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Rajasthani Forts and Water

February 23, 2019

Rajasthani Forts and Water

-Panna Meena ka Kund--
the historic step well and rain catchment at the Amber Fort
(photo: Gipsys Travel Everywhere)

 

My first impression of Rajasthan, 30-some years ago, was of a vast dune-colored landscape splashed with vivid color. The men’s marigold turbans, the women’s vivid scarlet and yellow odhni (long, translucent veils) stood out in contrast with expanses of desert and dry, brush-covered mountains.

The word “khaki” derives from Urdu and Persian words meaning “dust-colored.” In Rajasthan, a desert state, the word makes perfect sense. The monsoons bring 12 to 14 inches of rain annually, mostly in two summer months.

Water—or the scarcity of water—has always shaped every aspect of life in Rajasthan.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the extensive “plumbing” system of the magnificent Amber Fort, in the mountains outside of Jaipur. Built in 1599 by Raja Mansingh Ji, the palace/fort is a model of water conservation based both on a technically sophisticated system for gathering water and intelligent storage solutions. It provided for both the humans and the animals living in the fort.

Mansingh also recognized that water was just as important for soothing a spiritual thirst as for quenching literal thirst. At the heart of the palace is a garden where fountains spout, surrounded by terraces to enjoy this rare oasis of greenery.

Today, water—or it’s scarcity—still shapes all aspects of life in Rajasthan, from politics at a national and state level, to the lives of villagers who often must walk for miles to obtain water for themselves and their livestock. In some ways, not much has changed in the four centuries since Mansingh built Amber Fort. Many of the techniques used there are still the basis of water conservation today.

Neeraj Doshi, a seventeenth-generation Rajasthani, gave me a behind-the-scenes tour of the fort’s waterworks. We started the tour by ducking through a door in the thick walls of an obscure part of the fort. Inside, we were at the top of a series of four tanks that climb the steep hillside from Maota Lake far below—the only source of water for the fort during the dry seasons.

A series of animal-powered winches drew water from the lake into the first three of these enormous tanks, one by one. The ascent to the fourth tank is too steep for elephants, so the pulley system here was operated by humans working round-the-clock, in rotation. From one window, I could see the tanks and the lake far below.

From another perch, I leaned cautiously over the interior of the fourth tank—incredibly deep, to hold up to 100,000 liters of water drawn from the lake. The pulley system in that tank was driven by a Persian water wheel, a rotating drum made of slabs of wood, mounted at the top of a shaft that appears to have been fashioned from the trunk of a tree.

From there, the water flowed in earthen pipes to other storage tanks throughout the fort and royal chambers. The tanks are underground, built with thick walls coated with lime, and can hold enough water for a two-year supply to meet the needs of both people and animals.

In addition to drawing from the lake, the engineers of the Amber palace designed every surface to be part of a water catchment system. Open terraces slope slightly and are punctuated by drains that catch and collect rain water. Many of the spaces within the fort are designed to store water—and provide cool spaces adjacent to the water for respite from desert heat. Gradually, the need to collect water influenced the design of the architecture, with the long stairways that provided places to sit near the water at any level taking on decorative elements.

Amber Fort water tanks

 

The palace portion of the sprawling fort (continually enlarged over the next 150 years by Mansingh’s successors, Mirza Raja Jai Singh Ji and Sawai Jai Singh  Ji II), is elaborately decorated with frescoes and mosaics, and adorned with archways and views that are the epitome of romance.

At the heart of the palace for the royals, is the most romantic and refreshing space of all—a formal garden with fountains and flowers. Covered walkways surround the garden, providing spaces for strolling and resting in the shade, listening to the fountains.

Amber Fort near Jaipur

 

Neeraj pointed out that water still influences the art, the textiles, the food and the mythology of this desert region. Rajasthanis, for example, do not cultivate rice—it requires too much water to cultivate. Instead, many of their meals are accompanied by various breads, using flour made from local grains.

And the Teej festival in Rajasthan takes place in August, the exact time depending on the start of the monsoon in the Hindu month of Shravan (August). As the monsoon approaches, women dress in laheriya, tie-dyed clothing meant to evoke water. (The word comes from leher, which means wave.) The peacocks are said to come out and dance in the rain, along with the women. The goddess Parvati is implored to bless them with a marriage as beneficial as her union with Lord Shiva.

Neeraj, a graduate of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomay at Tufts University, merged his passions for water and his love of storytelling to create the Heritage Water Walks tours, with the support of the Rajasthani government. He returned to Rajasthan after completing graduate studies to devote his efforts to water conservation efforts in Jaipur, through his water management firm, Research Advocacy and Innovation in Water [RAIN Water].

And, he notes, there is plenty of room for improvement. Jai Singh Ji II moved his court to the newly built city of Jaipur in 1743, in part because of the difficulty of providing water to the Amber Fort. More than 250 years later, the kingdom of his successors—still living in Jaipur and still extremely influential—still struggles with the shortage of water that defines the region. 

--

By Susan Caba

Director of Development

Mehera Shaw, LLC, a Fair Trade Company




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Iron on reverse side of garment following fabric settings.

Do not use bleach or stain remover.

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