Rediscovering history: the saga of Sankey tank

The brick kilns and bathing grounds have disappeared, but battles continue over the tank’s use

Updated - February 01, 2016 07:42 am IST

Published - February 01, 2016 12:00 am IST

Sankey tank is one of the few remaining refuges for birds in south-central Bengaluru. Photo: Harini Nagendra

Sankey tank is one of the few remaining refuges for birds in south-central Bengaluru. Photo: Harini Nagendra

As Bangalore began to grow rapidly in the second half of the 19th century, city administrators began to construct additional tanks to meet the water needs of the growing population. One-and-a-half centuries later, most of these reservoirs have disappeared.

Sankey tank, one of the few remaining tanks in central Bangalore, was constructed in the 1870s by chief engineer Col. Sankey to augment the water supply to two important reservoirs: Miller’s tank and Dharmambudhi tank, which supplied water to the cantonment and municipality respectively. Neither of these tanks exists now.

Sankey tank received water from a massive catchment area extending over 1,600 acres, which was systematically greened by the planting of large numbers of trees. Despite the effort and expense, the tank was not able to sufficiently replenish the water in Miller’s tank and Dharmambudhi tank. Some derisively called it “Sankey’s Folly”.

In 1892, facing a situation of near-drought, Bangalore resorted to importing water from the Hesaraghatta reservoir outside the city. In exchange for the right of access to water from Hesaraghatta, the Resident of Mysore surrendered the rights of the cantonment to water from Sankey tank.

No longer required to provide water to the city or the cantonment, Sankey tank began to be utilised largely for the needs of the Bangalore Palace orchards, ornamental and kitchen gardens, and polo grounds. The reservoir also supplied water to the Sandal Oil Factory, and a bathing pond below the tank in Malleswaram, used also by dhobis to wash clothes. The palace administration zealously safeguarded their rights over the water. Despite frequent requests by the municipality for regular release of water for washing clothes and for the swimming club, used by “many respectable men and women” from Malleswaram, water was granted sparingly to the municipal pond. Other requests, such as from the then newly established Indian Institute of Science for watering its gardens, were summarily rejected.

The catchment area above Sankey tank was also in constant contention. The Government Porcelain Factory in Malleswaram sought the refractory white clay deposits found above the tank, while the Government Sandal Koti and Lac Factory extracted substantial quantities of silt for construction.

Private enterprises, like brick kilns and quarries that supplied construction material to the growing city, thrived in the tank floodplain. New housing extensions such as Malleswaram (constructed in 1898) began to obstruct the flow of water into the reservoir.

The channels funnelling water into the lake were blocked with “jungle growth” (presumably of weeds such as lantana) which required regular clearing.

Persistent efforts by Gustav Krumbiegel, a German botanist, resulted in the acquisition of a large stretch of land on which he established a plantation of casuarina, a water hungry species. The remaining open lands in the catchment area were granted to other institutions, including the military and the Indian Academy of Sciences.

This landscape changed quite dramatically in the years that followed. It has now transformed into an urban retreat from where the view is now of commercial hoardings, where the horns of passing vehicles provide a constant buzz in the background. The brick kilns, the bathing grounds, and the gardens have all faded away, leaving behind a lake that stands witness to battles over its use and management.

(Harini Nagendra is a professor of Sustainability at Azim Premji University, and author of ‘Nature in the City: Bangalore in the Past, Present, and Future’, Oxford University Press, India, forthcoming in April. Hita Unnikrishnan is a Ph.D scholar at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment. This article, which is the last in the series, expands on material from ‘Nature in the City’.)

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