Baolis to the rescue

Published : Nov 08, 2017 12:30 IST

The Taj baoli after restoration.

The Taj baoli after restoration.

BETWEEN the Battle of Talikota (1565) and the Mughal invasions of the Deccan in the late 17th century, the city of Bijapur (now known as Vijayapura) flourished as the capital of the Adil Shahi dynasty. At its peak, the boundaries of the Bijapur kingdom stretched from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal, making it the second largest polity in the subcontinent in terms of size after the Mughal Empire. During the reign of Ibrahim Adil Shah II (r. [reign] 1580-1627), the city of Bijapur was one of the leading urban centres in the Indian subcontinent, rivalling the majesty of Mughal administrative and cultural centres of north India such as Delhi, Agra and Lahore. The population of Bijapur was around 10 lakh, well above the population of other Indian towns at the time. The kings of the Adil Shahi dynasty left their mark on this town, and a variety of monuments adorn the town, of which the most famous is the Gol Gumbaz, the mausoleum of Mohammed Adil Shah (r. 1627-1656).

Among the many secular amenities that the Adil Shahi kings provided their capital city with were the public tanks, or stepwells commonly known as baolis, that were the main sources of water for this fortified city of the Deccan. We know from the account of Captain W.H. Sykes, who visited Bijapur in 1819, that there were 700 stepwells within the fort walls. Henry Cousens, a British officer who wrote an account of Bijapur in 1889, states: “The waterworks of Bijapur, like those of all Muhammadan towns, were, in their day, perfect; abundance of pure wholesome water was brought into the city from two principal sources.... These sources being without the walls, could easily be cut off by an army investing the city, but this contingency was evidently foreseen and met by the plentiful distribution of tanks and wells within the walls, supplied from these sources, and which, when once filled, would render the besieged independent of the source for months together” ( Bijapur, The Old Capital of the Adil Shahi Kings: A Guide to Its Ruins with Historical Outline ). Many of these wells, which can still be seen all over Vijayapura, had fallen into disuse over time and, until recently, were little more than cesspools. Over the past few months, many of these stepwells have been cleaned by the Vijayapura City Corporation (VCC), many for the first time in recorded history, with the intention of using them as a source of water for residents of this parched city. These include some well-known baolis like the Taj baoli, the Massa baoli, the Ibrahimpur baoli and the Chand baoli.

Corporation Commissioner Sriharsha Shetty said that 22 baolis were identified to be cleaned. “The idea and the initiative for this was taken by M.B. Patil, Minister for Water Resources, Karnataka, during this summer when we did not have water supply for 15 days,” he said. The funds for cleaning and rejuvenating these tanks, amounting to Rs.9 crore, were secured through private companies as part of their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives. The largest of the baolis that were cleaned and revived is the Taj baoli. One of the well-known monuments of Vijayapura, it is located in a crowded part of the city and the walls of the baoli sit cheek by jowl with small houses. It is the chief tank of the city and the idols of Ganesha are immersed in this tank during the annual Ganesh Chathurthi festival. It was constructed in 1620 and was named after Taj Sultana, the favourite queen of Ibrahim Adil Shah II. There is a plaque written in Persian embedded in a wall at the entrance that says that it was built by Malik Sandal, a Siddi official in the service of the Adil Shahi court. Dr A.G. Imaratwale, a historian and a Persian scholar who teaches at the Anjuman Arts, Science and Commerce College in Vijayapura, translated the contents of this plaque: “The humble slave Malik Sandal constructed at his own expense the building of Taj baudi for the service of religious mendicants as a hamam for bathing and as a resting place for the people of Allah, and bequeathed it to the service of Allah. Whoever seeks possession of it or damages it, may his wife and mother ride a donkey and may be overtaken by an eternal curse.” This stepwell is large and is built in the shape of a square with each side measuring 233 feet. The entrance to the baoli is through a wide arch that is flanked by two majestic minarets. Earthen pipes that were used to channel water can also be seen.

Photographs of the well taken a few months ago show it filled with garbage, with no water to be seen. “This tank, which is the pride of Bijapur, was just a garbage dump for all kinds of waste for a long time,” a local journalist said. It took almost three months to desilt and clean it thoroughly.

A visitor now will be pleasantly surprised to see the clean waters of the tank. Fresh water flows down to the well from a number of natural springs that are located at several points along the walls of the stepwell. Most of the springs that are at the bottom of the well remain hidden from sight but are filling the tank gradually. Guards keep the entrance to the baoli constantly locked now. On the day that this correspondent visited the Taj baoli, a religious group was urging the guard to open the gate so that they could dispose of their prayer offerings, but he remained firm.

Speaking to Frontline , M.B. Patil said: “This is my dream fulfilled. The plan is to meet part of Vijayapura’s water needs through these baolis. The city requires 65 million litres a day (mld) of water, and I expect that 5 mld can be met through these wells. All these wells have potable water, and moreover, it is the heritage of our elders. We should preserve these monuments for the future.”

Sriharsha Shetty said a submersible pump would be used to draw water from the tanks and two connections would be provided from each tank. One would lead to a water cistern with three or four taps. Residents could use this water for washing and their daily chores. A second connection would lead to a small reverse osmosis plant from which clean drinking water would be provided to residents at the rate of Rs.2 for 20 litres. “At its peak, Vijayapura had a population of more than 10 lakh. We now have a population of less than five lakh and still face water shortage. Hopefully, this will address the city’s water problems to some extent,” said Sriharsha Shetty.

There is also a plan to revive the qanat or karez system that the Adil Shahis had built to bring water to the citadel. Qanat s were tunnels that channelled water from underground aquifers and were sometimes several kilometres long. Shetty said that Rs.5 lakh had been sanctioned for cleaning and restoring these tunnels that had also caved in at several places. Once the tunnels were cleaned, the qanat system could also be a popular tourist attraction.

Dr Imaratwale, who has researched extensively on the history of the Adil Shahi dynasty, writes in his book Bijapur Water Works with SpecialReference to Taj Baudi : “...the Adil Shahis applied their scientific knowledge and converted Bijapur, a dry place known for scarcity of water, into a verdant, flourishing and prosperous region by making ample provision of water.” Reviving these tanks will not only preserve a valuable architectural heritage but will also solve the problem of water scarcity in Vijayapura.

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