On the border of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, at a distance of 306 km from Bangalore is situated the historic city of Bellary, now Ballari.
There is a story behind the name Ballari. Once upon a time, a caravan of devout merchants had camped here. In the absence of a Shivling to offer prayers, they installed a balla (a measuring cup or seru used to measure grain) upside down. Later, a temple was built at the spot dedicated to Balleshwara or Shiva.
Except for a Nayaka Fort on the top of a granite hill, Ballari has no other visually spectacular monuments and so does not feature prominently on a tourist’s itinerary. Quiet unlike the UNESCO world heritage site of Hampi that lies a mere 50 kms away. And unlike Hampi where intensive agriculture is practiced due to abundant waters of Tungabhadra, Ballari sandwiched between two large granite hills; Ballarigudda and Kumbharagudda, is dry. Water is scarce and summer temperature can rise upto 45 degrees centigrade. During my recent visit, I was told by residents of how acute the water crisis was until a few years back. Women would stand in long queues with their plastic buckets to collect water. Seemed like nothing had changed as this was the scenario I had witnessed in Hospet and Ballari during the 90s when I was working in Hampi for a month.
I was sure that Ballari’s medieval inhabitants must have built appropriate water harvesting structures for their sustenance that may have gone out of use with time. With this question in mind, I explored Ballari for a day to discover baolis or tanks, talavs or keres and speak to its inhabitants.
Ballari has seven historic baolis (tanks or step-wells) spread over different parts of the city. I was guided by Shri Tarun Kumar, a contractor with the local civic body and resource person for the revival of historic water bodies in the city. Tarun has taken up the job work of cleaning and restoring the step-wells, a project initiated by Ballari Municipal Corporation.
Akka Tangire Well after Cleaning
Once, Ballari city had two major historic talavs (keres) – Basavanakutta and Nallacheruvu, built during the Vijayanagar Period. Rain water would cascade down the granite hill and fill these talavs in monsoon. However, thanks to unplanned urban growth, both these waterbodies are now dry as modern constructions have obstructed the flow of water into these talavs.
I was glad to hear that out of seven tanks, four have been cleaned and restored so far. I was fortunate to visit three of them.
Akka Tangire Well before Restoration
The first and the largest is Akka Tangire well also known as Soldiers’ Well. Located in Medhar Street (Opposite BCC Ground) in a crowded colony, it was originally built in the Vijayanagar Era by a woman called Akama Devi. Further additions were made during Tipu’s rule and it supplied water to a nearby Soldiers’ camp. The T shaped tank is built of granite blocks in the typical Vijayanagar style. On its walls are found an array of sculptures including a Nandi and a Shiva Linga, fish, yalis and so on. At the entrance is a pillared mantapa that further leads to steps into the water body. A triple arched arcade was probably added later in the back corridor near the water lifting pulley system.
The next tank located in Parvati Nagar locality within a spacious compound is relatively new. It is a rectangular tank built of proportionate granite rocks. It is unnamed but some people call it Sakama Tank. There are no sculptures or other dating materials found in this tank.
The third in the series is the most well preserved tank located in Sirigupa Main Road. Locals call it Havam Baavi. It was built in 16th century in the Vijayanagar style. Stylistically it is similar to Akka Tangire well but here there are no sculptures.
The rest of the 4 step wells are difficult to access and yet to be cleaned. Sincere thanks to Tarun for his humble support in documenting these wells and we wish him all the best in his efforts to restore forgotten stepwells and make Ballari a sprawling city of lakes and wells.
Author – Jitu Mishra
He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org