Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Waters of Empire - Book of Days 2015

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Nature’s greatest gift to the Indian subcontinent is the multitude of perennial rivers. Every spring, they swell with glacial melt brought down from far off snow fields. And even as the first flood begins to ebb, there starts the great surge fed by the annual monsoons.

Our earliest ancestors, having given up their hunter-gatherer way of life and put down agrarian roots, were quick to realize the annual brown flood of high summer fertilized the soil. This knowledge, they put to good use.

Unsurprisingly, investigations at Mehrgarh, Balochistan, the first human settlement in the subcontinent, inferentially suggest evidence of irrigation by flooding with water diverted from rivers. This was about the year 6000 BCE.

Fast forward some 3000 years to the heyday of Harappa and Moen jo Daro in the Indus Valley, we see an assortment of irrigation schemes. Here were diversion channels leading out of rivers, water storage pits and small dams to retain moisture in the fields. And as masonry experts, these ancient engineers used wells for irrigation.

There is no written record of irrigation systems used in prehistoric cities. However, by the 1st millennium BCE there appears to have been a proper irrigation network comprising inundation canals. After spending some 15 years in India, Megasthenes, the Greek diplomat at the court of Chandragupta Maurya from BCE 300 to 285, informs us that irrigation was either by precipitation or by “water drawn from rivers.”

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Other contemporaneous sources reveal that keeping the fields well irrigated was among the duties of a good ruler, especially as agricultural produce was taxed to sustain him and his courts. By Mauryan times, agricultural taxes were the mainstay of courtly pomp and splendour, public festivals and wartime expenses.

Throughout the Middle Ages, there are sporadic reports of canals excavated in the plains as acts of public service, the most famous being the 200 kilometre-long one from the Yamuna River made on the orders of Feroz Shah Tughlaq (1351-1388). Though this canal was meant principally to water the emperor’s hunting lodge at Hissar, it benefited farmers en route as well as residents of Delhi in no small way.

We also know that doabs, inter-river land belts, in the Punjab were irrigated since ancient times by a web of inundation canals that began from river bends and meandered to water nearby agriculture tracts. However, these canals were mostly private endeavours not meant for public use. With the land enriched by a multitude of major rivers and dozens of minor streams affording ease of building irrigation channels, rulers, particularly the Mughals, tended to overlook this aspect of civic service despite the fact that there was no waiver on agricultural tax.

In sharp contrast, the Kalhoras of Sindh (1701-1784) continued the ancient practice of state patronage for canal construction. While a number of new canals were excavated and named after rulers decreeing their construction, old disused canals were also brought back into service. The Kalhoras also rehabilitated abandoned branches of the Indus River, employing them to full advantage. Following their spiritual masters, the Talpurs (1784-1843) continued the practice.

Though successive Kalhora and Talpur rulers oversaw the upkeep of a working irrigation system, private excavations by landholders were commonplace. Some of these old canals were still serviceable when the British took over the country. An early British traveller records a number of small, privately owned irrigation channels running closely parallel to each other, often resulting in disputes over water theft.

In sub-montane North West Frontier Province, today Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, small perennial streams provided sufficient irrigation by way of channels cut along the main stream to transport water from a higher to lower point. Additionally, the ancient Persian wheel and wickerwork scoop, both man and animal-driven, served well to keep irrigation channels flowing. In Balochistan, a land of herders and hunters, the underground karez was the slaker of tiny plots of cereal and vegetables. Despite this, vast spaces between rivers across the country lay arid, only irrigated periodically by exceptionally high floods or seasonal rains.

In 1843, the Talpurs lost Sindh to the British under Charles Napier, resulting in the establishment of a new administrative system. The key elements of this system were the collector and deputy collector who ensured regular and timely collection of dues, mainly on income from land use.

With the collectorate in place and a fast developing transportation system in the form of the railways for swift movement of freight, the government of the Raj scoped for opportunities to boost agri-horticultural produce and enhance accrual of farm levies. Clearly, the memory of the severe famine of 1832-1833, that wreaked havoc across Sindh, played not a small part in fuelling the venture.

That said, greater farm yield could only be achieved if an improved form of irrigation became operational. Official documents from 1845 onwards press upon the leaders of the Bombay Presidency (under which Sindh was placed at the time) plans for newer, better canals and upgrading those dating back to the Middle Ages. The documents convey a sense of urgency, even desperation, as writers urge release of requisite funds to execute projects, bringing more and more wasteland under the plough to meet annual tax benchmarks.

With district collectors and their deputies serving as administrators and magistrates coupled with irrigation schemes assuming priority in the grand scheme of Raj management, the concept of the precursor of the modern-day irrigation department was laid out in Sindh very early on. Transfer of Canal Management to Collectors, an 1848 document, proposes the establishment of a collectorate of canals to work independently of the district collector’s office. About two years later, this collectorate was in place.

Manned almost entirely by trained civil engineers, geologists and surveyors, the new collectorate set about work with astonishing diligence, bordering on the downright frantic. Great works of canal building were planned, surveyed and executed with admirable speed to turn vast desert tracts of Sindh into verdant land. The pattern set in Sindh was followed in the Punjab and North West Frontier Province, now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as they successively came under British administration.

About 100 years after the first canal works were initiated in Sindh, an irrigation engineer wrote: “There is, perhaps, no branch of engineering to which the British engineer has made a greater contribution with less public recognition ... There are millions of acres from which the threat of famine has been permanently averted, and millions more which are bearing crops where previously not even a blade of grass would grow, on which [the British engineer] can look back and reflect with pride.”

Small wonder the irrigation system of the subcontinent is billed as the greatest ever across the world. The acclaim, as we see today, was not unwarranted. Today, the growers of Pakistan continue to use canals and ancillary structures commissioned nearly 150 years ago.

Waters of Empire, the 4th and concluding volume of the “Empire” series, researched and published over the last four years as Pakistan Petroleum Limited’s annual diaries, is a celebration of that feat. And a timely one at that, as some of the canal works included in the selection are being gradually upgraded.

Once their replacement structures are operational, these over-a-century old marvels may be demolished and possibly lost forever but for these pages. Which begs the question: can our heritage not be conserved instead of existing only on paper and distant memory?

Previous Books of Days: Discoveries of Empire, Stones of Empire, Wheels of Empire, Roads Less Travelled, Sights Less Seen, Tales Less Told

Note: Articles from Waters of Empire - Book of Days 2015 - will appear on this blog on the first of each month 2015.

Odysseus Lahori one year ago: Balti Travellers

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At 3 January 2015 at 03:55, Anonymous Vikram said...

One of the oldest and continuously used water management structures in the subcontinent is the Kallanai dam in Tamil Nadu. It was built by Tamil king Karikalan in the first century AD to harness the waters of the Kaveri river. The dam split the single Kaveri stream into four distinct ones, and enabled a quantum leap in the agricultural of the Kaveri delta. This became one of the pillars for the long line of Tamil kingdoms based in the area, which had a major impact on both India and South East Asian history.

At 3 January 2015 at 10:52, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Wonderful. Thank you for passing on this info.

At 20 July 2015 at 17:43, Blogger Tariq Amir said...

Another great post on your wonderful blog. Just give some information about the bridge in the first picture.

At 22 July 2015 at 12:37, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

The "bridge" is actually an aqueduct in Swabi district. Very near village Sheva.


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My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days