Multi-objective water conservation in India

A stepwell in India

Multi-objective design being more characteristic of traditional societies than modern ‘scientific’ societies, India has the best record in the design of structures related to water conservation. This step well, in Abhaneri, is a temple and a place of resort in hot weather – as well as a water tank and a place to wash. Such structures are found throughout the Indian subcontinent, though many were put out of use by British engineers who saw them as breeding grounds for the malarial mosquito. They are known as baolis or hauz, and many other names, in India and are often called stepwells in English because of the steps which give access to the water at whatever level. The design of step wells and ghats (steps to water) was fully integrated with other aspects of town design. Today, most of them are neglected and rubbish-filled. It is a pity – and too late to blame the imperialists.

I have been reading Amita Sinha’s book on Landscapes in India: forms and meanings (2006). An associate professor of landscape architecture at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign, she writes that ‘Rivers, mountains, seashores, and forest groves nurture the rich mythology of gods and goddesses. The association of pilgrimage centers with water can be clearly seen in the number of sacred spots that lie on riverbanks, at concluences, or on the coast. The devotees bathing in rivers on particularly auspicious days gather spiritual merit (punya) and are absolved of their sins. Along with mountains, water is one of the most important natural elements in Hindu mythology, and most sacres sites contain one or both of these elements. Many temples are along riverbanks; others have water in the form of lakes, ponds, or built tanks. Tanks are essential at any worship complex’. London has many, welcome, migrants from the Indian subcontinent and I wish their traditions were employed in the planning and design of the River Thames landscape. See review of London’s riverside landscape and riverside walks.

7 thoughts on “Multi-objective water conservation in India

  1. Christine

    The stepwells of India remind me once again of the romance of place which is in danger of being lost as cultures globalise. Undoubtably this phenomenon of the neglect of the importance local material culture for informing sustainable development is one of the causes of unsustainable practices.

    In an attempt to find ways of relieving the chronic water shortage problems in Delhi, the Indian National Trust for Arts and Cultural Heritage (INTACH)in 1998 conducted a study on the benefits of reviving these baolis.

    According to Mukesh Khosla the report titled ‘Blue Print for Water Augmentation in Delhi’ suggested several steps for harvesting ground water to the Delhi government. According to Suresh Rohilla of INTACH, “Because of the steep depletion in the level of ground water, we must start making use of traditional methods of harvesting rain water inside these baolis.”

    However, contemporary standards of water quality (and perhaps modern population pressures) require some adaption to the way in which the water in the stepwells are managed. Inexpensive solutions which have been suggested include replicating the principles of wetlands by the introduction of aquatic plants and fish.[]

    Eminent Sri Lankan Judge Waramantry in his opinion in the Danube Dam Case [a landmark case in environmental law] said “especially at the frontiers of the discipline of international law, (thinking) needs to be multi-disciplinary, drawing from other disciplines such as history, sociology, anthropology and psychology such wisdom as may be relevant for its purpose.” We should of course include landscape and architecture as disciplines which could also inform the development of environmental law (and sustainable practices).

    Waramantry believes traditional culture, indeed world culture, is a rich untapped source of wisdom for the development of modern environmental law. He cites instances from Hindi culture (;

    “It is clear that the most ancient texts on Hinduism demonstrate through the praise of the deities an ecological awareness and great respect for the natural world. There are many specific teachings on environmental matters contained in all these writings and ecological activists have drawn much inspiration from the text. A few examples are:

    * “Do not cut trees, because they remove pollution.” (Rig Veda, 6:48:17)

    * “Do not disturb the sky and do not pollute the atmosphere.” (Yajur Veda,5:43)

    * Destruction of forests is taken as destruction of the state, and reforestation an act of rebuilding the state and advancing its welfare. Protection of animals is considered a sacred duty. (Charak Sanhita)

    All of this is an enormous source of concepts, principles, traditions and practices which is of deep relevance to the study of the future of humanity and of the long-term perspectives which it is so essential to bring into the thought-frames of the present generation.”

    It would be wonderful indeed to see the revival, re-valuing, adoption and implementation of indigenous water technology and sustainable practices across India. And following Hindi advice globally we could place greater emphasis on the value on forests, trees and fauna.

  2. Tom Turner Post author

    I admire and commend the work of the the Indian National Trust for Arts and Cultural Heritage – and I wish I knew of exemples where their proposals for baolis have been implemented. It would be a pity to chlorinate the water but I guess the water could be purified, using solar power of course, using the technology developed for natural swimming ponds The vegetation which filters the water could either go in part of the baoli or outside the tank – and the power could be solar power.

  3. Christine

    There are many amazing ways in which water can be harnassed for recreational purposes. The sea pools in Bondi are a famous example in Australia.

    I found this rather fun video clip….… on swimming in London. And a map of hotels in London with pools.
    However, they are not big on providing photographs of the swimming areas, nor I guess do they say much about the advantages of indoor swimming pools in a cool climate.

    Nicholas Grimshaw’s Thermae Bath Spa in the famous resort town of Bath has both indoor and outdoor swimming opportunities.

    It will be very interesting to watch the growth of the trend for natural swimming pools in the UK. And to see, if as you suggest, advances in the technology promote alternative uses within cultural heritage and water conservation. If so, the future looks bright!

  4. Indian NGO

    It feels great to know about the multi-objective water conservation project in India through a step well in Abhaneri. I wish with whole heart that the project becomes a success…

  5. Pingback: Flooded urban landscapes are frightening, beautiful, and a call to action by the landscape, architecture and urban design professions | Garden Design And Landscape Architecture Blog –

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