Total recall: Water conservation tips from Delhi’s past

Updated on Aug 19, 2019 08:04 AM IST

Of late water conservation has been a buzzword in Delhi with the Delhi government exploring various ways and means of water conservation.

Heritage buildings in Delhi present fine examples of conservation and mobilisation of rain water to quench the city’s thirst.(HT image)
Heritage buildings in Delhi present fine examples of conservation and mobilisation of rain water to quench the city’s thirst.(HT image)
New Delhi | ByAdrija Roychowdhury

Residents of Anangpur village in Faridabad tell tales of the ruins of a stone masonry dam near their houses. It was built by the first monarchs of Delhi, the Tomar Rajputs, to provide water to their city, they claim. “This dam has a grand history. Raja Anangpal, who built our village also built this and it used to provide water up to Surajkund,” says a villager.

“Constructed in order to block upstream rainwater for irrigation, it is about 50 metres wide and 7 metres high and has sluices for controlling the water flow,” writes historian Upinder Singh in her book ‘Ancient Delhi’. Until a decade back, Anangpur residents depended on the dam for their daily water needs. “Even 10-12 years back the dam was filled with water. We would use it for farming and domestic purposes,” says 63- year- old Santram Bhadana. Running dry and covered by thick vegetation, the Anangpur dam today is just meant for the eager history student or the enthusiastic sightseer.

Of late water conservation has been a buzzword in Delhi with the Delhi government exploring various ways and means of water conservation. But it is certainly not a new buzzword. Heritage buildings in Delhi present fine examples of conservation and mobilisation of rain water to quench the city’s thirst. Historians say that water has been the driving force behind many administrative decisions by the successive rulers of Delhi through the centuries.

Dinesh Mohaniya, vice-chairman of the Delhi Jal Board (DJB), says that revival of these structures can help recharge the dropping groundwater levels in the city. “But they do not prove enough to meet the city’s demands since the population has grown multifold,” Mohaniya said.

Manu Bhatnagar, principal director of the Natural Heritage division in INTACH, believes that rejuvenating the dying man-made and natural reservoirs and stepwells in the city can have multiple benefits. “They will help recharge groundwater, moderate local climate, act as carbon sinks and become habitats to support urban biodiversity besides being sources of recreation and aesthetics,” Bhatnagar says.

Anang Tal

Medieval Delhi experimented with many innovative solutions to deal with the problem of water scarcity. “The Tomar Rajputs, coming to Delhi from a water scarce area, must have had an especially keen interest in water management and conservation strategies,” says Singh.

The first rulers of the city, the Tomar Rajputs who ruled between the 9th and 12th centuries AD, also built the Anang Tal, the remains of which is believed to be located inside Sanjay Van in Mehrauli. Singh, in her book, says that during the construction of Alauddin Khilji’s minar inside the Qutub complex, the water for the mortar was brought from the tank. At present though, the tank is hidden underneath thick vegetation, and visitors are discouraged from going near it during the monsoon months, for the fear of insects and snakes inhabiting the area.

Shamsi talab

When the Delhi Sultanate was established at Mehrauli in the 13th century, water supply remained a major problem since the population had increased. The Yamuna was far away, and the rocky terrain of the Aravallis made it difficult to dig wells at most places.

Iltutmish, the thirteenth-century ruler of the Mamluk dynasty, built a large tank — Hauz-i-Sultani or Hauz-i-Shamsi (Shamsi talab ) — from where the citizens could fetch water.

Historian M Athar Ali in his article ‘Capital of the Sultans: Delhi during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries’, notes that the Hauz-i-Shamsi “received rainwater drained off from the larger, higher, fairly level catchment area to its west.” The tank is believed to have been about 200 metres long and 125 metres wide, and consisted of an ornate cupola in the middle of it, which was built during the Lodi period.

The cupola has since disappeared, and so has more than half the water body. “Today this lake is just a pond. Half of the lake has been encroached upon. I have seen this happen in the last 40-50 years,” says heritage enthusiast Sohail Hashmi.

Hauz Khas

By the time the 14th century ruler, Alauddin Khilji shifted his capital to Siri (the area near the Siri Fort complex), the Shamsi talab was no longer sufficient to meet the requirements of the city. Siri was a wasteland, and so Khilji built the Hauz-i-Alai or Hauz Khas.

The Hauz Khas, which is currently filled with water, has become a popular tourist destination. During Khilji’s rule, the tank was hailed as one of the finest structures providing water to the city. Sharifuddin Yazdi, a 15th century court historian, described the Hauz Khas as “so large that an arrow cannot be shot from one side to the other.”

“It is filled by rainwater during rains and all the people of Delhi obtain water from it all the year around,” Yazdi says.

Located between hillocks on its east, south and west, Hauz Khas was probably a natural depression filled up by runoff from these hillocks. By the 1960s, however, the lake had completely dried up as a result of the fall in the water table and concretisation of its surroundings. It was revived by the Indian Natural Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) in the early 2000s, and started attracting rare birds. However, a re-examination, conducted by INTACH in 2012, revealed that the water quality had deteriorated, resulting in the fall in number of migratory birds there.

The Yamuna

The Tughlaqs who started ruling Delhi from 1320 made several new water structures in the city and modified the existing ones. “The Tughlaqs were more ambitious and had far more resources than the previous sultans so the water works built by them were also bigger and grander,” says Sunil Kumar, who teaches medieval history at Delhi University. The most ambitious among them was Firoz Shah Tughlaq who made large scale infrastructural interventions for water supply. He was the first ruler to build his capital near the Yamuna river. The 14th century political thinker, Ziauddin Barani, wrote of the establishment of Firozabad on the banks of the Yamuna and prophesied that “in course of time it would be the envy of the great cities”.

Interestingly though, despite building the capital near the Yamuna, he built a canal to divert water from Haryana for supply to the city. “The Haiderpur water works is built on the same network of canal,” says Hashmi.

The Yamuna is never known to have been a source of drinking water to the city. Hashmi explains that when the river entered the rocky terrain of the Aravallis, the quartzite content in it made it unsuitable for drinking. Water from the Yamuna was diverted to flow through the moats, and then later the gardens which were of prime importance in the architectural inventions of the Mughals.

“Usually the Mughals were building gardens on the hillside, like in Afghanistan and Iran. The Humayun’s tomb was the first attempt at building a garden on the plains. So they built it on the river itself,” says Ratish Nanda, CEO, Aga Khan trust. When the trust began restoration of the tomb in 2007, they found evidence of river water being lifted for the fountains through underground terracotta pipes.

“We found evidence of excess water from the channels being taken to specially built wells to go back to the aquifers. So as early as the 16th century, the Mughals were ensuring that not one drop of water is wasted,” says Nanda. As part of the grand restoration project of the tomb, the organization dug up several wells inside the premises which are now being used, both for rainwater harvesting and for horticulture. Further, the trust is also currently involved in the restoration of a stepwell found inside the garden.

Stepwells or baolis

The stepwells or baolis were one of the most popular sources of drinking water in the city, apart from the wells and man-made reservoirs. Conservationists and heritage experts maintain that at the turn of the century there were about 100 baolis in Delhi. About 12 exist now, of which five are still in use.

In his recent book, ‘Top ten baolis of Delhi’, heritage activist Vikramjit Singh Rooprai writes that “Baolis and wells work on the simple process of sedimentation. While the well penetrates the confined aquifer, the walls of the well/baoli/tank also allow seepage of water through small gaps between the stones.”

While the Gandhak ki baoli and Rajon ki baoli in Mehrauli are in good condition and contain some water, the Agrasen ki baoli on Hailey Road and the two stepwells inside the Tughlaqabad fort have dried up completely. Among those that have disappeared over time are the Qadam Sharif baoli in Paharganj, the Lado Sarai baoli and the Kharera baoli inside the Hauz Khas enclave.

Speaking about the possibility of reviving the stepwells for contemporary requiriements, director of projects in INTACH, Ajay Kumar says that “it is possible to get water. All we need to do is remove the silt, excavate the structure and properly conserve it.” The baolis inside Red Fort, Purana Quila, Ferozshah Kotla and the Nizamuddin Dargah are some examples. However, considering the drop in groundwater levels across the city, conservationists also believe that it might take several monsoons for many of them to be revived.

Historians and conservationists believe that reviving the ancient and medieval era waterworks can lead to several benefits. “None of these rulers altered the environment. They just ensured the resources of their region were used most efficiently. This is what the government needs to understand,” says Kumar.

“Our medieval and ancient engineers developed a way to identify the underground fresh water channels. All our wells & stepwells penetrate these streams and if we can restore them, we will save ourselves the effort of identifying appropriate spots for groundwater harvesting pits,” says Rooprai.

Demonstrating his belief in the historical methods of water conservation, Nanda says, “What we have done at Humayun’s tomb has ensured that the water table has risen up to approximately 20 feet. So at a micro level one can make a lot of difference.”

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