Science & Technology

Real pride of ancient Indian science

Indian scientists are nowhere to be seen in the world you and I inhabit. This is when our modern world requires science to be integrated into every aspect of daily life

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Monday 17 August 2015

I write this with considerable impatience and one question. Do we really have the time to waste on controversies like what ancient India did or did not achieve by way of scientific discoveries? This is when there is the huge unfinished agenda to use the best of science to tackle current challenges and crises.

imageAt the recently concluded annual ritual of the Indian Science Congress, the Union science and technology minister drew solace from the fact that ancient India had mathematical prowess—we gifted the Pythagoras theorem and algebra to the world. There is truth in this, no doubt. But this is about the past. At best, it tells us to be proud of our legacy. But what does it tell us about what needs to be done to innovate for our needs?

There is no doubt that Indian science is losing ground; every indicator shows this. The ranking of our top scientific educational institutions is consistently falling and our achievements are fewer by the day. Most importantly, Indian scientists are nowhere to be seen in the world you and I inhabit. This is when our modern world requires science to be integrated into every aspect of daily life.

This is also the problem I have with the current controversy about Vedic science—whether we flew aircraft or mastered plastic surgery is immaterial for modern India. What matters is ancient Indians understood the science and art of settlement planning, architecture and governance of natural resources. This is the history we need to learn because it tells us what we must do right. These are the real symbols of ancient India’s scientific prowess.

Take water, for instance. Traditionally, we built highly sophisticated systems, which varied to suit different ecosystems, for harvesting every drop of water. Archaeological excavations near Allahabad have found evidence of early Indian hydraulic engineering. Dating back to the end of 1st century BC, the Sringaverapura tank is a remarkable system to take the floodwater of Ganga into a set of desilting chambers, including water weirs, to clean the water for drinking. It can be a matter of belief that Lord Ram drank water from this tank. But it is a fact that the technological system is so evolved that it would put to shame all public works engineers of today’s India.

Dholavira, a settlement off the coast of Gujarat, dates back to the Indus Valley civilization. Archaeologists have found this desert city had built lakes to collect monsoon runoff, bunds and inlet channels to divert water, and intricate drainage system for storm water, drinking water and waste. Today, we cannot even build city roads that do not get flooded each monsoon, or protect lakes for storing rainwater.

Till the time the British came to India, the water traditions were in vogue. British gazettes speak of these systems, at times with awe, calling us a hydraulic society. Sir William Willocks, a British irrigation engineer, who was called in 1920 to advise the administration on how to handle famines, said the best answer was to go back to the ingenious system of flood management of Bengal. This was never done, of course.

Ancient Indians also understood the art of water governance. Kautilya’s Arthasastra, written around 300 BC, has details of how tanks and canals are to be built and managed. The key was to clarify the enabling role of the state—the king—and the management role of local communities. The kings did not have armies of public works engineers; they provided fiscal incentives to communities and individuals who built water systems. The British changed all this, by vesting the resource with the state and creating large bureaucracies for management.

The British rulers also changed the tax system; collection of revenue became paramount, even during droughts. There was little then to invest in community assets. The decline came quickly and was cemented by polices of independent India. This is the history of resource management we need to learn.

But if we must be proud of our water heritage and relearn its art and science, then we must also reject its ills—the focus on rituals and the evils of the caste system. We are such a dirty nation today—look at the untreated sewage in our rivers and garbage on our streets—because we come from a society where waste is an “untouchable” business. As long as we can live with the idea of manual scavenging—somebody from a “lower” caste will carry our excreta away—we will never get a clean India.

If we must glorify the past, we must be proud of our present. This is what we need to learn. Quickly.

Monsoon rainfall cycles as depicted in ancient Sanskrit texts

Indigenous technical knowledge and ancient proverbs of the coastal fisher folk of Kerala and their implications

‘Indovation’ for affordable excellence

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  • This refers to the article "

    This refers to the article " Real pride of ancient Indian science".India is undoubtedly one of the cradles for emergence of several thoughts and ideas. Indians should not have any qualms to say it aloud though. From scientific achievements to excellence in literature, mathematics to philosophy, the country has made its name and come up with clapping laurels. Obviously legacies are always to be celebrated and cherished. The unfortunate part however is painting everything with nationalism (read pseudo nationalism) and love for country which infact is not true in most of the cases. One may not wonder of this glorification of the past because of the current political ideas prevalent right now. The recently held Indian Science congress instead of producing hard core original research papers came up with myth painted bogus fake papers to the happiness of a handful of fanatics and zealots. Cherishing the past endeavors is never a bad approach but maintaining truthfulness and standard are essential. Otherwise it will very easily tarnish whatever real legacies the nation has(had). It is the responsibility of scientific community in India to strike against these ill-happenings and false propaganda. It is a fact that Indian intellects were influenced by foreign ideas and views and it also true that Indians have influenced them as well. In such a cacophony of taking the first-pride front seat it is better to accept mutual togetherness of ideas which have flourished with contacts. No nation has developed without having absorbed the ideas from diverse regions and people. In this bitter environment inculcation and promotion of scientific temper otherwise is bound to remain a distant dream.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 5 years ago | Reply
  • written nicely!!

    written nicely!!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 5 years ago | Reply
  • Yes it is true. Even in

    Yes it is true. Even in Andhra Pradesh state ancient saints built excellent system of collecting water to pilgrims visiting Siva temples. Take the case of Mahanandi Temple Near Nandyala in Kurnool district. The water is pure even to date. If you put a coin, you can this clearly. The outflow of the water is used for irrigation. So far nobody could trace the origin of this flow. Same is the case with Srisailem Siva temple in Kurnool district. Cumbum cheruvu, the second largest in Asia is another classical example. still intact -- from Kurnool district but it is merged with Prakasham district now. All these associated with Nallamala Forests.

    Ancient science was developed for helping mankind but present day science more oriented to help commercial interests and material gains. This resulted the destruction of environment.

    Dr. S. Jeevananda Reddy

    Posted by: Anonymous | 5 years ago | Reply
  • Having been inspired by the

    Having been inspired by the Traditional Science Congress held in 1993 and 1995 in Bombay ( Mumbai ) and MADRAS ( Chennai ) to apply my technical training in Electronics and turnkey projects to new developments in Ecology, I understood just one thing in the past 2 decades. Hints for development of technology relevant to today's times and crises come from the past. Original thinking is very rare and only great meditation in deep silence can offer this. Pearls of wisdom were passed on through stories and mythology. How does a person from the past send a message many generations ahead for ideas which are not understood in their time ? It is simply made part of rituals and religious practices. Being a 'HINDU' as we are called today was actually to describe a people who were close to Nature and who would converse with her. Let me share with you a break through achievement of INDIA with inspiration from the image of Goddess Lakshmi, Lord Shiva and the design of his temple. Lord Shiva was reported to have accepted poison which is how he turned blue and also received the GANGA. While all this is great fodder for AMAR CHITRA KATHA ( Comic books ), to the seeker of advanced knowledge, these stories and myths are a Pandora's box of grand knowledge. My Eco Guru Dr. U.S.B. , a Chemical Engineer from I.I.T. Bombay 1973 batch and later a PhD in 1997 contemplated on SAMUDRA MANTHAN story which is part of every 'HINDU' marriage ceremony, and wondered where Goddess Lakshmi kept her wealth which is conveyed as GOLD COINS. The STHAN ( abode ) of Lord Shiva is in the mountains and Goddess Lakshmi is in the sea ( Almost all Indian men do not know this ) The critical relevance of the use of the COCONUT in South India and Maharashtra during NARIYAL PURNIMA where coconuts are offered to calm the waves after the end of the monsoon may be perceived as an act of faith and customs but to the discerning observer, it is yet another exciting hint. It took a chemical engineer to figure out how Pottasium is created from Sodium which the coconut tree roots pull up from sea water. Na 23 + O 16 = K 39 ( 23, 16, 39 are atomic weights of Sodium, Oxygen and Potassium ) That Ganga water did not corrode copper, did not create slime and does not breed biting mosquito larvae has never been taken seriously by scientists trained in western science and its methods of evaluating phenomenon, double blind trials and peer review. ( Peer review is mostly like the blind men who try to feel the elephant and pronounce their opinions ) So let us get back to Goddess Lakshmi. What exactly are these Gold coins and how can she bless us with prosperity ? Millions worship her but few believe her, and thus miss out on breakthrough knowledge until someone destined to crack the riddle is born. That Nature has a Prosperity reaction was partly understood as the PHOTO SYNTHESIS reaction but down played by creating industrial agriculture where inputs were provided and yield harvested with a commercial attitude. Nutrition and how it addresses pollution which challenges HOMEOSTASIS has still not been taken seriously because there is no clarity. Our scientists do not discuss what they do not understand and unfortunately what is not known is enormous. But the real danger comes from using the wrong knowledge for short term gains and ignoring sure but delayed long term hazard for which we pay with our health ! The government funds thousands of such scientists but we are sinking deeper into a morass surely and steadily, being buried alive to die in misery and pain. The brilliance of Dr. U.S.B. was repeatedly revealed in several insights he obtained such as " Chemical farming is organic agriculture while Organic agriculture is chemical farming " When I first heard this, I just thought this was another word play. Today, I realise the depth and immense value of this perceptive insight, because all the dots are connecting, the jigsaw of life is coming together. All this may sound like a PHILOSOPHY but that is exactly what our INDIAN culture was all about. It was a Philosophy derived from Nature, the manifestation of Creation itself. Can you eat Gold ? We need water, food, fuel, fibre and good health. All the Gold in the world cannot create this for us. Yet Gold is valued for it represents wealth, and represents hard work and services of people. It does have its role ! Now when we say that the GODS are all powerful, how is it that millions are unable to address their basic needs to ensure dignity and even some delight ? Have the GODS forsaken us ? Nope, not at all. The knowledge has always been there but when we break our links with the source of GOD HEAD, we suffer. The PHOTOSYNTHESIS equation is NOx + CO2 + Sunlight = Food, Fuel, Fibre + Oxygen. Dr. U.S.B. improved this to NOx + CO2 + Light / Heat = Food, Fuel, Fibre + Nascent Oxygen + Cooling. We traditionally worship the cow and if we understand how critical are these power houses that our traditional Indian breeds are to create a delightful human experience, we will love them ever more. Cow products from the dung, urine and milk of a free grazing cow can produce substances which can create a top soil which sets an advanced chemistry in motion. The herbs, vegetables, fruit and grain obtained will be of high quality as it can keep humans healthy and minds at their creative best. Imbibed pollution also gets addressed as natural antidotes are created. Cultural cooking practices take care of the Ayurvedic aspects nicely. The Coconut tree turns salt water into coconut water which was used to replace SALINE for wounded Indian soldiers during WW II by British Doctors. If this is not a grand statement, then nothing can ever move you for it suggests you are brain dead, have stopped thinking..... Now many people may know some of these facts but a genius who pieces together the jigsaw to create a living knowledge tool which delivers material results needs to be applauded. If we do believe that CREATION IS PERFECT as the Christians suggest and accept that NATURE IS WELL DESIGNED as Dr. U.S.B. says then the stage is ready for the reality that this is an unlimited universe, where some of our dreams can also come true. What a sorry conclusion of the United Nations that wars will be provoked by the shortage of quality water in the near future ! An INDIAN suggests that such a prognosis need not materialise with simply advanced Eco Technologies from INDIA. It was as far back as 2006 that it was revealed how large salt pans were growing grass with sea water which was edible for DAIRY to produce good quality milk and announced at a program organised by the U.N.E.P. in DUBAI. Later encouragement came from the Sultanate of Oman and recently even PAKISTAN. Last mile work can create non toxic organic food for millions from sea water. We do not have to depend on rain. Every Indian mythological story has simply grand knowledge and it is therefore observed that ridicule is showered on any grand story, so that we do not recover our pride and strength and remain weak to be picked by vultures in a manner which few can envisage. The silence of those who know is deafening, and conveys that they have thrown future generations of Indians to foreign wolves.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 5 years ago | Reply
  • thank you sharing this

    thank you sharing this

    Posted by: Anonymous | 5 years ago | Reply
  • Excellent ,Madam. Your views

    Excellent ,Madam. Your views need consideration by the authorities concerned.
    There were many Methods used by ancestors which need to be studied scientifically and adopted. One such field is Water Harvesting.
    Tapping of groundwater sources had apparently exercised the minds of Indians even in ancient times. Old treatises on the subject like 5th century astrologer VarahamihiraÔÇÖs chapter on hydrology in his magnum opus ÔÇÿBrihat SamhitaÔÇÖ and the fact that different communities had evolved their own curious methods of dowsing is a proof of it.
    The most common of the methods of dowsing since long ago is the use of the forked twig, rod or a pendulum. In Adilabad however, different methods of water divination were employed. The easiest of them all was just taking a stroll on a cold night in the area where a water source was needed. The spot where a pocket of hot air was found was ÔÇÿtheÔÇÖ spot because it indicated presence of underground water.
    A more elaborate method of dowsing, that is perhaps unique to Adilabad, involves two persons, a couple of coconuts, a ÔÇÿrotiÔÇÖ making pan and the material used to perform puja. The method is simply known as ÔÇÿpani dekhnaÔÇÖ.
    The method
    After performing puja at a clean spot, one person squats on a coconut that is placed on the ÔÇÿrotiÔÇÖ making pan. The entire balance of the personÔÇÖs body rests on the coconut though he steadies himself by touching his hands on the ground.
    The other person goes around the field with another coconut held in his hand. He generally moves around in concentric circles starting from the periphery and getting closer to the squatting person each time.
    When this person reaches a ÔÇÿwater spotÔÇÖ, the person squatting on the coconut starts automatically moving round and round because it is believed that a force is exerted on the coconut under him.
    Success rate
    The man moving about with the coconut held in hand earmarks all such spots for a borewell to be dug out subsequently. The success rate of this method is claimed to be quite high.
    Based on the information in the ÔÇÿBrihat SamhitaÔÇÖ,A Geology Professor from Sri Venkateswara University late Dr.E A V Prasad studied water divine technique on the occurance of neem tree and ant hill side by side.
    External features of vegetation as hydrologic indicators & Varahamihira's Brihat Samhita

    Indian Water finder with coconut by Dr. Atre

    Despite being crisscrossed by a complex network of rivers, vast stretches of India have neither river nor lake to depend on. Rainwater is the only copious and clean source of water, but its distribution is neither uniform nor assured in all parts. India receives about 400 million hectare metres (mham) of rain per year over an area of 329 mha. The rainfall ranges from as low as 100 mm in the Thar Desert to 15,000 mm in the North east.
    The history of India tells us that floods, droughts or both were a perennial occurrence. If the overflow of rivers and streams in spate could be redirected and stored, the water could be used during drought. Even rainfall as low as 100 mm, if harvested properly, can meet the drinking water needs of the people.

    IndiaÔÇÖs rich tradition of water harvesting systems
    The practice of harvesting rainwater dates back to Vedic times when the need to create water sources that would remain both clean and provide plentifully was recognized.
    Rivers were the obvious location of civilizations, and different civilizations utilized them in different ways. Early people cut channels, diverted rivers, and farmed their regions. Wells had been dug in the cities of the Indus ÔÇô Sarasvati Valley by the third millennium B.C., while the ÔÇ£Great BathÔÇØ was probably a water storage tank. The Indus Valley cities had excellent systems of water harvesting and drainage. Dholavira, laid out on a slope between two storm water channels, is an example of sophisticated engineering.

    Water harvesting down the ages
    3rd millennium B.C. Dams built of stone rubble were found in Baluchistan and Kutch
    3000 ÔÇô 1500 B.C. Indus - Sarasvati Civilization had several reservoirs to collect rainwater runoff. Each house had an individual well
    321 ÔÇô 291 B.C. Archeological evidence for dams, lakes and irrigation systems in the time of Chandragupta MauryaÔÇÖs rule
    3rd Century B.C. KautilyaÔÇÖs Arthasastra mentions irrigation using water harvesting systems
    1st Century B.C. Sringaverapura near Allahabad had a sophisticated water harvesting system using the floodwaters of the Ganges
    2nd Century A.D. Grand Anicut or Kallanai built by Karikala Chola across the river Cauvery to divert water for irrigation is still functional
    11th Century A.D. King Bhoja of Bhopal built the largest artificial lake (65,000 acres) in India fed by streams and springs
    12th Century A.D. Rajatarangini by Kalhana describes a well- maintained irrigation system in Kashmir

    Tanks in the Indus ÔÇô Sarasvati Valley
    The excavations at Harappa and Mohenjodaro reveal deep rectangular constructions that were probably the earliest tanks built in India.

    Ancient engineering feat

    A tank excavated at Sringaverapura near Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, dates back to the 1st century B.C. Rama began his 14 year exile from here and could well have drunk water from this tank. Excavations have unearthed a fully brick lined tank that is 800 feet long, 60 feet wide and 12 feet deep. The natural slope of the land was taken advantage of to bring water from the river Ganga to the tank by a nullah. The water first passed through two deep earthen tanks, where the silt settled down, and escaped through the upper end of the settling tank. The inlet to the main tank ended in steps with curved walls to slow down the water. Several wells were also dug in the bottom of the tank to ensure adequate water supply in the dry months.

    The technology of water harvesting
    Rainwater, runoff and the floodwaters from rivers were all harvested. Water harvesting systems were located
    ÔÇó in the open to capture rainwater where it fell
    ÔÇó in the path of a stream or its runoff
    ÔÇó beside rivers to catch the flood waters
    The design and structure of each system was decided by the terrain and rainfall pattern of the region. Hence each eco-zone of India had unique techniques for harvesting water.
    a. In the hills and mountainous regions where there are plenty of streams, simple engineering structures were used to divert the water into channels that fed the fields. The structures became more sophisticated and much bigger when the streams turned to rivers.

    b. In the arid and semi-arid regions, where the streams are more seasonal, the diversion channels first led the water to a storage structure like a tank for later use. Storage systems to collect just runoff from the watershed were also built.
    c. In the flood plains, several unique systems to control and harness the floodwaters were devised.
    d. In the coastal areas where there is danger of river water turning saline, several ingenious ways came up to regulate the flow of saline water.

    e. In regions with good groundwater aquifers, dugwells with innovative methods to lift the water were in use. Deep wells were dug in the beds of tanks and rivers, both to serve as a source of good water when the water recedes and also to recharge the groundwater when they are fully submerged.

    f. In areas where rainfall is the only option, people devised methods to literally ÔÇ£catch rainwater where it fellÔÇØ.

    Advantages of harvesting water

    When a small waterbody or source is created, there are several benefits.
    ÔÇó The standing water percolates into the ground and recharges the water table
    ÔÇó Wells in the surrounding areas have plenty of good water
    ÔÇó Green cover increases in the surrounding areas
    ÔÇó Soil erosion is reduced
    ÔÇó Silting of rivers is reduced
    ÔÇó Floods and runoff get controlled
    Eco-zone Traditional water harvesting systems Description Found in
    1. Trans-Himalayan Region Zing Tanks for collecting water from melted ice Ladakh
    2. Western Himalayas Kul Water channels in mountain areas Jammu, Himachal Pradesh
    Naula Small ponds Uttaranchal
    Kuhl Headwall across a ravine to divert water from a natural stream for irrigation Himachal Pradesh
    Khatri Chambers carved in hard rock for storing water Himachal Pradesh
    3. Eastern Himalayas Apatani Terraced plots connected by inlet and outlet channels Arunachal Pradesh
    4. Northeastern Hill Ranges Zabo Impounding runoff Nagaland
    Cheo-oziihi Channels from rivers Nagaland
    Bamboo drip irrigation Water from streams in the hills is brought to the plains via bamboo pipes for drip irrigation Meghalaya
    5. Brahmaputra Valley Dongs Ponds Assam
    Dungs / jampois Small irrigation canals linking rice fields and a stream W. Bengal
    6. Indo-Gangetic Plain Ahar-pynes Embanked catchment basin and channels S. Bihar
    Bengal's inundation channels Inundation canals W. Bengal
    Dighis Small square or circular reservoir fed by canals from rivers Delhi
    Baolis Stepwells Delhi
    7. Thar Desert Kunds / kundis Underground storage W.Rajasthan
    Kuis / beris Deep pits near tanks W.Rajasthan
    Baoris / bers Community wells Rajasthan
    Jhalaras Tank Rajasthan, Gujarat
    Nadi Village ponds Jodhpur, Rajasthan
    Tankas Underground tank Bikaner, Rajasthan
    Khadins Embankment across lower hill slopes Jaisalmer, W. Rajasthan
    Vav / Vavdi / Baoli / Bavadi Stepwells Gujarat, Rajasthan
    Virdas Shallow wells Rann of Kutch, Gujarat
    Paar Area where water has percolated, accessed by kuis -
    8. Central Highlands Talab / Bandhis Reservoirs Bundelkhand, Madhya Pradesh
    Saza Kuva Open well Mewar, E. Rajasthan
    Johads Earthen check dams Alwar district, Rajasthan
    Naada / bandh Stone check dam Mewar, Thar desert
    Pat Diversion bund across stream Jhabua district, Madhya Pradesh
    Rapat Percolation tank Rajasthan
    Chandela tank Tank Rajasthan
    Bundela tank Tank Rajasthan
    9. Eastern Highlands Katas / Mundas / Bandhas Earthen embankments across drainage lines Orissa & Madhya Pradesh
    10. Deccan Plateau Cheruvu Reservoirs to store runoff Chitoor,Cuddapah districts of Andhra Pradesh
    Kohli tanks Tanks Maharashtra
    Bhandaras Check dams Maharashtra
    Phad Check dams and canals North western Maharashtra
    Kere Series of tanks Central Karnataka
    Ramtek Model Intricate network of groundwater and surface waterbodies, connected through surface and underground canals Ramtek, Maharashtra
    11. Western Ghats Surangam Horizontal well Kasargode, Kerala
    12. Western Coastal Plains Virdas Shallow wells Rann of Kutch, Gujarat
    13. Eastern Ghats Korambu Temporary wall of brushwood, grass and mud laid across channels to raise the level of water Kerala
    14. Eastern Coastal Plains Yeri Tank Tamilnadu
    Ooranis Pond Tamilnadu
    15. The Islands Jackwells Bamboo pipes are used to lead water into shallow pits Great Nicobar Island

    Traditional water harvesting ÔÇô from Kashmir to Kanyakumari
    Throughout India, several ingenious ways have been devised to catch and store rainwater for future use. They are known as traditional water harvesting systems. It is the traditional water harvesting systems that have made life possible even in the Thar Desert.
    The technology and engineering of the traditional water harvesting systems differed, depending on whether they were to provide drinking water or to be used for irrigation. Those meant for drinking water were generally smaller, sometimes covered and with steps leading down to the water. This ensured that people could only collect water manually in small quantities to meet their individual or familyÔÇÖs needs. Irrigation systems on the other hand spread over large open areas and had a complicated network of pipes and channels for collecting and distributing water.

    Trans Himalayan Region
    Water from melting snow and ice is the only source of water here.
    Nearly 68% of Ladakh lies above sea level. Even the Thar desert gets more rainfall. The melting snows and glaciers are the only source of water. The people made intelligent use of their limited resources and made agriculture possible in this dry and barren land. The snow and ice melt slowly through the day and water is available in the streams only in the evening, when it is too late for irrigation. The water in the streams was hence led by channels to storage tanks called zing and used the next day.
    In the Spiti area of Himachal Pradesh, diversion channels called kul were used to bring the melting snows from glaciers to circular tanks, from where the water was distributed.

    Western Himalayas
    The farmers of this region built canals along the contours to collect water from hill streams, springs and melted snow.
    Since the first millennium A.D., there has been extensive rice cultivation in Kashmir, aided by an elaborate irrigation system consisting of irrigation canals bringing water from the melting snows. Water wheels (araghatta) were used to lift water from the Jhelum.
    Ponds were the main source of drinking water in Jammu. Ponds in the Kandi region were dug beside rivers. During floods the riverwaters were diverted into them.

    In Himachal Pradesh a temporary headwall of boulders called kuhl was constructed across a ravine to divert the waters of natural flowing streams (khud) through a canal to the fields. About 20 ha could be irrigated by a community kuhl. The water would flow from field to field and surplus water would drain back to the khud. The kohli or water tender distributed and managed the water.
    In Uttar Pradesh contour channels called guhls were used extensively. Streams were dammed by temporary barriers to divert water into these channels.

    Eastern Himalayas
    Streams are the only dependable source of water here. Bamboo pipes are used to divert the water for irrigation.
    The apatani system of Arunachal Pradesh was practiced by the Apatani tribes. They harvested both ground and surface water for irrigation. The stream water was blocked by constructing a wall 2 to 4 m high and 1 m thick near forested hill slopes. This water was taken to the agricultural fields through channels. The valleys were terraced into plots separated by 0.6 m high earthen dams with inlet and outlet channels (to the next plot) that help to flood or drain the plots as and when required.

    Northeastern Hill Ranges
    Rainfall and groundwater are the main sources of water in this region. But the terrain makes it difficult to capture the surface water. Natural springs are used for drinking water purposes.
    Zabo, meaning ÔÇÿimpounding run-offÔÇÖ, is practiced in Nagaland. When rain falls on terraced hill slopes, the runoff collects in ponds in the middle terrace. The runoff then passes through slopes where there are cattle yards, and finally reaches the paddy fields at the foot of the hills.

    Rapidly flowing water from streams and springs was captured by bamboo pipes and transported over hundreds of metres to drip irrigate black pepper cultivation in Meghalaya. Many bamboo pipes of varying diameters and lengths were laid to manipulate and control the flow of water.

    Brahmaputra Valley

    This region has many natural depressions along the banks of the Brahmaputra and Barek rivers. Floodwaters accumulate in these depressions, which are used for cultivation when the waters recede.
    Dongs or ponds were constructed by the Bodo tribes of Assam to harvest water for irrigation. In the Jalpaiguri district of West Bengal, small irrigation channels called dungs or jampois were used to bring water from streams to rice fields.

    Indo-Gangetic Plains
    The rivers and their floodwaters are the main source of water here.
    Ahar-pyne is a traditional floodwater harvesting system indigenous to south Bihar. Here the terrain has a marked slope, the soil is sandy, groundwater levels are low and rivers flood their banks only during the monsoon. The ahar is the catchment basin embanked on three sides, while the fourth side is the natural slope. Pynes or artificial channels start out from the river, and meander through fields to end up in an ahar.

    Inundation canals were an efficient irrigation system in Bengal. Floodwaters rich in silt entered the inundation canals, and were carried to the fields. The canals were broad and shallow and long and continuous. Channels cut into their sides distributed water to the fields. They were closed once the floods ceased.

    Thar desert
    The Thar Desert receives very little rainfall. Hence rainwater was captured and stored in ponds and underground tanks.
    Tarais (reservoirs) were built in the valley between sand dunes by constructing bunds at the two ends. When it rained the rainwater collected in the reservoir. The tarais dried up in a few months owing to the highly porous soil. But the region around it remained wet and moist. Wells were usually dug close to the tarai.

    Individual homes and farms in Bikaner built tankas. They were round or rectangular underground rooms that functioned as water tanks. Rainwater from the roof or terrace were directed towards an opening in the floor which led to the tanka.
    Stepwells are IndiaÔÇÖs most unique contribution to architecture. They are called vav or vavadi in Gujarat, and baolis or bavadis in Rajasthan and northern India. The stepwells of Gujarat consist of a vertical shaft in the middle from which water is drawn. This shaft is surrounded by corridors, chambers and steps which provide access to the well. They were profusely carved and served as a cool resting place in summer.
    Mata BhavaniÔÇÖs vav at Ahmedabad, built in the eleventh century, is one of the earliest stepwells, while the Rani Vav (QueenÔÇÖs well) at Patan, built during the late eleventh century, is the grandest. The Dada HarirÔÇÖs vav at Ahmedabad, and the octagonal vav at Adalaj, are some of the finest examples of stepwells.
    Kunds or kundis in Western Rajasthan and Gujarat harvest rainwater for drinking in the sandy tracts of the Thar Desert. The saucer-shaped catchment area gently slopes towards the pit in the centre which has a dome-shaped cover, to protect the water. The water inlets are covered with mesh. The depth and diameter of kunds depend on their use (drinking or domestic water requirements).

    Kuis or beris were deep pits dug near tanks to collect the seepage. They were also used to harvest rainwater in areas with scanty rainfall. From a narrow mouth a kui gets wider to prevent evaporation of collected water but at the same time facilitates more water collecting.

    Central Highlands
    The region is full of ravines and valleys. Irrigation by wells and tanks was very common in this region. The natural undulations provide for creation of wells and lakes. Both Jodhpur and Udaipur in Rajasthan are dotted with innumerable lakes. There are small (talai), medium (talab) and large (sagar) lakes. Pichola, Fatehsagar and Udaisagar are UdaipurÔÇÖs main lakes. In Jodhpur efforts were made to catch every drop of rainwater by building tanks, lakes, ponds, wells and drainage canals.

    The Chandela Kings (851 ÔÇô 1545 A.D.) of Bundelkhand, Madhya Pradesh, established a network of several hundred tanks that ensured a satisfactory level of groundwater. They were constructed by stopping the flow of a nullah or a rivulet running between 2 hills with a massive earthen embankment. The quartz reefs running under the hills confined the water between them.
    The Bundela Kings who came later used lime and mortar masonry and were bordered by steps, pavilions and royal gardens. The tanks were built close to palaces and temples and were not originally meant for irrigation at all, but for the use of all. Breaching of embankments and cultivation on the tank bed has destroyed many. But the wells in the command area of these tanks continue to yield well and also serve to recharge the groundwater.
    Small earthen check dams called johads were built in Rajasthan to capture and conserve rainwater, improve percolation and groundwater recharge.

    Eastern Highlands
    The hilly country is broken by torrential streams. Not much is known about the water harvesting systems here.
    The katas, mundas and bandhas were the main irrigation sources in the ancient tribal kingdom of the Gonds (now in Orissa and Madhya Pradesh). A kata is a strong earthen embankment, curved at either end, built across a drainage line to hold up an irregularly-shaped sheet of water. There is a cut high up on the slope near one end of the embankment from where water is led by a small channel from field to field along the terraces.

    Deccan Plateau
    The elevation ranges from 1000m in the south to 500m in the north. The rainfall is low to moderate. Many kinds of irrigation systems like wells, embankments across rivers and streams, reservoirs and tanks are all found here.
    An amazing collection of 19,000 very small, big and large tanks bringing water to practically every house by a network of channels was in existence in the Bhandara district of Maharashtra. Built by a group of cultivators called Kohlis nearly 250 ÔÇô 300 years ago, they irrigated about 25 percent of the land under crops. The tanks were built on the slopes of the Gaikhuri range. The larger tanks were on the higher slopes, while the smaller ones were placed in the foothills.

    Check dams or diversion weirs called bhandaras were built by villagers across rivers in Maharashtra. They raised the water level of the rivers and made it flow into channels. Where a bandhara was built across a small stream, the water supply would usually last for a few months after the rains.
    In Andhra Pradesh, where the annual rainfall is 1000 mm, large tanks called cheruvu were the main irrigation source. They were fed by streams. Anicuts were built across many rivers. Chain tanks were built in hilly regions with wide valleys. Several tanks were constructed starting from the height of the foothills to the floor of the valley. Canals that take the overflow from one to the next connected them. Each tank also received drainage from around its basin.
    Tanks called kere were the predominant traditional method of irrigation in the Central Karnataka Plateau. They were fed either by channels branching off from anicuts (check dams) built across streams, or by streams in valleys. The tanks were built in a series, usually situated a few kilometres apart. The overflow from one tank supplied the next all the way down the course of the stream. Many rivers were also dammed and channels for irrigation were provided.

    Western Ghats
    Surangam, a special water harvesting structure, is found in Kasaragod district in northern Kerala. People here depend on groundwater. A horizontal well was dug in hard laterite rock formations until water was found. The water seeped out of the hard rock and flowed out of the tunnel where it was collected in an open pit.

    Western Coastal Plains

    Shallow wells called virdas were dug in low depressions called jheels (tanks). They are found all over the Banni grasslands, a part of the Great Rann of Kutch in Gujarat. They were built by the nomadic Maldharis who identified these depressions by studying the flow of water during the monsoon. The virdas yield sweet potable freshwater in a region known for its saline water.

    Eastern Coastal Plains
    Being on the coast, Kendrapada district of Orissa suffers from waterlogging, floods or saltwater ingress. There are also a number of rivers, creeks and ponds. The solution was a community pond in each village, with huge bunds to stop saltwater ingress. Every house also had a pond in its backyard. The dug out earth was used to build a raised platform for the house. The backyard pond served as the source of drinking water and also took care of floodwaters. Adjacent ponds were linked to form a chain of ponds.

    The Islands
    The Shompen tribals of the Great Nicobar Island made full use of the undulating terrain to harvest water. In the lower parts, bunds of hard bullet wood were built and water collected in the pits called jackwells. A full length of split bamboo was placed along a slope. Rainwater flowed through it and collected in the pits. Bamboo pipes were placed under trees to collect the dripping water from the leaves. A series of increasingly bigger jackwells were connected by split bamboos to make sure the overflow from one was harvested by the next.

    Tank irrigation
    Tanks are the oldest source of water for irrigation. There are tens of thousands of tanks all over India. They are small reservoirs with earthen walls, used for storing water diverted from a stream or run off.
    Tank irrigation in India is concentrated in
    ÔÇó Coastal Tamilnadu and Andhra Pradesh
    ÔÇó South Central Karnataka, Telengana and Eastern Vidarbha
    ÔÇó N.E. Uttar Pradesh (in the area of the former kingdom of Awadh)
    ÔÇó Rajasthan, east of the Aravalli mountains
    Tanks or reservoirs are the most important source of irrigation in South India. Several ancient tanks are found here.
    ÔÇó Pampasagar tank in Bellary district near Tuungabadra river
    ÔÇó A series of tanks at different levels of a watershed (1096 A.D.) at Kattagiri
    ÔÇó Pakhal, Ramappa, Laknavaram and Sanigaram in Warangal and Karimnagar districts of Andhra Pradesh (12th and 13th centuries A.D.)
    An 1856 study of irrigation in South India said ÔÇ£The extent to which tank irrigation has been carried throughout all the irrigation region of the Madras Presidency is truly extraordinary. An imperfect record of the tanks in the 14 districts shows them to amount to not less than 43,000 in repair and 10,000 out of repair or 53,000 in all.ÔÇØ

    Tank irrigation in Tamilnadu

    As per a 1996 ÔÇô 97 estimate, there are 39,202 tanks in Tamilnadu. In the past, Chennai alone had about 150 tanks. In Tamilnadu, tank irrigation has not increased much since 1883, when 50 percent of the cropped area was under tank irrigation. Today, less than 10 percent of the land under crops is irrigated by tanks, built mostly by the Chola and Pandya kings. Inscriptions in temples tell us of the largesse provided by the kings for establishing drinking and irrigation water sources. The construction and maintenance was however done entirely by the people. The Rajasmighamangalam tank of Ramnad was built more than 1000 years ago by the Raja of Ramnad. Waterbodies in Tamilnadu fall under three categories: lakes or yeris, tanks or kulams and ponds or kuttais. A yeri was a large earthenware tank dug out of the ground with the dug out mud making the side walls or bunds. A kulam was built with bricks (and occasionally granite) and was attached to a temple, giving it the name kovil kulam or temple tank. A kuttai was a small pond. In Tamilnadu there are a few tanks that irrigate more than 1000 ha and even one which serves 6000 ha. Uranis are natural springs. Rectangular tanks are constructed above them to collect the water coming out from the ground. A winding staircase is provided for people to go down and collect the water for their domestic use.
    The village community decided what crops to grow and where to grow them, how long the sluice gates of the yeris should be kept open, how much water should flow to each field and so on.
    Tanks can be classified into system and non-system tanks. System tanks receive plenty of water as they catch the overflow from a reservoir, nearby stream and the runoff from around their catchment. They help farmers to raise more than one crop. Non-system tanks depend entirely on rainfall and can support only one crop. The tanks used a system of canals and sluice gates to control and transport the water. Several tanks linked by canals were also built in the watershed areas. The surplus of water in the higher tank thus flowed into the lower one, following the natural slope of the land.

    Anicuts were small or medium dams built across rivers to divert water into irrigation channels. The Grand Anicut or Kallanai was built in the second century A.D. by Karikala Chola. It was made of stone and situated on the river Cauvery where the River Kollidam branches off. Anicuts have also been built across the Tambaraparani, Chittar and many others. The anicuts in the Kanyakumari district are said to have been built 1000 years ago.

    Temple tanks of South India
    In South India, the tradition of establishing a tank alongside a temple prevails. Since every village has a temple, it also has a temple tank. These tanks were constructed to harvest water. They captured rainwater and runoff. Sometimes, channels were constructed to bring water from a nearby stream or river.

    The temple tanks are known as kovil kulam in Tamilnadu, kulam in Kerala, kalyani in Karnataka and cheruvu or pushkarini in Andhra Pradesh. The water from the temple tank was mainly meant for the ritual bath of the deity and to provide water for the flowering plants in the nandavanam. Devotees also washed their hands and feet or even bathed in a separate tank maintained for that purpose before entering the temple. The temple tank was the focal point of several religious activities like the theppam or float festival, for the offering of prayers to oneÔÇÖs ancestors and meditation on the banks of the tank.
    The temple tanks vary in size and shape and are a masterpiece of engineering. Corridors and long flights of steps surround them. They have intricate inlet channels for bringing water from a stream or river and outlets that carry away the excess water. Some have natural springs in their bed and others have wells that can be accessed when the tank is dry. In ancient times the temple tank always had water, even when all other sources had dried up.

    Water scarcity - a phenomenon of the 20th century
    With time, the rivers flowing through the urban areas have dwindled into streams of garbage, and become dirty stinking cesspools where mosquitoes and bacteria breed. Today, all the water required for urban areas is piped in or transported from other areas.
    To keep pace with the population growth, urbanization and the green revolution, big dams were seen as the ultimate solution to the water woes of a country faced by perennial drought, flood or both. Agriculture came to depend almost solely on canal water provided by reservoirs.

    The construction of big dams struck a death knell for the traditional harvesting systems. With the Government stepping into provide water, the peopleÔÇÖs effort ceased. Harnessing and supplying water became the responsibility of the government. The rulers of the princely states and the zamindars were the most successful in developing minor irrigation systems through water harvesting. Tanks in particular were built almost solely during their time. They provided the resources, but it was the combined peopleÔÇÖs effort that went into building, maintaining and managing the distribution of water. In the colonial period, under the British rulers, community effort ceased. Thousands of traditional water harvesting systems fell into decline for want of proper maintenance and use. As a result,
    ÔÇó Tanks silted up, their embankments were breached and their beds were used for cultivation
    ÔÇó Wells fell into disuse and collected rubble and garbage
    ÔÇó Deforestation led to floods and soil erosion, which destroyed water harvesting structures
    ÔÇó Knowledge of traditional water harvesting systems was not put into practice or passed on to future generations.
    But today, even with the large water projects, the problem of water famine continues. For several decades different parts of India have been in the grip of drought. Even as the serious problems accompanying changes in the natural course of a river are being realized, the big dams continue to be built: Tehri, Narmada and Alamatti are but a few.
    Slowly, there is a growing awareness that the traditional water harvesting systems will be a better and cheaper alternative to big or small dams. Groups of villages have revived small water harvesting systems and are enjoying the benefits.
    Some of the contemporary practices being adopted to harvest rain...
    Check dams are constructed across small streams with high banks.
    ÔÇó The velocity of the runoff is slowed down and reduces soil erosion
    ÔÇó Soil moisture is improved by standing water and percolation recharges the aquifers

    Contour trenches are dug on hill slopes and on barren wastelands for soil conservation through moisture retention. The trenches break the slope and reduce the velocity of surface runoff. The slopes can then be used for afforestation.
    Bunds or small earthen barriers are built on sloping agricultural land. A long slope is converted into several short ones in order to
    ÔÇó increase the standing time of rainwater where it falls, thereby allowing it to percolate into the soil
    ÔÇó minimise velocity, thereby reducing the erosion caused by runoff
    ÔÇó divert runoff for water harvesting purposes

    Contour stonewalls made of stones are built across a hill slope to intercept the runoff. Soil moisture is thus conserved and erosion is reduced.
    Sub-surface dams or groundwater dams are constructed to obstruct the natural flow of groundwater and store it. They are used where groundwater flows vary from very high flows after the rain to very low flows in the dry season. When water is stored underground it reduces loss due to evaporation and is protected from contamination and parasites.

    Percolation ponds like irrigation tanks have a bund to restrain the water flowing through a watershed, and a wasteweir for the surplus to flow through. Water percolating into the bund is lead downstream by drains under the bund.
    Several local communities have modified traditional water harvesting practices to suit their domestic and irrigation needs.

    Artificial Glaciers
    In Ladakh the water from melting glaciers reaches the fields only in summer. The people have hence channelised water through metal pipes to the shadow area of a mountain. This water freezes and being at a lower altitude and closer to the villages, it melts and reaches them in spring.

    In Rajasmand district of western Rajasthan, nadis (ponds) once served as the principal drinking water source. They received water from erratic, torrential rainfall. As large quantities of sediments were regularly deposited in them, they were destroyed by quick siltation. 20-30 nadis with a command area in excess of 500 ha. have now been constructed. Spillways have been added to prevent their damage by siltation. Afforestation of the drainage basin and construction of silt traps have helped further.

    Polymer kunds

    To deal with acute water scarcity in Churu District in Rajasthan, villagers are encouraged to build and renovate kunds (well-shaped tanks). The traditional materials like clay, silt, lime, ash and gravel used to make the catchment area of a kund are not completely impermeable, and hence some water is lost due to seepage. A water-based non-toxic polymer solution that permeates the highly porous sandy soil is now being used to increase runoff into the kunds. These materials reduce loss due to seepage of water into the soil.

    Chauka System
    In Jaipur, Rajasthan, degraded pastures have been dyked to form chaukas to harvest rain. Chaukas are rectangular plots arranged in a zigzag pattern and lie along a small gradient. 1.5 m high dykes are built along the three sides that lie towards the lower part of the gradient. Trees are also planted on the dykes to withstand rain.
    When it rains, water collects in the dyked lower half of the chauka. As the water level rises in one chauka, it spills into the next and so on. The entire pasture hence receives water. The chaukas do not get flooded. The excess water from the last chauka flows into a drain. The chauka system also promotes recharge of groundwater.

    Jaldhar Model
    In the Eastern Highlands, rainwater is harvested in a portion of the farmland. Pits are dug in each plot (which is bunded) to accumulate water. This pit also helps the subsurface flow of water to lower plots and improves the soil moisture of the area as a whole.

    Networking of farm ponds
    In Adihalli watershed, in Arasikere taluka of Hassan district in Karnataka, 330 farm ponds have been excavated. A series of ponds, constructed along contour lines and connected to one another, allow easy access to water and better soil retention.

    Community effort and traditional wisdom
    Bhaonta-Kolyala village, Alwar district, Rajasthan: Every year, the villagers of Bhaonta-Kolyala poured water into a johad - a crescent-shaped earthen check-dam - on Deepavali. The new born and newly wed came to be blessed by the deity of the johad. On a moonless day, villagers engaged themselves in community work like building a temple or starting work on a new johad. But in the years that followed, the villagers started neglecting johads, which became buried under rubble. There were several droughts in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and there was no trace of water in the 25 wells in the village.

    Rediscovering the johads
    In 1986, the villagers of Bhaonta-Kolyala took the help of Tarun Bharat Sangh (TBS), a non-governmental organisation (NGO), organized themselves and started protecting forests and repairing old johads. In their aim ÔÇ£to catch each and every drop of rain water that fell on the villageÔÇØ, they studied and mapped the natural drainage system and chose the best sites for building johads.
    Today, the village has a total of 15 water harvesting structures, including a 244 metres long, 7 metres tall concrete dam in the upper catchment of the Aravalli to stop water before it flows downstream. The year after the completion of the dam, water level in the wells downstream rose by two to three feet. The percolation of water from this dam has benefitted villages 20 km downstream, whose wells have all filled with water now. Cultivation and milk production have increased.

    Reviving the Arvari
    In 1990, when the villagers started constructing the big dam, they did not know that it was at the origin of the Arvari river. By catching and percolating water, the Arvari river flowed again and became a perennial river in 1995.
    ÔÇó The 70-odd villages in the Arvari basin have formed the Arvari River Parliament to protect the Arvari and to solve internal disputes.
    ÔÇó They also undertook afforestation of the adjoining forest area and declared it the Bhaironath Public Wildlife Sanctuary. Animals from the nearby Sariska Tiger Reserve forests have started migrating to this sanctuary.
    ÔÇó The villagers have restricted tree collecting to only branches for domestic purposes.
    ÔÇó Grazing is allowed only in specific parts of the forest. Recently, the villagers dug a pond on the periphery of the sanctuary for the benefit of the wild animals.
    Even though rainfall has been scarce for the last three years, there is enough water for drinking and irrigation. The village community has shown that collective planning and management and adoption of traditional wisdom has solved their waterless plight and brought economic well-being as well.

    Successful watershed management
    Nenmeli, Kanchipuram district, Tamilnadu: At the centre of Nenmeli there are two ponds overlooked by a small hillock. The temple at the foot of the hill, owned the land between the hillock and the temple, which is the catchment for the rainwater coming from the hillock. In 1995, there was little or no water, as even rainwater rushed away, due to deforestation and removal of fertile topsoil for construction. With the onset of the rains, soil would be washed off the hillock and into the adjoining tank. Thus the tank was also silted up. The villagers approached CPREEC, Chennai to help them develop their watershed

    1. Dying Wisdom, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, 1997
    2. Making Water EverybodyÔÇÖs Business, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, 2001
    3. Tanks of South India, Ed. A. Vaidyanathan, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, 2001
    4. Tank Irrigation in the 21st Century - What Next?, Palanisamy K. and Easter, K.W., Discovery Publishing House, New Delhi, 2000
    5. Survey of the Environment, The Hindu, 1994,2001,2002,2003
    6. Survey of Indian Agriculture, The Hindu, 2000,2002
    7. Sacred Tanks of South India, C.P.R. Environmental Education Centre, Chennai, 2002
    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP)

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