Water Culture And Heritage Of Rajasthan With Neeraj Doshi


Anuradha – Namaste! Today we have with us Neeraj Doshi Ji. He is the founder of a very interesting initiative in Jaipur called Heritage water walks. I have always said that if India has to bring back its culture it has to bring back the water culture, respecting water or not really selling water but really revering water because that is the base of our life. Without water, none of us could be alive. Who better than Neeraj can tell us the story of the relationship with water in India, more importantly, he is based out of Jaipur, one of the driest states and one of the most evolved states when it comes to conservation and storage of water. So Neeraj is welcome to the detours.

Neeraj – Thank you Anuradha Ji for being me in detours and I am glad to connect with audiences across the world to share the story of water in Rajasthan. What makes this very unique is the whole idea that prompted me to start this water heritage walks to share the wisdom of water.

Anuradha – Let’s start talking about water and Rajasthan. What is the relationship of water in Rajasthan because we find beautiful examples of storing and conserving water across the state?

Neeraj – Right, to begin with, we cannot survive without water and Rajasthan doesn’t have it. The relationship is pretty intense. The fact that it is inhabited is the first wonder of the world, leave the rest 6 because you cannot survive without water. Rajasthan has a very unique status in that.

There are 25 deserts in the world and Rajasthan is not as big as the Thar desert that we have. 75% of Rajasthan is the Thar desert and some part of this desert is in Pakistan. So the Thar desert is 200,000 sq km. The biggest desert is in Africa – the Sahara desert with an area of 9,200,000 sq km. Now, what sets the Thar desert apart from all the deserts or drier places in the world that are not inhabited naturally is the people living inside the desert. Sahara has a population density of 1 person per sq km.

As opposed to that, Thar has 143 per person sq km, which is 140 times more than people living in the desert, just to contrast people living in Arizona or the USA. The way life evolved in Rajasthan has to be connected to water as everything is connected to water. If you look a little bit deep into water or if you sip through layers of culture over here eventually you will see the core of it is water.

Management or Water Culture

Anuradha – The fact that so many people are able to inhabit a desert must have come from the fact that they could manage water.

Neeraj – Management is one aspect. Management becoming a part of your life is another thing, where you don’t feel like you are making any effort. For instance, everybody chips in to make the well. So you don’t go out of your way to do work. You have evolved your life around it by making every single task of managing water a custom or tradition. As you are doing it water is conserved, water is stored, and water is always there.

For example, if there is death, marriage, childbirth, or any happy or sad occasion they vow to make a water body in the name of their deceased mother or father or newborn son or grandson. There is no hard work or extra work. When you live like this it doesn’t become an effort, it becomes a beautiful thing. During my childhood days, my grandmother would get half a bucket of water for bathing and she would say if you want more you can fetch it yourself. No one else will do hard work for you. Now, this was a very hard lesson and to me, I never felt there was water scarcity.

Anuradha – I am reading Devi Bhagwat Purana and one of the punya or merits that it talks about is building a water body. It brings forth the whole water philosophy of India, but then it says bigger merit comes from maintaining the existing water body. You do not have to build them but have to maintain them also.

Neeraj – That reminds me – Mahabharata is 18 days of war and there are 18 books of Mahabharata. The 13th  book is Anushasana Parva. It has a conversation that Bhishma Pitamaha had on his deathbed with Yudhishthira. Yudhisthira was assuming the throne, before that Vishpitama wanted to give his entire wisdom to the coming king. Yudhishthira asks Bhishma what is the best deed of all. One deed is giving water to the thirsty whether it is a human being, tree, or animal. By doing that you can bypass 60,000 births. By just doing a mere act of offering water to the thirsty you bypass 60,000 births of misery.

Anuradha – This brings me to the culture of piyaus (public ghada) that we keep especially in the summer months. Traveling in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, or Uttar Pradesh, I see women sitting with the pot serving water to everybody. They don’t ask who you are from where you are coming from, if you are thirsty, just have water. They do it with an attitude of gratitude. Then I go to the airport to take a flight, and there you have a price tag of  50 rs for a 250 ml or 500 ml water bottle. You just see the contrast where someone is serving water and feeling gratitude towards you and here people are not willing to give you a sip of water unless you pay. I have always said that whenever India comes back to its past glory it will be when we will start respecting and stop selling water.

Different types of water bodies

Anuradha – Can you take us through conservation technologies of water bodies or old engineering around them? And types of water bodies that are there.

Neeraj – There are many distinct architectural styles of water bodies. There are water bodies that are similar but they have different names depending on the area or region we are in. Rajasthan can be divided into 4 regions. Shekhawati, Marwar, Mewar, Dundhar, and one more Hadoti (a little bit more gifted in terms of water as compared to other regions because of Chambal). Chambal is only one perennial river flowing through Rajasthan.

Water Management System of Churu
Beautiful Sethani ka Johara in Churu of Shekhawati

There are many bodies, one is Kuan (wells) which you dig a hole into the earth till you reach the lowest depression point which has natural water. Then there are lakes and ponds. Rajasthan has 3000 thousand water bodies, all of which are man-made. If the name of a town, city, or village ends with sar that place is known after the water body because sar means Sarovar. Alsisar, Padamasar, Lunkaransar – all got names from the water body. That is the ultimate respect that I identified the water body in my place.

Coming to the types of water bodies we have. There is one water body that you can’t find anywhere else in India that is Kui (female version of Kuan). These are dependent on the geology and topography of the place. Kui you will find largely in the Shekhawati region. They are dependent on something which is very unique which is known as Rejhani Pani. There are 3 types of water that we identify in Rajasthan – one is Palarpani which is water from heaven (rains), the second one is Patalpani which is underground water(old water) and the third one is Rejhani Pani neither here nor there, that is collected from humidity.

Harlalka Well at Mandawa
Harlalka Well at Mandawa in Shekhawati

In certain regions of Shekhawati, there is a layer of gypsum rocks passing through a couple of feet below the earth, and on top of it, you have sand. So when waterfalls in this region it is not able to persist underground. It spreads into the sand and this water is not evaporated, it is not able to go down deep. People have been able to figure out how to withdraw this water for consumption purposes. They have created perpendicular cylindrical wells with a very little diameter (4-5ft diameter).

It’s vertical going down about 40-50 feet down. In this type of mechanism a low-pressure type of zone is created and whatever water resides in the sand immediately travels through the low-pressure zone eventually, the humidity will convert into freshwater so that people can withdraw 10-12 buckets of water. Kuin is a narrow kind of well 40-50 feet down the earth depending on the type of region.

Kuin may be private or public. They typically belong to a particular family, region, or caste. You can have a personal Kuin in a public area but you don’t own it. You can only withdraw it. Sometimes people have Kuin in their personal home which is clearly their private Kuin. They are not connected to each other but they are connected to the area. There is a gypsum layer and water below it. Kuin can be modified too. These water bodies have a higher quality of water because water goes through a couple of layers of sand to ooze into the well. It is filtered water already.

Anuradha – This reminded me of a long series of wells in Burhanpur. They are connected to each other and supply spring water and rainwater to the whole city & region. Those wells look very similar to Kuin but the technology is different as the topography is different.

Neeraj –  Sort of germination has happened that technology is coming from one end to another. In Nahargarh fort water walk people see two Aqueducts. This Technology was developed by Romans in the first century AD. This technology came to India via the Middle East and it was centralized in Nahargarh fort. 

The architecture of water bodies

Anuradha – We have beautiful step-wells in the western part of India that is Rajasthan, Gujarat. They are differently embellished. They showcase the local flavor of embellishment. I will ask about Rajasthan and Gujarat Bawdi especially known as Chand Baori, Rani ki Vav. Do we have any idea how they were constructed? They go many levels below the earth and they have continued to stay 800-900 years standing strong. Why do they have sideways steps?

Chand Baori at Abhaneri - Water Culture of Rajasthan
Chand Baori at Abhaneri

Neeraj – You can’t go straight down, it is very deep down. It will be difficult in terms of people walking down concentration and coordination. If you go down and step sideways, orientation doesn’t change. That’s the only way that you can have steps smaller. If you go straight down you will have bigger steps. Negotiating the depth of the stepwell, as well as figuring out a better way to step down. This is why multiple people can access the water body at the same time as well as they create a beautiful view.

Water Culture of Rajasthan

Anuradha – How is water reflected in the culture of Rajasthan?

Neeraj – Culture is lifestyle, textiles, traditions, and food. Everything is rooted in water. For us, water is a celebration. In Pushkar, everything is around water be it hotels, Dharamshala, or the education system. All fairs and festivals happen near the water body. Now we have hidden our water in walls. We don’t see water, as water is no longer a living thing for us, it is needed. We need water to survive. It is present in our lives as it was before. This is one transition that happened from traditional water culture to modern culture.

lehariya Saris - water culture on fabric
The Lehariya Saris – Must Buy in Jaipur

Water coming to the tap has reduced the struggle of women. Everything has its own benefits. Now coming to the cultural aspects. Leheriya is a very specific tie and dye technique that originated in Rajasthan. Lehriya means wave-like. It shows flowing water and in Rajasthan, there is no flowing water. So it is a request to God that water starts to flow in our region and starts creating waves. It is worn during the onset of monsoons and on Teej.

Anuradha –  It replicates the flowing water in textile and expects God to look at it and make water flow on your land.

Neeraj – Imagine thousands of women wearing Leheriya. It can give you the illusion of flowing water. That is one aspect and looks beautiful. There is also headgear for men known as Safa made of Lehriya and this is usually worn on Teej and during monsoons. This is a tie and dye technique.

Aerial view of Jaisalmer Gadsisar lake, the golden city fort of Rajasthan, India
Aerial view of Jaisalmer Gadsisar lake, the golden city fort of Rajasthan

There are two different dance forms one is Bhavai (multiple pots are on the head) and Chari (multiple women have one pot). These pots are made of terracotta in Bhavai and copper pots in Chari. Copper pots are known as Chari in the local language. They are trying to show their journey from home to fetch water. Why these multiple pots? Sometimes women don’t have time and water resources are far away so you can’t take multiple turns.

So women will balance multiple pots on their heads, and after a couple of tries, they become masters in balancing and can get all the water they need in one go. Why these dance forms? Imagine a woman walking down the street of a village carrying multiple pots on top of their head. She is not able to see down or see pebbles or sharp objects. She has to feel down and has to walk very carefully. This whole thing is transformed into dance forms that become very sensuous and very beautiful.

Anuradha – I have seen this dance in many cultural festivals but I never could relate to the fact this is actually a replication of water collection done by women of Rajasthan every day.

Neeraj – This is coming from your daily rituals. Then we have music. Panihari music where Panihari is the woman who goes to fetch water. All the women of the community gather together to fetch water. On their journey they will share their concerns, frustration of the day, and all the issues, making themselves lighter by talking. They are wearing anklets and while walking the sound of anklets is coming.  All these are converted into music form.

Anuradha – I have heard this music, I have recorded this music but I couldn’t connect to the fact that it is a bunch of women going every day to fetch water and creating music out of it.

Neeraj – This has come out of it. There is a repeated story sung by different music forms about a woman who has gone to fetch water and then she notices there is a horseman, who is thirsty he requests the woman for water. She doesn’t know that this same fellow is her fiancee. She hasn’t seen her fiancee. Back home, she sees the same guy sitting over there. Now there is narration particular to his subject capsulated in Panihari music.

Now comes innovation where cleaning utensils with mud or sand. This is a kind of evolution of how the system was. Utensils were cleaned with charcoal ash. One, there is no water. Second, it is very scientific and clean. Charcoal ash is pure carbon. Carbon has the highest porosity. You spread charcoal ash over the plate and it will absorb oil or ghee immediately and then wipe out with a clean cloth. This is waterless cleaning.

Why charcoal cleaning and where do we use charcoal in modern living? One in the water filter, the carbon candle in the filter attracts all the dirt and impurities. Further down we use it in our toothpaste and face wash.  Carbon is used to absorb dirt and filth which is on our faces. People who are using it may not know the scientific reason but it is a very clean way to clean.

Heritage water walks in Jaipur

Anuradha – Tell us about heritage walks conducted in two forts in Jaipur by you. What are the key highlights of these walks?

Neeraj – One is Nahargarh fort and the second one is Amer Palace water walk.

Somewhere in 2014, I moved back to Jaipur from the USA. I started living in Jaipur and started my company called Rainwater Research and innovation in water for the institutional level water management. I am a desert person and the past 16  generations lived in deserts and perished in the desert as well. When I visited the Nahargarh water system and the Amer water system they collected water at the top of the hill. It’s mind-blowing. I started exploring and I realized this demands a certain kind of attention that hasn’t gotten yet.

Rajasthan Water Culture – No water, no culture, no civilization!

Rajasthan is the most visited tourist destination. What makes it unique? Water makes it unique, if there was no water then there is no culture, no civilization, and no Rajasthan. There are three components to the walk. It is a two-hour walk and travels to 300 old water structures. Amer is far older than Nahargarh when Jaipur was under construction, it was built to protect Jaipur. Building a fort which is for the army, you have to provide a water system, you can’t fetch water every day. These walks tell the story of the king who designed this, tell the story of the people who were living in this, and the technology of water systems. There are three components to these walks.

First heritage of Rajasthan, technological heritage, and cultural heritage. My concern was people should come and enjoy and should relate to the very core part of Rajasthan. A king wouldn’t survive without water so cultural heritage would bring all these aspects. Cultural heritage brings this all aspects such as who we are and design. Technology heritage brings how these were constructed and what are their unique aspects.

Audience feedback on Water Culture

Anuradha – Tell us about one or two things that the audience finds most fascinating.

Neeraj – It is impossible because I have been overwhelmed by the responses of the audience. They love the stories, they connect with the stories and love the fact that water connects us all.

Anuradha – Do you see a sense of appreciation for getting to water after the walk?

Neeraj – Definitely, people in India are generally aware but people coming from international see water in a different light. They are far more appreciative not from the binary to conserve more water but there are more aspects to the water. For instance, Amer is built for residents, and the king will live in a palace so the utility is different. Nahargarh fort has a different utility and water system. Rajasthan has many hill forts and all have water conservation depending on the area.

View from Jaleb Chowk – Amer Fort

Jaipur Heritage Water Walks

Anuradha – Anybody visiting Jaipur must connect to Neeraj for heritage water walks. What are other fascinating water-specific regions in India? Mandu is a big case study for water conservation. Kanheri caves in Mumbai where water was conserved beautifully. All the hill forts have a water mechanism because the army won’t survive without water.  But any other regions that you want people or you want to go and explore from a water perspective.

Neeraj – Delhi is one city that has tremendous water richness. We are living traditions and in terms of living traditions, lots of activities such as daily chores and daily aspects have a water aspect as the base of it.

Explore your own water culture heritage in backyards

Anuradha – I live in Panaji which is a small island city surrounded by two rivers on two sides and the Arabian Sea on the third side. Even though the origin of this city is in spring. The original part of the city comes around the water spring that flows down the hill. Even when it is the same little place surrounded by water all around. It’s totally fascinating. I totally agree with you that people wherever they are living whether city, town or village they need to start exploring their own water heritage. Hopefully, share with us.

Neeraj – This is very interesting in terms of the tourism perspective which India has to offer. This was one of the reasons I was invited by the government of Rajasthan to develop these walks. All other states have more to offer although Rajasthan is a desert. 

Anuradha – Thank you for sharing your immense knowledge of water with us.

This post has been transcribed by Pallavi Thakur as part of the IndiTales Internship Program.

Anuradha – Namaste! Today we have with us Neeraj Doshi Ji. He is the founder of a very interesting initiative in Jaipur called Heritage water walks. I have always said that if India has to bring back its culture it has to bring back the water culture, respecting water or not really selling water but…