DROPS of wisdom

Ahead of the World Environment Day, experts say that traditional knowledge methods seems to be the only way to counter the approaching national water emergency

To address the approaching national water emergency, there is an urgent requirement to re-frame and define development models in India. India has neither any dearth of water resources, rains nor the traditional knowledge to conserve water. Images, rituals, cultural practices and metaphors on water wisdom abound, displaying collective memories where community ownership and responsibility formed a heritage culture. Here we illustrate examples of cultural images on water, ancient practices and work by water warriors to affirm the value of traditional heritage on water wisdom.

Water and women

Sita Baawadi

Sita Baawadi  

“While the kings, and men were engaged with outer activities, it was women who have been the gatekeepers of water ecologies. They have built water bodies and kept them clean for centuries,” says Kuldeep Kothari folklore specialist from Rajasthan.

The cover picture of a ‘social tattoo’ in the iconic book “Aaj Bhi Khare hain Talaab” (Ponds are still relevant) by waterman of India late Anupam Mishra is called ‘Sita Baawadi’. The description of the tattoo is as follows: “Sita’s well has a main inlet source. It expands in the form of waves within. In the centre is the nucleus, the source of energy. Steps lead into the well bridging the outside to the inside. The four corners have carved stone flowers, symbolising the essential fragrance of life.”

Large number of water bodies built by women include step-wells, tanks and even ponds such as the world heritage site of Queens Step-well (Rani Ki Vav) in Patan, Gujarat, and the Rani and Padam Sagar in Jodhpur. There is the mention in a Kaifiyat (an early colonial document on land holdings) of a Devadasi building a tank in Yagati, and Nagamandala in Karnataka.

Images of water, women and energy punctuate the Indian cultural landscape. One can still listen in rapt enjoyment late Girja Devi singing the story of a woman making her way to fetch, or tales of Vidyadhari Bai of Varanasi practising to capture in her voice the friction of the rope against the stone wall of the well.

Dr. Data Ram Purohit of the Shimla Institute of Advanced Studies describes the community culture of women and water in Uttarakhand. “Along the journey of the Ganges in Uttarakhand, the women perform specific dances to songs called ‘Ganga Geet’. Similarly, after the wedding night, the new bride performs the first ritual in her husband’s home which is to go to worship the water body from where the household gets water. The source could be a spring, lake or a river. Jal Yatras are performed on variety of occasions such as a Bhagwat pooja. Ideally, 108 virgin girls carry water pitchers on their heads. Their journey starts from a source of a water-body. The procession proceeds to a sacred peepul tree (Figi Religiosa which releases significant degree of oxygen in the night) and concludes on the spot of where the sacred ritual (yagya) is performed.”

Sacred realm

Bhavai dancer Suresh Vyas

Bhavai dancer Suresh Vyas  

The sanctity and hygiene of the water is extended to the sacred realm in several regions. Says Purohit, “It is believed in Uttarakhand that the water spirit (masaan) is present in all irrigation channels and he needs to be mollified to protect the crops.” Farhad Contractor of Sambhav Trust describes, “In Rajasthan, there is a pre-monsoon ritual called Lasipa. The entire village gathers, cleans, mends and desilt all water bodies. The ritual ends with a community feast. Similarly during the fertility festivals of Gangaur and Akkha Teej, women come together to clean lakes and tanks.” “The Bhawai dance of Rajasthan where a dancer performs with pots on the head, traditionally is related to a story where seven pots of water were carried to appease Sheetla Maata (the Goddess of Chicken/Small pox).” says dancer Suresh Vyas.

According to cultural expert Kapila Vatsyayan traditional societies have always consciously cared and interacted with ‘mother-nature’ and accumulated pragmatic knowledge to manage their daily life. Man and nature are inseparable and need to live with each other. This ecocentric as well as reverential attitude of the traditional societies is widely reflected in their attitudes towards plants, animals, rivers, earth and their day-to-day activities. The ancient Apatani tribe of the Ziro valley in Arunachal is exemplary. They practice the wet rice cum fish cultivation that can be found in several parts of Asia for centuries. This type of agricultural system consists of various waste recycling techniques. The system is energy efficient with greater economic output as well as beneficial for the ecological condition.

DROPS of wisdom

“The agricultural system of Apatani tribe is sacred and done without animals and modern machine. Ziro Valley is a plateau, where the main source of water for households and irrigation is from a single small river and some spring wells. Irrigation of the paddy fields in the entire valley through a network of irrigation canals and channels. The women are the ones who usually manage the fields. The water used in the paddy field flows to more fields in the valley downstream. These merge back to the small stream which flows back to the river at last. In this way, there is perennial source of water in the valley. Strict rules are followed in the valley for not constructing modern structures in the vicinity of paddy field as this will disturb the ecosystem,” informs Dr. Tage Taka from the Apatani community.

Heritage knowledge on irrigation is also practised in the remote cold desert of Spiti. The Khuls (channels) are designed to carry long distances the water from glaciers to villages. On reaching a village the water falls in a central tank and the use is regulated by the community. Unique sociological practices such as land with water rights is inherited by oldest son who takes care of equitable distribution of the resources for the family.

Community ownership

The above cultural traditions illustrate the critical and key feature of water wisdom is community ownership, participation and responsibility. Development of building roads, metros, bus- stands, shopping malls, and housing while being important become redundant if the planning of water is not factored in. The work of water warriors such as Anupam Mishra, Rajendra Singh, Farhad Contractor and other repositories of water wisdom has relentlessly shown that traditional practices is the key to development models. An example is the way of life in hot desert of Rajasthan which receives merely between 75 to 100 mm annual rainfalls. However, here all members of society value each water-drop. They do not take for granted that taps will have water.

Desert story

Traditional water wisdom is not taught but inherited and amalgamates knowledge on geology and hydrology. Farhad Contractor describes three methods of water collection. Rain water harvesting such as building tanks. Rejwani system where water percolates through sand, settles on the gypsum layer, and is brought for use by a complex capillary system called Beri. The third is the Patali pani which are the deep aquifers that is determined by geological formation.

“It is amazing the manner common people know at what depth one will find brine water (khaara pani) and at what length there will be sweet water. They know the location of the gypsum or the bentonite layer.”

The ancient technique to harvest condensed water is amazing. “In different parts of India, this method has existed. Previously, here in the desert even the dew on leaves was harvested. Presently, harvesting the dew on the sand is more common. The harvested water is brought to use by the capillary system,” explains Contractor who has worked in a number of locations including Rajasthan and parts of Tamil Nadu.

Traditionally, the water management was a community responsibility. A neeruganti in Karnataka was a person who controlled and managed distribution of water, just as there still is a system in place in Spiti and Arunachal and even the desert areas. The only way the national water emergency can be averted is by immediately choosing between ‘building’ and preserving water bodies. For instance, it is imperative that lakes, ponds and step wells in Delhi and other cities are revived not by modern cementing but by traditional knowledge methods.

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