Unearthing Ancient Wisdom

Today when urban planners and city dwellers grapple with drought and water management issues, it helps to revisit the medieval times for some revelation. The karez or underground network of water ducts that goes back to the 15th century Bahmani times in Bidar is guaranteed to offer you some insights.

While visiting one of the recently discovered underground water tunnels, where digging and restoration work is in progress, we found that these  technological marvels by Persian engineers boast of some distinct features and advantages. Designed as a step well, it is meant to not only serve as water distribution network but also as a reservoir to harvest water. Such foresight only leaves you feeling inadequate in the technologically and digitally advanced world. The surang bavis, as they are called in local parlancealso boast of an inbuilt water filter system owing to the porous nature of laterite soil which covers most of the Bidar landscape. At the outset, you may even think these are escape routes, since rarely do you find or imagine a horizontal or a tunnel shaped well.

Karez tunnel

The tunneled pathway PC – Soham Bhowmick

To understand this beautifully conceptualized waterworks system, imagine the karez to be a long flute – the cylindrical part is the water tunnel and the “holes” are the vertical vents positioned at strategic points on the top along the tunnel. The holes in the flute help create musical notes, likewise the positioning of the vents create differential pressure thereby allowing the subterranean or ground water to be tapped and extracted to the surface level. This also negates the need to pump the water up. The tunnel  interconnects all the vertical vents, and is sloped slightly downwards (towards the destination point) to facilitate the flow and supply of water to the settlements.
This tunnel is at least 50 feet below the ground level. (Pic. courtesy – Soham Bhowmick)

Narrow gullies may leave you suffocated but not a walk inside the tunnel. Therapeutic and wonderment are two words to describe the experience as you wade in.  The restorative work itself is very systematic and speaks of ingenuity. The well-lit tunnel has certain sections of the wall cleared to create sleeping berths on the top and alcoves on the sides to place personal belongings. Construction workers can safely place their lunch boxes and small bags in the corner or climb up for a restful nap! We used it to place our shoes and wallets before wading deeper into the tunnel.

Commendable is the fact that these water distribution systems were conceived prior to expanding the city so as to have a supply system well in place before the population started to move in and settle. Urban planners and governance bodies have a lesson to emulate here.

It is not just the karez system that stands as a testimony to the wisdom that prevailed during the Bahmani times. It also took course in the knowledge and philanthropic efforts of a luminary called Mohammed Guwan. A traveler and tradesman from Persia, he rose to become the Prime Minster of the kingdom by virtue of his intellectual capabilities. He established one of the finest Madrasas which is no less than a university in itself. It was truly a progressive learning center that offered studies in art, literature, mathematics, science and particularly astronomy. Under his stewardship, the kingdom  expanded up to Goa in the west and Tanjavore in the south.


A view of Mhd. Guwan’s maradasa. PC Sanjay

Historians consider it the golden period of the Bahmani dynasty but alas! it was not destined to last. Mohammed Guwan soon became a victim of a conspiracy hatched by other jealous ministers of the kingdom. His official seal was stealthily procured to carry out treason. The Sultan after having been “alerted” by the conspirators went to Mohammed Guwan and demanded as to what should be the punishment for treason to which the latter replied “death”. The Sultan then decided this should be his fate but not before Guwan tried to reason that the seal was his but he was innocent. The Sultan in his drunken stupor without paying any heed to this plead ordered the execution of the luminary. Having died as an alleged traitor, Guwan’s burial place lacks a grand tomb and was only a small pedestal-like structure until recently. No sooner did Guwan meet his tragic fate Bidar started to witness a spiraling downfall and allegedly turned into a cursed land. It is no exaggeration that even today Bidar grapples with lowest literacy rate, economic growth and low rainfall and consequential drought.

In March this year, a team involved in community service with the support of district officials gathered on Guwan’s death anniversary to felicitate the visionary and offer him a glorious prayer service. It was a poignant moment no doubt, for heavens too were overwhelmed. Minutes later, the town was blessed with refreshing showers! Perhaps to say, it is never too late to honor the ancient wisdom and restore the place it rightfully deserves.

Post script: This monsoon, Bidar witnessed a record rainfall and surpassed even the areas that traditionally receive a surplus.

 Heartfelt thanks –
The writer would like to thank Rishikesh Bahadur Desai, senior correspondent with The Hindu and the YUVAA Team. Their passion and commitment towards preservation of Bidar’s heritage is commendable and inspiring.

The weekend trip to Bidar was planned and organized by Hyderabad Trails.

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