Friday, May 25, 2007

Ode to a Well

Can't help it but i have water on my mind these days..

Ode to a Well

Imagine trying to break open an orange with a sledgehammer.
Ridiculous idea?
Of course it is. But that is how we treat Nature. We battle with it, savage and plunder it for things that it will yield so readily and generously – if we ask the right way.
Look at water, for example. There is so much talk about scarcity of water when in actual fact there is all the water that we need and more but we have forgotten how to catch, store and manage it. And that’s because we don’t understand Nature anymore. For example, did you know 75% of the earth’s freshwater lies frozen in polar regions? Of the rest, only 10% is surface water in rivers, lakes etc. The balance 90% lies underground in innumerable caches called aquifers. And not so very long ago, if you dug the right spot, water would gush out to become the thing whose cool, sweet waters sustained the life of every Indian. A well.

Ancient wells of wisdom
Along roads I have had wells dug and trees planted for the benefit of humans and animals. Emperor Ashoka’s rock inscription at Girnar

You mean those holes in the ground from which people once laboriously lugged up water? What good are those in this age of hydrogeology and taps? Ah, but we underestimate these wells, which is quite in contrast to our ancestors.

Mohenjodaro alone had 700 wells and one of the most remarkable thing about the Harappan civilization was its water management. You see, our ancients understood that managing water was key not just to the future of civilization but to survival itself. And so water was sacred, precious. Our rivers were goddesses that they didn’t just pray to, but also revered by not using them as garbage dumps and sewers.

They also figured that rain is something you save not for but on a rainy day! So, rainwater harvesting may be today’s latest buzzword, but water harvesting systems figure in Kautilya’s Arthasatra, written in 3rd century B.C. And Koopa Shastram (koopa is well in Sanskrit) is the ancient science of constructing wells.

Kuans, kuis, baavis, surangams, baolis, baoris, vavs, virdas. All over the country, our ancestors dug wells – as varied as India’s people, the most innovative and the greatest variety found in the most water starved areas like Thar desert!
Little wells just 15-20 feet deep.
Massive wells, the vision of wise rulers, plunging a 100 feet into the ground; where entire communities not just drew water but also chatted, rested and generally cooled off.
12 centuries ago, the kings of Rajasthan and Gujarat began the tradition of the famed, fabulous step-wells of which the most spectacular is Rani ki Vav or Queen’s Step Well in Patan, Gujarat. Five storeys into the ground and 90 feet wide, decorated with over 800 stone sculptures in the Khujarao style, built by Udayamati, consort of the 11th century Chalukiya king, Bhimadeva.
And since water was sacred, our temples had wells too. The famous Rameswaram temple complex has 22 wells, each with different tasting water, each dedicated to a different deity. Bathing in the waters of these wells is supposed to have such beneficial effects that they are called theerthams (holy waters)!

Wells of sweetness

So, why were these wells so important? First of all, for centuries, (in India they go back 9000 years or more) they have been a perennial source of the sweetest, coolest, freshest water. You see, as rainwater slowly seeps through the earth, the porous layers of rock, limestone, sand etc., act as filters, filtering out the impurities and cooling the water. In fact, well water was once considered pure enough not only to drink but also the only water used for puja.
Alas, today, in many parts of India, it’s a different story and the fault is entirely ours. Well water is getting contaminated and unfit for drinking because we are what conservationists call “fouling the nest”; a bit like using our kitchens as toilets. So our waste waters go where they shouldn’t, the soil is dumped full of chemicals and pesticides…it’s a familiar, sorry tale.

But even in such conditions, these wells survive. In Bangladesh, where arsenic poisoning of wells became a worrying trend, studies showed that while the water from tube wells had high amounts of arsenic, nearby traditional open wells had very low levels. One theory suggests that the open wells allowed the air to oxidize the arsenic into harmless compounds and rainwater to regularly flush out the arsenic. Which is exactly how they are rescuing contaminated wells in Kerala – by feeding in harvested rainwater.
But, even when the water isn’t potable, wells are powerful tools of social empowerment, making communities, especially women self-sufficient and independent. How? Very simple. A well in the backyard, provides all water you need, all year round - totally free! For the average Indian who spends much of his/her day, even nights, shackled to mulishly dry taps and never-ending, irate water queques, this is the ultimate freedom. Provided of course, there is water in the well…..

Recharging India’s batteries…..

Which is only possible if there is enough groundwater to feed it.
Today, India’s water woes are largely because its groundwater lies most grievously plundered. According to Fred Pearce in the New Scientist magazine, 50 years ago in northern Gujarat, you could get water from open wells just 10 metres deep. Today tube wells run dry even 400 metres down. It’s the same story everywhere. Water tables under Punjab and Haryana fall by a metre every year and half the hand-dug wells in western India, two-thirds in Tamil Nadu have run dry.
But the amazing thing is that these very same wells, dried up and abandoned, are now becoming one of the most important methods of rainwater harvesting, of recharging our plundered groundwater. It’s a people’s movement spreading slowly but surely all over the country, especially in the most parched regions of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. And even in those water guzzlers, the metropolises,. Bangalore already has 300 recharge wells. In Delhi, there is a call to marshal its 26 ancient baolis, some dating to Iltutmish and Timur Lane, to recharge Delhi’s groundwater, which provides 30-40% of the city’s water!
That so serious a problem could have so simple a solution is staggering. Just channeling rainwater back into a single well has seen to cause the waters to rise in neighbouring wells and turn undrinkable saline or brackish water into fresh water. And so, the old-fashioned well has become one of the most effective weapons in the armoury of the countless “Jal Yodhas” who are crusading to give us back our birthright of water. It’s like making a patchwork quilt. You start with one tiny scrap of cloth. Or one little well. Then you add another, then another till finally, all over India, millions of open wells like millions of brave little batteries will recharge our country’s most precious resource – water

A fish called Madanji

Which makes it time for me to tell you about a fish called Madanji. Not really his (her?) name but the local Tulu name of this particular species of fish in coastal South Karnataka. When my maternal grandfather built his house there more than 80 years ago, naturally he also built a well. And he put in Madanji into it. Because according to local wisdom, these fish are specialists in keeping the water clean by feeding on all organic matter that would otherwise pollute it, especially mosquito larvae!

Apparently Madanji did a great job because the water from that well was the sweetest, freshest water that I have ever tasted and all my grandmother did was to strain it through a clean cloth. And Madanji-watching was a favourite pastime of the kids. Sometimes, he’d lie low, meditating in the well’s dark, cool depths. Other times, he’d swim up in slightly frantic but always elegant circles, snapping up the morsels that we dropped.
And as far as my mother can remember, even as a little child, there was always madandji in her father’s well…...

And there will always be wells in India. Open, generous and filled with sweetness. To remind us that our relationship with Nature should be like recurring deposit schemes. Feed only off the interest and every now and then, add back to the capital. Otherwise the deposit will lapse. And that wells are like knowledge. They remain fresh and of value only when we constantly use them.
So, if you know of an abandoned well, adopt it. Or better still, even dig a new one…

Grateful thanks to Mr. Sree Padre, Mr. S. Vishwanath of and Dr. V Sankaran Nair, Kampan Foundation For Oriental Studies, Trivandrum

Palakkad and wells

How did water diviners of yore know the presence of water? In Karnataka and Kerala, they’d look for a plant called Pala. And Palakkad (Palghat) in Kerala gets its name from “pala” “kaddu” meaning a forest of pala trees. No wonder then that Kerala has the highest density of wells in the world – 250 open wells per square km or one well for every 3 persons!

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Lessons in A Graden

Healing gardens
By Ratna Rajaiah
Let me first tell you what they are calling it in all those high-falutin’ places where doctors and researchers and scientists with degrees as long as your herbaceous border huddle together to give serious sounding names to these things. They are calling it therapeutic horticulture. You and I know it as gardening. Therapeutic, did I say? When, for many of us, gardening is a thing that gets you all hot and sweaty and dirty and something that maalis do for a living? I mean, as long as you can just pop into a shop and buy that bunch of dewy fresh roses or crunchy green spinach, why would you want to muck about knee deep in worms and compost?
Good question because that’s where I start explaining the “therapeutic horticulture”. Because gardening apart making things grow and bloom, also helps you grow and bloom. How so? Well, first of all, it’s one of the nicest ways to get fresh air, sunlight and exercise. Think about it – if you had a choice of getting your daily dose of exercise by walking 10 boring circles around that park or by spending half an hour helping your brinjals to fatten or coaxing that particularly stubborn button rose to break into bud, what would it be?
10 boring circles, did you say? Really?
Okay, fine. Then consider this.
Nature’s potted pick-me-up.
Gardening is long been considered one of the more pleasurable not to mention effective ways to de-stress, unwind and relax. There is something about pottering around in a garden or even just around the pots in your apartment verandah which is known to soothe and loosen up all those tense knotted muscles and thoughts. And that’s not all - gardening is the ultimate rejuvenator because there’s something in it to tickle and please each one of your senses – a lush symphony of sights and sounds, textures and smells, even tastes, all coming together to draw you gently to nestle into Mother Nature’s ample, comforting, forgiving bosom. So, the next time you’re at the end – or beginning - of one of those days specially designed to turn you into a gibbering nervous wreck, take a slow walk around that garden.
A garden teaches you that some of the most exhilarating things in life come not packaged in a bottle or a pill but as a that patch of marigolds arguing with the sun about whose orange is brighter.
Patience is watching a little yellow flower turn into a tomato.
Slow down, they’re all telling us, as we shrink everything to become sleeker, slimmer and faster, even the seconds on our digital timers. Slow down or you’ll have a blowout, they say. But I don’t know how to, you wail, as you pop another antacid and frantically punch the buttons which should have delivered instant success, instant fame and instant coffee but is 3 whole seconds late. Ah, but here’s a place you can learn ….to slow down. Get a tomato plant. And when it decks itself up in little yellow flowers, remember that they are a bunch of promises that it’s making to you that soon there will be your own plump juicy, homegrown tomatoes. But notice that it’s just saying soon - no date, no ETA. Because those tomatoes are going to ripen at their own pace, no turbo-charged ripener to speed up the process. And there’s nothing you can do about it but wait, taking long, deep breaths, listening to the music of those tomatoes ripening in the sun…
A garden teaches you that in life, things happen at their own pace which often may not match yours. All you can do is wait and in the meantime, enjoy the scenery …
Hope is a papaya seed
Ever thought that a seed can teach you how to hope? You pop into your friendly neighbourhood nursery and buy a little flowerpot and some papaya seeds. You plant some, following the instructions carefully. And then you wait, because there’s nothing more to do. But as you do, you also hope – that maybe, just maybe when you wake up one morning, and blearily peer at that unrelenting patch of mud, there will be a little, frail green shoot struggling out of it. And that maybe, just maybe the shoot will become a little sapling. And then a tree in your backyard and then one day, you’ll look up and see it festooned with fat green papayas. And one morning, there on your breakfast plate will be a bowl full of juicy, glistening, pinky-orange chunks of ….papaya!
Gardening teaches you that even if today’s been a write-off, there’s always tomorrow.

Humility and a fat green pea
Think about this. Let’s say for a moment that you are a rocket scientist, part of the crack team that’s designing of that whatisit that’s going to get us to Mars. (And we better hurry, because at the rate that we are polluting and depleting our water sources, we may soon need to tap into those traces of moisture that they’ve found there!). Or then maybe you’re the chappie who with a flicker of his eyelid can make the Sensex soar or plummet. What I mean to say is - you are the cat’s meow and you know it. Now consider this. It’s just a silly little pea plant, is it not? A few leaves on a puny little vine that came out of a pile of dirt, right? Then how does it know when it is winter and time to fill those pods bursting with fat, juicy green peas? And how does that night queen know that the sun has set and it’s time to burst into riotous blossom? Then think how every cell of every plant and every flower knows when exactly to thrive and when to die? Consider the hugely sophisti
cated and complex systems of programming implanted in every living cell which we have only dimly begun to comprehend. And then look at who you really are…
A garden teaches you that no matter who you are and what you have achieved, you are but a miniscule speck in the macrocosm of Life.

The bare necessities of life
In the garden you learn that the recipe to make another being happy, be that a snapdragon or a human being, is actually the world’s simplest thing. Food, water, a patch of sunlight and love. Mix well and serve. And watch your spouse or that chrysanthemum shake off that chronic droop. The garden is also a great place to learn about love. You see, plants are like children. They do not care if you are young or old, fat or thin, black or white, rich or poor, good looking or ugly. If you love them and care for them, they will love you right back by happily growing and blooming and loading their branches with all kinds of goodies just for your pleasure!
The garden teaches you that it takes very little to be happy.
I think we’ve covered the basic stuff. The rest will come as you dig and water or just walk around your plants. Wait a minute, you say. This is all goody-goody fluffy stuff for aspiring Pollyannas. Give us the hardware, facts and figures, things that have been put into a test tube and researched. Okay. So here goes. The reason why they have begun to call gardening “therapeutic horticulture” is because that is exactly what it is increasingly being used for. As a therapeutic aid in the treatment of a whole host of things from dementia and Alzheimer's Disease to addiction, the rehabilitation of the mentally and physically disabled, geriatric care and even in helping rehabilitate convicts to get back into mainstream life. The introduction of a garden of a park in the otherwise stark and ugly inner city areas where people can participate in tending it has known to have a significant impact on things like teenage crime. It has been seen that gardening gives people in these circu
mstances a sense of purpose, a feeling of hope and when they see their effort literally blossom and take fruit, a sense of being useful instead of useless.
One more thing. Therapeutic horticulture is a broad term that encompasses anything from actual cultivation of plants to just standing around and enjoying the experience of being surrounded by a beautiful garden or landscape. Research now shows that just a view of trees may reduce the recovery time in the hospital after surgery by almost an entire day!
So get acquainted with a garden and you may be surprised to find that what grows in that cabbage patch is much more than just cabbages!