Water is very important for survival and in arid regions, it is more precious than gold. In 6th century BCE, when India was heralding a spiritual renaissance, the inhabitants of arid Iran were busy building Qanat or Karez system to tap deep alluvial aquifers and channel the water along an underground tunnel often over many kilometers, using gravity. Qanat is the Arabic word for “channel” and Qanats in Persian are called kārīz or kārēz
According to an inscription, in 714 BCE, when King of Assyria invaded the city of Uhla, Northwest of Lake Urmia in Persia, he was surprised to notice rich vegetation and thriving agriculture even though there were no rivers nearby. This was a result of the efforts of Ursa, the local King who had transformed his kingdom into an oasis. The secret was the Qanat system which helped lifting groundwater to the surface in order to cultivate land and for many other purposes including drinking. The closed channels ensured that evaporation and contamination did not affect the water rendering it fit for human consumption.
The working of the Karez system. Image source- Wikimedia Commons
The practice of Qanat or Karez continued in Persia throughout later history and via the Silk Route spread to other countries as well. Today, more than 30 countries in the world use this system to harness water. One of them is Bidar in Karnataka, the erstwhile stronghold of the Bahmani Sultanate.
Image source – Wikimedia Commons
In 15th century CE, when Bidar in Northeast Karnataka became an established centre and capital of Bahmani dynasty, the Karez system was successfully introduced. Picturesquely perched on the ridge of Deccan Plateau, Bidar has rich laterite formations, a porous rock that allows for optimal groundwater recharge while also serving as a purifier.
Laterite formation around Bidar. The upper crust of the plateau is of laterite, a soft porous rock with limonitic surface. Water filtered during the monsoons through the laterite stratum is arrested and a nursery of springs is formed. The Karez System is built along a geological fracture. Such fractures are formed at the intersection of laterite and basalt rocks and form lineaments.
Topography of Bidar
The Bahmanis had their roots in Iran. They adopted the various systems of their ancestral land and invited a large number of Sufi saints, writers, calligraphers, masons, merchants, artisans and soldiers in their courts. They, together with native population, have contributed immensely to Medieval Deccani culture, heritage and architecture.
Triple Moats in Bidar Fort. The water supply to Bidar Fort and its surrounding also used Karez system introduced by Iranian masons
Water has always been a major concern in Deccan as it receives low rainfall and soaring temperatures in the summer with a high rate of evaporation depletes surface water quickly. Hence the Karez system was well accepted. It was one of the most cost effective methods for collecting, transporting, storing and distributing water. The Karez system of Bidar is earliest in Deccan created in the 15th century CE. Its primary objective was to supply water to human settlements. Locally it is also known as ‘Surang Bavi’. The Bahmanis also built Surang Bavis in Bijapur and Gulbarga. Reports indicate the presence of a Karez in Burhanpur in Madhya Pradesh. Seems like the Mughals were inspired by the Bahmanis.
There are six Karezes in Bidar, out of which the two most important ones are the Naubad Karez and the Jamuna Mori Karez. While the Naubad karez supplied water to common people, the Jamuna Mori Karez took water to the royal family and others living inside the Bidar fort. The length of Naubad Karez, which starts from Naubad and ends in Aliabad, is nearly about 3.5 km.
An Entrance to the Naubad Karez
A vertical shaft at Naubad Karez. These shafts worked as air vents, wells and an entrance for men to do maintenance work. They also aided in rainwater harvesting and channeling.
There were 27 vertical shafts in Naubad Karez system that were separated from each other at a distance of 50 meters each. These vertical shafts provide necessary ventilation for the workers and allowed them to clear the mud accumulated during the excavation work. Out of these 27 shafts only 21 remain today.
Rajendra Singh, water man of India, who especially visited Bidar to have a close look at the working of the Karez system says
“What is unbelievable is that the engineers of those days discovered the fault lines in the rocks below the ground and traced the aquifer, just by identifying the particular kind of trees that grow on the ground,” Mr. Singh said. The ‘karez’ gallery and tunnels carved 40 ft below the ground had been created entirely by hand. It was a great piece of art, he said. Mr. Singh described the ‘karez’ as a living textbook for water-related studies. “We could emulate the design whenever large water harvesting projects are undertaken,” he said.
According to Mr. Singh, the system of excavation in the laterite rock that had ensured that the ceiling had not fallen off or the walls had not crumbled for over 600 years was worthy of a detailed academic study.
Inside view of the Naubad Karez System
The Karez system in Bidar is unique. With rainfall patterns going awry and polluted surface water, groundwater is our answer to water woes. Their level is not affected by rains or drought for a few years making it the most reliable source of potable water in arid and semi-arid regions. However, it is neglected and encroached upon. In 2012, the local government took the long awaited decision to clean and excavate the aquaduct with the help of a team of experts from Indian Heritage Cities Network, Deccan Heritage Foundation, UNESCO, and Kerala University.
The collaborative effort between the local government and experts produced fruitful results. According to a report published in The Hindu on 16th September 2015, ‘water began flowing out of the mouth of the cave that leads to the duct from Tuesday afternoon, attracting residents of Naubad and surrounding areas who were thrilled to see the stream. Water that gushed out of the Karez gallery got collected in the Kalyani of nearby Sangameshwar Temple before running into the fields and the Manjra River below.’
Indeed, Karez system in Bidar is one of the most promising revival and conservation project on modern-day usage of ancient secular heritage structures in India. This experiment has given enough reasons for locals to have pride in their built-in heritage rendering it as a benchmark for similar efforts in other heritage towns and cities.
I am thankful to Mr. Rishikesh Desai, the local Hindu correspondent of Bidar for his inputs and Mr. Valliyil Govindankutty, a geology professor and expert on Karez system for guiding me and taking me around in Bidar.
Author – Jitu Mishra (with inputs from Zehra Chhapiwala)
He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org