It is said that we can live without food for days, but without water no chance for even a day! There is a worldwide concern over depletion of water bodies, man-made and natural; some blame it to global warming, others to pollution and a few to the misuse of water. And in Gujarat, where the climate is harsh, and geography is semi-arid, the condition is not well either.
But most of us are not concerned as the Narmada water is filling our demand at least for now. Areas, where water used to be hugely scarce, now receive piped water, thanks to the Narmada Canals. But I wonder, how long can it sustain? The piped water has made many of us so lazy that we have started forgetting the importance of vast number of man-made reservoirs created through community involvement and patronage by royal families, in the past. These have become dump yards for garbage, and even are used as toilets.
Problems are many with relation to their apathy. Some blames at the negligence of Archaeological Survey of India, others dig at government, but hardly anyone talks about the local community who should play a major role in their preservation and posterity.
For last few months I have been visiting a number of reservoirs, step wells, and other manmade water related features in the semiarid patch of Gujarat. Everywhere I find the same story. But the worst among all is historic Munser Lake, a reservoir built in the 12th century by the Chalukya Queen Minal Devi at Viramgam.
Munser Lake is the largest among all Early Medieval water related structure in Gujarat. The lake is enclosed by scores of intricately carved temples. The lake is constructed in the form of a gomukh (cow’s head).
In Gujarat water is available in plenty for a few months of a year during the rainy season. Rivers, rivulets, creeks, and natural depressions which had been filled in water during the rains dry up within a few months. Moreover the water if remains become slate after sometime. Understanding this situation, its erstwhile rulers built ponds, reservoirs, wells and step wells at most of the places.
Historically the local communities not only used them but also involved in their repairing from time to time. Only during the British Raj, this ancient way of harvesting water was underestimated. The British ordered the closure of these manmade features, because they observed that insects and other disease carrying germs were breeding in the water bodies created through human efforts.
Keeping aside the archaeological and conservation aspects for a while, let’s now see how people relate to water socially and spiritually in Gujarat. This is important because in most academic studies the peoples’ perception through their historical experiences to the monumental edifices surrounding them are largely ignored.
Ancient scriptures say: ‘In places without tanks, gods are not present. A temple therefore should be built, where there is a pond on the left, or in the front, not otherwise’. In the Vedic time, a water body was compared to a cow, the symbol of wealth, fertility and prosperity. Subsequently waters were seen and praised as goddesses. It was believed that the water goddesses had the ability to cleanse and purify the worshippers from moral sins and bestow long life, wealth and immortality. This believes has continued till now.
Constructing of ponds, wells and reservoirs was considered a sacred act and an act of highest merit. A scripture says: one who digs a well for people has (the consequence of) half of his sins absorbed when the water has began to flow. One who dedicates a pond is forever happy (free from thirst) and attains the world of Varuna.
In the popular tradition, a mother goddess called Varadi Maa is believed to be residing in a step well, or on a pond or tank. She is a goddess of fertility. Young brides or couples immediately after the marriage ceremony go to the water body to pay homage to the Varadi Maa. A young mother after delivering her first child also goes to the tank for purification. This ceremony starts with a procession in which the young mother is taken out to the tank, where she installs jaladhara and saptamatrika, the seven mother goddesses. She brings offering of food stuffs and fetches water.
With this backdrop, one can easily be certain that why Minal Devi, the mother of Gujarat’s most powerful monarch Siddharaj Jaisinh had built Munsar Talav at Viramgam. As a ruler of a welfare state to up hold the ancient tradition and spiritual belief, Minal Devi conceived the lake as a ‘tirtha’. She erected 520 miniature temples in early Chalukya style, out of which 360 survives today. Most of them are Shiva shrines, along with a few Vaishnava shrines. Each Shiva shrine has three niches housing images of Mahakala, Bhairava and Andakashaura Vadh Murti of Shiva (Shiva killing Andakashaura). Besides there are two large twin temples found in the middle of the south side. These temples are presently called sas and bahu temples. According to a copper plate inscription, Lavana Poasada, the son of King Bhuvandeva II had constructed these temples. These were called Virameshwara and Sarameshwara.
According to a legend, there were bells in all miniature temples tied together with a single long string, which when pulled makes all these bells ringing together at the time of worship in the morning and evening.
But today the historical glory of the lake is obscured by heaps of garbage. Drainage water is flowing to the lake. Every day, early in the morning, the lake turns into a huge public lavatory. People from the nearby shanties relive themselves here. It is shocking. Initially we thought the people who use this heritage structure as a place for excrement are Muslims. But upon enquiry we found them Hindus. Is it not a shame?
For a while I and my friend Ramji Nagarajan were upset. But once cooled, I tried to find through observation who are the communities living in the shanties beside the lake. I found them mostly communities belonging to the bottom of the Hindu caste order. They are not the worshipper of mainstream Hindu gods, instead their own folk deities. They give little importance to the place as it contains mostly dilapidated Shiva and Vishnu temples.
My observation is not tested and based on intuition. But through this experience together with insights I have gained from my prior visits I have now started asking – why some monuments gain so much importance in public perception where as others are neglected. Do the historical experiences of communities and their cultural practices have anything to do? Once we get the answer of this question, the next step could be how to sensitize local communities for their preservation.