Intangible Cultural Heritage of Asia and the Pacific

Water for the gods: Statue of a sage, also serves as a drinking water facility in Uttarakhand © Govind Singh

Traditional Water Systems and Cultural Practices in India

India, one of the oldest civilizations in the world, is also one among the few countries named after a river system. The Indus River gave birth to the Indus Valley Civilization from where comes the word India. India is also the only country in the world with more than seven holy rivers, frequented by pilgrims even in the present day. Thus, water plays a central role in Indian society which is perhaps also because more than 60 percent of India’s geographical area is under agriculture. However, water availability in India has always been limited by the seasonal monsoon, and this has given rise to various traditional systems of water management in different parts of the country.

Bamboo drip irrigation in Imphal, Manipur © Govind Singh
The rainfall pattern in India is such that most parts receive good rainfall only for about two-three months in a year. Parts of the country located adjacent to snow-fed rivers, originating in the Himalayas, continue to receive water for the rest of the year. Located in north and northwest India, these are also those parts that yield maximum agricultural productivity. The people of this region express their gratitude to the monsoon by celebrating Teej or Teeyan festival, which marks the onset of the monsoon. It is celebrated by women praying for the welfare of their families and is often accompanied by local fairs and festivities.

It is also common practice in northern India to pray to the rivers by conducting an aarti ritual, which includes a flame or a light and a metallic aarti plate decorated with flowers and incense. The largest periodic gathering of human beings in the world, the Kumbh Mela, is also held along the bank of the holiest of the holy River Ganges and a few other rivers. Interestingly, almost all rivers in India are ascribed to female goddesses, which perhaps indicates the understanding that rivers are nurturing and life-supporting systems.

Moving away from rivers, a large part of India benefits from a network of canals that have been built since centuries for irrigation and water supply. Little historical information exists about the working of these ancient to medieval water channels, and some of these were rebuilt by the British during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Western Yamuna Canal, for instance, is thought to have been constructed in the twelfth century, renovated in the fourteenth century, and redeveloped by the British in the nineteenth century. It originates from River Yamuna, and its total length exceeds 300 kilometers.

Deeg Palace by a lake in District Bharatpur, Rajasthan © Govind Singh
Despite having large number of rivers and canals, a vast expanse of India is devoid of water channels or has seasonal rivers and lakes. This part of the country depends on rainwater, and it is here that some unique traditional water management practices can be witnessed. Artificial lakes have been constructed in several parts of India so much so that the title City of Lakes is heavily contested. While the lakes of Udaipur make it a favorite tourist destination, the eleventh century Bhojtal Lake, constructed in the central Indian city of Bhopal, continues to be a source of water supply. Wells are abundantly found in India. Persian wells were once common but have been replaced by electric pumps. Persian wells using animals like ox have found their way into popular literature, and the idiom kolhu ka bail (ox tied to a Persian wheel) refers to a person who is constantly working.

A more elaborate form of wells found in India are the baolis or step wells where water can be obtained by descending a set of elaborate steps. Baolis are found in many parts of India even today, including in the National Capital Territory of Delhi. These baolis were perhaps spaces for cultural gatherings as well and have been found to be decorated with arches and motifs. Another method to harvest rainwater is the construction of dams, check-dams, tanks, and small ponds for collecting the rainfall runoff. The Kallanai Dam on River Cauvery in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu is believed to have been constructed in 2 CE, making it one of the oldest functional irrigation systems in the world.

In the Northern Himalayas, tanks called zing are made to collect melted ice while kuls are water channels originating from melting ice. In northeast India, bamboo drip irrigation is employed carrying water from the hills to the plains via bamboo pipes. In the desert state of Rajasthan, underground storage of rainwater in kunds, kuis, and tankas and in above-ground tanks and check-dams called jhalaras, johads, talabs, and bandhs is commonplace. These traditional methods of catching rainwater where it falls are now rapidly being lost even as the water crisis is only deepening. Water security in India can only be achieved through reviving such decentralized traditional methods and the sooner we realize that, the better.