Bengaluru: From city of lakes to one with scarce water

Archival data, including land records, maps, government circulars and orders, reveals how the city’s once-thriving water bodies have been reduced to dumping sites

What can history reveal about the contemporary ecological landscape of a city? Does the crises related to water faced by Bengaluru today — be it scarcity or flooding — have its origins in how we have altered the physical landscape of the city as well as in our changed perceptions about water? It was an attempt at exploring these questions that led us to access historical data from archives located within and outside the country. Newspaper headlines in recent years reveal a cyclical process of water scarcity and urban flooding that Bengaluru is grappling with. Even as we careen from one crisis to another, we need to pause and look back at what history has to tell us about how we happened to arrive at this juncture.

Bengaluru is known as the kalyana nagara or city of lakes. This is no mean feat for a city situated in a rain-shadow region and without access to a perennial source of water such as a river. To make up for this deficit, an interconnected series of man-made lakes were constructed taking advantage of the undulating topography of the region. Built not just by chieftains, but also commoners such as artisans, traders and courtesans, it was around these water bodies that the first settlements flourished. Epigraphic inscriptions — carvings on stones, temple pillars and copper plates — provide a vivid account of the ethic that motivated the construction of these lakes (originally referred to as tanks). Lakes were built to garner merit for several generations of one’s family, and to support animals, birds and all living things.

On the one hand, caring for lakes brought with it rewards: an 870CE inscription from the Agara lake, during the period of the Ganga dynasty, mentions a bittuvata — either a grant of land or share in agricultural produce — for repairing the sluice gates of the lake. On the other, desecration of lakes invited curses, such as being born as worms or even worse as a husband of one’s own mother. In addition to the Ganga dynasty, construction of settlements around lakes was done under the Rashtrakutas, Cholas, Hoysalas and Vijayanagara dynasties. The Hoysalas, who ruled between 1228CE and 1343CE, in particular, were great tank builders, constructing several sandras, which is the Hoysala word for large water bodies. The construction and expansion of lakes continued under the rule of the Yelahanka Nada Prabhu’s, and chiefly under Kempe Gowda I, famed for the establishment of the boundaries of Bengaluru city in 1573CE. Kempe Gowda, who has left an indelible mark on the physical landscape and imagination of Bengaluru’s residents, is credited with the construction of several lakes, and this was continued by his successors.

Distribution of settlements found in and around Bengaluru during the rule of the Hoysala dynasty. Many of the settlement names ended with ‘sandra’, the Hoysala word for large water bodies. (Map prepared by Sreerupa Sen; from Nature in the City: Bengaluru in the Past, Present and Future by Harini Nagendra, Oxford University Press, 2016)

In later years, the city was gifted as a jagir to Shahji, Shivaji’s father, and was described by the court poet Paramanand in 1670CE as teeming with deep lakes, each house graced by a well, with fountains at every square spouting a fine mist. This landscape was to change considerably under the rule of Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan in the 1700s. Though they too realised the importance of lakes for agriculture, their military strategy made use of water bodies in their war against the Marathas and the British. Lakes were breached, wells poisoned and the countryside was set on fire to deny the enemy water and forage, a strategy later employed by the British and the Marathas too. The defeat of Tipu Sultan in the fourth Anglo-Mysore war in 1799CE left behind a devastated landscape. This also marked the beginning of the 150-year British influence over the Mysore region, and in turn Bengaluru.

Multiple users to restricted use for aesthetic value
The focus of the British was on improving revenue from agriculture that necessitated the rejuvenation of lakes. Archival records reveal attempts to work with the farmers to restore lakes and maintain them. Wells were also dug, and loans sanctioned for this purpose. Records mention a range of activities around some of the lakes such as the Sampangi, Dharmambudhi and Karanji during the colonial period. Agriculture, horticulture, fishing, brick-making, laundering and grazing, all indicate the multi-use nature of the city’s lakes. These lakes were also drinking water sources for the pette (native city) and the Cantonment where the European population resided.

However, around the 1890s things began to change and this is visible in two parallel events. One was the changing narrative about lakes and the restrictions imposed on their use by the British. The other was the quest for water farther and farther away from the city to support a growing population as well as increased consumption. Restrictions on traditional use of lakes are recorded in archival documents. Traditional livelihoods of local communities such as brick-making, laundering, grazing, and agriculture were affected as a result of these restrictions both on use of lakes and associated water bodies, such as wells. Some of these activities were seen as non-aesthetic and polluting. Brick-making is mentioned as leaving ugly pits on the Sampangi lake bed, while laundering by dhobies was said to pollute water in wells. Water bodies were associated with the spread of disease, such as plague, typhoid, cholera and malaria. Reference to the Koramangala tank as insanitary and a breeding ground for mosquitoes preceded the draining of the tank in 1942.

An aesthetic sense began to predominate, and landscaping of lakes and ponds were suggested to add to the beauty of the city. Even before Independence in 1947, several lakes had been converted to other forms of land use. Thus, between 1885 and 1935, 60 water bodies in the pette and Cantonment area were reduced to 33 in number. The post-independence period proved to be a nail in the coffin for the water bodies in the core of Bengaluru with their numbers dwindling to 18 in 1973 and just six today.

Water from faraway sources
While these changes in narratives were in progress, the city’s growing population and increased consumption of water necessitated a quest for water beyond the city limits. Dharmambudhi, Karanji and Sampangi, which were all sources of water for the Cantonment and the pette, were no longer able to support the needs of the growing city. In the early 1890s, the failure of the monsoon exacerbated the scarcity, and initiated the first of the schemes to access water from beyond the city limits. The Arkavathy river was dammed to create the Hessarghatta lake from where water was brought via pipes to Bengaluru in 1896. By 1925, the city was once again faced with water scarcity visible in the low water level in the Hessarghatta lake. As a temporary solution, water was sourced from the Yelemallappa Chetty lake (henceforth Y Chetty lake) located to the east of the city. The Y Chetty scheme, albeit a temporary one, was a much-needed source of water during this time of intense scarcity.

A more permanent solution however was necessary. This involved damming the Arkavathy river at Thippagondanahalli on Magadi Road; this scheme was inaugurated on 15 March 1933. The thirst of the city, however, remained unquenched. In the 1970s, the Cauvery scheme was initiated to pump water from the river uphill — over a distance of 100km — to meet the city’s needs. Today, the city’s seemingly endless search for water continues. One of the proposed sources is the Linganamakki reservoir built across the Sharavathi river in Shimoga.

The historical snapshot points to a changed ethic in how local water resources have come to be viewed. Construction of a lake was an act that was rewarded, done with the intent of acquiring merit, and aimed to benefit the larger community. The lakes and wells served the domestic and agricultural needs of the local community and were nurtured as sacred spaces. However, over time much has changed in how we perceive these water sources, and this is reflected in the physical status of the water bodies. Lakes that exist in the city core and peripheral areas are polluted by industrial and sewage waste. Many others have been converted, while the interlinking channels have been built upon, changing the hydrology of the city itself. Wells have dried up and are dumping sites for garbage. In doing this, we have exposed the city to the twin disasters of water scarcity and urban flooding, both of which have become annual features.

Our historical research is an attempt to remind ourselves of the role these water bodies once played in supporting livelihoods, subsistence and water needs of the city. It is also to emphasise the need to acknowledge how local lakes and wells can serve as a supplemental water source for the city by recharging its groundwater. We need to reclaim and cherish our lakes, ponds and wells for the many meanings it has for each of us, as well as for birds, animals and all living things, as our epigraphic inscriptions state: “till the sun and the moon exist”.

(Seema Mundoli and Harini Nagendra are faculty members at the School of Development, Azim Premji University)

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