Nature's basket

Ancient India relied on an elaborate knowledge system to conserve and manage ecology

Nature's basket
With every passing day, we hear more horror stories about our environment: air is unbreathable, water undrinkable, food poisonous; piles of garbage stare at us everywhere like works of modern art. Our cities cannot survive unless pipelines bring them water from hundreds of kilometres away. We have certainly perfected the fine art of unsustainability. And while some of us may be tempted to pine for the pre-industrial age, when nature was (more or less) pristine, our deshi rationalists continue to pour contempt on ‘tree worshippers’, ‘nature worshippers’, and (shudder!) ‘cow worshippers’. Surely such primitive superstition is what is holding us back on the road to magnificent progress.

Superstition is perhaps not where we think and ancient India’s perspective of nature was anything but blind worship. It relied on an elaborate knowledge system in which mythology, symbolism, art, laws and technologies co-mingled to produce practices of nature conservation and management that, in some respects, we can only envy today.



Nature as the divine

The tone is set in the Rig Veda, India’s most ancient text. Here, we find earth and heaven often addressed as a single being (dyavaprithivi) and honoured together; they are ‘parents of the gods’ (7.53), ‘father and mother’ but also the ‘twins’ (1.159); together, they ‘keep all creatures safe’ (1.160). This is in stark contrast with the biblical gulf between the creator and the created: here, the two are not only equal but conjoined. From this perspective, nature’s all-pervasive divinity will follow.

Vedic imagery draws heavily on nature, from mighty mountains, impetuous rivers and oceans to majestic trees and powerful animals; some hymns add­ress their prayers not to gods but to waters or plants. In fact, the Rig Veda sees the cosmos as a thousand-branched tree (3.8.11, 9.5.10), a symbol the Gita will turn upside down: the cosmic ashvattha (the pipal or holy fig tree, Ficus religiosa) has its roots above and branches below, to remind us of the real source of this manifestation. Elsewhere, the Mahabharata declares, ‘He who worships the ashvattha worships the universe.’ Hence the concept of ‘tree worship’: the tree as a cosmic symbol grants our every desire (kalpavriksha or kalpataru), which is why India’s list of sacred trees is a long one!

Later literature deve-loped the same the­mes, with some variations. Aditi, the mother of the gods in the Rig Veda, is ‘the divine Cow’, while the Mah­abharata tells the story of the earth turning into a cow which many species come and milk, in a transparent metaphor. Indra, Surya and other gods are addressed as the ‘bull’. Even the humble dog finds its exalted representation in Sarama. Animals — birds, reptiles and mammals — act as vahanas, vehicles for major deities, occasionally lending them an elephant’s head or even their whole bodies, as with Vishnu’s first avatars, fish, tortoise and boar. The Bhagavatam evokes the child Krishna’s devotion to his cows, which they more than reciprocate: this is no pretty bucolic tale, but a recast of the Rig-Veda’s equation of earth (here, the cows) with heaven.

Indeed, hindu, buddhist or jain literature is pervaded with nature’s many charms; who has not thrilled at Kalidasa’s exquisite descriptions of forest ashrams or mountain ranges or marvelled at the boldness with which the Sangam poets of Tamil Nadu made use of hills, forests, rivers and the ocean to convey their moods? For generations children, too, have been entertained by the Pañchatantra’s irresistible animal fables.

Art closely follows literature, initially at least. Seals, tablets and pottery of the Indus-Sarasvati civilisation often depict trees (especially the pipal, again); on an intriguing seal, a plant emerges from a supine woman’s womb, a clear symbol of nature’s fertility. The humped and humpless bull, the tiger, the elephant, the rhinoceros and the buffalo are often portrayed, with significances still eluding us.



Indus seals with elephant; humped bull; tree in railing (terracotta, Harappa)

In much classical Indian art, nature provides the setting, but often with a discreet symbolic message: such is the case of the Boddhi tree, to be understood as the Buddha’s cosmic awakening. Ancient kingdoms often adopted animals for their emblems, ranging from the elephant (for the Gangas), the lion (the Kadambas) or the tiger (the Cholas) down to the humble fish (the Pandyas).



Buddha’s bodhi tree

Protecting nature

Such lofty concepts led to actual practices of nature conservation. Manusmriti (11.64) prohibits the ‘cutting down of green trees for firewood’, while Kautilya’s Arthashastra stipulates various fines and punishments for maiming ‘fruit trees, flower trees or shady trees in the parks near a city’ and prescribes forest sanctuaries where wildlife is to be protected from slaughter (3.19). Shastras, too, proscribe the unnecessary killing of animals, while Ashoka in his edicts prohibits hunting, even ordering medical treatment to wild animals when necessary. Ashoka was perhaps the world’s first ruler to advocate vegetarianism, although he was honest enough to admit that he did not fully practise it yet!

Even to this day, patches of the country’s forest cover exist thanks to the ancient tradition of ‘sacred groves’. Named kovilkadu in Tamil Nadu, kavu in Kerala, nandavana or deivavana in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, deorai in Maha­rashtra, they can be found in many parts of India, on the outskirts of the villages that protect them from hunting and tree cutting. Some contain hero stones or a small shrine surrounded by large terracotta figures, especially of horses. In the south, those terracotta figures are often ritually broken and made anew every year, an enactment of nature’s yearly death and rebirth. Unsurp­risingly, sacred groves have been vanishing; the few that remain well protected are host to a remarkable biodiversity.

Such traditions have found expression in many rural and tribal communities, which had a vested interest in protecting nature: Bishnois are well known for initiating, once at the cost of hundreds of lives, the practice of tree-hugging, taken over by the Chipko and other movements. Bhils, Warlis, Santhals and Todas have rich ethnobotanical traditions, many of them associated with rituals celebrating birth, puberty, marriage, death, or with festivals. Most temples have at least one sacred tree (sthalavriksha), and the greater its age, the more divinity it is imbued with. Nature, let us repeat, is never seen as ‘secular’, much less a dead heap of ‘natural resources’ awaiting our exploitation. It — she, rather — is a channel connecting the worshipper to the universe.

From the sacredness of plants follows the sacredness of food, food-giving and food-sharing, one of the high traditions of India running through texts as well as historical records. The recipient of Bhishma’s monumental discourse on dharma and the duties of a king, Yudhishthira asked Krishna to summarise that teaching. Krishna’s answer is unexpected: ‘The world, both animate and inanimate, is sustained by food... The giver of food is the giver of life and indeed of everything else. Therefore, one who is desirous of well-being in this world and beyond should make special endeavour to give food.’ Hence India’s traditions of annadana and hospitality.

Harnessing nature

With its monsoon-driven regime of rainfall, India soon understood the importance of water harvesting and management — very soon, in fact, judging from the 4,500-year-old Harappan city of Dholavira, in Gujarat’s forbiddingly arid Rann of Kutch, which dedicated some 20 to 30 per cent of its fortified area (48 ha) to a vast network of interconnected reservoirs, some of them cut in sheer rock; the whole system was fed by carefully harvested rainfall as well as water diverted from two seasonal streams bracketing the city, whose waters were slowed down through series of checkdams. The largest reservoir, to the east of the castle (the city’s highest and most fortified enclosure), measured 73 x 29 m and would have contained over 20,000 m3 of water when full. In addition, a small but neatly constructed stepwell dug at the bottom provided for extended access to water, should the reservoir fall empty. As a result, the city was occupied for at least seven centuries without a break.



Eastern reservoir Dholavira, with castle in background; Rockcut stepwell at the bottom of Dholavira

Monumental waterworks continued into the early historical era. If the Mahabharata promised the builder of a tank a hundred times more punya than would get the digger of a well, it is simply because a tank restores water to the earth, while a well draws from it — simple, but even today we are far from such basic awareness, even as a severe water crisis stares in our face. Arthashastra, again, shows prescience by paying minute attention to water management and irrigation techniques. Interestingly, and unlike today, access to water through public or private waterworks was not free; it was taxed at various rates, the highest being if irrigated water were supplied by the state. Penalties were prescribed for obstructing or diverting a watercourse, causing fields to be flooded, building a well or a dam on someone else’s land, not maintaining waterworks, or for failing to cooperate in the building of an irrigation tank.

Kautilya systematically deals with different situations; for instance, he declares, ‘No one irrigating his field from a reservoir or tank shall cause danger to the ploughed or sown field of another. The water from a lower tank shall not submerge a field fed from a higher tank built earlier. A higher tank shall not prevent the filling up of a lower tank, except when the latter has not been in use for three years....’ (3.9)

Almost echoing Kautilya, Strabo, a first-century BCE Greek geographer, noted: ‘Among [the officials], the first keep the rivers improved and the land re-measured, as in Egypt, and inspect the closed canals from which the water is distributed into the conduits, in order that all may have an equal use of it.’

Such state management of water resources finds confirmation in hundreds of inscriptions recording the constructions of dams, tanks (tataka) and ponds (vapi), also their maintenance: desilting, repair of embankments, sluices, irrigation channels.... Water diviners were not left out and were mandated to pay taxes!

Water structures

An earlier article in this series, House of commons (April 28, 2015), explained how at Sringaverapura in Uttar Pradesh, a simple but effective series of interconnected reservoirs, some of them with a well dug at the bottom, was fed by a channel from the Ganges some 2,000 years ago. Later, we find across India a bewildering variety of reservoirs, stepwells, dams, water-diverting devices and canals, all the way down to the humble village pond.

Wells came in many shapes — circular, square, vertical or horizontal —and sizes, built with bricks, stone or terracotta rings. There is a long way from Dholavira’s modest stepwell to those of classical times, especially in Gujarat and Rajasthan, which are not only engineering marvels but works of sacred art. Mention must be made here of Rani Ki Vav near Patan in Gujarat, with its pillared halls, magnificently sculpted side panels depicting Hinduism’s major gods (often accompanied by lovely apsaras or water nymphs), and the well’s inner cylinder completely covered with hundreds of sculpted stone panels — whose perfect curvature is in itself a technological feat.



Sculpted panels at Rani Ki Vav

Indians experimented with various kinds of dams, the simplest being the earthen embankment designed to create a reservoir or divert a stream. Downstream of Srirangam island on the Kaveri (Cauvery) river, some 1,800 years ago King Karikala Chola built a more ambitious structure, the Kallanai or Grand Anicut, which finds a mention in the Tamil epic Shilappadikaram. Still visible today (in restored form), at 320m long and 20m wide, it is an ingenious device which stops the Kaveri from emptying itself into its own northern distributary, the faster and steeper Kollidam (or Coleroon), preserving much of the river’s water for irrigation in the Kaveri’s lower delta.



Grand Anicut

The humblest but perhaps most important water structure was the village pond or reservoir. What made it important was not just its ability to recharge ground water, but also its interconnectedness with many neighbouring ponds — sometimes in networks extending over hundreds of kilometres, as in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Such networks, which enabled water-rich areas to contribute to less favoured ones, were maintained by village committees, which disappeared when the colonial administration took over — and so did most of the reservoirs and channels in their care.

How does our ‘advanced’ technological age compare with all this? I will let my reader decide, but the judeo-christian approach to nature, viewing her as an adversary to be ‘conquered’ (witness the ‘conquest’ of the two poles or the Everest) and of course ‘exploited’ for her resources, does not seem to have made our planet a happier place.

(Michel Danino is guest professor at IIT Gandhinagar’s Archaeological Sciences Centre. micheldanino@gmail.com)

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Great article. . definitely

Great article. . definitely man has lost himself, trying to win over nature... hope nature gives us one last chance to rectify our folly.

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