Sutradhara’s tales: 350-year old Peshwa-era Katraj nahar keeps Pune water secure even today

BySaili K Palande-Datar
Sep 08, 2021 05:34 PM IST

Public tanks built over Katraj nahar during the Peshwa period proved to be great utility and convenience for residents of various peths

PUNE Every year during the monsoon months, I am awakened by frantic calls from residents of the peth areas. The agitated residents narrate: “Our basement is flooded, madam! We have recently shifted into a new building and we do not know the source of the water, but it is flooding our entire basement. What should we do?”

Water from these Peshwa-era Katraj nahar was brought to the settlement via an underground aquaduct stretching 8km. (Map courtesy: Pallavee Gokhale)
Water from these Peshwa-era Katraj nahar was brought to the settlement via an underground aquaduct stretching 8km. (Map courtesy: Pallavee Gokhale)

I direct them to the PMC’s water department.

Such calls are regular during the monsoon months and people wonder why. It is because of a perennial water source under various peths which modern development and city governance have chosen to neglect; a matter of great embarrassment indeed.

I have often said in my talks that Pune’s development is directly a function of water and it is more so during the 18th century, the formative years of urban Pune.

Any urban settlement, even in the medieval times could not develop without sufficient and secure water sources.

As the great visionary Nanasaheb Peshwa envisaged and planned the development of the peths, trade, religious complexes, gardens and so on, making permanent public arrangements for water proved to be critical task.

Before this, the limited Pune population subsisted on seasonal streams, river water, and wells. The water, then, was not always clean and had to be fetched from distances.

Now, the Sahyadri hills and forts are well equipped to supply water through rock-cut tanks and a network of stream and lakes, but the plains of Pune demanded a different strategy. Various Dakhhani sultanates such as Nizamshahi of Ahmednagar and the Adilshahi of Bijapur had mastered the art of harnessing water for large settlements.

This can be seen in the form of various nahar or canal systems in Aurangabad, Junnar, Bijapur, and Ahmednagar thanks to the efforts of able administrators such as Malik Amber.

Inspired by such systems, Nanasaheb Peshwa envisioned a water system that would not only provide water throughout the year, but also be clean and available at the doorstep.

For this, two streams flowing near Katraj village, the Fadtari stream and the Navlaicha nala, were selected for creating dammed lakes. Two lakes were commissioned to be built, a smaller one upstream and a lower one with a bigger capacity as per the sloped terrain.

Work began in 1749 for the upper lake with a dam wall of 600 feet in length and eight feet wide. The wall was equipped with holes at various levels which could be opened and closed either to store water or to allow the flow further.

The main storage lake was built between 1755 and 1757 at a lower level. The wall of the storage lake measured approximately 1,000x15 feet and was around 40 feet high. The two lakes were connected in such a way that silt from the stream and rain water would settle at various storage levels and allow clean water to flow on to the next stage. The excess of water from both lakes drains into the original Ambil stream.

The water from these storage lakes was brought to a settlement via a long, underground aquaduct stretching 8km across, via a dug channel. The dug channel was 30 feet below ground, six feet high and 2.3 feet wide, water-proofed with brick and lime mortar.

The channels travelled from various areas such as Katraj, Indiranagar, Padmavati, Arnayaeshwar, Sanas chowk, Wadia hospital, Kala houd tank, Badami houd tank, Bhau maharaj bol , Tulshibaug, Kotwal chawadi, Faraskhana, and Nanawada to Shaniwar wada.

On its way it branched off and irrigated numerous public and private tanks, wells and wadas of prominent Peshwa-period sardars and nobles. It ultimately meets the river Mutha through an underground channel at Onkareshwar and Amruteshwar ghats. Most of the water supply to private homes came from wells which were narrow in circumference and were either stone or brick- lined. Some used the Persian wheel to draw water, especially for irrigation of gardens.

The channel travelled along the gentle slope from lakes to various parts of medieval Pune and was provided with air release and settlement ducts. These ducts are called “utshwas” literally meaning exhaled breath or air. These “utshwas” were built at every 30 metres and at places where the canal changes its direction.

An eight to 10 feet deep well was built below each “utshwas”, to allow clean flow of water and collection of silt at the base which was regularly cleaned.

At certain places, water from an “utshwas” well could be collected by building a small wall and then accessed via a tap.

Stone pipes and taps were used at certain locations to regulate and access water flow. Such pipes and attachments can be seen preserved at the Bharat Itihas Samshodhak Mandal’s museum.

Public tanks built over Katraj nahar during the Peshwa period proved to be great utility and convenience for residents of various peths.

These public tanks were elaborate structures built to provide water for washing, cleaning and drinking and were located at prominent places.

The Peshwa archives inform us about the logistics of building one such Kotwal tank by the Kirad caste. The Beldars use to specialise in demolition, quarrying stones, rebuilding terraces and entire structures. Around 175 Beldars, plus their women, 200 labourers and 305 draft animals such as donkeys and male water-buffaloes were employed to complete this average-sized project. These numbers offer us good idea about what an enormous feat of construction the entire Katraj water system was. In its heyday, the Katraj system would provide 2.3 million to 2.5 million litres of water every day to medieval Pune.

The Katraj water system network amongst other water sources of the Peshwa period has single-handedly contributed to the flourishing and rapid urban development of Pune, ensuring water security.

Most of these public tanks were operational till today, but have been encroached upon or engulfed by road widening. Few such as Nana houd opposite Nana wada are still in use. Various wadas and even apartments who have kept the wells are effectively using clean water of the Katraj nahar as additional water supply, even today.

However, the irresponsible digging of deep foundations for new constructions and abrupt closing of the channel has led to a break in continuous flow at various places and leads to flooding.

The original Ambil Odha was not diverted when the Katraj water system became operational. In 1755, Nanasaheb Peshwa built a bund across the Ambil stream, to divert the stream out of the city to avoid flash floods and to supply water to the Parvati lake.

Shrikrishna Bhagwat, Shriram Bhagwat and Nandkumar Bangude were the young researchers who traced the entire underground Katraj canal and travelled underground to explore it first-hand during the last decade.

Pallavee Gokhale, an archaeologist and GIS expert has scientifically studied the entire route and for the first time, prepared 3D maps to demonstrate the entire canal system, through scaled maps.

Through such numerous efforts, we Punekars are made well aware of a monumental endeavour of public utility and proud heritage in the form of Nanasaheb’s “Katraj Nal yojna”. Now, the onus is on us and the governing bodies of the city to cherish and revive this invaluable khajina*! (*khajina (Marathi): literally means treasure, and can also mean water)

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