India- Our Water Heritage

November 13, 2010

Know your water heritage


The cultural heritage around water has tremendous tourism and knowledge potential, which in the West enhances property value in the area and spurs local economy. A study by water expert S. Vishwanath

Stately:The Wellesley Bridge on the Cauvery built in 1894

India has a rich cultural heritage on water structures and architecture. Consider the beautiful step-wells all around the country from Hampi in Karnataka, Abaneri in Rajasthan and Bundelkhand to Adalaj Vav near Ahmedabad. Water structures include the ‘ghats’ or river bank steps at Srirangapatna, Benaras and on the banks of the Narmada. Water architecture has is reflected in the temple ponds or the ‘kalyani’ in Melkote, Thiruvananthapuram and Madurai. Water aesthetics have been elaborated as the beautiful channels and fountains at Humayun’s tomb Delhi or again at Hampi.

Often forgotten are the more prosaic but equally beautiful structures like the large open wells with their beautiful granite dry stone pitching, bridges built of stone or brick masonry with their arches, dams built of earth and lime mortar, aqueducts which brought water to cities, siphons which helped empty reservoirs when they were full and pumps which helped ship water to distant cities.

All these cultural heritage structures and devices around water have tremendous tourism and knowledge potential which in the West enhances property value all around and spurs the local economy. In Sydney, Paddington reservoir, one of the oldest of its kind, has been restored and made into a recreation spot with signboards explaining the history and evolution of the system. Cities and governments needs to revisit these structures and draw up a plan to fit it around the local needs.

Consider the history of water supply to a city like Bangalore. A dam was built on the Arkavathy at Hessarghatta in 1894 and it is one of the most beautiful and scenic spots around Bangalore. There is a siphon here which when the reservoir was full in the olden days would empty the excess waters. The sound of the siphon could be heard for miles, say the old timers. The reservoir now does not fill up but the siphon is itself in a state of disrepair and there is no explanatory board to suggest how the system functions.

A brick aqueduct would bring water some kilometres from Hessarghatta to a place called Turubanhalli from where a steam engine imported from the U.K. was used to lift the waters to a reservoir at Jalahalli. From here the water would flow to the ‘jewel filters’ at Malleswaram and be distributed to the city. The steam engines are still there in pristine condition but tucked away in a room and the brick aqueduct is being eaten away by vandals, destroying a precious heritage. Again, no explanatory boards are seen anywhere.

No respect for history

Bangalore was also one of the first cities in India to have electricity which was then used to replace the steam pumps with electric ones. This too is a remarkable thing needing to be showcased but, alas, we do not respect history and our heritage.

Virtually nothing of this system or the feats of our engineers has been preserved or showcased to the city and its younger generation. We are, it seems, not proud of our engineering skills.

Consider the beautiful Wellesley bridge, called the ‘haley sethuve’ or old bridge, in Srirangapatna. Built during 1802-04 the beautiful stone bridge still continuous to be functional and can take car traffic too. How many modern structures can claim such longevity? Yet there is virtually little information available on this beautiful bridge. Trees and roots establish themselves on the deck and the pillars, the old sign board announcing its inauguration by none other than Dewan Purnaiah is unmanaged and the bridge is in slow decay.

None of the property and resorts that have come along on the banks of the Cauvery do anything to highlight and help preserve this engineering marvel. Neither does the Tourism Department or the PWD Department.

In Humayun’s tomb in Delhi and in Hampi, work is in progress to revitalise and showcase the water heritage. Channels, ponds and ‘kalyani’ are being revived, fountains resurrected and explanation boards coming up. This is good work, but just the beginning. Similarly we need to focus on all such structures for in them there are lessons of creativity and overcoming problems through engineering ingenuity. More institutions apart from the Archaeology Department need to get involved. The Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board can take up the revitalisation work of Bangalore city’s water heritage, for example.

The PWD can refrain from what it did with the beautiful old stone bridge on the Shimsha at Maddur built in the 1850s, which it dismantled and sold as stones. It can take up the restoration of the Wellesley Bridge aesthetically and showcase its design.

By respecting our water tradition and culture and by letting our young generation know about the efforts put behind the marvellous structures we will have spread water literacy and done justice to our forefathers’ works. That in a sense is the path to water wisdom.






  1. Loved this thought-inspiring post.

  2. Bangalore is also leading the World in its thinking and actions on rainwater harvesting. Well Done.

  3. very nice article

  4. A wonderful write-up on a very sensitive issue.

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