So like me, many of you would have visited Agra and Taj Mahal a number of times, may be. And, each time you would have been so engrossed in admiring the beauty of the marble marvel that you might have easily ignored all the other details of this huge Taj complex, such as its beautiful fountains. Quite unjustified, isn’t it!
Although nothing can undermine the beauty of the white mausoleum built in memory of Mumtaz Mahal, but you can’t deny that surrounding gardens and the fountains add to the glory of whole structure. That is the reason, why Taj Mahal is also a ‘rauza’ as per Persian principles- a tomb with a ‘charbagh’ (four cornered squared gardens), fountains and channels. So were the many other tombs of the Mughal era. Therefore, when we go to these tombs and admire their beauty shall we not give a thought to these fantastic fountains? When we talk of all the beauty carved on the stone, shouldn’t it also come to our mind that how were all these fountains built at that time? From where did all the water come, and what was the technology used to pump all the water?
Well, these are the things that generally never come to our mind when we go to a place like Taj. Honestly, never to my mind at least, until the last time when just before the lockdown I was on a walking tour of the surroundings of the Taj Mahal. So, when curators of the walk questioned me that how all the water came to fountains of the Taj Mahal, it seemed an easy guess- Yamuna, as Taj is right on the banks of the river. But beyond that, I had no idea. Part of that heritage walk was all about this, and most of it was a new information for me. For this particular reason, this is also known as hydrological walk.
More from the walk: Where a Shahjahan’s queen lies in solitude on the other side of Taj
If you recall, then towards the west of the main Taj mausoleum is a mosque, identical to sarai on the east. Just behind the mosque outside the wall of the Taj complex is the Khan-e-Alam bagh. The way to this bagh is through a narrow pathway just before the ticket counters on the west gate. A place where you will hardly find any tourists. When we went to that side, there was absolutely no one besides our group. Entry to Khan-e-Alam bagh is free, but hardly anybody even knows about it.
Technologically, it isn’t something that was very rare in that period. Aqueducts played a major role in almost all the ancient civilisations across the globe specially in the irrigation systems. Roman aqueducts are said to have existed as early as 7th century B.C. In India, we find well-laid aqueducts at Hampi in Karnataka. Mughals used it widely and mixed it with other prevalent technologies of that time in their all major architectural projects. ‘Kundi Bhandara’ at Burhanpur constructed during the reign of Akbar by one of his ‘navratnas’ Abdurrahim Khankhana is said to be an excellent example of water storage and supply system for the public.
At Taj, Persian wheels, aqueducts and channels were combined to provide water for gardens and the fountains. Although we too had mini persian wheels known as araghatta widely used in medieval times. But such elaborate, precise and fool-proof system was definitely unique for those times and it was an integral part of the overall Taj design and construction which still awes people.
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Khan-e-Alam bagh side is where this whole structure existed, what our walk curators referred to as waterworks of Taj. There were big Persian wheels right on the banks of the river to pull up the water. Persian wheel were quite popular during that time all along central Asia, Persia, Europe and as the name suggests, they were first used in Persia, from where the earliest Mughals came to India. There are no remains of the wheels now at that place, but you can see the high walled enclosures behind which the wheels were placed.
Water was carried from river through a channel to tanks and from this tank, water was lifted through wheels and poured into aqueducts running atop the walls. There were two sets of 14 pulleys to lift the water at different levels. Bullocks and other animals were also used to carry water to tanks and special ramps were made for them. Aqueducts carried this water to tanks on the top of watch towers (burj) on the outer wall of the Taj complex. From these tanks water was dispersed to channels and fountains inside the charbagh. Thus the water was lifted to almost a height of 40 metres by this means.
Now these wheels are no more and therefore the aqueducts are also not used. Moreover, there isn’t much water left in the river itself. Hence, tanks in the burj are filled with borewell water. But beyond the tanks, the water runs inside the Taj and its fountains through same system that was laid down by Shahjahan during construction of Taj Mahal almost 370 years ago. When you go inside the Taj complex, you see the fountains and admire, but you hardly care, where this water is coming from.
Beyond the pulleys and channels, there was water engineering used in maintaining water pressure in he fountains as well. We can easily notice that all the fountains at Taj have equal water height and water pressure. Now in modern techniques it is easy to do that, and we see this world over in various types of fountains and fountain shows. But it wasn’t an easy task almost four centuries back. So, at the base of the each fountain there was a pot. All pots were of similar shape and size. All pots on a fountain were interconnected. So firstly, all pots used to get filled and thus they maintained the pressure inside the fountain due to gravity and also the equal height due to the capillary action of the water.
Taj Mahal complex also has a well laid down system for rainwater harvesting. All the overflow water coming out of the sprouts as well as all the water coming down during the rainfall was collected through channels running inside the complex and these channels carried water to drains along the walls of the complex which further collected all this water into underground wells inside many of the burj towers. You might be astonished to know that some of these underground wells inside the watch towers were almost four-five floors deep, just like the open step wells in other parts of north India. Thus every watch tower would be almost eight to nine floors, three to four floors above ground and rest for the well. (The sad part is that you can’t see them anymore.) This water collected in wells was then reused in gardens. Water in few wells was also maintained to be used as drinking water for people. So we can see how the rulers centuries ago were aware of the benefits of rainwater harvesting as well. They were also aware of the fact that how much water has to be extracted from the river and how they have to ensure that ground water level is recharged so that it doesn’t falls too low. They will often use shallow wells along the riverbed to get water, instead of directly pumping it from the river stream. Unlike modern rulers, they cared about the river and were worried about replenishing it.
Mughals developed most of the cities alongside the rivers. That was how even Agra was planned as an imperial capital. Yamuna was navigable and thus connected to Delhi, it provided regular supply of water to the city and also gave a natural protection to the kingdom. Regular water supply also encouraged them to develop huge gardens, all of which were accessible through river. Actually, the idea of gardens was also carried by Mughals from back in central Asia, where such big paradise gardens were very common and always part of the folklores. So these gardens here in India from Kashmir to down south were also developed by Mughals as their imprints for the coming many-many centuries. They weren’t only pleasure gardens but part of residential spaces as well. Gardens kept evolving all along and even Mughals changed the land use in the evolving contexts of their new kingdom, unlike their design in central Asia. Use of riverfront played a big role in all of this. For example, riverfront in Agra was the place of nobility. Riverfront was also the way to exercise power and status.
So next time you are in Agra, admire the engineering behind the fountains of its majestic gardens and also find some time to visit Khan-e-Alam bagh and appreciate all the efforts put into creating everything beyond the marble monument.
Note: Our walking tour to these tombs and other places of Agra was organised by Tourism Guild of Agra and curated by Shradha Arora and Shahena Khan, two Agra lovers and conservation architects, and together they initiated Sair-e-Dastan to explore, acknowledge, make aware and promote living cultural heritages of historic cities.
Have you ever thought about hydrology of historic monuments? What was your impression about them? Share with us in the comments section below.
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