Flow of Time

An architect rediscovers ancient secrets of water management

In the ancient city’s heyday, tanks such as the pushkarini at Hampi’s Vittala temple complex served a population of half a million. Deepa Padmanaban
01 November, 2014

SITTING IN HIS BANGALORE OFFICE, sporting steel-rimmed glasses and a salt-and-pepper ponytail, 46-year-old Mohan Rao remembered his time working in Hampi. In 2002, the Archaeological Survey of India began conservation work at this World Heritage site in Karnataka, which was part of the capital of the Vijayanagara Empire until its decline in the sixteenth century and is still an important place of pilgrimage today. Among the structures the ASI team worked on was a pushkarini, or stepped tank, within the Vittala temple complex—the largest at Hampi. Archaeologists were puzzled when they failed to drain the pushkarini completely even after several days of pumping. How, they wondered, had such a large tank been fed, when there was no obvious water source at hand? Historical records showed that the ancient city did not use water from the nearby Tungabhadra River except for irrigation. Where, then, did it get its water?

As they searched for an answer, archaeologists uncovered numerous shallow ponds in the dry and rocky surrounding hills. But they could not understand what purpose these served. Rao, an environmental and landscape architect, was supervising work on Hampi’s gardens. He was intrigued, and evinced his interest. Working with the ASI team, he realised that the ponds were carefully placed to collect surface run-off water in a series of filtration pits. Channels then directed the filtered rainwater into the pushkarini. Tanks such as this provided for about half a million residents in the city’s heyday.

For Rao, this clever apparatus was no surprise. “Traditional societies, having no recourse to energy or mechanical systems, developed settlements which were fully integrated with the natural environment,” he said when we spoke in March. “The process of building settlements, being relatively slow, was invariably sensitive to management of resources.” Rao founded his company, Integrated Design, in 1994, as a landscape design firm, but following his interest in sustainable architecture he diversified into site and water management. In Hampi, he eventually joined the project to revive the pushkarini, and helped the ASI fully restore it in 2007. For this, he received the Award of Distinction at the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Conservation in 2010. He now applies what he learnt from studying the system at Hampi to numerous projects in India and across the world, including in Libya, Morocco, South Africa, France and China.

“Heritage sites such as Hampi should be seen not merely as romantic remains of the past but as living labs,” Rao explained. “There are hundreds, if not thousands, of historic settlements across the world that have an immense treasury of sustainable practices to teach us, if only we are willing to learn.” Hampi’s water system takes maximum advantage of the lay of the land and readily available natural materials, and eliminates the need for piping or ground water reserves. Today, for every new project, Rao and his team first survey the local landscape, soil and vegetation, then estimate the requirements of the development in question. They then design a landscape and a sustainable water system, and other architects plan buildings and roads around these.

One of Rao’s successes is Hathi Gaon, or Elephant Village, a settlement for over a hundred elephants and their mahouts on the outskirts of Jaipur, Rajasthan. Working in a desert climate, Rao’s team created a water system to meet the community’s annual requirement of 150 million litres, and also revived the area’s ecosystem. He is currently developing a system for a new university to be built on a deltaic plain in Tamil Nadu, where the Cauvery River splinters before joining the Bay of Bengal, that is prone to flooding during the monsoon and severe drought during the summer. To prepare for both these dangers, Rao told me, “we look at the climate history of the region over the last hundred years and use data points of highest floods and lowest rainfall to create sustainable and resilient designs.” He said he hopes the system will educate the university’s students about sustainable resource management.

According to a 2011 census by the Ministry of Water Resources, the per capita availability of water in India fell by 15 percent in the decade after 2001, and is expected to dwindle further. Rao said that the reliance on constructed, artificial water systems “has devalued and often destroyed natural systems in urban areas.” Traditional methods of water management can help avert crises, he added, since they are sustainable, eco-friendly, resilient to climate change and cheap—usually half the price of a modern, piped system. The pushkarini at Hampi, now rippling with clear water almost year-round, is testament to their promise.