Microhistory of water resources in Udaipur, Rajasthan reveals new amazing facets, writes Raju Mansukhani
The story, or rather the history, of Connaught Dam begins in 1890. On August 13th, a large delegation led by Prince Arthur, the Duke of Connaught and Strathearn was visiting Udaipur. Prince Arthur, the third son of Her Majesty Queen Victoria, was the Commander-in-Chief of the Bombay Army where he had been in command since 1886.
To commemorate his visit Maharana Fateh Singh, the reigning ruler of the Princely State of Udaipur, requested the royal dignitary to lay the foundation stone of a dam at Devali near Udaipur. The Maharana, in honour of Prince Arthur, named the dam as ‘Connaught Dam’. Prince Arthur also took the opportunity to compliment a British engineer, Mr Campbell Thompson working on the project.
From the archives of the State of Udaipur the project details are available. It is known that a feeder canal called ‘Chikalwas feeder’ was constructed to divert the surplus rain water of Ahar river towards the Devali Talab (lake is known as talab in Hindi) now being renovated.
The 200-year-old Devali Talab had seen disuse and considerable destruction over the years. Prince Arthur, in turn, requested the Maharana of Udaipur to rename the lake as ‘Fateh Sagar’ to cement their friendly ties. Today, 119 years after the historic event, the entire project is referred to as the world’s first river-linking project.
“It’s a unique example of water conservation and management anywhere in the world,” said Dr. Narpat Singh Rathore, former professor of geography, ML Sukhadia University, Udaipur, who has spent years researching the water resources of the region of Mewar. He also pointed out that it was decades later in 1933 the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was founded in the US, as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal. Campbell Thompson who worked on the Udaipur projects, migrated to the US and was employed by TVA.
The microhistory of water resource management in Mewar region of Rajasthan is filled with fascinating dots which are waiting to be joined together.
Dr Rathore’s research reveals deeper insights into watershed management, river diversion and river linkage in the region of Mewar over the last 700 years. “Udaipur the ‘city of lakes’ is actually a network of eight man-made lakes which have given the city its character and sustainability,” explained Dr Rathore.
His paper on ‘Water Resource Management: A study of the world’s first man-made river links, river diversion and micro watershed of Udaipur basin’ lists the eight linkages: Goverdhan Sagar to Lake Pichola; Lake Pichola is linked to Doodh Talai, Amarkund and Kumharia Talab with channels; Kumharia Talab is linked to Rang Sagar; Rang Sagar, in turn, has link channels to Amar Kund and Swaroop Sagar; it is Swaroop Sagar that overflows into the Fateh Sagar through the eighth link channel.
A major chapter of Mewar’s history is written in the region of Maharana Lakha. His period of reign is 1382-1421 CE and he is instrumental, as we would say in today’s terminology, in beginning the era of watershed area planning in the region.
Between 1382-1385, Lake Pichola was constructed across the Kotra or Sisarma river. It has a total water body area of almost 7 sq. km. “It is the creation of a natural asset,” said Dr Rathore, “the city of Udaipur gets defined by Lake Pichola and successive generations of Maharanas of Mewar provide more lakes, in fact more lifelines for the city from the 14th to 20th centuries.”
The expertise demonstrated in the construction of Lake Pichola as a water body in the 14th CE is in sync with scientific and technological developments at the zinc mines of Zawar, as detailed in Dr Paul T Craddock’s report titled ‘The production of lead, silver and zinc in ancient India’.
Special report: How zinc mining near Udaipur sparked a revolution
A good working knowledge of hydrology, pneumatics, hydrostatics, geology and competence in mathematics would have been essential for these achievements, wrote Dr Craddock. Following the example of Maharana Lakha, the network of lakes was constructed which, as Dr Rathore said, can best be understood as micro watershed units.
Geography has played an important role in these micro-historical feats in Udaipur and the region of Mewar. Udaipur basin is located on the ‘great India water divide line’ at the confluence of four rivers, i.e., Ahar, Morwani, Amarjok and Kotra (Sisarma) that flow through the well-defined Girwa region along eastern slopes of south-central Aravallis, one of the oldest mountain range of the world.
Girwa means ‘girdle of hills’ and the Udaipur basin is saucer-shaped in the form of a valley, surrounded by Aravalli hill ranges. “Metamorphic rocks of the region ensure that there is no underground leakage or seepage of water from these lakes,” said Dr Rathore.
Ahar is the only major river that flows through this region, originating from the hills of Gogunda, flowing for 30 kms and joining Udai Sagar lake in the east. The construction of Connaught Dam in 1890 assumes significance when known how highly erratic and uncertain is the rainfall every year.
“Erratic rainfall is only one of the challenges we face in the 21st century,” said Dr Rathore. “Explosive population growth, encroachment of lake-beds and rapid urbanization have compounded the problems that a heritage city like Udaipur faces, year after year,” he said.
Measures to save lakes need to be taken through water conservation techniques and construction of new link channels. In short, lessons from our past have to be learnt, saluting leaders whose names are linked to water bodies that have sustained cities, lives and livelihoods for centuries.
Moving to the present, it is heartening to share news of the monsoon bounty of July-August 2019. Rains are making up for the deficit of the last few years. Fateh Sagar, connected with Swaroop Sagar with a link channel and the Ahar river, are now overflowing. For residents-tourists to the heritage city, lakes filled to the brim are thrilling sights to remember. Rajasthan, though synonymous with the Thar desert, springs this surprise with the ‘city of lakes’ whose microhistory of water resources is as significant and unique as its built architecture.
Raju Mansukhani is a researcher-writer, journalist and communications consultant.
Main image: 1890: Prince Arthur the Duke of Connaught and Strathearn and Maharana Fateh Singh of Udaipur (at centre) at Mor Chowk, The City Palace. ©MMCF / The City Palace Museum.