The forgotten waters of Sanchi

Come monsoon, and archaeologists will be testing the revival of an Ancient water harvesting system in this historic Buddhist town

By Rita Anand
Published: Wednesday 31 May 1995

The forgotten waters of Sanchi

Ancient wisdom: the Sanchi mon (Credit: Rita Anand / cse)LORD Varuna be pleased! May the rains come... Officials of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) are waiting with bated breath in the revered town of Sanchi in Madhya Pradesh. For the 1st time in history they have attempted to restore an ancient rainfed water harvesting system atop the Sanchi hill. A bountiful monsoon may just spell the rebirth of a long forgotten tradition.

But the spinoffs of this venture are just beginning to dawn on the archaeologists. The effort has been totally technocratic and the local people have been left out so far. This is likely to create ten - sion between the Asi and villagers.

Sanchi lies 45 km northeast of Bhopal. Its 91 metre (m) hillock is crowned with 50 monuments consisting of stupas, monasteries, pillars and temples. The Maurya Emperor Asoka founded this religious town in the 3rd century BC. The relics of Buddha and his closest disciples, Sariputasa and Maha Mogalanasa are believed to lie here. Inscriptions on a stone casket commemorate 10 Buddhist teachers, and 4 richly carved gateways depict the Buddhist Jataka5, affording a glimpse of the Buddha's noble life. In 1992, Sanchi was recognised as a World Heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), because of its special significance to Buddhism.
Water cosmology But the Sanchi hill also has another significance. "The entire hill is a celebration of water cosmology," says Kalyan Chakravarty, historian and director of the Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya, Bhopal. "Sanchi's environment is related to water. The sculptures of the Jatakas reflect lush vegetation, flowers, yak5his, tall plants and an inverted tree symbolic of the Buddha's body: the cycle of rebirth and the rotary cycle of water are interrelated."

There are 3 ancient tanks on Sanchi hill dating back to 3rd century BC. One tank is high on the hill and the other 2 are situated downhill, half a kilometre away. The slopes of the hill once formed a natural catchment area. Rain gullies and drains collected water, and from 1 tank it flowed into the next. The western side of the hill was dotted with monasteries and the monks used this water for domestic purposes. People lived down in the valley on the eastern side of the hill.

The area was lush with vegetation. Two krn froffi the hill flowed the Betwa river which,joined up with Bhopal's tanks. The river, the 3 tanks and the once thice forest formed part of an integrated water regime. About 2 km downstream an ancient barrage of the same period has been unearthed by archaeologists, who now wonder whether restoring it would help increase the water table.

Today Sanchi hill, with its famed monuments has no forest cover. The Betwa river has been reduced to a stream. In 1992 R C Agarwal, superintending archaeologist of the ASI, Bhopal circle, realised that conserving the monuments would be easier if the hill had some trees. But the lack of water made it impossible. All the ASI possessed were 3 forgotten ancient tanks. "We decided to renovate the tanks and restore the oldstyle water harvesting system. As archaeologists we knew the techniques of ancient water harvesting systems," says Agarwal.

The ASi approached UNESCO, then the Japanese government earmarked Rs 1.5 crores in January 1994 to fund the project which included tank restoration, documentation and conservation. Says Agarwal, "We plan to recreate the environment of 2nd century BC. Period trees such as girni, neem and peepal are going to be planted. And the lotus flower will be given pride of place in the tank."

About Rs 5 lakh has been spent so far on tank restoration. The tanks were formed-by scooping out rocks. Work began 6 months ago. The geometrical details of the structures and terrestrial photography were conducted by the Indian Institute of Remote Sensing in Dehradun. The tanks were measured along with the silt. The 1st tank is 32 in in length and 13 in in breadth. Siltage here was as high as 2.80 in. The 2nd tank measures 27 by 24 in. Here, the siltage was about 3.15 in.

Archaeologists have identified cracks in the rocks and blocked these to prevent seepage of rain water. The catchment area was rebuilt with brick reinforced with mortar and limestone. A storm drain at the surface of the catchment area will act as a filter, preventing silt and refuse from getting into the tank. A spillover drain will drain off excess water and help it seep into the forest. The silt has been removed. Old rain gullies atop the hill have also been identified and channelised into the tank.

The Ist tank now awaits the monsoon. Once the tanks are renovated, Agarwal hopes they will provide about 2.27 million litres of water in all. And this water will be used to green Sanchi's hill.

Crucial issues
But Agarwal's efforts, however laudable, have already run into a spot of trouble. The 3rd tank downhill, called Kanak Sagar, lies close to a village and women have been using it as a toilet. R Srivastava, a cartographist, was shooed away by the women when he attempted to survey the tank. Restoration of this tank has now been taken up by the Environmental Protection and Coordination Organisation (EPCO), a government organisation.

Agarwal is keen that a buffer zone consisting of a forest area should be maintained between the monuments and the village. But there are whispers about tension prevailing over the imperilled grazing rights on the remaining patches of green.

ASI's archaeologists are completely at sea. These are issues which they have obviously not been prepared for and it is betrayed by their confused logic. One is piously told about how entry fees will remain at a measly 50 paise to invite local people in. And in the same breath archaeologists speak of erecting a costly fence around the hill to keep people out.

At the same tinw involvement of local people is sought to be achieved by organising "cultural awareness programmes" on the World Heritage Day. This year schoolchildren were galvanised into action. An es ,ay competition on how people can help conserve Indian cultural heritage was organised. Interestingly, most participants wrote that monuments should be a common property resource shared by the government and the local community.

Agarwal agrees, "The government cannot do everything." But he is dismissive of sharing resources. "The Sanchi Development Authority charges entry fee from all tourists, but does not use it for any developmental work," he claims. Avani Vaish, secretary, ministry of environment and forests and director of EPCO says they hope to develop a souvenir industry to rope in the local people, but obviously this is just a sop. "Anyway, lets have a little action first," he sighs.

Admits an insider at EPCO, 11 Eventually, tank restoration'must satisfy its users." But the users in his list of priorities are the trees, the birds and, lastly, the local community which needs water for domestic purposes. Says Chakravarty, "In the past there were certain classes of people such as the agrahans (artisans and potters) who maintained the tanks and monuments. That category of people no longer exist. The government needs to recreate a class of people rooted in the community who would fulfill this role. Fencing is improper."

But is it at all feasible for the ASI to restore an ancient water harvesting system? ASI insiders expressed doubts over the success of the project. "Certainly, restoring the kind of water harvesting systems which were created in the past is going to tax modern engineering skills," says Chakravarty. "Past engineers based their design skills on an intricate survey of the environment. But the environment itself has undergone a total transformation."

Bhopal's taals (tanks) were connected to the Betwa river and the town had a courtyard culture, with each home having its own well. A symbiosis existed between the wells and the tank. Today, Ve tanks in the city are virtually dead. One has been reclaimed for erecting a building. Bhopal city now gets water for only half an hour during the peak 'summer.

Sanchi is really part of a much larger historical landscape," says Chakravarty. "These 27 hills form part of a continuous chain, consisting of 700 painted rock shelters littered with historic sites and excavations, a common biosphere, soils, plants and an interflow of energy. What we need eventually is not Japanese money but the indigenous knowledge of geology, so that water lines can be recollected and old water bodies can be identified."

More benefits can be achieved by restoring a traditional water harvesting system than by investment in big dams, points out Chakravarty. ASI's archaeologists need to rope in local people and tap indigenous knowledge. Its efforts might be showered with success if it goes further and looks ambitiously at a larger historical canvas and attempts to use past engineering skills to solve the state's present water crisis.

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