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!


Raja Swaminathan said...

Very interesting and thought-provoking, Ratna.

Btw, I don't know if you remember me but I have now broadened my writing to more than just cricket stuff (something that you are not the slightest bit interested in :)

I respect your writing and would be happy if you took the time to read some of my non-cricket writing and gave me your feedback. Have only now posted it on my blog - under July. Thanks.

hotmaledoc said...

Ratnaji u hve a g8 style.i want to share here how i was moved to tears just by reading about wells.well i live in howrah notorious for its water woes.contaminated water takes lives here.last year around my 38 th bday my wife suffered a miscarriage:trying to lift a 20 litre can of mineral water.i do this now as a chore.everytime a sigh escapes.believe me.i am a doctor-not one trying to save the world because i think just coping as a victim is enough for me!