Vesting natural phenomena with divinity have proved effective in sustaining limited natural resources across India for centuries
Bathers frolic in the waters of a small tank inside the old Shiv temple, located on a congested by-lane of Haryana’s Sohna town, amidst the Aravalli hills. They do not seem to feel the winter cold. The water is warm, welling up from a perennial underground source. Steps lead down to a hidden enclosure, harbouring another tank, from which steam arises.
These are the renowned hot springs of Sohna that are seen to cleanse the soul and recharge the body. Some bathers come there in the faith that the water has healing powers. It is likely that the shrine came up around the hot springs, now hallowed by tradition. The shrine provides a festive venue for community feasts. Here, custom stands like a bulwark against proposed urban encroachment.
Pantheistic beliefs, vesting natural phenomena with divinity, have been instrumental in sustaining environment. Conservation of green cover and water in arid, drought-prone regions, as in Rajasthan, the bleak Thar landscape stretching into Gujarat, Haryana and Punjab, has since long been enjoined as a religious duty. Emergence of eco-friendly gurus was part of the phenomenon.
Thar desert’s Guru Jambeshwar in the late 15-early 16 centuries and Gadaria Baba, possibly a contemporary, who lived in the Aravalli jungles of present-day Faridabad district, directed followers never to injure living creatures or cut trees. Protecting green patches and the wildlife they harboured, and ritual worship at water sources such as baoris or stepwells and kunds or ponds, attached to shrines, was integral to daily life.
Stepwells, found in Rajasthan, Gujarat (called vav), parts of Haryana, Delhi, Agra (called baolis), through Madhya Pradesh and even in Maharashtra and Karnataka, were meant for water harvesting, centuries before modern methods evolved. While the oldest existing stepwells are dated to the 6 Century AD, remains are found at Indus Valley sites. Bundi, in Rajasthan reportedly has over 86 baoris, which till two decades ago, retained water throughout summer. Abhaneri’s baori and Patan’s Rani ki vav draw many tourists.
Built by royals and merchants, elaborate ones could rise up to five or six stories, flanked by restrooms and verandahs. This was a great benefit for travellers. Steps led down to the water, which was drawn up via a shaft. Rulers and their entourage resorted here to escape from the summer heat. Many of these stepwells in Rajasthan are still used as water sources. Even the unused ones help recharge ground water. Smaller baoris were built by banjaras and religious groups along travel routes and close to settlements. Images of deities prevented pollution of these sweet water aquifers. Religious significance similarly protected talabs, nadis and sarovars from contamination. People do not relieve themselves in their vicinity. Those who do so, are punished and made to clean up.
At Shiv, near Jodhpur, girls desilt the Mansarovar pond in the faith that they will be blessed with a happy married life. Four temples, of Garbnath, Mansari Mata, Lord Shiv and Ketpal, are located there. Adjoining the 1,200-year-old Bhaironji shrine in Jodhpur is a baori, kept clean by catfish and turtles. Visitors feed them dough pellets. The water is used for cooking and bathing.
A perennial spring bursts forth inside the Mandore forts ruins. Called Nag Ganga, people worship it and drink from it. Conservation imperatives blend with beliefs, rites, food habits and clothes’ colouring. Sangri, a popular dish, is made from unripe khejri fruit. Phog pods, khair fruit and thor leaves are sourced for food. The poor eat bharut grass during drought. After as meal, hands are washed over plates, to prevent food remnants from sticking to the surface. This water is poured into a vessel meant for domestic animals. Water is drunk without the container touching the lips. Utensil are scrubbed with sand or chulha ash and wiped clean. Vibrant hues in female clothing pre-empt frequent washing.
Conservation, hinging on faith, was a means to ensure that scarce natural resources were not destroyed by wanton usage. According sanctity to desert vegetation and hardy trees, native to dry zones — khejri, dhau, siris, keekar or babool, banyan, peepal, amla, ber, jamun, arjun, harshingar, amaltas, kareel, dhak, salai, dhau, bael, khai, jhinjheri, kamini, hingot, kachnar, ronjh, phulai, willow, lasore, gondi, takoli — was geared to protecting patches of green cover, essential for sourcing food, fodder and wood, and for groundwater recharge and conserving water sources. And viewing animals, birds, reptiles and insect, too, as sacred underlined the interdependence of all life.
Native rulers and British trophy hunters almost exterminated tigers in the Aravalli belt, finished off cheetahs by the late 1940s, felled leopards, and killed antelopes, wild boars, hares and other creatures for meat. Today’s high-growth trajectory, spurred by neo-liberal reforms and utilitarian worldview, threatens to destroy whatever remains of an irreplaceable eco-system.