Bijapur’s Hydraulic Engineering Heritage

The Taj Baodi

The sack of Vijayanagar, following the Battle of Talikota in 1565 CE, greatly enriched the victorious Bahmani Sultanates. Out of the five Bahmani kingdoms the one which gained the most was the Adil Shahi Sultanate of Bijapur. Besides annexing the rich Raichur Doab, the Bijapur Sultanate plundered enormous riches and captured a huge workforce from fallen Vijayanagar. Bijapur was blessed with some capable Sultans who fostered great cultural and economic growth. They expanded the Sultanate’s borders at the cost of the rump Vijayanagar Empire. Bijapur’s sultans also invited talent from across the world into their service. Soon, tens of thousands began to emigrate to Bijapur. As a result, Bijapur City, today’s Vijayapura, grew rapidly. By 1590, Bijapur became one of the most populous cities of the world. Estimates of the city’s population range from 500,000 to 1.2 million at its zenith. However, this growth posed a major challenge – Bijapur city was hitherto the bleak little capital of a middling Sultanate. It was situated in a semi-arid region. So far, the existing water sources had sufficed but now the city required much more water. Colossal hydraulic engineering projects were executed to enable this growth. It was an enormous task, but there was no lack of resources or determination.

Bijapur’s leaders understood the great opportunity – and challenge – for the capital. With Bijapur’s newly won riches, many grand projects and extensive public works were commissioned. High fortification walls (with 96 defense towers) encompassing the existing city and many adjoining villages were also built. The suburb of Shahpur was built to serve as a commercial hub for the traders and merchants who flocked to Bijapur. Shahpur hosted many businesses, workshops, storage facilities, and housed the huge transit population. The Ramalinga reservoir, a derelict ancient earthen dam was comprehensively upgraded. This reservoir was rejuvenated using jack-wells (intake constructs that tapped both surface and underground water) at the seasonal water-courses of Toravi, west of Bijapur. This enormous reservoir was replete with canals and water filtration plants. However, even this large water source was not enough.

The Sultans had to actively present themselves as the giver of water in the arid land, a spectacle that reinforces their power over the people. Ornate and elaborate fountains and water-courses were installed at the palaces, the gardens and the plazas. To serve these, headworks were built around Bijapur and a network of pipes and channels laid. Further, the geography of the land was utilized to create a network of ingenious underground water-courses, known as Qanats or Karez. Here, gently sloping channels (with a series of vertical access shafts) were used to tap the water table. This created economical and sustainable underground canals, safe from evaporation and surface threats. The Qanat water was discharged at an appropriate point on the surface, into tanks or surface channels.

Another adjoining city called Navraspur, dedicated to the arts and learning, was built in 1599. The kingdom began to clearly stagnate from the 1650s due to wars and regional politics. However, the Bijapur metropolis was still a major commercial and cultural center – and the water requirement kept growing. A 240-acre reservoir named Begum Talab was constructed in 1651. The water was supplied to the city through deep underground pipes. To prevent overpressure, 40-foot pressure release towers were built throughout the network. More reservoirs and tanks were constructed in the next 30 years. Hundreds of Baodis (step wells) were also constructed.

In the late 17th century, the Sultanate declined steeply. A major setback was the Mughal conquest in 1686. The terrible 18-month siege and the subsequent looting caused irreparable damage. However, Bijapur dragged on as a major provincial city for some time. The Mughal collapse in the 1710s-50s brought even more ruin. The city’s decline was not arrested by subsequent Maratha rule. A series of famines and military expeditions by the various Deccan powers further weakened the city. The Pindari raids and Maratha infighting finally led to Bijapur’s total collapse.  When the British took over the region in the 1820s, Bijapur was a veritable ghost town, pock-marked by ruins. Many contemporary sources, foreign and Indian, bemoaned the dilapidation of the city and its great hydraulic engineering works.

Today these ruins still attest to the past glory of Bijapur, the scale of the projects and the determination of Bijapur’s rulers. There have been interesting investigations into Bijapur’s hydraulic past by conservationists, historians, civil servants, engineers and enthusiasts these days. It is believed that the old water networks could be reclaimed to cover Vijayapura’s growing water demand.  Indeed, the Begum Talab and some Baodis were recently repaired: they now serve their city after three centuries of slumber. Perhaps much more would be possible from these great works of the yesteryears. After all, Vijayapura is a growing city in a semi-arid land – much like Bijapur before it.

PS: This is my article in DNA published on March 24, 2019. Here’s the link to the original article.

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The Sikh Empire’s Expedition to Balakot

Maharaja Ranjit Singh

A few weeks ago, the Indian Air Force’s Balakot airstrike using French-built Mirage-2000s bought India and Pakistan to the brink of war, and perhaps changed the regional dynamics forever. Balakot has a history which has been a subject of much interest in the past few days: it was the site of the end of Syed Ahmad Barelvi’s Jihad at the hands of the Sikh Empire. Today we look at this history and another curious fact – this was not the first time that French weaponry has been wielded against Islamist fanatics in this region.

Maharaja Ranjit Singh (r. 1801-1849) was aware of the superiority of Europeans in technology and modern methods of war. He sought to close this gap by importing talent and building an indigenous capability. Ranjit Singh welcomed experienced scientists, engineers, mercenaries and officers from European nations to ensure that his kingdom could withstand any threat. Besides, the Afghan kingdom, the Pathan tribes and Jihadis were threatening his western borders. French know-how became a major element in the defense of his realm. After Napoleon lost in Waterloo (June 1815) thousands of French and allied European soldiers were dismissed: the governments of Europe, including the new government of France, distrusted those who served under Napoleon. A few settled into civilian life, but most could not: fighting was all they knew, and they did not wish to waste the skills they honed fighting in three continents. Many offered their services to Asian kings who wished to modernize their backward militaries.

At this juncture Ranjit Singh accepted talented Napoleonic officers such as Jean-Francois Allard, Jean-Baptiste Ventura, Paolo Avitabile, and Claude Auguste Court into his service. Besides such officers, there were chemists, doctors, engineers and soldiers of American, German, Italian, Polish and Irish extraction also. Many foreigners were given plum roles in the Empire. Claude Auguste Court was a product of the Ecole Polytechnique in Paris and apparently knew the science of artillery. Paolo Avitabile also had considerable experience as an artillery officer. Court and Avitabile, along with the Sikh leader Lehna Singh Majithia (who possessed great skill in engineering), overhauled the Sikh artillery. They established the training program for the gunners. Court re-organized the artillery command structure and established arsenals and magazines on European lines. The existing weapon foundries and workshops (established by Ranjit Singh and Mian Qadir Baksh in 1807) were rebuilt with French know-how to manufacture a variety of high-quality guns and artillery. Ranjit Singh soon possessed a formidable artillery of about 500 pieces, including mobile horse-drawn artillery. Court was bestowed large cash awards and titles when he introduced his new shells, fuses and commenced full-scale production.

The meteoric rise of the Sikhs and the decline of the Muslim kingdoms of India had agitated many Islamic fundamentalists. The most influential of them was the popular preacher Syed Ahmed Barelvi, who hailed from present-day Rae Bareilly. In 1825, thousands of his followers from the Gangetic Plains took up his call for Jihad against infidel powers and followed him to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Barelvi’s Jihad was supported by many Afghan chiefs, who were usually suspicious of all outsiders. Barelvi was able to field nearly 100,000 Mujahideen and launched a five-year guerilla war against the Sikh Empire. However, Barelvi’s orthodox interpretation of scriptures and stern disregard of Afghan tribal traditions soon led to many Afghans leaving his cause. Barelvi suffered a crushing defeat in a battle with the Sikhs near Nowshera in March 1827. Later some Afghan tribes turned on Barelvi and massacred hundreds of his followers in Peshawar in November 1830. Barelvi and his loyalists now decided to move out and try their luck in Kashmir. However, a Sikh army led by Sher Singh surrounded the Mujahideen at a mountain fort in Balakot and annihilated them in May 1831.

Ranjit Singh’s French guns and artillery were widely used in such battles in the turbulent North West frontier. Artillery and firearms which performed reliably enabled the Sikhs prevail against great odds. Perhaps even more critical was the discipline instilled in the new infantry battalions by the European officers. Officers such as Ventura and Court also led campaigns into the North West frontier. However, after Ranjit Singh died, neither their weapons nor their courage could save the Sikhs from civil war and treachery. During this chaos the surviving Europeans returned to their homelands. Soon the British defeated the Sikhs and the Afghans also took back some of their lands.

The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region is still turbulent, and weapons from many nations are still used here in the name of pacification, anti-terror and innumerable internal conflicts. History is repeating in strange ways and there is irony and dark humor in the shadow of the mushroom cloud. India’s French Mirages are the latest entrants in this theater – let us hope it is not a destabilizing element.

PS: This is my article in DNA published on March 17, 2019. Here’s the link to the original article.

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