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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 11    Issue 19   16 - 28 February 2017

Water Harnessing Systems During Muslim Rule in India

Minarest Research Network

Muslim rule over large parts of India lasted, intermittently, for over six centuries. Muslim rulers made wide-ranging and highly important contributions to architecture, arts and crafts, technology and engineering, statecraft and administration, military and defence strategies, founding of towns and cities, communication and transportation, water harnessing systems and language and literature. They played an important role in the evolution of India’s syncretic civilizational legacy.

In the 13th century, Mongol hordes overran and ransacked large parts of the Muslim world. In 1258, Baghdad, the centre of political and religious authority in the Muslim world, was sacked by the hordes of Chenghis Khan’s grandson Hulagu. The famed cities of Merv, Khurasan, Naishapur, Isfahan, Samarqand, Bukhara and Balkh were laid to waste and hundreds of thousands of Muslims were killed by the marauding Mongol armies. Millions were displaced.

India, then under the control of Muslim rulers of the Mamluk dynasty, was a haven of safety and peace. Though the Mongols launched sporadic attacks on cities like Lahore, the Indian subcontinent remained by and large peaceful. In the early decades of the 13th century, Emperor Iltutmish (ruled 1211-36) concluded a non-aggression treaty with the Mongols, according to which no enemy of the Mongols would be given asylum by the sultans of Delhi and, reciprocally, the Mongols would respect the territorial sovereignty and integrity of the Delhi sultanate. Following the death of Hulagu in 1265, Emperor Balban (ruled 1266-86) successfully repulsed the sporadic attacks of Mongol hordes. During the rule of Balban’s grandson Muizuddin Kaiqubad (1287-90), Mongol invaders were pursued and pushed back as far as the Salt Ranges in the Punjab.

Water Harvesting Systems

The main sources of water in India are rivers and streams, rainfall, lakes and ponds, and wells. The country’s large population requires plentiful water supply for domestic use and for agriculture, which is the mainstay of rural economy. Pioneering efforts were made during Muslim rule for the creation of water harvesting systems by the digging of wells and the construction of tanks for the storage of water and for domestic use and the construction of canals and dams for irrigation. During the reign of Ghiyasuddin Tughluq (1220-25), a number of canals were dug in northern India for irrigation purposes. Ferozshah Tughluq (ruled 1351-88) ordered the construction of a wide network of canals, which survived until the 19th century. Some of these canals carried water from the Jamuna, Sutlej and Ghaggar rivers to Hissar and other towns and villages. One of the canals ran from the Kali river in the doab to join the Jamuna near Delhi. This network of canals greatly facilitated the growing of spring crops, especially wheat.

The Persian Wheel

Muslim scientists and engineers introduced new hydraulic and water management techniques, including the technique of irrigation in the form of acequias in medieval Spain, which made possible the cultivation of crops, fruits and vegetables and the pasturing of animals on parched and dry lands. The Spanish word acequias comes from the Arabic al-saqiya, which means water conduit. The system of acequias was taken by the Spaniards in the course of onward expansion to the American southwest in New Mexico, where it is still in use. It may be pointed out in passing that traditional acequias irrigation systems provide broad ecological benefits to local communities.

Baduz-Zaman al-Jazari (1136-1206), a renowned polymath, engineer and inventor, described the first suction pipes and suction pumps and made use of valves and crankshaft-connecting road mechanism. His suction piston pump could lift water to a height of 13.6 metres with the help of delivery pipes. This was more advanced than the suction pumps that existed in Europe in the 15th century. Al-Jazari developed the earliest-known water supply system to be driven by gears and hydropower, which supplied water to mosques and hospitals. He mentioned a sophisticated and intricate hydraulic device, set in motion partly by the power of an ox walking on the roof of an upper-level reservoir.

The Persian wheel (saqiya in Arabic and charkh-e-Farsi in Persian) is a mechanical water lifting device which uses buckets, jars or scoops fastened either directly to a vertical wheel or an endless belt activated by such a wheel. The vertical wheel is itself attached by a drive shaft to a horizontal wheel, which is set in motion by animal power (oxen, buffaloes, camels, donkeys). It was probably invented in Persia and was extensively used in earlier times in the Middle East, Egypt, the Iberian Peninsula and India. The Persian wheel was mainly used for irrigation.

One of the earliest references to the Persian wheel is found in Emperor Babur’s memoirs, Babur Nama, written in 1526-30. The Persian wheel was extensively used for water harvesting in northern India, Bijapur, Burhanpur, Rajasthan, Daulatabad and other places.


Bijapur became the provincial capital of the Bahmani kingdom in 1294 and thereafter the capital of the Adil Shahi kingdom in 1489. The Adil Shahi rulers constructed an elaborate system of water supply. Bijapur is partially irrigated by the waters of the Tungbhadra anicuts. In 1560 King Ali Adil Shah built a large well in Shahpur along with an underground channel to lead the water from the well to the town. The channel was built in solid rock and had a size of 8x6 feet and had been laid 60 feet below the surface at some places to maintain the flow of water downstream. The channel, almost 6 kilometres long, brought water from Torvi, 4.8 kilometres west of Bijapur. A masonry dam was constructed across a valley, 1.6 kilometres upstream, from Torvi while another dam was constructed on the eastern side. The two dams fed the reservoirs at Torvi and Afzalpur. A masonry channel embedded in the bed of the stream carried water to Torvi. From there an underground watercourse was hollowed, which passed under Torvi and continued about 1.6 kilometres to Afzalpur, where it ended in a reservoir. A small masonry pond or well at the base of the hill, about 367 metres west of Torvi, supplemented this supply. The large reservoir at Afzalpur was fed by the pond made in the hills whose water was carried on arches over intervening houses. The dam, built of masonry and earth, was nearly 18.3 metres high, and it had peculiar chambers in the embankment. From the main lake, a canal carried the water underground, nearly 4.8 kilometres to the city. The channel, intervening towers, several chambers, embankments and high-level conduits built at Torvi testify to the skill of the engineers of the Adil Shahi kingdom. The tunnel, which lay buried in the ground, was discovered by H. G. Daddi, a historian and heritage activist, in 2011.

King Muhammad Adil Shah constructed the Jahan Begum Lake (Begum Talab) in Bijapur in 1651. The lake is spread over an area measuring 234.22 acre (0.9479 kilometre). There is an underground chamber on the right side of the lake, from where water was supplied to Burhanpur in earthen pipes. The depth of the pipes ranged between 15 and 50 feet. They were joined and cased in masonry.

Muhammad Adil Shah and his officials took personal interest in constructing a large number of wells. Captain Sykes, who visited Bijapur in 1819, reported that there were 700 wells (baodis) with steps and 300 wells without steps in the town. Many of these wells are still functional. A well (baodi) in Bijapur is generally a square-shaped structure and a passage runs along the entrance with halting rooms at its left and right and in the front. The biggest wells in Bijapur are Chand Baodi and Taj Baodi, which are an architectural marvel. Chand Baodi was constructed by Ali Adil Shah in memory of his queen Chand Bibi in 1549. It measures 144 feet from east to west and 156 feet from north to south. It has stone steps, which taper as one goes down. A large arch forms the entrance and small arches face the well. Taj Baodi was built by Ibrahim Adil Shah in 1620 in memory of his wife Taj Sultana. It is 120 feet long, 100 feet wide and 53 feet deep.


Burhanpur was founded in 1400 by King Nasir Khan Faruqi in the name of Shaikh Burhanuddin Gharib (d. 1344), a disciple of the renowned Sufi Shaykh Nizamuddin Awliya (d. 1325) on the banks of the Tapti river in Khandwa district of present-day Madhya Pradesh and made it the capital of the Faruqi dynasty. Burhanpur was annexed by Emperor Akbar in 1600. The town steadily grew In importance as a trading centre and was considered the gateway to southern India due to its geographic and strategic location. Burhanpur acquired fame for its fine textiles, gold wire drawing and other crafts.

The Tapti flows through regions that were under the control of various local rulers and chiefs, many of whom were in an adversarial relationship with the Mughal Empire. There was always a possibility of the river’s waters being poisoned by the local rulers during times of confrontations and war. Engineers of the Mughal Empire constructed an elaborate and sophisticated system of water supply as an alternative to the waters of Tapti. Abdur-Rahim Khan, a Mughal official, conceived of a water harvesting system based on ground water to cater to the needs of Burhanpur’s growing population. In 1615 a Persian geologist, Tabkutul Arz, was commissioned to prepare a blueprint for the scheme. He undertook a survey of the valley in the Tapti plains along the Satpura ranges and devised underground tunnels and infiltration galleries to supply water to the town. A set of eight interconnected waterworks systems was constructed, six of which have survived the ravages of time. Three of them continue to supply water to Burhanpur to this day, and the other three to Bahadurpur, a nearby village, and to Rao Ratan Mahal. The waterworks basically consist of large storage tanks (bhandaras) in which water is collected from underground springs flowing from the Satpura hills towards the Tapti. The groundwater is intercepted at four points that are located to the northwest of Burhanpur. The water is then carried by subterranean conduits linking a number of connected wells to a collection chamber called Jali Karanj and from there to the town. Burhanpur’s ancient waterworks represent an impressive example of Mughal engineering skills.

Unlined tunnels connecting the shafts convey water from the source to the town. The tunnels are about 80 cm wide and about 200 metres in length with air shafts provided every 20 metres along their entire length from the bhandaras to Jali Karanj. People living close to these air shafts use them as wells throughout the year. During the Mughal period, water from Jali Karanj was supplied to Burhanpur through clay pipes. The British replaced the clay pipes with iron pipes.

The entire water system is based on the principle of gravity and a suitable gradient was provided to underground tunnels. The Sukha Bhandara is an underground tank nearly 30 metres below ground level, from where water flows into the tunnel. The depth of the water even in summer is about 1.5 metres. To support its rocky base, masonry walls of about 100 cm thickness have been provided. Likewise, openings have been provided for the groundwater to percolate into the bhandara. Burhanpu’e old waterworks continue to function after 350 years at zero cost. During the Mughal period, the waterworks supplied almost 100 lakh litres of water each day. At present, these waterworks supply 13.5 lakh litres every day. It is estimated that they can supply up to 18 lakh litres daily, which suggests that the old system is under-utilised.


During the medieval period (1300-1700), the Deccan region had extensive water supply systems. Unfortunately, nearly all of them have been destroyed as a result of expanding human habitations. However, Daulatabad, earlier known as Devgiri, has preserved much of its traditional water supply system. The only source of water in the Deccan plateau is rain water. The Marathwada region, where Daultatabad is located, gets only 800-1000 mm of rain, and most of the rain water gets drained off through streams. In 1325, Emperor Muhammad bin Tughluq shifted his imperial capital from Delhi to Daulatabad. By 1350 governors of the Tughluq dynasty were replaced by local ruling dynasties. By the middle of the 16th century, Daulatabad had grown from a small town into a large town with an extensive fort. The increasing demand for water necessitated the construction of a number of dams through which water was supplied through open and underground channels.

A brick wall was built skirting the hills and the water flowing down from the slopes was diverted towards the Devgiri fort and then carried through terracotta and stone pipes embedded in masonry walls to the inner fort. At the point where the pipeline was to take a sharp turn or descent, small tanks in stone and lime mortar were built to counteract the force of water.

A set of three bunds was built in the valley. One of them was an excellent masonry stone dam which sealed the mouth of the valley to create a large and impressive reservoir. The lower lake would remain full throughout the year. It is remarkable to construct three interconnected dams where so much water could be collected. Water distribution was organised through two sets of channels – one emanating from the upper dam and the other from the lower one. The whole system was built of brick and mortar on a stone foundation and the inner surface was plastered smooth. An interesting feature of the system was the provision of air shafts at regular intervals. These were simple and hollow structures and sat astride small pits designed to intercept silt and to allow clear water to flow. A workman could enter the shafts for cleaning the pits. Water was lifted, through the Persian wheel, to tanks at a height and was let out through pipes to gardens and fountains. Daultabad also had arrangements for the disposal of used water through well planned drains of brick and mortar.

Parts of the western region of the present state of Maharashtra, known as Khandesh, were under the control of the Faruqi kings from 1370 to 1600. Local farmers requested the Faruqi rulers to allow them to utilise river water for irrigation. Their request was granted and the rulers ordered the construction of diversion weirs (bhandaras) at different locations and the digging of canals (kalvas) to divert river water to the fields. In earlier times, the capital costs of these waterworks were borne by the ruling dynasty but once they were completed and set into operation, they were managed by farmers on their own.

In the 16th century, Muslim rulers in Junnar town in Pune district in Maharashtra constructed a water harvesting system in which water was brought from three wells through earthen pipes. Two of the wells were connected by an underground channel. The cisterns held water for nearly eight months. In summer, water was raised through a Persian wheel.


Hyderabad was founded on the banks of Musi river by Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah in 1591. Muslim rulers, particularly Quli Qutb Shah (1564-1724) and Nizamul Mulk Asaf Jah (1724-48), constructed a number of large tanks for the storage of water. King Ibrahim Qutb Shah built a large lake on a tributary of Musi river, known as Hussain Sagar Lake in 1575. The lake was named after a Sufi saint of Hyderabad, Hussain Shah Wali, who was also an engineer and had designed the lake. It is spread over an area of 8 square miles and has a 2.29-kilometre long dam. The dam was built by a French engineer and consists of 21 semi-circular walls with their convex sides facing the water.

The entire bunding of Hussain Sagar Lake is made with mud with two strong outlets, one for common use and the other for allowing floods to flow over without causing damage to the bund. It has hundreds of smaller feeder tanks, including a large tank called Masab Tank, in the catchment area. Three other tanks were built at Ibrahimpatnam, through which water flowed to a mosque near Charminar. Another tank was built at Durgamcharu, which supplied water to the Golconda fort.

The growth in the population of Hyderabad necessitated the construction of additional water systems. Nawab Mir Alam, the prime minister of Nizam III, constructed a large tank on the outskirts of the city in 1806. It has the first multiple-arch dam in the world. Today the tank provides 1 million gallons of water per day to the city of Hyderabad. Two large lakes, Osman Sagar and Himayat Sagar, were constructed, respectively, in 1913 and 1927 to supply water to the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad. The storage capacity of the two lakes is 45 million gallons per day.


One of the engineering marvels in the Deccan is the Panchakki or water mill in Aurangabad. It was built by Turktaz Khan, an official of the ruler of Hyderabad, Nizamul Mulk Asaf Jah, in 1695. The water mill is fed with abundant water which is brought through an underground conduit, which commences from a spring above the junction of the Harsul river with a tributary stream some 8 kilometres away. The water then falls into the Panchakki cistern from a height in order to generate energy for turning the large grinding stones of the flour mill. The water channel is made of earthen pipes and masonry pillars are erected at appropriate distances, which serve as natural suction pumps.

Panchakki, located at the shrine of Baba Musafir Shah (d. 1110), a Sufi saint, was designed to grind grain through the energy generated by water for the pilgrims who visit the shrine as well as for the troops of the garrison.

(With additional inputs from Dying Wisdom: Rise, Fall and Potential of India’s Traditional Water Harvesting Systems, by Anil Agarwal and Sunita Narain (1997)

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