Giving water to the thirsty earns you instant Punya or merit – so told our grandmothers. Travel across India and you see this as a living tradition, where clay pots filled with water are kept on the road for anyone who may be thirsty. With time, clay pots have made way for the water coolers, but the idea remains the same. In Rajasthan and MP, you still see women sitting in the hot sun to offer Jal Shakti or the water to the thirsty on the road. Why just fellow humans, we keep water even for birds and animals.
Water is one of the Panch Tattva or the 5 prime elements of which everything is made. Four others being Earth, Air, Fire, and Sky. Of these, Jal Shakti ie. water is the key nurturer, without which most life, including human life, cannot sustain. No wonder, when man decided to settle, he chose to settle near the rivers flowing from hills to the oceans. These lands were fertile, ensuring a constant food supply. But, more importantly, there was ample water for all kinds of needs. Later, when the man did settle away from the rivers, the first thing they built was the huge lakes that allowed them to collect water and fill the earth beneath. Cities like Bhopal, Hyderabad, and Bangalore are good examples of cities full of lakes.
Jal Shakti – Time to Resurrect Indian Reverence for Water
In India, anyone who nurtures you is a Devta, a deity worthy of worship. So, every source of water is revered and prayed to and called Jal Shakti – be it natural sources like oceans, rivers, ponds, wells, lakes, or man-made step-wells and temple tanks. Worship of water goes back to Vedic times at least. Rig Veda contains Nadi Stuti Sukta that talks about all the rivers that nurtured the land of Bharata. Like Ganga, Yamuna, Sataduri (now Sutlej), Sarsuti (Saraswati), Asikni (Chenab), Parusani (Ravi), Vitasta (Jhelum), and a lot of rivers that are lost to us. Most major rivers have their own Stutis or songs praising them, that are duly sung while worshipping them.
Unfortunately, the water-rich culture that treated Jal Shakti with so much reverence is losing its water at a rapid speed. The rivers are getting polluted with unchecked toxic industrial waste being dumped into them. Cherrapunji and Mawsynram in the hill state of Meghalaya are known as the wettest place on earth due to the highest rainfall they receive. Come summer months and even these areas suffer water shortage. Underground water tables are going down across the country. But they are dangerously low in high-density urban areas. Many big cities like Bangaluru are predicted to go dry very soon. P Sainath – the founder editor of PARI (People’s Archive of Rural India) talks about the per capita availability of water per citizen going down from 5177 Cubic meters in 1951 to about 3300 in 2011. He attributes this to channelizing the water from small landowning farmers to industries and urban areas.
Water – Treated as a commodity
Dependence on piped water that the consumers have no idea where it comes from has broken the relationship between the man and sources of water. People whose ancestors used to start their day by worshiping the water bodies near and far, by invoking all the holy rivers with mantras like – ‘Gange Ch Yamune Chaiv Godavari Saraswati Narmade Sindhu Kaveri Jale Asmin Sannidhim kuru’ as they poured water on their bodies, now treat it as a commodity that they buy. Ironically, in their own land that believed in the highest merit in offering water to the thirsty, now sell drinking water. Their own water is sucked out from the womb of the earth, packaged, transported, and sold back in polluting non-biodegradable plastic bottles.
It is high time India realizes its sacred relationship with water. Rebuilds and re-establishes it, values & cherishes it, and lives with abundant water around just like its ancestors did.
Abhay Mishra – Author & Riverine Culture Scholar at IGNCA, New Delhi endorses this view that the introduction of tap water disconnected us from our sources of water, which used to be collectively managed by society. He recalls their vital role in the family and social rituals. And emphasizes that we have forgotten to offer gratitude to sources of water. He talks about the efforts of Saurabh Singh who is reviving wells for potable water in Ghazipur. It is helping them deal with the grave issue of Arsenic in groundwater. Which is an issue that has its roots in digging up too many tube wells in the fields. He gives an example of Halma, a community effort for common issues, organized by the Shivganga organization in the tribal region of Jhabua in central India.
Harvesting the Jal Shakti
Thousands of villagers work for one day a week to create 30,000 trenches on the Hathipawa hill to collect rainwater that was otherwise being lost. Each trench of two meters long, one meter wide, and half a meter deep is dug up. A series of these trenches store and channelize water while also improving the bio-diversity of the region. All this is achieved through community effort with minimal cost. There are similar initiatives at a smaller scale happening in some parts of the country. Hopefully, these water body revival activities will scale up in all regions of India. That will bring back the much-required balance between water management and consumption. These efforts ask us to go back and look at the water heritage of India.
Jal Pradhan India
India is a ‘Jal Pradhan’ or water-abundant land. It is not just blessed with a long coastline running for 7517 km touching the three oceans, but its whole landscape can be seen as a network of rivers originating from various hills and mountains and running towards the sea. They are like the nerve system of the country, facilitating the flow of nourishing water. Thousands of waterfalls turn into mini streams flowing through different terrains to join these rivers. India is famously called the land of seven rivers, rivers that are invoked before every major ritual. However, every region has so many rivers and river valley settlements that it would not be inappropriate to call it a ‘land of hundreds of rivers’.
Indian Rivers are our Jal Shakti
Each river has famous cities and pilgrimage sites located on its banks. Ganga has Haridwar where it enters the plains at the foothills of the Himalayas. Then in Kashi where Ganga flows northwards for a while looking back at its origin. Cauvery originates from the Kodagu hills in South India and flows eastwards towards the Bay of Bengal nurturing the states of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Each river has its own stories in the Puranas. King Bhagirath brought Ganga down from the heavens via the hair of Shiva. Tapti is the daughter of the sun. The Godavari is called Gautami due to her association with Rishi Gautam. Cauvery came down in the Kamandal or metal pot of Rishi Agastya.
The Brahmaputra comes from a pond that came up at a place where Brahma’s son was placed. Making it a rare male river. According to Puranas, most rivers are goddesses who live on earth in their Dravya or liquid form. In fact, the most beautiful women in the Indraloka originate from water and are hence called Apsaras – Apa being water.
Varsha – Monsoon, the Jal Shakti Season
India’s reverence for water extends to every drop of water that is bestowed upon its land through rains. In peak summer months, people keep looking at the skies, waiting for the clouds to show up and assure them that rains are around the corner. Why not? After all, the rains keep the wheels of the agrarian economy moving. Nothing brings more happiness than the abundant rains for four months known as Chaturmas. This is the time when travels are abandoned, fields are left on their own and people stay at home. Even the wandering saints choose one place to stay for these four months. In Ramayana, Sri Ram and his brother Lakshman stay put on the outskirts of Kishkindha during these four months before moving to Lanka.
The Sanskrit word for monsoons is ‘Varsha’. Which is also the word used for a ‘year’, giving the rainy season the importance it deserves. Monsoon is one of the 6 seasons in India. It usually starts in early June from the southern coast and moves upward and lasts till September. Both cold and hot deserts in Ladakh and Rajasthan get hardly any rainfall. While the coastal regions get about 3000 mm of rainfall. The wettest parts get as much as 14,000 mm of rainfall. Folk songs like ‘Kajri’ sung during monsoons are full of emotions that rains invoke. Kalidasa in his poem Ritusamhara evocatively describes the monsoon as a season of longing.
Anupam Mishra – a pioneer in rainwater harvesting and water conservation is credited with reviving many traditional water conservation techniques. In his copyright-free book ‘Ponds are still relevant’ he takes us through the ecosystem of water bodies in different parts of India. He talks about how people chose the right spot and time to build the pond. How they maintained it over years involving each segment of the society that benefited from it. Every rooftop was connected to a water collection mechanism leading to individual wells in the desert cities like Jaisalmer even when it is full of 52 beautiful ponds.
Beautiful step-wells are spread across India. More so in the dry northwestern states like Rajasthan and Gujarat. They are like a man-made oasis. Which not just stored water but were also social places to sit near water, built like temples dedicated to Vishnu who likes to sleep in the waters of Ksheersagar.
11th CE Rani Ki Vav was built by Queen Udaymati of the Solanki dynasty. It goes seven levels below the ground, with ornate walls and platforms all around. As you start taking the steps down from what first appears as the hole in the ground, one wonders how the walls are still holding on to the deep cut in the earth for all these years, with mere 292 sculpted pillars supporting its pavilions. As you keep walking down the massive size of the stepwell reveals itself. Leading to a well 10 meters in diameter and about 30 meters in deep, connected to the Saraswati river close by. You may wonder what inspired the queen to build such a memorial for her departed husband? The answer is ‘Punya’ – the biggest merit that you can accumulate is by ensuring water for your people.
At Abhaneri near Jaipur, the sheer symmetry of Chand Baori – one of the most photogenic step-wells with more than 3500 rhythmic geometric steps going sideways ensures that you can reach the water level at all times.
Flood Water Management
At Shringaverpur near Prayagraj, there is an ancient elaborate arrangement of connected tanks to collect the floodwaters of Ganga during the rainy season and let the excess water go back into the Ganga. The tanks did not just collect water. They also cleaned water through the sedimentation process, so the water in the last tank was the cleanest. You find extensive water management systems in place in archaeological sites like Dholavira. That belongs to the Sindhu Saraswati River Valley civilization dating back to at least the 8th BCE. 2000-year-old Buddhist caves called Kanheri Caves in the heart of Mumbai; water channels can be seen all around the excavated caves. There are interconnected water tanks at regular intervals. Leveraging the natural gradient of the rock, collecting water from the roofs of the caves. The water collected in 4 months lasted for the whole year for the monks.
In the eastern state of Odisha when you drive past the rural landscape, you know you are close to a village when you see a series of large ponds, invariably with a small temple in the middle or on one of its banks. In the northeastern states, most ponds are full of lotus flowers that cover the water with their broad leaves, minimizing the evaporation of water.
Each temple in ancient India had at least one temple tank if not more. Skand Puran in its Ayodhya Mahatmay creates a map of Ayodhya that is nothing but a series of interconnected ponds. Despite the city being located on the banks of a Sarayu – a perennial river. In the south, the ancient temple town of Kanchipuram is full of tanks inside and outside the temples. In the heart of the city is Sarv Teertham Kulam – a huge tank surrounded by small temples on 3 sides. One can only imagine it as a place where the locals and pilgrims mingled and exchanged stories.
A ray of hope comes in the form of temple tanks being revived in Tamil Nadu. That showcases an immediate impact on the improved level of groundwater. If the inlets and outlets of these tanks are maintained, they will automatically do the job of channelizing the rainwater back to the earth.
Water Preservation – Reverence for Jal Shakti
The best example of water preservation is seen at Mandu, an ancient city located on the top of a tabletop hill with no supply of water except the annual rain. Narmada, the closest river though faintly visible from its peak, is at least 40 miles away. The city was among the most densely populated in the world in its time. It seems it was never short of water. Walk around and you see a series of lakes to collect water. Inside its royal quarters, the buildings are designed around deep wells that collect every drop of water. You also see luxurious rooftop swimming pools. So much so that its palace is called Jahah Mahal. As it looks like a ship sailing on the water with two huge lakes surrounding it on either side. The whole city is designed around water collection and conservation.
Pilgrimage Centres around Jal Shakti
All the pilgrimages in India involve taking a dip in the holy waters of the place being visited. Can the pilgrimage to Kashi ever be complete without a dip in the Ganga? Famous Panch Kroshi Yatra that goes around the larger mandala of Kashi, begins and ends with a boat ride on the Ganga from Manikarnika Ghat. The highest tribute to the Narmada, the oldest river in India, is Narmada Parikrama. Where the pilgrim walks around the river on foot, taking a bath in its water every morning. They walk more than 2600 km for months and sometimes years together. Stopping essentially for the night at the temples and ashrams en route and eating whatever they are offered.
That brings me to the biggest celebration of water or Jal Shakti in the world – the Kumbh Mela that happens every 12 years at four different places. It is essentially a Kumbh Snan or bathing in the waters of the rivers there. Like the confluence of rivers Ganga, Yamuna, Saraswati at Prayag, Ganga at Haridwar, Kshipra at Ujjain, and the Godavari at Nashik. This is the biggest ritual involving water. Where millions of people just travel from across the country to just take a dip in the water at pre-defined conjunction of planets. You can do a million things at the Kumbh. But it is essentially a visit to the holy river, to pray to it and to take a dip in it.
The Kumbha Mela happens every 12 years. However, there are special dates throughout the year like the lunar month of Magha that falls in January which is considered good to take bath in holy rivers. The full moon night of Karthik month, which falls 15 days after the festival Diwali, is celebrated in many ways. But the most important is bathing in a holy river close to you. There are special Snans or bathing schedules for special events like solar eclipse when pilgrims visit places like Kurukshetra for a ritual bath.
Among the 4 Dhams located in four cardinal directions of the Bharatvarsha, each one serves a specific purpose. Devtas meditate at the Badrikahram located in the Himalayas in the north. They eat at Anna Kshetra of Puri in the East. They sleep in Dwarka on the western coast. While they take bath in Rameswaram in the South. You can see the 22 wells inside the premises of the Rameswaram temple. Here the pilgrims take bath after they have done the Abhisheka of the Shivalinga with the water they brought from Ganga in Kashi.
The belief goes that taking bath in these perennial wells takes off all your sins. Each of these wells has a name and story from history. That tells about the kings and sages who took baths in these wells and the different types of sin they got rid of. For example, at Kodi Teertham Sri Krishna got rid of the sin of killing Kamsa. After a dip at Chakra Tirtha, Sun received its golden glow.
Spirit of Giving
Overall, in the spirit of giving water to those who need it, India remains a net exporter of water. No, it does not sell its water. But its major exports are the products that need a lot of water for production. Some of the primary crops exported are rice, cotton, and sugarcane and all of these are water-thirsty crops. Add to this the massive meat exports. So, essentially India is taking the water burden of countries it is exporting to upon itself. Can it or should it do it while it faces the water shortage itself is another debate?
Indian Government has set up Jal Shakti Ministry in 2019. That will essentially look at water as the key resource. It is expected to work on river rejuvenation. Including the cleaning of Ganga and providing safe clean drinking water to everyone. Hopefully, this will bring the focus required to make India water-rich again. Along with bringing back the culture that treats water as sacred in everyday life as much as it does in its rituals.
This online version has been edited.