Stepped Wells

By Sushmitta Renganathan

In India, water and waterbodies were always seen as life-giving and healing forces of nature. Water’s place of honor and reverence is visible in many architectural marvels. Tracing the idea of sanctity in water might take us as far as the documented beginning of civilization in India, or even further. While the social significance of water and waterbodies seems to have led ancient Indian settlements to perfect the art of water harvesting, conservation, and conveyance through the creation of several typologies of structures, specific to the ecological diversities and culture of the regions; the spiritual significance of it, seems to have led to its enshrinement through mastery in subterranean architecture and engineering. One of the most prominent examples of structures under this built form are the stepped wells. 

Descending into Rani-Ki-Vav, “The Queen’s Well” – A UNESCO World Heritage Monument in Gujarat

“…A descent deep into the earth, which can easily evoke the terror of an otherworldly abyss, instead serves to intensify awareness of the ordinariness of life.” Says art historian Milo C. Beach on the experience of descent into the stepped wells. 

The history of this typology, dates back to as early as 3rd century BC when the concept – of what is now a unique symbol of ancient India’s architectural genius emerged as simple excavated pits in sandy soil, reaching for the water tables. By 11th century AD, the architecture of the stepped wells had evolved to such an extent, that the typology was largely represented by multi-storied, lavishly carved structures, with surface decorations and ornamentation as elaborate as those of temples. 

A significant example of this subterranean structure is “Rani-ki-Vav” also known as “The Queen’s Well”, built in the 11th century, on the banks of Saraswathi River in the historical town of Patan, once the capital city of Gujarat. It is said that geotectonic changes along the Saraswathi River bed in 13th century, led to flooding — according to some accounts, and drought according to others — and the eventual abandonment of the Vav till the mid 20th century. In 1958, excavation and restoration works of the Vav began by the efforts of Archaeological Survey of India, and in 2014 it was declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Constructed at the peak of craftsmanship in our subcontinent, Rani-ki-Vav is a seven-story deep testament to the complex Maru-Gurjara style of Architecture. However, when one enters the site today, the nature of the structure reveals nothing, but a wide flight of steps in the midst of landscaped bunds in a bare field. As one follows the steps, surfaces adorned with sculptures of Gods, Goddesses, and other heavenly creatures, lead the way to the cavernous well: An inverted temple marking the sanctity of the water harvested, 23 meters deep into the ground.

A stepped well in decline from the Kakatiyan Era in Warangal, Telangana.

Although a small percentage of stepped wells continue to be in use in India, the majority have been lost to time, squalor, and neglect. Cultural journalist Victoria Lautman in the documentary “Subterranean Ghosts: India’s Disappearing Stepwells”, explains the Indian subcontinent’s journey away from stepped wells:

“Industrialization, unregulated pumping, and drought has depleted the water table in many places. But step wells began to lose their prominence and have been in precipitous decline for a century. While a handful have been protected and restored by the Indian Government, many more have been demolished, left to deteriorate. During the British Raj, they were deemed unhygienic and were often filled in. Centralized village water taps, plumbing, and storage tanks replaced the physical need for step wells, leaving the social and spiritual aspects unmoored.”

India is home to many more ancient tributes designed to emphasize on the sacrosanctity of water and waterbodies. Some remain, while the others are lost to time. 

Caring for the Heart of the World: Hussain Sagar Lake

By Lucy Gibson

As one of the most popular landmarks in the city of Hyderabad, Hussain Sagar is the official “Heart of the World” having been named as such by the United Nations World Tourism Organisation for being the World’s Largest Heart-Shaped Mark.

Hussain Sagar Lake – The Heart of the World. Source: Hyderabad Ranker

Built by Hussain Shah Wali in 1562AD, Hussain Sagar Lake stands on the tributary of the River Musi and was constructed to meet the water and irrigation requirement of Hyderabad. Ever since, it has been of significance for connecting the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad. In its centre stands a statue of Buddha over 16 metres tall which was erected in 1992.

Buddha statue in the the centre of Hussain Sagar Lake. Source: Siasat

However, heavy anthropogenic pressures have changed the entire ecosystem.

The industrial expansion that began in the early 1970’s in the catchment area of the Hussain Sagar Lake and continuous encroachment in terms of both industrialisation and urbanisation has, in the past, polluted the Lake to levels way above international permissible limits. Additionally, its waters have become shallow due to siltation.

One cause of this siltation is that, during the Ganesh Chaturthi celebrations, Hussain Sagar usually witnesses thousands of idol immersions. As a part of this religious ritual, idols, along with flowers and other materials, are immersed into water bodies. In fact, according to the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC), over 80,000 Ganesh idols of various sizes were immersed in the Lake in 2019 which resulted in approximately 1500 tonnes of waste being collected from the Lake post festivities.

Studies indicate that such rituals reduce the depth of the water body. Over the last decade, the depth of Hussain Sagar has reduced from 60ft to 40ft, thus reducing the Lake’s capacity to hold water.

Ganesh idol immersion in Hussain Sagar Lake. Source: Telangana Today

Besides adding silt, studies have also indicated that these immersions have increased the pollution levels of lakes. One 2009 studies shows that the chemical oxygen demand (COD) and biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) in the water body increased dramatically after the event. Some idols are made up of clay, plaster of paris, cloth, paper, wood, thermocol, jute, adhesive materials, and synthetic paints. Thermocol is non-biodegradable and some paints contain heavy metals such as chromium, lead, cadmium and mercury. When immersed, these chemicals dissolve slowly leading to significant alterations in water quality. The presence of heavy metals significantly increases in concentration after immersions. Such concentrations magnify at different trophic levels within food chains.

However, to say idol immersions are the main cause of this decline is unfair.

Equally significant, in terms of causation, are the sewage and pollutants being dumped into the lake from across the city.  While originally constructed to meet the water requirements of the city, the Lake became the main sewage collection zone of the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad. According to the Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board data of 2012-13, every day 78 million litres of sewage and 15 million litres of industrial effluents flow into the lake. The two sewage treatment plants near the lake are insufficient to handle the wastewater load.

The resultant effect has been the loss of aquatic and terrestrial biodiversity of the Lake and its catchment area.

In light of this, in more recent years, an increased awareness of such problem has encouraged people to immerse more environmentally friendly idols that are smaller (so they dissolve faster) and are made of traditional clay and water soluble paints.

In fact, in 2020, there was little waste in the Lake as the Telangana Government banned Ganesh pandals, mass gathering, processions, and immersions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As bad as the pandemic has been, environmentalists note that this will have a positive impact on the water and greenery around the Lake and Tank Bund as well. In fact, recent monitoring by the Telangana Pollution Control Board has shown that there is an increase of dissolved oxygen levels and biological oxygen demand levels have decreased.

In addition, on the 11 September 2020, it was announced that Hyderabad Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board will construct 17 new Sewage Treatment Plants in the catchment area of Hussain Sagar Lake. This plan, in increasing the sewage treatment capacity in the city will reduce an additional source of water pollution and contamination.  

While COVID-19 has brought serious consequences for so many around the world, it has also shown us that, if allowed, our environments can recover.

We must allow them to continue to do so.

Biodiversity Under Threat: Deepor Beel

By Lucy Gibson

For Assam, the Bharalu, a small tributary of the Brahmaputra, is a big concern. The Bharalu flows through the heart of Guwahati city, through densely populated residential, industrial, and commercial areas. As a result, Bharalu carries a large proportion of the city’s municipal wastes, including sewage and wastage from markets, commercial establishments, hotels and restaurants.

The State Pollution Control Board has marked Bharalu as one of the most polluted river stretching the country with a BOD level of 52.0 mg/l making it completely unfit for drinking and bathing purposes.

Additionally, this polluted river leads into the state’s biggest wetland wildlife sanctuary, Deepor Beel.

Deepor Beel is located about 10km Southwest of Guwahati city. It is considered one of the largest and important riverine wetlands in the Brahmaputra Valley. Yet, as a result of unchecked urbanisation, it is fed by contaminated water and waste carried by Bharalu river, posing a significant threat to the biodiversity of the wetland, home to many aquatic species and migratory birds.

Deepor Beel has significant biological and environmental importance.

It is the only major storm-water storage basin for Guwahati city which regularly faces prolonged water-logging during every monsoon. It is also home to a rich variety of flora and fauna: with 50 indigenous fish species recorded and 212 species of bird, including kingfishers, fishing eagles, adjutant storks, and numerous varieties of ducks. Surveys have also revealed 20 amphibians, 18 snakes, 12 lizards, and 6 turtle and tortoise species make the beel their home.

Additionally, the Asian Elephant regularly visits the beel and the nearby forested areas are home to Assamese Macaque, Slow Loris, Leopards, and even Chinese Pangolin have been recorded according to BirdLife International.

In fact, due to its significant biodiversity, Deepor Beel is a designated Ramsar Site, and a designated Important Bird Area by Birdlife International.

An elephant heard at Deepor Beel. Source: Down to Earth

This water body is also of great importance to its human residents, who located in the periphery and catchment use the Beel for: fishing, as a waterway, and to raise boro paddy. It also offers prospects for tourism if harnessed carefully without impacting its fragile ecology. With the dense Garbhanga hills proving a stunning backdrop, and the wetland being widely known for being home to many species of flora and fauna and is a popular attraction for photographers.

However, Deepor Beel is bearing the brunt of unplanned development.

The proliferation of human settlements, roads, and industries around the periphery are adding to pollution problems. Hunting, trapping, and intensive fishing practices are resulted in the death of wild birds and mammals.

A railway track also runs through the water body, near its south bank. Plans for a second railway track pass directly through a part of the Beel which is used by elephants as a major corridor.

The Guwahati oil refinery waste is directed through the Bharalu and Kalmoni rivers to the beel. The channels also carry other industrial and hospital waste. Continued discharge of the city’s untreated sewerage through the Bahini and Bharalu rivers and the dumping of municipal solid wastes in its close proximity by the Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) have pushed the wetland’s pollution to alarming levels and caused a fall in oxygen levels resulting in the death of fish and aquatic life. Previously fishing was enough to sustain some local communities, but now the situation has changed.

Invasive weeds such as water hyacinth, too, are expanding to more and more areas. These problems worsen during the monsoons, with rainwater sweeping large amounts of rubbish from the dumping site to the Beel.

Guwahati generates about 450 tonnes of waste every day, rubbish that finds its way to the periphery of the beel. This rubbish dump is home to one of the largest concentrations of greater adjutant stork.

Rubbish dump is home to the globally endangered Greater Adjutant Stork. Source: Current Conservation.

On January 22, 2017, 22 Greater Adjutant storks were found dead in Deepor Beel. Many suspect that it was because the birds eat the rubbish at the site. Greater Adjutant storks find themselves ‘endangered’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and population numbers are decreasing,

Wetlands act as some of the best indicators for a city’s environmental status.

Quite simply, fewer birds visiting the wetland would testify to the increasing pollution of the city and the effects of this on the environment.

While the management authority for Deepor Beel is the Forest Department of the Government of Assam, several public and private institutions and universities are involved in creating awareness of the ecological importance of the beel and the need to restore it to its original status.

Deepor Beel plays a significant hydrological, biological, and ecological role, as well as holds substantial socio-economic and cultural value. Put simply, there is a lot to lose.

Recreational Waters : The confluence of kinship and coherence

An ode to the community of care-givers.

By Sushmitta Renganathan

A representation -based on material by Tamil Nadu Tourism- of the coracle rides in the Hogenakkal Falls, an important recreational waterbody in India.

For time-immemorial, natural waterbodies and the landscapes around them have been mankind’s reliable sources of recreation. But for most of us born during the information age in India, large parts of the concept of recreational waterbodies were brought to life by theme parks and water park rides. The realization that these are replicas of the nature and principles of our immense natural resources in controlled environments, seems to have been bogged down by the excitement of purchasing tickets, hopping onto the large orange buoys, and swooping into the “Raft Slides”, “Lazy Rivers”, and “Wave Pools”.

Regardless, India has always boasted a long list of recreational waterbodies, immensely precious to more than the geological fabric of our subcontinent. 

Although a majority of the written tourist-guide materials on water-rides come with adjectives like “crazy”, “fast”, “adventurous” etc., they are rarely accompanied by a definite safety and wellbeing guideline tag. We believe that our wellbeing is somehow guaranteed, either by the efforts of the organization in-charge, or by our own prudence. On the contrary, the plethora of information on “precaution” and “safety measures” that cap any research on recreational waters, is an extension of our doubts about if and who holds the responsibility for our wellbeing there; especially when the simple brochures and hand-painted “caution” signs don’t say much to alleviate the fear instilled by some incident, somewhere, told by someone:

The answer to this is in realizing the significance of the communities of care-givers.

“Shopping Road” near the Hogenakkal Falls and the “Dharmapuri-Hogenakkal Road” are brought to life by the services provided by the local communities.

True to their principle, natural waterbodies cannot be controlled by the flip of a switch. But on the other hand, recreational waterbodies in India and the experiences they promise, rely on the deeply rooted sense of community and hospitality of our country. The declared recreational waterbodies in India, through the scope for spontaneous growth around them, have always belonged to the people – especially to the native population, some of who establish their businesses on the shores of these waterbodies, while the others dive right into the waters for their livelihood. Thus, these waterbodies and their surroundings, that become the founding elements governing the sustenance of the communities around them, naturally entrust this vigilante with the task of ensuring the wellbeing of the visitors; which in turn is effortlessly taken up by them as part of their day-to-day lives –  even if not printed so on a glossy brochure.

Second to none, the extraordinary beauty of the recreational waterbodies in India falters not in binding with awe the resident and foreign guests alike, and in etching its way into their fond memories. Yet, for those who care enough to ponder: the experiences around these magnificent expanses, and the ensuing memories, are often born out of the subtle guidance and care of the native communities. To begin with, the relevance of the recreational waterbodies that is maintained by catering to the wide range of interests of the visiting population, is supported primarily by the efforts of the local communities who we meet as our tour guides, lifeguards, vendors, and small-scale business owners. These efforts not only guarantee an inclusive spirit, but also create life, excitement, and vigor on the shores – a welcome gift, wrapped and handed to every visitor.

The Hogenakkal Falls from the Kaveri River, that forms the border between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka in South India, is one such recreational waterbody. On the rocky banks, the floating population of visitors merge with the natives. Their symbiotic relationship is founded on the bounties offered by the river which is merchandised by the natives and purchased by the visitors.

“Adding to the charm of the waterfalls itself were the hawkers, their local products, and the artifacts from Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. The wafting smell of the fish fry, the relaxing massages, the coracle rides are iconic, almost synonymous to the Hogenakkal Falls.” recalls Mrs Jayanthi Ranganathan, of her childhood visits to the falls in the 1980s. The banks continue to thrive with these activities.

Mrs Jayanthi Renganathan’s childhood memories of the Hogenakkal Falls

While our efforts over time, in curtailing pollution and encroachment to conserve our waterbodies are certainly benchmarks of progress; it seems that realizing the significance of the native communities, the role they play in conservation, and supporting them in their efforts to empower themselves, are the next potential direction-markers in this journey forward. 

Our respect to the all-embracing communities of care-givers!

A Tale of Fire and Water: Bellandur Lake

By Lucy Gibson

Bellandur Lake, is located in the densely populated city of Bangalore. Once a healthy lifeline for its surrounding residents, both human and non-human, on the evening of 16th February 2017, Bellandur Lake caught fire.

But, how can that be? Water extinguishes not fuels fire, right?

Previously, Bellandur Lake was one of the oldest and largest lakes in Bangalore, enabling its neighbouring human residents to cultivate paddy, grow vegetables, and fish (over 400 fishing families used to live in this neighbourhood), and offering its non-human residents a home.

Rapid urbanisation has propelled Bangalore into India’s outsourcing and IT hub of 10 million people. About 40% of the city’s untreated sewage flows into Bellandur Lake every day; that is approximately 400-500 million litres. Residential and commercial activities in the region have resulted in increasing the silt deposition in the lake and have caused loss of underground water recharge. Urbanisation has changed the characteristics of the Lake from being a natural ecologically healthy Lake to an artificial reservoir of domestic sewage and industrial effluents. Now, this once bountiful lake finds its waters littered with a mixture of domestic and industrial waste.

With the banks of the lake becoming a convenient site for rubbish dumping and cooking oil entering the lake from untreated domestic sewage, the combined effect has been a lake that catches fire.

Four main locations where sewage enters Bellandur Lake. Source: Citizen Matters.
Fire on Bellandur Lake. Source: India Times.

Additionally, detergents present in the domestic sewage result in the formation of a foamy froth which has become a matter of concern for people residing in the Bellandur area. During the monsoon season, when large volumes of rainwater mixed with the sewage enter the lake, this foam forms at a greater rate. This froth, which may appear a sight to behold, has a pungent smell and causes irritation on contact with skin.

Snowy froth which floats up from Bellandur Lake into the surrounding area. Photo: Debasish Ghosh.

Bellandur Lake burns to be seen.

Evidentially, 30 years on unplanned urbanisation have taken their toll. Bellandur Lake exists as just one example of humanity’s struggle to protect its environment. A struggle faced on a global scale.

This once clean lake which offered both sources of income and recreation, is now toxic. Pollution has led to disappearance of native fish species in the lake. Wildlife which used to inhabit the area, kingfishers, kites, cobras, parakeets, and monitor lizards are now gone. With more and more residential areas springing up along the shores, more species will sadly disappear. The original habitat is in the process of being destroyed.

Kingfishers now found on the outskirts of Bangalore. Source: The Hindu.

But solutions are difficult to find.

Bellandur Lake does not completely come under one civic body. As a result, the Lake falls under the authority of multiple agencies and civic bodies, this has resulted in a lack of accountability.

Protests against the destruction of Bellandur Lake and its surroundings have been held for over 20 years. A group of people including lake and environment activists and residents are trying to preserve the Lake. Citizen Groups have been created to discuss and create awareness about the plight of Bellandur Lake. Bellandur Lake Citizen Group, for example, would like more lake oversight handed to private citizens.

The rejuvenation of Bellandur-Varthur lake involves, de-silting, treatment of wastewater through constructed wetlands and algae ponds, re-establishing inter-connectivity among lakes, banning alterations in the topography, and maintaining 30 m buffer zone around the lake etc. Yet efforts to desilting the south side are undone by there being no prevention of raw sewage water flowing into the lake on the north side.

If we do not make a conscious effort to protect our water bodies, we will lose them.

Water is a prime natural resource, a basic need for entire living systems on this planet. A precious natural asset.  

We must try our best to save these waters.

Velachery Lake: The centrality of water to sustainable urban development

By Lucy Gibson

“It is generally accepted among environmental geographers that there is no such thing as a natural disaster. In every phase and aspect of a disaster—causes, vulnerability, preparedness, results and response, and reconstruction—the contours of disaster…is to a greater or lesser extent a social calculus” (Smith, 2006:1)

While Neil Smith wrote these lines in respect to Hurricane Katrina, a similar perspective can be taken for the increasing occurrences of flooding in Chennai. Reflecting on the 2015 flood events, Sud (2015) noted that “climate change is not the only guilty party”. Certainly, climate change is one factor, but the scale of the disaster in Chennai was magnified by rapid urbanisation and a disregard for the importance of water bodies in town planning. For example, over 273 hectares of the Pallikarni marshland are now covered in buildings, the floodplain of the Adyar river is now Chennai’s international airport, and Chennai’s famous Information Technology and Knowledge Corridors sit atop wetlands and marshlands. Areas which would normally act as sinks for flood water are rapidly decreasing.

Velachery Lake is another example which shows that urban planning must consider the importance of water bodies for a more sustainable future.

Velachery is a growing residential area in southern Chennai. The growth of the neighbourhood can largely be attributed to the growth of the IT sector. However, this dramatic increase in the size of the urban population and consequent spatial expansion of residential areas have fundamentally changed the physical landscape for Velachery.

Historically, Velachery Lake was spread over 250 acres. Today, its water spread area has been reduced drastically by 80.5% with residential and industrial complexes now occupying the area. Due to its low-lying location, rainwater from neighbouring areas drain into Velachery Lake; however, every November, Velachery is flooded by monsoon rains. The reduced water storage capacity of Velachery Lake is a significant contributor to this flooding.

The encroachment of Velachery Lake (original size shown in yellow). Graphic: M. Iqbal Shaikh

The decline in the geographical size, physical, chemical, and biotic properties of water bodies have affected urban ecosystems, biodiversity, and the aesthetics of the landscape. Additionally, the occurrence of flood disaster during the monsoon seasons in Chennai must be correlated with the spatial allocation of water bodies. Approximately 650 water bodies have been destroyed in Chennai; compared to the city’s 2,847km of urban roads, there are only 855 km of storm drains.

Flooding in the Velachery area. Photo: ANI

Moreover, the master plans created by Chennai Metropolitan Area’s urban planners reveals the perceived insignificance of water bodies to the area’s urban development.

In fact, the area allocated for water bodies is negligible; while the area allocated for residential and institutional spaces increased by 23.27% from 1971 to 2009, the proposed Master Plan of 2026 makes no mention of the spaces covered by water bodies.

Additionally, Velachery Lake has suffered from the dumping of garbage and untreated sewage water into its waters, further reducing the storage capacity of the lake and polluting its waters. In 2018 the Chennai Corporation put a hold on the proposal for boat rides and other tourist facilities due to the high level of contamination of the water. With about 2,000 families living in the southern bund, and pipelines directed to the lake, the waste, high in organic matter, directly increased the chemical and biological oxygen demand in the receiving waters. The higher the chemical and biological oxygen demand, the greater the potential for damage to biological life living in the water.

Yet, there is great potential and urgent need to protect Velachery Lake from further encroachment and pollution, improve its the current conditions and safeguard the water body, and other water bodies, for future use. As of August 2020, to prevent the outbreak of any vector-borne disease the Chennai Corporation has started cleaning water hyacinth from the lake using an aquatic weed-cutting boat that helps cut underwater weeds, clear silt, and remove garbage. This work is currently being carried out on Velachery Chinna Eri, one of the two areas making up Velachery Lake

Weeds being removed from Velachery Lake. Photo: The Hindu

Urban water bodies are important natural resources. They act as flood moderators, serves as drinking water sources and recreation centres, but only if preserved properly. Water sector planning needs to be an integral component of metropolitan planning for the benefit of the future.

Without this, sustainable urban development will remain a distant thought.

Memories of a “thodu”

Of a childhood around a stream from the Manimala River in Kottayam, Kerala.

By Sushmitta Renganathan

Conceptual representation based on data from Google Earth, of a small segment of the Manimala River flowing through Kottayam.

What must it be like to live in a place where our lives don’t seem too far removed from the beauty of nature? Where visiting a lake or a stream, and playing on its shores are not restricted to an occasional weekend trip, but is an after-school routine?

Years ago, I had found a friend in Haritha Balakrishnan, a singer and software engineer, during a visit to Kochi from my hometown, Chennai. On her laptop, I had come across a video of herself and her childhood friends playing on the banks of a stream, near her home in the outskirts of Kottayam; strutting along the shallow banks, pretending that it was a ramp. It seemed that all they had to do was, step out of their houses, and walk a small distance, to make this pure and serene pocket of nature theirs for a few hours daily. But these few hours, I was told, defined large parts of their memories of home. 

While she casually scrolled past it, the image of this evidently sustainable symbiosis of nature and life, never left my mind.

So, what must it really feel like to have nature commemorate moments of life and make even the ordinary parts seem extraordinary? It shouldn’t take much to respect it, and in return experience its kindness in severalfold, should it?

Haritha Balakrishnan’s narration of her memories around the stream near her home in Kottayam, inspires more such questions:

The beautiful village Haritha talks about is Vizhikkathodu, located in the outskirts of Kottayam, in Kerala. The thodu that is so precious to her, branches from the 91 Km long Manimala River; an important water way of Central Travancore.The river originates in the Muthavara Hills in the district of Idukki, and flows through Kottayam and Pathanamthitta, before it empties itself into the Vembanad Lake in the village of Kainakary in Alappuzha. In Kottayam, the Manimala river extends from Vaipur to Mundakayam. 

Course of the Manimala River in Kerala

Modern-day India continues to be home to hundreds of such rivers, lakes, and innumerable ponds and other smaller waterbodies; and yet, only some like Haritha, might have had memorable experiences around waterbodies on a daily basis, and may even continue to have them; while some others might have to watch these waterbodies being taken over by encroachment, draught, etc., and be faced with the choice of either fighting to protect them or simply hoping for a miracle. For the rest, these stories on life around waterbodies might seem as distant as a fairytale. Irrespective, we all yearn for a piece of it.

We welcome you to share your experiences around waterbodies and your aspirations for the forgotten waterbodies near you! Please write to lakesofindia@gmail.com.

Traces of the lost waterbodies

City of Chennai and the legend of the vanishing waterbodies

By Sushmitta Renganathan

Historically, waterbodies have marked the beginnings of many important civilizations. From the mentions of Mylapore as a great Pallava port, our pre colonial history as a fishing village, to the recently proposed archeological excavations on the Eastern banks of the Kosasthalaiyar; all confirm that Chennai and its outskirts were once such a bed, rich in culture, natural resources, and biodiversity. In modern urban environments, water bodies continue to play a primary role in helping the society sustain, by maintaining the ground water recharge, balancing the ecosystem, controlling temperature, and preventing floods. Thus, they continue to hold prominence amongst the factors that guarantee a healthy society.

However, in a bid to increase the urban area since 2000, an unbelievable degree of sprawl and encroachment have drastically modified the serene blue and green landscape of waterbodies and greenery in Chennai. This style of urbanization, that seems like an impulsive course of a real-time “Mine Sweeper” game, sweeps through the landscape radially from the coast to the inland; diminishing, and deteriorating waterbodies along the way through burgeoning blocks of buildings. Unlike the game, the consequences are experienced long after.

These severe modifications are reflected today in the impaired absorption capacity of waterbodies, the deteriorated quality of water, disturbed aquatic biodiversity, and the devastations caused by floods and droughts. It has also resulted in a majority of water bodies permanently disappearing from the landscape of the city; some leaving traces of their long-lost existence right under our feet. We experience them as residential, institutional, commercial, and recreational establishments, or even as roads and empty plots, that are annually under the threat of flooding. 

When waterbodies disappear due to encroachment, many at times, these encroachments or their surroundings face issues arising from poor drainage. One such encroachment can be observed in the video above, focusing on a location close to the Eastern limit of Chennai. Today, the consequences of the encroachment are reflected in a small way on stretch of land used as make-shift playground in this location; that annually transforms into a marsh between the months of September and December.

These anomalies in our urban landscapes, are the traces that remain of some of Chennai’s lost waterbodies, and they serve today, as reminders of the prominence that these waterbodies might have had in ensuring the sustainability of the city and the wellbeing of the users, had they been saved. 

Lost, but hopeful.

Buckingham Canal, Chennai.

By Sushmitta Renganathan

 The story of Chennai’s resilience and survival, has time and again, proved to be a reflection of mankind’s role in the existing natural and man-made physiographic features. Be it the monsoon flooding of areas built on lakes and marsh lands, or the weakening of the intensity of natural disasters by the strategic positions of natural and man-made waterbodies; our efforts in conserving, as well as in modifying the city’s landscape, has always played an important role. 

When it comes to surface drainage, the Greater Madras Area’s coastal physiography consisting of beaches, dunes, backwaters and lagoons, plays an important role through the aid of four main rivers:  the Araniar in the North, followed by Kosasthalaiyar River, Cooum River, and Adyar River in the South; all, largely flowing West-East. Meeting the Kosasthalaiyar, Cooum, and Adyar Rivers is the Buckingham Canal, that runs parallel to the coast. Within the city, the Canal meets the Cooum River near the Central Jail, and continues South, before it intersects the Adyar River near the Greenways Railway Bridge.

This man-made Buckingham Canal, and the promises resting on its potential have existed for about two-hundred-years now. After the Canal was built in 1897, it served as an important water route and improved the connectivity of Madras to the other nearby trade centers. During the World War II, it is said that the boat traffic in the Canal, was at its peak. Today, although far from this narrative and largely seen as a lost space in the urban fabric of the city, the Buckingham Canal is still relevant through the role it plays in acting as a buffer against several natural disasters. It has been acknowledged that the intensity of devastations in the city, during the Tsunami of 2004 and the floods of 2015, were reduced by the Canal’s course, running parallel and within 5 Km of the coast throughout its entire length. 

Two of the four-parts, that make the Buckingham Canal one of the longest canals in the country, are steeped in rich history. The Northern part known as the Cochrane Canal, was originally a river called the “North River”, that was seen as a noteworthy geographical feature by the British. In the early 18thcentury, the stretch between this shallow river and the beach, was marked by six block houses which were said to have been built to delineate the northern boundary of the city. The same can be seen in the Wheeler map of 1733.

In talking about the course of this now-forgotten-river, historian and author S Muthiah, in his book Madras Rediscovered says “…In fact, the course of the river was, almost throughout its passage, parallel to the sea – that is to the West of the Fort and about two kilometers from the coast. But in its last stage it changed course; at the south west corner of the present General Hospital grounds it bent back sharply on itself, then travelled northeast for about 800 yards to join the silted mouth of the Triplicane river.” Maps of the city, before the early 19thcentury, document this course of the North River.

A boundary map published in May 1794 by Laurie and Whittle shows the North River flowing parallel to the East coast,
before meeting the Triplicane River.

Source: http://www.davidrumsey.com

In this River, as detailed by author W Francis in Gazetteer of South India Volume 1, the first portion of the Buckingham Canal was built beginning in 1806, by Cochrane and his private enterprise. By 1837, the construction was taken over by the government. But, up until the great famine of 1876, only a small progress, costing about 5 lakh Indian Rupees had taken place. In 1876-78, the Great Famine of Madras, which is often seen as one of the darkest periods in the city’s history, became a driving factor that encouraged the completion of the second-part of the undertaking as famine relief work by the Duke of Buckingham. This today, is the 8 Km long stretch of the Canal linking the Cooum and Adyar Rivers. This stretch was later connected to the Cochrane Canal in the North and the South Coast Canal in the South. At the end of the construction, around 90 lakh Indian Rupees was spent on the Canal.

The Buckingham Canal in 1961.
Source: The Hindu archive.

The finished Canal, as envisioned, was a navigable water system interlinking other streams. It spanned over an expanse of 420 Km, with a 163 Km long stretch in Tamil Nadu and the rest in Andhra Pradesh. In its intact state, the Canal is said to have had a capacity of up to 5,600 cubic feet per second. However, after about a hundred years, a rapid decline in the purpose and maintenance of the Canal, transformed what could have been a solution to the extreme and alternating conditions of drought and heavy rainfalls in the city; into a squalid, incidental buffer reserved for natural calamities. 

Yet, as long as one can look at the Buckingham Canal, and can’t help but believe in all that it can be, not all hope is lost: On one hand, its indispensable positioning on the city’s map and its undeniable potential, have constantly placed it as a key feature in many urban development projects, since the beginning of this century. On the other hand, a common man’s hopes for the Canal, gives us, the people, the right and the responsibility of reviving it, one small step at a time. 

Let’s all do our best!

Lakes of Hyderabad

Guest Contribution: Students of St. Michael’s School (Alwal)

Kushi Shah, VI A

Sanhita, VII A

Rimaa Saai

Bhavya Shree V., VII F

We thank the St. Michael’s School and it’s teaching staff for supporting this effort!

Volunteer for India and her Environment with E.F.I, Jai Hind