True News|Apr 4, 2007 3:48 PM| by:

Of a Time More Scientific than Ours

On the tourist map Ghadisar is as big as the town of Jaisalmer. And the two are inter-existent, just as on paper. Jaisalmer wouldn’t be, without Ghadisar, and the reverse is also true. Each day of roughly 700 years of this 800-year old town, is linked to each drop of water in Ghadisar.

A huge sand dune towers in front. Even from close-by you take time to see it’s not a sand dune but the huge embankment wall of Ghadisar. A little further in, and you see two tall turrets, with five large and two small windows, covered with beautiful engravings on stone. You see a doorway so high that it cannot be anything but the main entrance. A flash of sky is seen through these big and small openings. As one tracks forward new scenes get added one by one to the canvas. And somewhere at this point, you realise that the blue sky that sparkled through the openings is blue water. Then, to left and right, come up ghats of stone, temples, platforms, verandahs with innumerable columns, chambers, and heaven knows what else, all adding to an expanding panorama. This procession of scenes that changes by the minute comes to a halt at the edge of the pond. And here the eyes become hyperactive; they cannot rest on any single object. They are as if possessed, to take in, in one all embracing glance, the entire bewildering spectacle.

  Maharawal Ghadasi

But the eyes fail in their endeavour. Three miles long and about one mile wide, the catchment basin of this pond spreads over 120 square miles. It was made by the king of Jaisalmer, the Maharawal Ghadasi, in Vikram Samwat 1391, or AD 1336. Other kings have had ponds made too. But Ghadasi was no absentee patron. Every day he came down from the pinnacles of the fort and personally supervised the digging, filling and other jobs. Jaisalmer was in political turmoil at the time. Snatch and grab for the throne was in full swing; with all the plotting, double-crossings and palace intrigues. Uncles were at the throats of the nephews, brother was exiled by brother, or somebody’s wine was lovingly laced with venom.

Ghadasi himself had seized Jaisalmer with the help of the Rathod army. In history books the chapter on Ghadasi’s reign is strewn with heraldic terms of arousal, like triumph or rout, glory or shame, immortal death or strife.

Even so, work on the pond went on. To his long-term project that went on for years Ghadasi brought unlimited patience and resources. But he had to pay the ultimate price for it. The embankment was being raised. The Maharawal was atop, overseeing the work. For the conspirators watching him from the palace he was easy target. He fell to somebody’s arrow. Custom required his rani to burn with him on the pyre. But Rani Vimala did not offer sati. She completed the work on the pond.

Pavilions by the Water

In this dream of desert sand there are two colours. Blue is the colour of the water, and yellow the colour of ghats, temples, towers and verandahs built round half the pond area. But the dream is bathed in one single colour two times a day. At dawn and dusk the sun pours molten gold into Ghadisar without let and, until its rays turn. People too poured gold into the pond as much as they could. The pond was the king’s, but the people took on the development and decoration work. They expanded the temples, ghats and palaces built in the first lap. At one time schools were also on the ghats. Students from the town and the villages nearby came to stay here and study under the gurus. On one side of the embankment are lodgings and kitchenettes. These were for people caught in legal wrangles in the king’s court and elsewhere. Temples for the gods Neelkanth and Giridhari were built here. Yajnashalas – places of special worship – came up. A tomb in memory of Jamalshah Pir was built. All this on the same ghat. Emigrants, gone away for livelihood, still had their hearts in Ghadisar. Among these were forefathers of Seth Govind Das who had migrated to Jabalpur. They returned to build a temple in one of the verandahs.

    Catching the Very Last Drop

Water went to the whole town from here. It was a round-the-clock activity. But mornings and evenings saw the place transformed into a pageant as women bent and swayed with pitchers of water on their heads. This was a standing sight of the place till piped water began coming to the town. Ummed Singhji Mehta has given a beautiful description of this in one of his ghazals, written in 1919. During the water festivals of Kajari-Teej in Bhadrapad, the entire population turned up at Ghadisar dressed and decked to kill. And then the twin-coloured Ghadisar became a prism of colours.

No matter how little it rained in the desert, the catchment area of Ghadisar was big enough to catch every drop of rain and fill the pond to the brim. At this stage of satiation, the weir took over, relieving the king’s garrison of their duty of vigilance. The weir ejected the surplus water that could destroy the pond. The ejection too, was a unique process. For people who gathered every drop of water, surplus water was not simply water, but water wealth, water capital. This capital that flowed out through the weir was collected in yet another pond. If the Ghadisar weir did not stop it, the weir of the second pond got activated. Yet another pond filled up. This process, it is difficult to believe, continued for nine ponds, one after another. Nautal, Sovindsar, Joshisar, Gulabsar, Bhatisar, Sodasar, Nohtasar, Ratnasar and then Kisanghat. And if water still flowed after filling all these ponds, it was stored in small wells. The expression ‘each drop of water’, found meaning in the most literal sense in this seven-mile stretch from Ghadisar to Kisanghat.

    Disregarding a Legacy

Today, when those controlling Jaisalmer and the government have forgotten the very significance of this life-giving pond in their midst, how can they be expected to attend to its chain weirs and nine sister ponds? An air force base squats in the catchment area of Ghadisar now. The water in this part of the catchment, therefore, flows out elsewhere. Unplanned houses, housing societies and, most ironically the office of the water works – the Indira Gandhi Canal Project and its staff quarters – stand in the way of the weirs, and of the nine ponds leading off them.

The ghats, dormitories, schools, kitchens, verandahs and temples are crumbling for lack of maintenance. The town today does not play the happy cum sacral game of cleaning the pond, when the ruler and ruled came together for the task, and enacted a vow. The water gauge made of stone on the bank of the pond leans on one side, its base worn. The ramparts of the turret, which housed the king’s garrison, are collapsing.

    The Pond Lives On, Nevertheless

Yet the 668 year old Ghadisar is not dead. Its builders had given it enough strength to take the knocks of time. They were builders who were maintenance conscious too. They laid the traditions of maintaining what they build against fierce desert storms. They had not reckoned with the fiercer storms of negligence that were to come. But Ghadisar and the many admirers it still has are game for this climate of decay. They are meeting it with poise. No troops guard the pond today, but the urge to play guard is strong as ever in the hearts of the people.
With the first rays of the sun the temple bells peal. People throng the ghats all day long. Some sit – for hours – soaking in the beauty of the scene. Some sing. Some play the ravanhattha, a kind of sarangi.

Panibarins come to the ghat even today. Water is hauled on camel carts too. And several times a day tankers with generators roll up, sucking away the water. Ghadisar is providing water even now. And the sun too is pouring its fill of gold to Ghadisar, every morning and evening.
Anupam Mishra

(This is an extract from Anupam Mishra’s Hindi classic, ‘Aaj Bhi Khare Hain Talab’, on traditional water use in India, published by Gandhi Peace Foundation.

    This English translation by Kamal Kishore appeared in Grassroots magazine, of May, 2000. Update: October, 2000)

    (Note: the pond is commonly referred to as Ghadisar by the local people. In fact, it was difficult to get anywhere, referring to it as Ghadasisar, the name used originally in the article. Therefore, it is changed throughout this article, in order that search engines may assist researchers better. It is hoped ‘Grassroots’ will appreciate this editing.

    Second, the pond no longer supplies any water to Jaisalmer. Jaisalmer’s water comes from deep wells bored in the alignment of the ‘dead’ river Saraswati at Dabla.

    But the pond is alive! There is water and there are birds about. People do stroll down and spend long hours, lounging on its banks. The temple attracts congregations. It’s more a social centre now. And it remains an architectural and civil-engineering marvel!)