Tuesday, 22 March 2011

World Water Day: WATER & the Sacred Geography of Ellora

Ellora is an archaeological site famous for its caves and the Kailash temple all carved out of solid rock. Located in the state of Maharashtra, in western India, the cave and temple complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was constructed over a period dating between the 5th-13th centuries AD, and were, at various times, carved for and in the traditions of three major religions - Hindu, Buddhist and Jaina.
Cave 10 at Ellora, the famous 'Carpenter's Cave'

In fact, it has been hypothesized, that the very name Ellora derives its name from Elapura or city of Ela, which is the name of a river Goddess mentioned in the Puranas, one of the most sacred and ancient Hindu religious texts. Hindu ‘Puranic’ legends dated between the 6-9th centuries AD, make frequent references to the mountains, lakes, pools, cascades, sacred groves associated with this river Goddess, as also a river Ela somewhere in the Deccan, and a tribe called Elikas. 

Waterfall at Ellora near Cave 29 

Locally at Elapura, Ila was the priests’ name for a part of the river which rises at the top of the volcanic Deccan escarpment and winds its way south through the forest, forming sacred pools and cataracts until it reaches the edge, by the Dumar Lena where it cascades in a spectacular waterfall during the rainy season.
Waterfall in the monsoon by the Dumar Lena 

At the foot of the cave complex is the village of Ellora where there is a Hindu temple dedicated to the god, Shiva-Ghrishnesvara. Though a temple or shrine has existed here from ancient times, the present temple was constructed in the 18th century by Rani Ahilyabai Holkar, the famous Maratha ‘Philosopher Queen’ (1725-1795 AD). This temple is one of the twelve Jyotirlingas, a site of great sacredness and an important place of pilgrimage for Hindus. Every pilgrim enters the temple and takes a dip in the temple Kund or tank, an act of great auspiciousness.
Ghrishnesvara Temple in the village of Ellora or Verul, as it is locally known

About three kilometres from Ellora, is the medieval Islamic town of Khuldabad, the Karbala town or holy shrine of the Deccan Muslims and a place of pilgrimage for those who follow the Sufi faith. The name Khuldabad means ‘heavenly abode’ and in early Persian documents the township has been refered as Rauza, which means a tomb complex with an attached mosque or garden. This is because this town was the home and now has the mausoleums of two highly revered Sufi Saints, Burhan-ud-din and Zain-ud-din, from the 14th century.
View of a colonial English resthouse, 'Paradise Cottage' and a number of tombs (Rauza) near Khuldabad. Photographed by Lala Deen Dayal in the 1890s 
source: from the Curzon Collection 'Views of Caves of Ellora and Dowlatabad Fort in H.H. the Nizam's Dominions' at the British Library

Burhanuddin's Tomb, Khuldabad 

The town is now a complex of Sufi ‘dargahs’ or shrines of these and other Sufi saints like Zar Zari Zar Baksh and Jalal al-Din ‘Ganj-i-Ravan’.

The tomb of Jalal al-Din ‘Ganj-i-Ravan’ (flowing treasure) overlooks a spring-fed pond known as the Lake of Fairies (Pariyon ka Talab) reputed to have miraculous healing properties. Praying at this ‘dargah’ and washing in the waters of the Fairies' Tank is said to ‘cure’ women of infertility and other ailments, which is why many women make this pilgrimage every year – asking for ‘mannat’ and tying bits of coloured cloth or bangle to the huge tree as a sign of their faith.  

This Lake of the Fairies is just one of many tanks, ponds, lakes, cascades, cave springs etc. that cover the Ellora-Khuldabad region. In fact, the importance of Ellora to the Hindu, Buddhist, Jaina and Islamic faiths is, in one way or another, elaborately intertwined with the presence, physical and mythical, of water.

Built evidence of an elaborate water management system that has been constructed and maintained over centuries can be seen from the man-made masonry tanks of Ganj-i-Ravan (Pariyon ka Talab, the Lake of the Fairies), Pangra, Dharm, Bhadra Houz-e-Qutu and the chain of bunds in the ravine which connects Suli Bhanjan with the Surya Kund reservoir, as well as the structural remains of wells and a networked chain of water supply that once served the cluster of settlements on this part of the Deccan plateau.

Dargah of Zar Zari Baksh from the inner courtyard at the Rauza of Khuldabad. Photographed by Lala Deen Dayal in the 1890s 
source: from the Curzon Collection 'Views of Caves of Ellora and Dowlatabad Fort in H.H. the Nizam's Dominions' at the British Library

Initial studies indicate that the complex man-made system of water bodies in this region is connected and fed through an elaborate system of sub-terranean water channels that cris-cross the area covering several square kilometers. In fact, since this region lies in the rain-shadow (dry) area of the Western Ghat range of mountains, its importance as water catchment area has made the presence of habitation viable since pre-historic times. 

The engineering skill required to construct this and other systems is evidenced in structures like the Pan Chakki. Dating back to the 17th century, this watermill brought water down from a mountain spring and the energy generated was used to turn the large grinding stones of a flour mill for pilgrims. Built in 1695, it is attributed to Malik Amber, an Abyssinian slave who rose to the rank of Commander of the army and Prime Minister in the Nizamshah Sultanate of Ahmadnagar. A patron of art, architecture and literature, he is credited as being the architect of a number of buildings and an excellent water management system in Aurangabad.

Pan Chakki water mill, in the 1880's and today
source: Top image photographed by Lala Deen Dayal from the Columbia University collection

The fact that this region is of so much religious and spiritual significance for Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Muslims is an important factor in the development of these water systems. Not only were they developed for the local settlements, many of the water features have developed over time at key points of traditional pilgrimage routes - for the many thousands of pilgrims of various religions who have been visiting the Ellora-Khuldabad region for centuries.

Today this traditional system of water management has fallen into decay, with only a few of the reservoirs receiving water from their original source while several are dry due to the disrepair/damming of their subterranean feeder channels. The vast network and complex system has never been comprehensively documented though there is plenty of both built evidence as well as traditional knowledge of its existence and workings.

The present plans for the region are to increase and improve its supply of piped water from a centralized distribution system based on river water. This energy and capital intensive system completely ignores the existing traditions of water management in the area. Additionally, they have proven to be inefficient as the maintenance requirements far outstrip what the local residents can provide – making them dependent on Government engineers and external investment. 

Furthermore India, as a nation, is increasingly confronted with decreasing potable water yields from her rivers, as the needs of an ever increasing population go up. It is in just such a scenario, that traditional technologies of using, conserving and maximizing all sources of potable water including rainfall, rain-fed mountain springs, rain-fed wells and ground water sources etc. should be researched and promoted – to be used in a sustainable way in conjunction with existing piped water systems.

In real terms, it will conserve a traditional knowledge system as well as provide the local settlements, villagers, tribals as well as pilgrims and tourists with an additional sustainable water source that will help improve local life and livelihoods for the better.

In 1993, the United Nations General Assembly designated 22 March as the first World Water Day to celebrate water, make a difference for the members of the global population who suffer from water related issues and prepare for how to manage water in the future - UNWater

Author: Shahana Dastidar
Note: For references or further information, please write to urbanruralfabric(at)gmail.com. All images from Wikimedia Commons unless otherwise attributed.

1 comment:

  1. My regrets but the periods of Puranas and period of building are ALL WRONG!
    They go in to Pre-History and Ancient Times!
    As also, in all probability, they were NOT built by Homo sapiens, ATALL...... :(