The land of forts is equally a land of man-made water bodies, exemplifying a culture of valuing each drop of precious water.
In popular imagination, Rajasthan is a land of chivalry and rugged forts set against the backdrop of a desert landscape, with camels traversing unending sand dunes. The majesty of the forts at Chittor, Udaipur, Mehrangarh, Kumbhalgarh or Ranthambore to name a few is such that it draws people from far and near.
But there is another equally heroic tale woven around architectural marvels that testify to the collective ecological wisdom that once energised the region. While doing my PhD research on understanding human negotiations with semi-arid and arid environments of Rajasthan during medieval times, I discovered that the land of forts was equally a land of man-made water bodies, exemplifying a culture of valuing each drop of precious water.
On one hand are Rajasthan’s massive man-made lakes like the Raj Sammand, Bal Sammand, Pichhola, Amar Sagar and Garsisar, some perennial and some seasonal. On the other hand, the state boasts of a variety of smaller forms of water architecture such as baories, tankas and joharas which were the immediate lifelines of communities. Together, these diverse man-made water bodies represent the ingenuity of traditional water harvesting systems in an arid and semi-arid landscape that have formed the basis of Rajasthan’s richly diverse cultural heritage.
With the coming of piped water supply and tube wells, most of these forms of water architecture have fallen prey to neglect. But if the creeping water crisis across the country and the world is any indication, it is time to learn anew from examples of local genius that were devised in the face of scarcity (the Ranthambore National Park authorities, for instance, have revived several man-made water-bodies to take care of the water needs of wildlife, especially during summers).
In the course of my research, one part of the state fascinated me – the Shekhawati region in north-eastern Rajasthan, encompassing the districts of Jhunjhunu, Sikar and parts of Churu and Nagaur. The region is known the world over for its magnificent painted havelis (mansions) of Fatehpur (Sikar district). It is home also to unique joharas (open water tanks) said to have been constructed between the 17th and 19th centuries. The manner in which local communities surmounted an extremely adverse environment, be it rainfall, river or soil, spoke of an epic human engagement with nature that has gone somewhat unnoticed.
Much of the region is located in an area geographically known as the little Indian desert, separated from the Ganga-Yamuna doab by the Aravalli range of mountains. The Aravallis form a topographic barrier that deprives this region of the bounties of water-laden monsoon winds. For those coming either from Delhi on NH 48 or from Jaipur via NH 52, the moment they cross the Aravallis to enter the Shekhawati region, the sight of a vast expanse of sand sporadically broken by thorny bushes and clusters of hamlets, comes as a huge surprise.
Factors such as scant and occasional rainfall, absence of perennial rivers combined with brackish ground water, made rain-water harvesting imperative for communities living in the area, as elsewhere in the state. But the Shekhawati region faced an added complication. Its sandy soil, unlike loamy soil, drained quickly owing to its porous nature. Hence, storing water in any depression or pit over a length of time was made more difficult.
Therein lay the beauty of the johara. On the face of it, a johara appears to be just an open water tank. But the construction of this seemingly simple tank involved a great deal of complexity. Since the average annual rainfall in the region is not more than five inches, the site for a johara had to be chosen with great care. This required a comprehensive mapping of the landscape and topographic features, taking into consideration the path of seasonal runoff of rains so as to maximise the water collection.
Despite the meagre rainfall in the region, it was possible to collect a good amount of water – even four inches of water can result in the collection of around 2.5 gallon per square feet. Traditionally, the spot chosen for a johara was such as to optimise the collection of rainfall in the absence of any other water source to nourish the water bodies. But an efficient diversion of the runoff to a depression was not enough. It was necessary to build a concrete plaster base so as to eliminate the imminent possibility of water seeping through the sandy soil. Similarly, the side walls also required reinforcement in the absence of stable support from the outside. This is what gave the joharas of the Shekhawati region their unique character.
The Shekhawati joharas make for an interesting contrast with man-made water bodies in other parts of Rajasthan, even those located in the great Indian desert area. Jaisalmer’s Gadsisar and Amarsagar, for example, tended to support wells, known as bera or beri, on their beds because of the gradual percolation of water. Their soil permitted it. The joharas were located in a region where this was not possible owing to soil porosity. On one hand, the concrete base of the joharas made them cost intensive and, on the other, they were prone to a high rate of evaporation unlike stepwells which protected water from direct sunlight.
The Shekhawati joharas palpably communicated a way of life that was delicately balanced between scarcity and survival – one that supported the richly textured agrarian cultures of the region, with pastoralism as an integral part of them.
Although there is little information about the builders of most of these joharas, they were constructed for community purposes and to cater to the needs of the livestock (domestic requirements were usually managed by a roof-top-rain water harvesting system known as tanka).
On one of my visits to the state archives in Bikaner, which borders the western edge of the Shekhawati region, I thought of creating a johara trail that could be accomplished in a day, spanning rural and urban areas. Starting from Bikaner I decided to drive towards the Fatehpur-Laxmangarh-Nawalgarh-Jhunjhunu stretch of urban centres, in Sikar and Jhunjhunu districts. On this route, I would cover the more desolate stretches of the western edge of the region as well as its more urbanised eastern part.
I set off from Bikaner on NH 62 going towards Churu, passing the famous Lunkaransar salt water lake (70 km north of Bikaner) on the way. The first thing that hit the eye was a vast expanse of sand. In the middle of this vast expanse where the ground water is usually brackish, was a big man-made water body in a small qasba (town) named Kalu, on the western-most part of the Shekhawati region, more arid and desolate.
The johara in Kalu is one of the most magnificent and biggest joharas of the region. With a massive catchment covering almost a square kilometre, the johara has been able to sustain not only a large water body but also dense vegetation around it. Since the catchment area is unencroached, in a year of reasonable rainfall, the johara is able to collect water.
From Kalu, I took to state highway 38 going towards the town of Shri Dungargarh. This detour was necessary to include the johara in Gosain Sar Bara, a small settlement engaged mainly in rearing cattle and sheep (since agriculture is somewhat of a rarity in sandy soil, this area sustains a pastoral economy). Soon after crossing the settlement, on the right side of the road was the johara, one side constructed as a slope towards the path of rainwater runoff. The slope was also convenient for the cattle, enabling the animals to reach the water table even when it was at its minimal level.
Even today, weary travellers use this place as a halt for their animals and for a few moment of repose in the quiet that accompanies remote surroundings; 10 minutes after I reached there, I had two young men and a thirsty camel for company.
Having seen two rural joharas, I decided to drive towards the prominent urban centres of Fatehpur-Laxmangarh-Nawalgarh-Jhunjhunu, in Sikar and Jhunjhunu districts, closer to the eastern part of the Shekhawati region. From Shri Dungargarh, I took to NH 11, driving towards Sikar (the highway connects Bikaner to Sikar). I was curious to see the joharas constructed by the wealthy merchant section of society purely for recreational and/or ritual purposes.
On reaching Fatehpur, I went to see the johara located in front of the Rajasthan Tourism Development Corporation Hotel. While its basic architectural principle, of concrete plastering of base and side walls, was the same as in the rural joharas, its look bespoke its lineage. Marked by ornate architecture, with chhatris (domed pavilions) where merchants and their families could while away time pleasantly, the johara had steps on all sides. It is quite possible that this johara may have been used for rituals such as idol immersion during festivals. The fact that the water was covered with green slime told its own story.
Barely five km from Fatehpur on the same NH 11 is a johara on the right side. It has a tower in the middle. Its location – within a manageable distance from the city yet in the ‘wild’ – and the presence of chhatris on the four corners and in the centre communicated its purpose clearly.
Joharas meant for recreation or ritual had an interesting feature – the slope meant for carrying the rainwater runoff from the catchment area to feed the johara was usually blocked by a wall with small inlets. The wall prevented the cattle from entering while the water flowed through the inlets to the johara beyond. That was not all. A small speed-breaker like construction, or abatement, in the slope ensured that the sediment settled down, leaving the water to flow towards the inlet.
Wherever catchment areas are safe from encroachment, such as in Kalu or Fatehpur, the joharas still collect water, but in other parts of the region, the twin factors of encroachment of catchment areas and lack of maintenance of the path of runoff deprive the joharas of water.
In a state that is undoubtedly one of the most popular tourist destinations, one of the ways of generating renewed interest in its neglected water architecture sites is to make them an integral part of the travel itinerary of tourists. An example that readily comes to mind is that of the magnificent Rani ni Vav (stepwell) of Patan in Gujarat, a world heritage site. It is immensely popular as a tourist destination.
Interestingly, as the Rajasthan tourism department has shown an interest in including stepwells in certain areas on tourist itineraries, local communities have been motivated to invest in their upkeep. In the absence of any such interest in joharas, the locals do not perceive any spin-off benefits arising from their upkeep. The run-down condition of many a johara that is supposedly still in use for ritual purposes captures the social apathy towards these forms of water architecture.
The Shekhawati region receives a fair amount of tourists especially during the monsoon and winter season, the proximity of two famous pilgrim/tourist destinations, namely Khatu Shyamji and Balaji of Salasar being an added attraction. Since many of the tourists visiting the region are interested in stepwells, it may be worth the while of the tourism department to create a johara trail, complete with sand dunes along the way.
There are so many trails of well-known and little-known joharas awaiting discovery in the Shekhawati region. A trip to Fatehpur that includes a visit to the painted havelis and the joharas would complete the picture for visitors – they would be able to grasp the organic response of communities to the region’s aridity across the spectrum. Some of these sites are off the beaten track and have a whiff of adventure. Hopefully, that could be the starting point for a more sustained interest in these issues.
Either way, to the intrepid traveller, the joharas have a message – set forth to the Shekhawati region; there’s a story waiting to be told of a pact between human and nature that needs to be renewed.
Mayank Kumar is associate professor at Satyawati College (Evening), Delhi University.