In the land of tanks & wells

Traditional water sources in Ashtagrama of Kolar district stand testimony to the ingenuity and skill of local communities

A well in Ashtagrama

As one approaches Kolar, one cannot miss the huge rocks on either side of the road. While travelling towards Mulbagal town, at about 13 km from Kolar, a rock massif becomes visible on the right. After taking a right from the national highway towards the rock massif, one will be heading to a small habitation called Devarayasamudra. Soon, a large tank 
appears against the backdrop of the rock massif and a paddy field. The ‘samudra’ is the reference to this large tank, indicating that it is as large as sea.

The habitation is said to have been developed by a group of Tamil Iyers, who migrated to the kingdom of Mysore about 500 years ago and settled here for priestly duties and cultivation. The names of the villages are interesting: Devarayasamudra, Minijenahalli, Cholanagunte, Doddiganahalli, Ganjigunte, Yalagondahalli, Honaganahalli, Kothamangala, Vijalapura, and Tattangunte. These villages are collectively known as Ashtagrama, meaning eight villages. There were originally eight habitations which then expanded to become 10 habitations.

Fed by rock catchments, there are many tanks that dot the landscape. Come monsoon, the entire area turns green with paddy fields stretching out in all directions. From the sacred hills of Avani close by, one can only see water and fields if the rains have been good.

Living monuments

In old times, till the advent of borewells in the 1980s, land was irrigated using water from tanks or open wells. The history of open wells, or dug wells as they are called, is ancient in India. It is said that the Harappan civilisation’s Mohenjo-daro had one well for every three houses. The ancient port town of Lothal had dug wells for water supply in addition to brick-lined drains.

Thanks to the rock catchments, the run-off of rain is swift and unimpeded allowing the water to collect easily. These tanks get filled up with two or three good showers. Much of the water percolates into the ground and recharges the shallow aquifer. The wells tap into the aquifers and draw water for irrigation when the tank waters dry up.

The construction of dug wells was usually done by the people of Mannu Vaddar community, who were skilled in the excavation of earth. The Kallu Vaddars, a kin community, would then provide the stone to line the wells. The wells around Ashtagrama are living monuments that reflect the skill and ingenuity of these people. Not a gram of cement or lime was used in the construction of the stone lining. It was all dry-stone pitching.

The old methods of lifting water such as yeta, kapile or the Persian wheel are now gone. However, remnants of granite slabs placed on the wells reveal a lot of information about these systems. Now, electric pump has replaced the animal-powered water lifting systems.

India has been and is a groundwater-dependent civilisation. One estimate has it that nearly 65% of India’s water requirements comes from groundwater. More than 30 million borewells extract over 250 cubic km of groundwater annually. Most of this extraction from deep aquifers is fossil water. The well, on the other hand, accesses annually replenishable water and is more sustainable. It is essential that we return to the culture of the open well if we have to manage our water resources sustainably.

The well is also a place of worship. The waters from the well at the ancient Ramalingehswara Temple at Avani is still used for temple ritual purpose. The temple, built by the Nolambas, is dated to the 10th century. The well in the temple premises must be one of the oldest functional water resources in the region.

Heritage zones

A well is also the swimming pool of rural India. Many people have first learnt their lesson in swimming with a log tied to the back as a safety jacket. With the disappearance of open wells, swimming is becoming a dying art in much of our villages.

Fluoride in deep groundwater has become a health issue. Many reverse osmosis systems are being set up even in the Ashtagrama villages to provide fluoride-free drinking water. Fortunately, most open wells are fluoride-free and can provide good drinking water. Each well or tank in this region is unique and holds mirror to the traditional water wisdom. The area around Ashtagrama can be declared as a groundwater sanctuary and steps can be taken to protect the wells. This can be done by focusing on keeping tanks free of silt, by making sure that granite quarrying is controlled, by regulating borewell drilling, and by incentivising farmers to adopt drip irrigation system and cultivation practices that are not water intensive.

It is time we woke up to this heritage and protected the scarce resource that is groundwater. The wells of Ashtagrama can be the first of the many groundwater sanctuaries that Karnataka needs.

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In the land of tanks & wells

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