The secrets behind the all-weather lakes in Shivaji-era forts

The secrets behind the all-weather lakes in Shivaji-era forts

In the middle of a severe drought in Maharashtra, lessons in water conservation from the 17th century.

Maharashtra drought, Maharashtra water crisis, water crisis india
Every drop counts: Gangasagar Lake in Raigad Fort. (Photo: Manoj More)

Most of the lakes, wells and reservoirs went dry across Maharashtra in May and June this year, as the state faced one of the severest water crises in recent years. But not the ones in the several Shivaji-era forts built atop hills in and around Pune. The hundreds of lakes and tanks in these forts held ample water, as they do for most of the year.

When Chhatrapati Shivaji, the great 17th century Maratha warrior, died in 1680, he was in command of about 370 big and small forts built over hilltops in the Sahyadri range. Each one had scores of lakes and tanks that catered to the water needs of the soldiers and the local population. Many of these are still functional. Locals say the way these lakes and tanks were constructed and the water-management practices during the time of Shivaji hold a lesson for today when water has become a scarce commodity.

“Shivaji did not use any special technique. He took the help of nature as it was. He never went against nature, as we are doing today,” says PD Sabale, professor in geo-archaeology at the Deccan College Post-graduate and Research Institute, Pune. “The natural lakes are present in the foothills where they receive continuous water supply from the surface and subsurface. In addition, these lakes are also fed by natural springs. That is the reason they never go dry,” Sabale explains.

Some of the best examples of these all-weather lakes are found on the Raigad fort, one of the biggest and most important of Shivaji’s forts. Twelve of these, both artificial and natural ones, are prominent. Experts say these lakes are built on watertight soil and rocks that do not allow much percolation of water. At the hills, the rate of evaporation is also slower. “Basalt rocks abound in the region. They were formed after a volcanic eruption 65 million years ago. Since these rocks are moulded from lava or magma, they are watertight and allow minimal percolation. The rate of leakages and seepage of water from the lake body at subsurface is negligible,” he says.


Praful Kadam, who has written a book He Pani Amchach (This Water is Ours), and now campaigns for sustainable water practices, says that the planners 400 years ago applied common sense and were judicious in their use of water. “The planners during Shivaji’s time show a great application of mind. The lakes were set up where nature blessed them. The fort tops were the favourite as the temperature there is relatively low,” says Kadam.

The Pune region gets plenty of rainfall during the monsoon season, and the forts have sophisticated arrangements to store and utilise the rainwater. The artificial lakes are constructed at locations where the water-streams, created from the rains, meet, on the lower plains of the fort premises. The gullies and streams originate in the peaks of the hills and mountains, and are united on the lower flat base — the plateau where large amounts of water could be stored in natural depressions by shallow digging of the land.

Besides lakes, water tanks also abound on the forts. “These concrete water tanks were meant for specific purposes. They stored water collected from rain. The water was used as reserve,” Sabale says. The best examples of water tanks are in the Sinhagad fort in Pune where 48 of them stand tall. The tanks were apparently built from the rocks brought for the construction of the fort and had the capacity to store enough water to last a few months. Dressed stone walls can be seen wrapping these water tanks which seem to have been used to increase the storing capacity of the tanks. The water tanks are present all over the fort, but seem to be most prominent on the slopes. “On the slopes, it was easier to divert the run-off water into these tanks,” says Kadam.

There is evidence to suggest that the population during Shivaji’s time was also careful in its use of water, Sabale says. “For instance, a potful of water was used for bathing. Left over water was used for other purposes like for watering trees. Wastage was minimal. People used to follow the ethics of conjunctive use of water,” he says.

This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘Rivers of Empire’