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Traditional Tanks

  Belatal, in Jaitpur block of Mahoba district, is one of the largest tanks built by Chandela rulers

Historically the problem of poor water retention in Bundelkhand was by solved by constructing wells and large tanks.

The Chandela ruling dynasty that rose in the 10th century AD was one of great tank builders, and some tanks were probably built in an earlier period also.

From the design of the tanks and the conspicuous absence of channels, it appears that the tanks were built primarily as water storage rather than irrigation structures. Some of the larger tanks did have sluice gates and some structures for feeding water to nearby lands, but the area so irrigated directly was quite small.

However, the tanks helped increase groundwater levels in the surrounding region, enabling construction of wells.

Krishna Gandhi and Sunanda Kirtane who studied the manmade, historical tanks of Bundelkhand observed some typical features. The tanks were formed by building earthen embankments of 60 metres or more across rivulets flowing between low hills. The hills, along with long, impermeable  stretches of quartz reefs running underneath them, acted as 'natural groundwater barriers' [Gandhi].

The earthen embankments were supported on both sides by walls of coarsely cut stones, forming a series of steps. The stone, like the soil, was procured locally.

The width to height ratio of embankments was 7:1 or higher. Lime and mortar was used for construction of waste weirs, which were strong enough to survive for hundreds of years. Some large tanks were interconnected.

The largest tanks are found in Mahoba, which was the capital of the Chandelas. The larger tanks have a periphery of around 4 km, and are understandably called 'sagar' (ocean), with the name of the king who ordered its construction attached - hence there is a Kirtisagar, a Madansagar and a Rahilyasagar in Mahoba.

Traditional wells with steps, used mainly for drinking, are in a state of disrepair  

The Chandela tank construction tradition was carried forward by Bundela rulers, who came to power in the 16th century AD. Apart from building new tanks, they repaired and reconstructed tanks from an earlier time, and built canals for irrigation.

There seems to have been no formal system to regulate use of tank water. It appears that all people had access to the water, which was mainly used for domestic consumption and for cattle. People were also allowed to fish, and for some communities this became the primary mode of livelihood.

In the late 19th century and subsequently, after Independence, irrigation departments took over the maintenance of big tanks and provided sluice gates and distribution canals for direct irrigation. Some new tanks were also constructed.

The biggest impact of these efforts is seen in Tikamgarh district, which has close to 1000 historical tanks; around 100 of these are used for direct irrigation. Area under irrigation by canals in the district grew from around 3000 hectares in the mid-1950s to close to 20,000 hectares in the late 1990s. This was mainly on account of extension and improvement of canals linked to tanks; there is no large-scale irrigation project yet in Tikamgarh. Lift irrigation schemes have also been taken up from tanks.

Unfortunately, most of the historical tanks of Bundelkhand are in poor shape. They are all prone to heavy siltation and little effort has been made to clear the silt. There are vested interests in reducing storage capacity of tanks; a lot of land with fertile soil becomes available for cultivation. Tanks generally are full of water only in the monsoon.

The irrigation department leases out dry tank beds for agriculture. But many leaseholders do not wait till the water dries up; '…in collusion with corrupt panchayat and government officials, (they) usually manage to breach the embankments illegally and release the water before the appointed time to take two crops a year', Gandhi and Kirtane observed.

Other traditional water harvesting structures of the region, baories or bers, wells with steps, used mainly for drinking, are in a worse state of disrepair.


Gandhi Krishna, Kirtane Sunanda

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