Water Heritage of Jodhpur – Then and Now

Ranisar, Padamsar Ote, Vyapari Gaya Tote

If Ranisar and Padamsar overflow, the market rates will fall as there will be good rainfall and bumper crop and the hoarders and money-lenders will be put to loss 

An old saying in Jodhpur

Jodhpur, Rajasthan’s second largest city and the cultural capital of Marwar is a jewel in the crown of the desert state. In spite of its hostile terrain and harsh climate, Jodhpur has produced some of the finest artistic expressions and music in the entire Indian Subcontinent. The erstwhile Maharajas were not just great patrons of art and architecture but also skillfully managed the water resources of the region.

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So durable was its water management system that it could quench the thirst of its inhabitants till 1950s through a complex network of lakes, stepwells, wells and jhalaras. Jodhpur has hills surrounding Mehrangarh Fort and is a catchment area for monsoon waters that flow down into small and large depressions. Its medieval inhabitants converted them into lakes from where water was drawn to over hundreds of stepwells and jhalaras built in different periods of time in the walled city area and beyond.

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Every neighborhood in the old city had its own baori and the maximum concentration of baoris is in the Chand Pol area. These baories not only provided water to its inhabitants but also refuge to birds and a variety of aquatic life. Teeming with life they were a cool refuge from the heat of the desert to spend some time in.

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But with the construction of Indira Gandhi canal the Himalayan water started flowing into every household of the desert town through pipes and taps. People started detaching themselves from their roots of harvesting and respecting water. Slowly the places and related customs became obsolete and turned into a refuge for tons of trash. The most vulnerable were the underground baoris; hidden from plain sight these have become a safe haven for anti-social elements.

Rao Jodha decided to build his capital on the summit of Pachetia Hill in the 15th century CE because the area had immense potential for harvesting rainwater and perennial springs that were visibly flowing in-between the rocks.

The first water project undertaken was Ranisar for supplying water to the fort above. The southern embankment of Ranisar has masonry walls of red stone with symmetrical steps descending up to its depth, exhibiting great architectural skill of Jodhpur’s formative period. Water was collected from by both the common people as well as the royal family. Women would come to fill water in their pots for their household needs. For the royal family, labourers would carry water in large vessels up to the palace. From the turret (burz) water was also drawn up to the fort by Persian wheels.

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Ranisar and Persian Wheel Structures 

The construction of Ranisar was patronized by Jasmade Haddi  Ji, the Maharani of Rao Joddha in 1460 CE, which was later expanded during the rule of Rao Maldeo.

Beside Ranisar is the Padamsar tank, yet another marvel constructed by Rani Uttamade Seesdini  Ji, who was the daughter of Rana Sangha of Mewar. Rani Uttamade’s other name was Padmavati. The project was also financed by Seth Padamsar Shah of Mewar at the behest of his mother to assist Rani Padmavati. Hence it came to be known as Padamasar after its patron.

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Padamsar

Both these water bodies were periodically expanded and maintained by the royal families.

A little away in the walled city near the Ghanta Ghar is Gulab Sagar along with two temples – Neni Bai ka Mandir and Ranchor Ji ka Mandir. All of these were constructed by queens. According to Late Komal Kothari, Rajasthan’s foremost folk historian, most of the water bodies of Jodhpur were commissioned when these queens became widows.

The following is an extract from his conversation with Rustom Bharucha that appeared in the book Rajasthan – An Oral History.

‘Here we have to understand the laws relating to primogeniture (pātvi) inheritance, where the property of father goes exclusively to the eldest son and does not divide among the brothers as in the bhai-bant inheritance system.

In the pātvi system, we find that as soon as the king dies, his widowed queens are removed from the royal premises along with their servants. It is assumed that they pose a potential threat to the new king with their manipulations and conspiracies.  Only the new king can sanction whether these ex-queens can hold on to their property; they may however, be denied access to it. Now so far as movable property (chal-sampati) is concerned, including ornaments and money, this could remain with the queens unless the king orders that it should be returned to the royal treasury. What we find is that when the queens became widows, they would often give their property to a Brahman – this form of donation is known as udakena. It works on the premise that anything given as dān (gift) to a Brahman cannot be reclaimed by the king. Till the queen lived she had rights over the property, but on her death, it became the Brahmin’s property. We find that the patronage of many water bodies has come from such sources.

The other prominent donors were female dancers and singers who were patronised by the king and given the status of pardayatpaswan and bhogtan. There were also prostitutes from musician groups like the patar. We find that these women financed the construction of quite a few temples and drinking water sources after the death of their respective masters.’

Unfortunately, the construction and development of water bodies came to an end around 1897-98, when a public water supply system was introduced for the first time. But Jodhpur’s inhabitants continued to value and maintain the sanctity of old water bodies till 1950s, after which a collapse began.

On a fine morning when I started walking around the old city admiring its water bodies, what drew my attention were the clean waters of the Toor Ji Ka Jhalra built in 1740s by Rani Toor Ji. This step well however had become a dump yard until recently when it was taken for restoration by local hotels. Water was drawn from this stepwell using Persian wheels once. I was very impressed with the sight, but this happiness disappeared as soon as I arrived at Gulab Sagar, a critically polluted talav with residents having opened their sewage lines into it and also dumping garbage. Here I met Caron Rawnsley, an Irish environmentalist who has made Jodhpur his home for last many years.

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Toor Ji ki Jhalra and gulab Sagar

We spent almost an hour at the spot to understand his ideas and concerns regarding Gulab Sagar and other water bodies of the city. Do watch the video below.

From Gulab Sagar, I next went to Mahila Bagh Jhalra, another restored stepwell, thanks to Caron who cleaned it single handedly recently.

From Mahila Bagh I strolled through the interiors of the Blue city and came across a number of small baories in different neighborhoods. The most important being the Chand Baori but a great surprise was awiting me on the following day when I and Caron walked through the Chand Pol area outside the walled city.

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Chand Baori

Our first stop was at Sukdev Ji Trivedi ka Jhalra, a clean undisturbed water body teeming with aquatic life. There is no information available virtually on its construction or patron. As Caron said it was also not spared until recently by the neighbours and had become a dump yard like many other baories of Jodhpur. He put in a lot of effort in cleaning but vandalism of the structure and its sculptures has not ceased. Do watch the video below on Sukhdev Ji ka Jhalra.

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One interesting feature you see near every step-well in Marwar is a stone post with sculptures of Hindu Gods and Goddesses engraved on it. You also see the inscription of the donor and sometime his/her image.

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Panchmadi Baori

Our next stop was a hidden gem among all stepwells of Jodhpur – Panchmadi Baori. It is virtually unknown to the outside world and thanks to its almost secret location, it has escaped vandalism. You see pristine water as you descend the steps.

From Panchmadi Baori we moved on to yet another hidden gem, the Ram Baori. Though it is located in the heart of the city it offers unmatched peace and tranquility.

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Ram Baori

Next we went to the fairly well-known Suraj Kund, a large square tank with steps and pavilions spread over two floors. The structure is now under renovation by the Mehrangarh Fort authority. Built by Rao Suraj Singh in 1672 CE, the well is built in Mughal architectural style. It is located in the premises of the Rameshwar Siddha Peeth and was built to meet the water demand of the shrine.

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Suraj Kund

In close proximity to Suraj Kund is the Raghunath Ji ki Baori, the most well maintained of all the baories I saw. The kids there told me they use the place to learn and practice swimming.

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The last baori visited by us was the Panch Kua Baori located in an open space but close to being encroached from all sides.

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Jodhpur is truly a magical city. Its art, architecture, settlement pattern and more importantly water structures are unique in the Subcontinent but one feels disappointed to see this wonderful water heritage on the verge of extinction. We need a little bit of Caron Rawnsley in each of us to fulfill what Gandhiji meant by Swaraj. That said, the government too needs to wake up from their deep slumber and take urgent steps.

Author – Jitu Mishra

He can be contacted at jitumisra@gmail.com

3 thoughts on “Water Heritage of Jodhpur – Then and Now

Add yours

  1. Dear Jitu Mishra,
    Jodhpur is currently the pilot city under heritage led revitalistion program of the state government and technical assistance from the WB. Your post is useful. We would be very happy for your and Carol’s participation in this initiative. Hope to meet you soon. Thanks. Madhurima, NIUA, Delhi

    Liked by 1 person

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