. But in the sandy lowlands along the rivers, the wells, unless made of masonry, broke down during the rains. Tanks had kuchcha wells reaching to the spring level in the center. According to the elders in Kandhla (situated some 46 km from Muzaffarnagar town in western UP), most of the wells here had sweetwater, and a couple of them had khara or brackish water, which was bottled and used to cure a number of ailments.
Most of the drinking water used to be collected from open dug wells and pukurs (open wells constructed in the down stream of ponds). Almost all villages have at least one pukur, and some have several. Many well-off families have their own pukurs. They are also used for domestic purposes, like taking bath, washing clothes and utensils, while some are exclusively reserved for drinking water.
Now, almost all districts of West Bengal, including the rural communities, depend heavily on tubewells and hand pumps. Nearly 70 per cent of irrigation is done through shallow and deep tubewells.
Open dug wells and pukurs are being increasingly replaced by tubewells.
People's lifeline across India
ISLANDS: DUGWELLS, STEPWELLS
In Car Nicobar, tribals built circular dugwells using stones, wood and even utensils thrown from passing ships. The wells were usually lined with blocks of bullet wood, as it does not decay in water.
Amongst the Jarawas, the community leaders who worship deer also act as water diviners. By thumping the ground with their feet and judging the resonance they can predict the presence of water, including its depth. The Nicobarese here could determine where to dig for sweet groundwater, relying on the coconut for information. If the taste of the coconut water is sweet, the groundwater there is likely to be saline, and vice versa.
In Lakshadweep Islands, people have been using wells (many of them stepwells) to meet their drinking water requirements. Almost every household has a dugwell for domestic purposes.
Open wells found here are one of the very few traditional systems still in extensive use, but mainly for domestic purposes where organised water supply systems are not available. Traditionally, people used the Middle Eastern technology of Qanats to build subterranean structures or rather horizontal wells called surangams (also known as thurangam, thorapu, mala, etc.). They tapped the water seeping down the hillsides for use as drinking water.
Traditionally, people used horizontal wells, called surangams, which tapped the water seeping down the hillsides.
Not Well- Overextraction, contamination and neglect of groundwater and wells affects our water security
Now if Panditji decides to go on a well-hunting spree across Kerala, do you know what the count will be? An astounding 4.5 million! Yes, there are about 300 dugwells every square kilometere in the southern most state of India. About 70 to 80 per cent of the people depend on these for household water supply. They have done so for generations. These wells seem to be the perfect source, don’t they? They ensure that the people don’t have to depend on the government for their water. Also, being not more than five to 50 metres deep, they tap shallow aquifers, leaving deeper layers untouched. This is critical in Kerala, which has impermeable lateritic soils that limit natural recharge of deep aquifers. So while the state is known for its heavy and prolonged monsoon rains, very little portion of that actually filters down to restock groundwater.
But, there is a problem here. Now the wells dry up in the 2-3 peak summer months. Why does this happen? Because tradition has given way to technology. Bore wells and tubewells, which suck water from deep aquifers, have led to over withdrawal of groundwater, and a severe depletion in the water table.
This is what happens if groundwater is extracted continuously, and not enough attention is paid to ensure adequate recharge:
Silting: Sometimes the surrounding sand at the bottom of the well rushes in and fills the well. This restricts the storage capacity of the well considerably.
Inland salinity: As more and more water is extracted, the levels of salts like chlorides and fluorides present in the ground rises, contaminating the groundwater. For example, groundwater in most parts of Delhi is contaminated with fluoride and nitrate, and natural arsenic contamination is a major problem in West Bengal.
Seawater intrusion: Below the ground, freshwater ‘floats’ above seawater in a delicate balance. Overextraction of groundwater destroys this balance, and allows seawater to encroach upon or mix with fresh water, leading to either seawater intrusion or upcoming (seeping of seawater into the freshwater table).
The Indian people, traditionally, were water-wise. They knew if wells are to remain healthy and functional, steps need to be taken to nurture and feed the water table. Efforts must be made to keep the catchment clear and clean.
But as population grew, demand soared, and modern technology intervened, we became increasingly reckless and foolish. Take Kerala as an example. Like in every other state the government here, too, spends, crores in rural drinking water supply built around piped water, handpumps and tubewells. If a portion of this money is spent on harvesting Kerala’s massive rainfall, to recharge the drying aquifers, peak summer shortage could be dealt with effectively.
As the weary but thoughtful Panditji entered the city of Thiruvananthapuram, he prayed hard for the dugwells of Kerala to hold out. To prove to all disbelievers that India can look forward to a water secure future. If only it decides to pay more heed to its traditions and to the wisdom of its people. Lets pray with him.
Drawing water from the depths of the earth is a feat by itself. It requires more than a basic knowledge of physical sciences. But what it requires most is a large dose of innovation and home-grown common sense. Here are some interesting samples of the methods used in various parts of India.
● Picota: A wooden beam is placed on a vertical pillar fixed near a well (like a seesaw). A bucket is tied to its one end with a long rope, and the other end is counter balanced with a heavy stone. This method is used in states including Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, and parts of Bihar.
● Etram: A wooden pole lever is fulcrumed to a vertical point and a bucket is hung with a pole over the well. A person walks to and fro on the pole and causes the bucket to dip and rise! Another person sitting near the well empties the bucket. It is a common device in southern India.
● Swing basket: A bucket is suspended with two sets of ropes on each side. Two men stand near the source of water facing each other and swing the bucket to fill the water and then discharge it on the platform on the other side. It is known as ‘iravai koodai’ in Tamil Nadu.
● Archimedean Screw: It consists of a wooden or metal wheel drum with a screw-like interior partition, rotated by a handle fixed to a centre spindle. The spindle projects from both ends and is supported by posts near its ends. The drum is placed at an angle less than 30 degree with its lower end in water. When the handle is turned, the water moves up through the drum and discharges through the upper end. It is used in the deltaic regions of Andhra Pradesh.
● Rati (Pulley and bucket type): This is simple bucket and pulley arrangement. (The ones you usually see in movies)
● Mhote Charsa or charas: A large leather or iron bucket is hauled up and down the well by bullock walking on a sloping ramp constructed near the well. One end of the rope is tied to the bucket and the other to the bullock’s yoke. The ropes move over wooden pulleys fixed on the sides of well. It is used in states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and parts of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
● Persian Wheel (Rahat): Water is lifted in a series of small buckets fixed on an endless belt or ‘strocket chain’ moving on a vertical wheel or drum. Bullocks or camels walking in a circle turn the drum through a set of bevel gears and shafts, which moves the endless belt. The revolving movement of the belt rises the bucket full of water on one side, and empties it when it reaches the top. It is commonly found in Punjab, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, western UP, and parts of Maharashtra.
● Pumps: Pumps work on one or more of the principles of atmospheric pressure, centrifugal force, positive displacement and flow caused due to difference of specific weights of the fluid in the columns.
The old city of Ahmedabad is dotted with intricate by-lanes called pols. Traditionally, every house had one or more tankas (underground rainwater storage tanks). A well was constructed in the centre of each pol. These wells were fitted with wooden seats and a peddle, attached to a woven rope, which was used to lift water. The system was called gharad. Two women sat on two sides and moved the peddle with their feet.
- By Salahuddin Saiphy, CSE