An example of Mughal engineering skills, the Kundi Bhandara underground water works system in Madhya Pradesh’s Burhanpur is rapidly perishing due to sustained neglect and degrading forest cover

The fear of being lowered 80 feet into the ground by a precarious lift, able to hold one moderately built person at a time, disappears as one intercepts a long underground tunnel whose one end is visible but the other is lost in the labyrinth of curves. The consistently dripping water along the wall of the tunnel and a continuous stream beneath completes the school lessons on hydrological cycle. What one is witness to is the famous Kundi Bhandara, part of the water works system that was established in 1615 AD and which continues to supply water four centuries hence to the city of Burhanpur.

One learns that this is one of the last functional systems of the eight that the Mughal rulers had constructed under the guidance of a Persian geologist, Tabkutul Arz. Apparently, the then ruler, Abdul Rahim Khan, was aware of Persian genius in constructing such systems, called qanats , which are a series of well-like vertical shafts connected by gently sloping tunnels that tap into subterranean water percolating from forested lands, in a manner that efficiently delivers large quantities of water to the surface without need for pumping. Since water flows along the slope it gets transported over long distances without losing water to seepage and evaporation.

That the system cannot be deliberately destroyed during war had fascinated the rulers because Burhanpur had been a garrison with a strong army of 250,000 at that time. Arz had found the location of the town along the slopes of Satpura range of mountains — perfect for tapping such subterranean flow. Though the town has been located on the bank of river Tapti, the protection of troops from likely poisoning of river water was of critical importance. Additionally, it was found that the underground system was almost insensitive to the levels of precipitation, delivering a flow with only gradual variations from wet to dry years. A perfect system was thus in place.

Burhanpur today has grown into a mid-size city of Madhya Pradesh, situated at its south-west border with neighboring Maharashtra. The city has little over 300,000 inhabitants but has no army now. While proud of its history, the city has continued with its rich tradition of producing fine cloth. The local economy is dependent on some 35,000 power looms, producing cloth of desired specification on demand from traders all across. Burhanpur is also remembered as the city where Empress Mumtaz Mahal died and where her body was kept until Emperor Shah Jahan could build the Taj Mahal as her final resting place. However, its water works remain the highpoint of its historical legacy.

With seven of the waterworks having been lost to sustained neglect and degradation, Kundi Bhandara is last of the waterworks that attract tourists who marvel at the timeless wonder of the Mughal engineering skills. Reports indicate that it was till the early 1990s that six of the eight systems were working to supply water to the town. While the two other were destroyed a long time ago, the three supplied water to Burhanpur and the other three to a nearby village of Bahadurpur. Since the city planners had other ideas on meeting water demand, the age-old system has been reduced to a heritage site for attracting tourists only. Come to think of it, the intricate network of underground tunnels contributing to a collection chamber called Jali Karanj could have appropriated municipal funds to sustain water supply to the city. The British had read the system well and strengthened the same by replacing clay pipes of the Mughal era with iron pipes. However, the advent of convenient groundwater extraction pumps led to the decline of the historical waterworks.

The denudation of tree cover on the hills and discharge of industrial effluents into water sources have proved to be the proverbial nail on the system. Nature’s hydrological cycle has been seriously violated.

The question worth asking is: could a time-tested cost-effective system have served the community better than the modern cost-intensive unreliable water delivery system? After all, at the peak of its operations, the waterworks were generating as much as 100 lakh litres of water every day which is almost at par with the city’s current needs. Further, the system was based on sound geological understanding as long as sustainability of the ‘source’ had remained a social imperative.

Says Archna Chitnis, the State’s Education Minister, “The current emphasis is on greening the mountains to ensure necessary groundwater percolation to keep the underground tunnels running”. Till such time the ecosystem is restored, official apathy and market intrusion continues to play a critical role in undermining the potential of a system that had the right mix of science, engineering and ecology.

(Dr. Sudhirendar Sharma is a Delhi-Based Water Expert with the Ecological Foundation)