Water strongholds

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THE vision that Rajasthan invokes in most is one of magnificent, awesome and impregnable medieval fortresses. in fact, the most attractive features of the Aravalli hills in the state are its fortified cities and palaces. Some forts have been built on a hill overlooking the city, as is the case in Alwar. At Amber and Bundi, the palace stands on the hillside, while the fort is situated on the summit. Then there are the towns of Kumbhalgarb, Chittor and Ranthambhore, where the entire settlement is sheltered within the fort. These forts could support human habitations only because they had elaborate water harvesting systems. Invading armies would sometimes lay siege to these forts for months; during such times, there had to be enough water inside the fort to sustain its defenders and inhabitants.

Builders of both the Chittor and Ranthambhore forts made excellent me of the natural catchments in the forts created by undulating hilltops. Some areas were also contoured to facilitate collection of run off. For drinking purposes, kunds and baoris (stepwetls) were built below talabs (tanks). Stone quarrying for fortification or building purposes was done in such a way that the pit could later be used as a reservoir. Some of the reservoirs were designed and built to facilitate the movement of water from one to the other.

There are no records of how many people actually lived inside Chittor fort, though a rough estimate can be made. According to historians, 13,000 women once committed jauhar - a unique practice of the women of Mewar who used to immolate themselves on funeral pyres rather than submit to the enemy. In another instance, 32,000 Rajput warriors died. Hence, it can be assumed that at least 50,000 people lived in the fort at a single time, along with a large number of elephants and horses.

Historical records speak of 84 water bodies in the fort. Today, not many of them are visible; those that did not have stone or masonry lining, have completely disappeared. The beds of the reservoirs have been brought under the plough. However, not all is lost. At least 22 major water bodies still exist, which include talabs, kunds, baoris and wells. Among the talabs in the fort are the Chatrang Mauri talab, which is the biggest, and Fatehji-ka-talab, Padmim talab and Bholiya talab. The Khatan baori, Surya kund, Ratneshwar kund, Kukdeshwar kund, Bhimlat kund and Bhirn Godi are the well-known kunds and baoris.

All talabs in the fort have natural catchments. The builders of Chittor not only harvested surface water but also the ground seepage. Kunds and baoris are located below the talabs to harvest seepage. Thus, Surya kund is located below Kala nada; Khatan baori below Fatehji-ka-talab; and, Bhimlat kund below Sukadiya talab. Hence, even if a talab dries up, its seepage could still be harvested from the kunds and baoris. The Gaumukh spring is formed due to the seepage from Hathi kund, which in turn is recharged by the Fatehji-ka-talab. The source of Kukdeshwar kund is the seepage of Mahadevra kund, which is recharged by Ratneshwar kund. This kund, on its part, is charged by the Rathodiya kund.

About 5,000 people once lived in the Ranthambhore fort, today situated inside the famous Ranthambhore National Park. Water for so many people had to be harvested in the fort itself Even in peace time, it was too cumbersome to lift the water from below the fort.

In Ranthambhore fort, water was, for all practical uses, taken from wells next to talabs which recharged the wells. The water of these talabs was of better quality. Water bodies in the fort are well distributed, so that no one had to walk long distances. All major structures in the fort are situated around these water bodies.

The fort even had openings in its battlements from which water could be released to ward off the advancing enemy. During war, boiling water was thrown onto the enemy from the ramparts. According to R L Mishra, author of Forts of Rajasthan (Kutir Prakashan, Mandawa, Rajasthan, 1985), "There were five big tanks in the fort which were always kept full of water. Whenever the fort was threatened, the big holes provided in the bottom of these tanks would be opened, and the gushing torrent of water would weep away the invading army gathered before the Nolakha gate."

It cannot be denied that by modern standards, there are some drawbacks in the traditional system. In modem times, it is difficult to allocate such large land masses for storing water. Moreover, a clean and unobstructed catchment is needed to supply unpolluted water, and the state of catchments today belie such hopes. However, modem engineers still have a lot to learn from the ingenuity of conception and design that is the hallmark of Rajasthan's 'water strongholds'.