Can a reversion to the kere-bavi system help ease Bengaluru’s water woes?

The traditional water system can supplement the water needs of the modern city and aid in sustainable living, says Vishwanath S.

Updated - April 25, 2024 05:34 pm IST

Published - April 25, 2024 09:00 am IST - Bengaluru

Doddanekundi lake dried up due to a lack of rain last year in Bengaluru.

Doddanekundi lake dried up due to a lack of rain last year in Bengaluru. | Photo Credit: BHAGYA PRAKASH K

What has continental drift got to do with Keres (lakes) and Kalyanis (stepwells) in Bengaluru?

Vishwanath S., water conservationist, urban planner and director of Biome Trust, breaks it down step by step.  

The geological phenomenon that started around 200 million years ago with the breaking of Pangea led to the rise of the Himalayas.

Vishwanath S.

Vishwanath S. | Photo Credit: Jahnavi T R

The towering Himalayas trap the winds from Arabian sea and Bay of Bengal. This results in monsoon, the major source of water for Bengaluru, a landlocked city situated on deccan plateau.

To hold on to this precious rain water, people started constructing kalyanis and keres in the township almost 1200 years ago.

‘Geology is destiny,’ says Vishwanath establishing the connection.

Bengaluru, once known as the ‘city of thousand lakes’, depended on its kere-bavi (lake-open well) system for its water needs almost until the mid-19th century. Later pipe water supply came in and many of the lakes and wells fell into disuse.

In the era of climate change, can the kere-bavi system aid sustainable living? Does this piece of heritage have a functional future in a modern society? Vishwanath, who was speaking at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Bengaluru commemorating world heritage day, answers in the affirmative.

We need to get back to the kere-bavi culture, but with a modern scientific approach, he says.

The well culture

India, the world’s largest user of groundwater, has had a long-standing connection to wells that goes all the way back to Indus valley civilizations.

“In Mohenjodaro every third house had a well. Dholavira had rainwater harvesting and wells. Keeladi in Tamil Nadu had wells. We call it the Indus Valley or Indus River civilisation. But it was actually a well culture,” says Vishwanath.

Coming to Bengaluru, along with the open wells the man-made tanks also become part of the water equation.

“Bengaluru has three major valleys and about 186 keres remaining. These keres either have water or have the potential for water,” says Vishwanath pointing out that each kere and valley are different.

“In the Vrishabhavati valley keres will be small and deep. In Dakshina Pinakini which is in the Koramangala-Challaghatta valley and the Hebbal valley the keres will be shallow wide and large – for example the Bellandur or Jakkur lakes.”

Varthur Lake is one of the biggest lakes in Bengaluru, it was used for irrigation purposes for the surrounding areas are now polluted. Encroachments and construction of buildings added woes to that and the ground water level condition is alarming.

Varthur Lake is one of the biggest lakes in Bengaluru, it was used for irrigation purposes for the surrounding areas are now polluted. Encroachments and construction of buildings added woes to that and the ground water level condition is alarming. | Photo Credit: K BHAGYA PRAKASH

The kere-bavi heritage

The history of these keres predates Kempegowda according to writings on inscription stones.

“First rule of thumb for all keres of Karnataka was that the water-spread or the area of water should be equal to the command area,” says Vishwanath.

Command area is the total area around a reservoir that can be irrigated using the water in it.

Keres in this part of the world grew paddy. Water, since it was ephemeral, was quickly converted to paddy which would then be stored for three years. Paddy is the best form of converting surplus water to grain, even better than raggi. In terms of gender, most of the work in the fields was done by women,” Vishwanath explains.

The neerugantis managed the distribution of water in the tanks so much so that the farmer after planting the paddy would only come next in time to harvest it. The rest was left to the neerugantis who would distribute water proportionately to all fields.

Vishwanath further notes that the command area would always have a well which played a critical role. The kere feeds the bavi through which water seeps into the aquifer. The water from the wells was also used for irrigation.

“The kere-bavi together provided water security in the region,” Vishwanath says.

Kere as a feudal construct

Heritage, however, can be a tricky thing. As much as it is easy to romanticize the ‘good old times’, Vishwanath steps in to remind that it was not a glorious romantic culture as it may seem. The social dynamics was one of oppression, he says.

“Keres were feudal constructs. Water in the keres only benefited those who had lands… So keres can be creators of inequity in a village unless the landless, especially from a caste class angle, were included as beneficiaries of water right from the beginning.”

Then the question is, does a feudal artefact have a place in a democratic society? If so, what should be the governance mechanism? How to bring equity around the distribution of water from the keres?

“The way to do that is to organise around making sure that apart from the command area, groundwater is recharged and those who have land outside the command area have equitable access to groundwater.  That is the construct we need to think of and not just the restoration of a physical water body,” says Vishwanath who adds that environmental benefits should be byproducts of social hydrology and equitable water access.

Yet another important aspect is the desilting of lakes. Vishwanath reminds that during desilting it’s crucial to not just desilt keres, but also the poshakaluves and raja kaluves which bring water into the lakes and take them out to the fields respectively.

City as a disruptor of keres

The great famine of 1876-78 wreaked havoc in the princely state of Mysore.

The Famine Campaign in Southern India, a book by William Digby, documents the number of people who died in the Mysore Kingdom as 12.5 lakhs, around 1/4th of its total population. In Bengaluru alone, close to 1 lakh people died of hunger and thirst.

“The glorious 1,000 keres could not support the population of 1.8 lakhs. If you have one year of drought the kere and bavi can support you. But if you have three years of drought the local water alone cannot support you,” says Vishwanath cautioning against the over romanticising of keres as the sole solution to the city’s water problems.

Following the famine years, to ensure water security the Hesaraghatta water supply scheme was completed in 1896 to bring pipe water supply from a river to the city. This was Bengaluru’s first piped water system and later came the TG Halli and Cauvery pipelines.

View of Sankey tank Lake.

View of Sankey tank Lake. | Photo Credit: The Hindu

Kere in a modern society

So, what could be the new role of keres in cities?

He notes that Cauvery River is the lifeline, meanwhile local water would be important wherever the pipe network has not reached yet.

“Keres have now a new role of being filled with treated wastewater, and this way they will not have water for just three months in a year, but for 365 days,” he says, pointing out that we now have the technical capabilities to do the same.

“The kere-bavis are supplements and not replacements. They have a significant ecological role, a microclimate role and so on. But we should not start to imagine them as drinking water sources anymore,” he told The Hindu.

According to him filling the keres with treated wastewater will help to recharge the aquifers more and supplement the water requirements for the city.

“This way we can ensure that a kere-bavi system is more just and accessible to all including nature,” he says.

Recently the kere-bavi system was revived in Devanahalli in a similar fashion. The Biome Trust was one of the parties involved.

The town was dependent on 110 deep borewells which give saline hard water. Members of the Mannu Vaddar community, the traditional well diggers, revived the Sihineer kere and the old open well next to it. The well was linked to a water treatment plant which uses UV disinfection chlorination to ensure the water is safe and potable. This way the Devanahalli town gets about 200,000 litres of water a day.

“The water thus created is climate-resilient. And because it comes from a kere-bavi link which is traditional, people see the fish and the tortoise in the well and don’t associate it with wastewater. It’s clean water that you see. Therefore the yuck factor is broken,” Vishwanath says.

Yet another example is the Lakshmi Sagara Lake in Kolar which is one of the first in India to be filled with treated wastewater. The water is being used mainly for agricultural purposes in the region.

Vishwanath says, “The perfect solution would be when everybody is connected to the Cauvery network. In the interregnum the keres will still have a role because of groundwater. So, in that period, please fill the keres with treated wastewater because this is an emergency.”

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.