Carving out time for India’s water heritage

An unexpected trip to the Jammu and Kashmir region of India gives water journalist Sahana Singh the opportunity to reflect on its beautiful ancient water storage systems.

It is more than 30 years since I visited Jammu and Kashmir with my family, and I now live in the US, so it was with much delight that I learned that the region would be hosting events for the G20 international summit. What is more, I was invited to speak as an international panellist at a Y20 youth engagement session at the University of Jammu.

If we keep aside the conflicts from the past 600–700 years, the region has been one of the foremost centres of learning for thousands of years. If one connects to the huge reservoir of ancient Indian knowledge that has come down to us over millennia, it offers many pathways to empower oneself and get liberated from any emotional burden one is carrying.

At the summit, I made a call for holistic education for our youth, rooted in our Indian knowledge tradition. This would help develop not only academic strengths, but also the artistic side, along with critical thinking, physical fitness - with martial arts like Kalaripayattu, and entrepreneurial and artisanal skills. There were many questions from the young audience which led to good discussions.

I was delighted to meet and make friends among the delegates and in particular, I struck a bond with UK-based Manu Khajuria Singh, who showed me around Jammu from the perspective of a local. She grew up there and had studied the history of the region deeply.

The first place she took me to was the temple of Baawe Wali Mata, the presiding Devi - loosely translated as female deity - of Jammu City. I learned that She is another form of a fierce but much-loved Devi known as Kali Maa who protects her devotees from destruction.

In Hinduism, divine beings can be male, female or a combination of genders and lifeforms. I felt happy that I was following the traditional custom of offering my respect to the Devi of a town before seeing other places.

Another friend Venus Upadhyay had once sent me intriguing pictures of water storage systems in Jammu called baoli, which are sited far away from cities and were held sacred in bygone times. When I told Manu about my desire to see the sacred water bodies of Jammu, she said the best person to show us was Shri Kirpal Singh Dev, who is strongly committed to preserving Jammu’s heritage.

She made the arrangements for Kirpal ji to come to our hotel, and to my surprise, Kirpal ji revealed himself to be my Facebook friend. He said he had been following me for a while and saw my posts about being in Jammu but was not sure if I would have time to meet him.

Full of enthusiasm, Kirpal Ji drove us in his van, full throttle towards the hills. We crossed the Tawi River and left the city behind.

Kirpal ji explained to me the concept of mohra - memorial stones that were a part of Jammu’s culture. These Mohras could symbolise either a heroic person or a deity or a dead ancestor.

Martyrs who laid down their lives for a cause, women who chose to follow their husbands in death by self-immolation (sati), or ancestors who died unnatural deaths, were all commemorated via mohras. It seemed to me that this was the same culture that binds us to the ancient Harappan civilisation of the Indus Valley - and beyond, and can be found in many other places in India.

Travelling further, we arrived at the village of Chiryayi in Udhampur District of Jammu. The multi-level water bodies I saw there simply took my breath away.

I thought I would see baolis at different locations, but Kirpal ji took me to one location which had five baolis of ascending sizes as we moved from a higher to a lower elevation. What is more, each of these baolis was decorated with beautiful carvings. I had never seen anything like this.

At the topmost level, there was an octagonal baoli - a rare shape for a baoli - and close to it were many mohras. At lower levels, the baolis got bigger and the carvings around the water got more detailed.

Octagonal-shaped Baoli near a temple

Each of the baolis had at least one carving of Naga Devata or serpent deity depicted in the form of a coiled snake or two snakes coiled in opposite directions like a double helical DNA molecule. Nagas are serpent deities associated with water in Hindu iconography and their blessings are especially important for fertility.

According to Kirpal ji, these baolis were about 300 years old and were used to harvest rainwater, which would otherwise flow down the slopes. He mentioned that there were other water bodies in which water from underground welled up to the surface. These, he said, were the real baolis that usually offered clean, delicious water.

The largest baoli in the cascading series I saw was located at the lowest level and was simply breath-taking, with its extraordinary carvings. Mostly, it depicted deities such as Durga, Rama, Hanuman, Ganesha, and warriors seated on horses. I wondered if these water structures were commissioned by queens like I had seen in the states of Gujarat and Rajasthan.

Largest Baoli at the lowermost level surrounded by carvings

Manu and Kirpal ji identified one of the figures as that of Mian Dido Jamwal who is considered a local hero for rebelling against the Sikh overlords when Ranjit Singh, the first Maharaja of the Sikh Empire, captured Jammu and forced the citizens to pay taxes.

As always, I could not help noticing the difference between water reservoirs of modern times and the ones from bygone eras. Today, the reservoirs are functional but with no beautiful carvings or artistic representations of the civilization.

It is as if engineers have taken over and left artisans behind. How did the ancients combine engineering with cultural intelligence and when did we lose that connection with our own civilization?

However, I am not happy with the poor maintenance of the water bodies I saw. I know there are hundreds, perhaps thousands more scattered all over Jammu and Kashmir. Given that there are many temples in the region associated with the period of the Mahabharata epic, there must be several ancient water structures that can be revived and help with water storage. They also have tremendous potential to attract tourism revenues.

These baolis need to be preserved just as aqueducts and other water structures are preserved in Europe. A way needs to be found to involve the local people in their maintenance, as they were in ancient times.

Not only do these bodies serve as storage for clean drinking water, but they can recharge aquifers and also prevent flooding in a world where extremes of climate are becoming so common.

In the pre-colonial era, communities themselves took care of their baolis and other water structures. They got support from their rulers who regarded this work to be very important.

Many sacred ceremonies were associated with baolis, lakes and rivers. The taking over of drinking water supply by the modern government has led to a gradual disconnection from responsibilities towards water bodies. Urbanisation has led to a fading of the centering of Nature in Hindu ceremonies. The connections need to be made again.

Soon, it was time for us to leave. On the way back to Jammu City, I got a glimpse of yet another water storage structure – a reservoir from the early 20th century. Even though there were no carvings, Prakriti - Mother Nature - had decided to make up for it by painting such a glorious scene that I could not even capture it in a photo.

Kirpal Singh ji suggested that we have tea at a famous dhaba – a roadside restaurant close to the city. Not only did we have tea, but a delicious local snack made of potato called dabara and of course the ubiquitous paneer pakoda. The freshness of the spices made me realise with a pang that I would miss them back in America.

I thanked Kirpal ji for taking so much trouble to show me exactly what my heart craved. Sometimes, I wonder what good karma I have performed in past lives that I keep meeting such kind people.

Shri Kirpal Singh Dev drove Sahana to the baolis of Jammu