Rainwater harvesting is the new buzzword for a world wracked by climate change and increasingly limited stores of fresh water. But in rain-starved Rajasthan, communities have been harvesting water for ages.
Dr Anupam Mishra’s booklet , “Kund - Etijyomoyer jaler etijyo”, a Bengali translation of the original in Hindi, describes the ideas and principles that lie behind this legacy of conserving water in an environment bereft of this precious natural resource.
In this desert state, the practice of making kundis, kunds, tankas or tanks dates back to the hoary past. These rainwater harvesting structures are found just about anywhere in Rajasthan-one finds them in homes, temples, mosques, forts, on the foothills of mountains, in villages, on the deserted outskirts of villages. It is the community that rules supreme, and the emphasis is on sharing resources. Individuals who contribute to financing the building of kunds on panchayat land, dedicate these big kunds to the community under a pledge taken on an auspicious occasion. Thus, for generations, rain-starved Rajasthan has thrived on the denying of the “I” in favour of the collective “we”.
Of course, individual homes also have their smaller kunds, where the size of the reservoir is in keeping with the size of the family. Wherever a little bit of space is available, a surface is lined with plaster to serve as a kind of courtyard. This courtyard has to be inclined, just so that water flows in a particular direction from all sides of the courtyard. The water leads to a nalla or channel, which takes it to a reservoir or kund. The kund is designed in keeping with the amount of rain expected in the area. The plastering of the kund is so foolproof that not a single drop of water ever leaks out or gets spoilt, and can remain safe and clean for the entire year.
The courtyard used to collect the water for the kund is referred to as the ‘agaur’ - a word derived from the local word –agaurna - or to collect. The agaur is always kept immaculately clean at all times. No boots or slippers are ever allowed on it. The rainwater enters the kundi/kund from the agaur through inlets called aayro or surakho. These may be also called indu. The inlets are equipped to finely filter out sand and dust particles from the rainwater. The kunds are fitted with windows to let in air and light so that the water remains fresh and clean. Every kund is 20-30 cubits deep. No kund - whether small or big – is ever kept open. An open kund is considered aesthetically unpleasant. And in Rajasthan, beauty and cleanliness are synonymous with water.
The opening of a kund is always round, and the top dome-shaped. The high domed top of a kund is comparable to the crest of a temple or a mosque and makes the kund attractive. At times, a stone slab adorns a kund. But whatever kind be the top, the kund is equipped with an iron or wooden door which is intended for water to be taken out by people for their daily needs. One finds fresh water kunds even in places where groundwater is highly saline, and found at depths as far as 100-200 cubits below the surface.
Kunds may be made of either stone or “phog“ wood. For plastering, stone chips, or broken stone are used. To fill up the gaps between the stones, a fine coat of lime is used. The Chelowaj, or the traditional builder of kunds , is an expert mason who, unlike any modern architect, can guarantee foolproof construction which ensures that not a single drop of water ever leaks into the surrounding sand.
In the case of a phog wood kund, interlocked pieces of wood are tied together to make a framework. This is then covered with a thick mixture of lime and sand. A small part of the wood is removed to facilitate climbing up on the dome. Unlike in a stone kund, wooden kunds do not have too many inlets or aayro. There is only one inlet.
The dimensions of a traditional kund range from 7-8 cubits diameter, with a height in the range of 4 cubits. The inlet for water to enter the kund is always one cubit. When all the water has entered the kund, the inlet is shut off with a cloth –wrapped cover. This is a customary practice for all phog kunds. With their single opening and dimensions, phog kunds resemble wells in appearance.
In spite of the Rajasthani penchant for colour, the kund is always white in colour. This ensures that there is no undue heating, and the water remains cool and unspoilt. Since white reflects light, the kund does not crack up either in the desert heat.
In spite of all the precautions taken, however, some sand is bound to creep in with the water into the kund. Hence, in the month of Chaitra (March-April) , kunds are cleaned up. A man enters the kund stepping down the jutting stones placed to serve as steps/stairs on the walls of the kund, and removes the accumulated sand. Easy removal of the sand is ensured by constructing the kund in the shape of a saucer or wok. This causes all the sand to collect at the centre, termed the khamria or kundalio. Of course, the care bestowed on the kunds here ensures that no cleaning is required for around 10-20 years at a stretch.
As mentioned above, kunds may be private or community-owned. A family-owned kund is generally in front of or behind the house, in the courtyard, or next to the fence.
A community kund is generally large, and located on panchayat land, or between two villages. A door marks the entrance to a big kund. In front of it are always two tanks - one big and one small. One is higher, and the other lower. These are meant to serve the needs of sheep, goats and camels in the village and its vicinity, and are always kept filled. They are referred to as khel, thaala, howada, or ubra locally.
Community kunds are built by the villagers themselves. Shramdaan or labour contribution towards building a kund is considered an act of piety. A prosperous family in the village may pledge to take the initiative to construct a community kund. But, everyone else in the village also contributes in his own way to it. Sometimes, the kund is constructed by one family, and the upkeep of the kund is handed over to another. The family entrusted with the maintenance of the kund is accommodated somewhere outside the agaur, within the outer periphery of the kund. This arrangement carries on from generation to generation. Often, one finds that the original family who constructed the kund is no longer in the village, or has migrated elsewhere. Yet, the kund constructed by them continues to serve the community , courtesy the family maintaining it.
To this day, the kunds in Rajasthan harvest and supply water of a quality far superior that what municipalities ever do.
However, a lot of kunds can be seen lying around destroyed and in disuse today. The fault here does not lie in the system, but in the manner we treat our hoary traditions. It is also a reflection of the breaking up of our social structure and sense of community.
Sometime ago, the authorities thought of emulating this system and improving upon it. Several officials toured the dry regions of western Rajasthan in a bid to understand the principles that underlay the construction of these reservoirs. It was decided to use cement to build the kunds that the authorities planned, since cement would be the strongest building material available. However, the summer heat of Rajasthan proved too daunting for the cement kunds. The cement walls cracked in the desert heat. To save the kund, coal tar was applied to the cracks. But the coal tar melted in the heat, spoiling the stored water. Ultimately, the villagers had to construct their traditional “phog’ kund to tide over their water crisis. In short, a time-honoured method managed to provide a solution to a crisis generated by modern technology.
Where limestone layers lie just 4-5 cubits below the sand, it is impossible to dig wells. In such areas, limestone is used to make kunds. Once a suitable spot is selected, slabs are brought from the mines and heated up on a wooden stove, causing them to break into small fragments. The fragments are then used to line the kund. The desert abounds in huge stone slabs, which are used to cover these kunds.
Tankas are similar to kunds. Only, unlike the kund, the tanka uses the rooftop or terrace to accumulate the rainwater. A house with a big terrace has a tanka exactly in proportion. The tanka will also be in keeping with the size of the family. Thus, a family of 10-12 members will have a tanka that is 15 to 20 cubits in depth, and equally long and broad. The terrace slopes off to one side, and leads to a nalla or channel, which is also equipped with a netting to filter out dust and impurities that flow down with the rainwater. The tanka or reservoir is always below the living room or bedroom. This is kept properly covered. The mouth of the tanka is at one end, and has a lid or cover. The water collected in the tanka is utilized the year round for cooking and drinking. To maintain hygiene, no one ever wears shoes or slippers on the terrace.
Tankas can be publicly or privately owned, and can range in size. On a modest scale, even a small kund or tanka is capable of collecting 10,000 litres of water, while a medium-sized one can hold as much 50,000 litres. The bigger ones can hold a lakh and more litres of water.
The biggest tanka in the country is to be found in Jaigarh fort in Jaipur, and is capable of holding 60 lakh gallons or nearly 3 crore litres of water. This tanka rests on 81 columns, and its waters remain fresh and cool all through the year. The channels here are cleaned just before the arrival of the monsoon. The idea of having such a huge tanka was not just for providing water, but to equip the residents of the fort to hold out in case of a prolonged siege.
But kunds and tankas are not the only means to conserve water in Rajasthan. Any stony patch is utilized to collect rainwater. Gaps among the sand dunes serve just as well. These are called charvos. Water collected in these charvos also supplement tanka water. Likewise, the place around the tanka may also be raised to add to the water collected. The scarcity of water has people use many innovative means to conserve this invaluable resource. A small bucket hung by a rope, a small tin container, anything and everything is used to collect rainwater. Each of these is a testimony to human resilience in the face of heavy odds, and are an inexpensive legacy worth emulating, as Dr Mishra’s booklet is keen to emphasize on.
Besides, in the sparsely populated areas of this desert-state, villages are far apart, making it difficult to bank on a system that can supply water en masse. Given the situation, these kunds are an adaptation by the community to provide themselves a basic resource in the most decentralized manner.