How did India manage its water resources in the medieval times is a question that has haunted me for quite some time now. The quest to answer this question began a couple of years ago when I went to Bidar, the Bahamani capital in northeast Karnataka where thanks to Mr. Valliyil Govindakutty, an expert on medieval water management, I got a chance to explore the Karez system, a subterranean water channel that works using the gravitational force. Karez system was first introduced to Bidar from Iran but was mastered in Burhanpur during the Mughal Era. So, obviously the next destination in my quest was Burhanpur.
Burhanpur, located in the heart of India in Madhya Pradesh was widely known as the cultural capital of the Mughals. Established by the Farouqis in 1388 CE, the city reached its zenith in the 16th and 17th centuries CE. Burhanpur’s strategic location in the pass of Satpura Hills and on the bank of Tapi River established it as the ‘Gateway to Deccan’ or ‘Baab E Dakkhan’ in the Mughal Era. The city was named by Malik Nasir Khan of Farouqi Dynasty as Burhanpur after the Sufi Saint Burhan – Ud – Din Gharib (a disciple of Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia).
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Burhanpur City in-between Satpura Mountains and Tapi River
Ghats at The River Tapi built by Ahaliya Bai Holkar
River Tapi flowing beside the Burhanpur Fort
In 1601 CE, Akbar conquered Khandesh and made Burhanpur the capital of Khandesh Suba. After capturing Asirgarh Fort, the key to Burhanpur, he appointed his son Daniyal as the Governor of Khandesh. Later, during the time of Jahangir, Prince Khurram (known as Shah Jahan) took the charge of Burhanpur in 1617 CE. A stone inscription at the summit of Asirgarh Fort records the revolt of Khurram against his father Jahangir in 1622 CE. After a tough fight against the Mughal army, Shah Jahan had to surrender and sign a peace treaty with his father. After the death of Jahangir in 1627 CE, the political condition became favourable for Shah Jahan and he was crowned the next Mughal Emperor. But trouble was brewing in Deccan so Shah Jahan made Burhanpur his base for two years (1630 – 1632 CE), conducting operations against Bijapur, Ahmednagar, and Golkonda.
With the conquest of Burhanpur, the Baab – E – Dakkhan became an established garrison town with an approximate population of around 200,000 army personnel and 50,000 civilians. Though Burhanpur was situated on the banks of River Tapi and Utavali, there was a constant fear of poisoning by enemy forces. The constant supply of safe drinking water became a matter of serious concern for Abdul Rahim Khana – E – Khanan, the governor of Burhanpur. Add to this, Burhanpur is situated in a geological fault zone (Bajada Fault), parallel to River Tapi and adjoining the valley of Satpura Hills.
Khana – E – Khanan decided that developing the qanat system (a labyrinth of underground water tunnels) was the best solution to the problem he faced. For this, he invited Tubkutul Arj, a Persian geologist in 1615 CE. Arj tapped water flowing in streams from Satpura Hills to Tapi, through a network of 103 circular inter-connected wells, known as bhandaras with an underground brick and stone tunnel that was 3.9 kms long. He galvanized the unique geological opportunity presented by the fault that sloped towards east to River Tapi and developed the Qanat System.
Thanks to the permission given by Mr Dipak Singh, Burhanpur District Collector with the coordination of Mr Malviya, my guide and local expert, I could get down the 25 m deep tunnel and walked inside for almost 50 m. The tunnel is however closed for tourists otherwise. Walking inside the Kundi Bhandara, or Khooni Bhandara (named so because of the reddish water) was a dream come true for me. The water was clean and cool. Its PH value is 7.2, much higher than that of water purified using modern technology. The walls had bricks, covered with calcium deposits.
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Kundi Bhandara works on the law of gravitational force. At the source, the water is at 30 m deep which gradually heightens to 2 m in the last bhandara. This means the water flows upwards following the laws of gravitation. The diameter of the kundis varies between 0.75 m to 1.75 m.
Kundi Bhandara is just one part of a broader network of water management, others being the Sook Bhandara, Trikuti Bhandara, Mool Bhandara, and Chinaharana Bhandara. The water channelized through these networks of bhandaras is collected in sump wells, known as Karanj. From Karanj, the water was distributed through earthen pipes to sarais, hamams, gardens, mosques and residential areas of the city.
Burhanpur is a medium-sized city located in Khandesh Region of Madhya Pradesh, close to Maharashtra border. The city is surrounded by Tapi River and its fertile valleys, besides the hills of Satpura Range. The city and its surroundings have been under human occupations from the time Prehistory. However, it was during Rashrakutas (8th-10th centuries CE), Burhanpur became an established centre of trade and commerce. In 1388 CE, Malik Nasir Khan, the Faruqi Sultan of Khandesh, established it as his capital and renamed it after a well-known medieval Sufi saint, Burhan-ud-Din. In 1601 CE, Akbar annexed the Khandesh sultanate and Burhanpur became the capital of Khandesh subah of Mughal Empire. While at Burhanpur, also visit Asirgarh Fort. This fort during its prime time was difficult to win because of being built at a great height, with strong outer walls which are still standing intact.
Burhanpur is well connected by road and rail services with all major cities of India. The nearest airport is Devi Ahayala Holkar International Airport at Indore, 3 hours drive.
Jahangir Hamam, a public bath system located in the heart of the walled city of Burhanpur, built during the time of Jahangir received water from Kundi Bhandara. The hamam has three rooms and an octagonal platform in the center of the biggest room. Special provision in the form of open roof tops was made for ventilation and light.
On the other side of Tapi lies Zainabad, the pleasure retreat of the Mughals. It is believed that the Farouqis first settled at Zainabad as remains of some of the earliest mosques testify. However, its affair with the Mughals began with Akbar’s son Daniyal who was the Subedar of the new province. Daniyal loved going for hunts often. He built the Ahukhana or deer park at Zainabad, where besides him Noor Jahan and other Mughal royalty practised their hunting skills. A palace was constructed here during the time of Jahangir, which is said to have been designed by Noor Jahan’s brother.
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Mumtaz, Shah Jahan’s beloved wife was so fascinated with this palace that she transformed it from hunting ground to a rose garden. Its design had no parallel in Central India and had the distinction of being the second most beautiful garden in the country after the Nishat Garden in Kashmir.
The water fountains and channels at Ahukhana were fed by the water received from the dam near the Gul Ara Mahal, another pleasure palace built by Shah Jahan on river Utavali. Gul Ara Mahal is deeply linked with the love story of Shah Jahan and Gul Ara. Gul was an extremely talented and divinely beautiful singer – danseuse. During his youth, Prince Khurram visited Burhanpur often with his father Jahangir. On one such trip, while on a leisurely long walk, he was drawn to a melodious voice. He spotted a young woman singing and dancing by the river Utavali. It was love at first sight and both of them romanced on the banks of Utavali. Shah Jahan built a dam and two identical mahals opposite each other across the dam and named it Gul Aara Mahal in her honour.
The rooftop presents a panoramic view of the waterworks and the charming countryside around. Though now in ruins, one can imagine Shah Jahan and Gul Ara gazing at the waterfall and losing themselves in its melody. The untimely death of Gul Ara marked the ending of their love story. But the palace and the rhythmic sound of water still echo tales of their romance. The palace is about 21 km from Burhanpur.
Today, the Kundi Bhandara has been partly restored by the Burhanpur Municipal Corporation and the district administration to supply clean and adequate drinking water to the city throughout the year. It has been made possible due to the vision of Mr. Praveen Garg, the former district collector of Khandwa District (Burhanpur was part of Khandwa District at that time) in early 2000. Today the medieval water wonder of Burhanpur quench thirst of nearly 50,000 people (one fourth of Burhanpur’s population).
However, it is a pity that the once opulent and richly decorated water pavilion at Ahukhana and Gul Ara Mahal are now sad crumbling ruins. These structures are in a state of utter neglect. But there is hope as I discovered during my hour long discussion with Mr. Hoshang Havaldar, an hotelier and local convener of INTACH, who is very keen and optimistic about the revival of Burhanpur’s water heritage. We, at Virasat E Hind Foundation, are eager to see it happening. Till then fingers crossed.
Author – Jitu Mishra
He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org