Speakers and Abstracts

Bertrand Sajaloli and Etienne Grésillon

Key note speakers

Water and the sacred: which spatial mediations?

Joint presentation by Bertrand Sajaloli
Geography Department, University of Orléans, France


and Etienne Grésillon
LADYSS, University of Paris, France


The natural landscape and the different elements of nature as water form a mediation or a link, between the down here and the beyond, between the believer and the divine. The issue here is not so much the way in which religions or spiritualities grasp the environment, but rather to look at how believers use environmental forms to access the divine. The sources and experiences of the sacred are determined by, or even subjected to, specific ecologies and typologies in ways that are simultaneously social, psychological, cultural, geographic and historical. We observe the spiritual potentiality of many environmental forms. For example, swamps – organic miasmas, ecosystems of chaos – combine the pair dread-fear with the dichotomy death-life: these marshlands call forth the disquieting supernatural, Charon, the mythological ferryman of Hades, as well as the witches and warlocks of lore that are associated with the vast European wetlands. Conversely, the running water of the rivers is associated with purity and facilitates access to the divine. In all religions, it motivates pilgrimages and determines specific types of urbanities.
In this conference, we will try to define how the sacred is a space mediation. We will insist on the diversity of the sacral functions of water and how these functions contribute to the urban fabric.

Akil Amiraly

From the tap to the cistern, the difficult reappropriation of an ancient technical knowledge: Rainwater harvesting in Ahmedabad

Ecole polytechnique (i3-CRG, Interdisciplinary Institute on Innovations, Ecole polytechnique, CNRS, IP Paris)


Rainwater harvesting has been an old practice in many urban centres in India. In Ahmedabad, the ban on underground cisterns imposed by the colonial authorities in 1943 has coincided with the development of the public water supply network. The architectural rehabilitation project of the old city in the early 2000 has shed the light on their existence. The renovation of few cisterns initiated by individuals and the municipality outside of this project raises the issue of the state of local knowledge associated to their use and of technical skills needed for their rehabilitation.
In my lecture, I will question the rationale and the significance of the rationale of the restoration of a traditional technique for respondents who used to assimilate the tap water to modernity and the cistern to a tool of the past. These insights are based on interviews with users realized during field surveys in 2001-02 and 2016-17.
A households survey realized in 2001-02 and updated in 2016-17 by interviewing users and construction craftsmen questions the rationale and the significance of the restoration of a traditional technique for respondents who used to assimilate fifteen years before the water tap to modernity and the cistern to a tool of the past.

Keywords: rainwater harvesting cistern, reuse, reappropriation, technical knowledge, heritage.

Julia A. B. Hegewald

Dependency on Water and the South Asian City: Questions of Location, Urban Planning and Architectural Design

History of Art and Architecture of South Asia
Abteilung für Asiatische und Islamische Kunstgeschichte (AIK), Institut für Orient- und Asienwissenschaften (IOA), Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn


Due to a strong dependence on the availability of water, especially in hot and arid regions, urban settlements in South Asia have historically been located close to natural water sources. Traditionally, these have been rivers, as can be seen in the cities of the Indus Civilisation, or lakes. With simple means, streams could be dammed to create artificial lakes. Steps (ghāṭs) provide access to the water at climatically dependant variable water levels. In addition, other water structures, such as wells, the most reliable source of water provision, shallow tanks and deep stepped water basins (kuṇḍas) were constructed to guarantee an uninterrupted water supply to urban populations.
In many instances, a main water feature is located in the centre of town and the urban fabric has been developed around it. However, even if developed only on one side, along a water feature, the water of the river or lake has been interconnected with the city’s main bazaar street and with the principal political and religious structures of a settlement through a network of lanes.
The rivers, lakes and artificial structures are places where people meet and socialise, where rituals are conducted and festivals commence or conclude. Even today, when many houses and urban quarters have been provided with water provision through pipes and modern pumps, the traditional water structures form an important focus of social, political and religious life in South Asian cities.

Keywords: urban planning, architecture, water structures, festivals, religious rituals

Jutta Jain-Neubauer

Urbanization and Waterscapes: Patronage, Power and Religion in pre-modern Northern and Western India

Art History
Associate Researcher at the Department for Asian and Islamic Art History, Bonn University


The processes of urbanization in pre-modern India have been diverse, a result of the historical, geopolitical, economic or sociocultural conditions in ‘trans-epochal’ situations, and equally varied are the formations of waterscapes determined by or determining these. In my paper I propose to examine three case studies, each rooted in the specific dynamics of their hydro-ecology and urbanity.
The first is a critical investigation of the military, economic and sociocultural strategies of the Tughlaqs, as they consolidated their imperial hegemony on alien territory based on a twin trajectory: riparian architecture at the newly-founded townships coupled with the establishment of hydro-structures such as waterways, canals and lakes to enhance agriculture, trade and civic amenities within their realm. The second pertains to Shekhawati in Rajasthan. By the late 18th century, as the Marathas blocked the traditional central Indian trade route to northern India, a new one was opened up, passing through Gujarat and onwards to the arid region of Shekhawati. The regional merchants, mainly Vasihnava Aggarwals, began to act as commission agents and facilitators for this flourishing trade and the wealth so generated led to the phenomenal growth of several townships in the Shekhawati belt. They built wells and tanks to strengthen the trade-routes of the region (dana). Notably, Vaishnava social pollution norms led to water discriminatory practices and graded social access to water – all in the service of the lucrative trade. My third example pertains to the formation of multiple local urbanities in Gujarat with the proliferation of princely towns. Their sustenance was safeguarded through modern civic amenities created by the rulers, who were largely the patrons of stepwells, artificial lakes and tanks, most of which also doubled as places of Hindu worship and which, therefore, were embedded in a rigid system of control founded on religious, caste and communal segregation, and norms of purity and pollution.
All three case studies will include examples and will critique these within the intertwined framework of urbanization, water resources, patronage and strategies of social consolidation and exclusion.

Keywords: Tughlaqs, Hydro structures, Discrimination, Patronage, Trade routes

Padma Joshi

Peeping into the Traditional Water Wisdom in Nepal Mandal

Urban Planner

Endowed by fertile soil and the benefit of the Indo-Tibet trade route Nepal-Mandal, the Kathmandu Valley was urbanized already in medieval period. For ecological reasons, the settlements developed on the higher ground, leaving the fertile flood plain for agriculture. These towns invented a unique water management system called the Hiti, or waterspouts, connected with ponds and tanks. This paper tries to peep through the technicality and the approaches taken by then people to quench the thirst of the population while conserving soil and land. The system utilizes ground water, storm water and the surface water by continuously flowing the Hitis as bringing the water fall to the neighbourhood.

Beside these technological aspects, the Hiti system also reflects on the cultural and religious life of the town. Makara, the crocodile-carved waterspouts, the Bhagiratha and Yakshya sculptures beneath the spout in the waterhole, the religious ceremonies of maintenance and management are all knitted into the belief system of the people through festivals and rituals. The paper aims to look at the management of the Hiti systems and its entanglement with festivals, rituals and other religious celebrations. This bring to light the essential religious dimension of the water providing system.

Sara Keller

Releasing temple gold: Spatial fix in medieval Saurashtra through water epigraphy

History and Building Archaeology
Max Weber Centre, Erfurt University, Germany


Medieval stepwells, tanks and lakes count among the most prestigious heritage sites of Western India. There are admired for their monumentality, the richness of their ornamentation programme and their refreshing spatial experience. Based on epigraphical and archaeological surveys, my paper looks at the foundation context of Solanki water structures (10th-13th century). I am in particularly bringing to light the construction, during the reign of Siddharaj Jaisinh, of a land road (punctuated by water access points) between the Solanki capital, Anhilvad-Patan, and the Saurashtrian port town and religious centre of Somnath.
Harvey’s theory of the spatial fix appears here a useful theoretical tool to set this ambitious water programme in the broader context of temple thesaurization and politico-economic crisis. Engaging the construction of water structures spatially fixed the over accumulated capital; it also locally encouraged the development of urban nucleus. Thus, the donation of water structures appear as a strategical instrument for place making and territorial development.

Keywords: Saurashtra, Kathiavad, Gujarat, Solanki, stepwell, lake, Harvey, spatial fix, Somnath, commons, thesaurization, epigraphy

Vrushti Mawani

Discursive co-articulations of ‘being illegal’ and ‘being Muslim’

Urban Planning
School of Community and Regional Planning, UBC Vancouver


Through this paper, I locate the role of religious difference in mediating planning and water access in the Muslim areas of Ahmedabad, an Indian city divided by religion. Residents, municipal planners, engineers, and politicians alike link uneven water access in Makhtampura and Sarkhej, two predominantly Muslim wards of the city, with discriminatory urban planning. I examine the physical, economic, material, technical, ideological, and political processes that have influenced planning and water access in these two wards. And I trace the role of planning processes in shaping access to water alongside narratives of key actors describing their roles in the formulation and implementation of these plans. I show how uneven water access in Ahmedabad’s Muslim areas is bound up with practices of planning, but in ways not reducible to discriminatory ideas, intentions, or actions of planners. Instead, actors influencing planning and water governance from multiple institutional and spatial scales enlist discourses of ‘difference’ to suit their own political and economic interests. These actors are located across blurry state/non-state, formal/informal, legal/illegal, and most importantly, Hindu/Muslim boundaries. Discourses of ‘illegality’ and ‘religious difference’ animate the influence these actors exert on technical plans. Practically, this discursive co-articulation and its circulation criminalizes and delegitimizes the need of the most vulnerable Muslim families.

Keywords: Illegality, religious difference, planning, water access, infrastructure

Nicolas Morelle

Water supply in Deccan Forts of India: the Naldurg case (14th-17th century)

Metz Métropole, LA3M CNRS


The introduction of techniques of water supply in the Deccan forts, following the conquests by Turkish’s dynasties of northern India and Iran’s influence, helped to make water an essential key for the war context in India. With the evolution of water supply and conservation in several forms (first by creating lakes and ponds, but also wells, galleries, dams, water towers, baolis, pipes, etc.), dense fortified networks including pleasure gardens and water palaces were more easily developed. Then, these techniques were used for agriculture on the fertile lands of the Deccan.
Recent archaeological surveys at Naldurg fort based in Maharashtra have shown answers given by the builder to provide enough water for a high garrison on the banks of the Bhima river, across which sits an exceptional dam.
Through this example, we will then expand to other forts in Deccan region to see the replication of water conservation solutions in other forts such as in Dharur with its dam or at Bijapur with its water towers in urban context.

Heather O’Leary

The Moral Construction of the Hydro-Social Subject: Water exchange and conduits of purity in contemporary Delhi

Department of Anthropology, University of South Florida, USA


Abstract: In the most congested areas of maximum density in South Asian megacities, complex and overlapping water needs can be indicators of the broader hydro-social relationships driving water development inequities. Anthropological literature have long addressed the departure of cultural stigmas from material conditions of pollution and purity and the complex processes of a transformation in purity. This literature cannot be more relevant than in hydro-social power relations in present-day Delhi where water workers are at once stigmatized and lauded as conduits of purity. While contemporary environmental labor literature recaptures critical silences in the value of multiple forms of water work, there remain striking gaps in the moral construction of the hydro-social subject. This includes developing concepts of righteous exchange, processes for righting transgressions, and prescriptions for restoring purity. These are complicated when exchange happens among stigmatized water workers and their wider community. This paper examines the degree and conditions of water exchange in an informal basti, or “slum,” community. It demonstrates the importance of social structures in regulating domestic water exchange and simultaneously how water exchange gives life to new and existing relations of power.

Keywords: Water work, Informal Community, Purity, Exchange, Moral economy

Yogesh Sharma

Accessibility to water sources in urban centres in pre-modern India

Centre For Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi (India)


Accessibility to the waters was a critical necessity as it was constantly required in copious quantities for drinking, bathing, washing as a fundamental facet of everyday life. In pre-modern India the river front, the water well and the reservoirs or tanks all served these purposes in different ways. But connectivity to the household was a ‘pious’ chore, usually performed by women or by professional water carriers who used oxen and buffaloes for delivery of water. Also, patterns of urbanization were often influenced by the layout of the waters. To illustrate, the imperial metropolitan Mughal city of Agra extended almost sixteen miles along the Yamuna riverfront, in relatively narrow width, for functional accessibility to its water. This isn’t surprising considering the huge numbers of military animals. Elephants, camels, horses and cattle had humongous requirements of water. It was also known to have eight hundred water wells to cater to its extensive requirements. In western and peninsular India, exceptional kinds of hydraulic architecture evolved in the form of cut-stone stepped deep-water reservoirs with cavernous capacities measuring up to a mile in circumference.
An unremarkable feature of the Indian water world was that practices of social discrimination and norms of caste exclusivity and prejudices also impacted the accessibility and utilization of the waters. Though information about caste-based discrimination is limited, clear evidence does emerge, such as in the Coromandel region. This paper proposes to look into the facets of accessibility to water in four Indian cities, namely, Agra, Surat, Masulipattam and Madras to study varying patterns concerning the waters during the 17th and early 18th centuries.

Keywords: 17th century, rivers, reservoirs, Agra, Coromandel

Julia Shaw

Cities, land and water in early-historic South Asia: upland-lowland interactions, and monastic versus state-level governmentalities

South Asian Archaeology
UCL Institute of Archaeology


Wittfogelian notions of the ‘Asiatic Mode of Production’ that assume highly centralised
forms of land and water administration, together with ‘Orientalist’ tropes of the ‘despotic’
East, have been influential in shaping scholarly perceptions of the role of water and land
management within the early South Asian urbanised state. Divisions between the
theoretical and methodological paradigms of prehistory, which tend to be more aligned
with the environmental sciences, and the often text driven, and religion-focused leanings of
early-historic archaeological enquiries, have further hampered scholarly understandings of
the environmental basis of urbanisation and state formation in historical periods. In this
paper, I will explore the historiography of water and land management, ownership and use
in early India, focusing on archaeological case-studies that highlight state-level as well as
more devolved, religion-based ‘governmentalities’, and consider the relevance of this
material to archaeological and textual narratives of climate change and environmental
stress in South Asia. I will discuss how a palaeo-medico-environmental humanities
approach can help to compliment traditional emphases on technological and practical
responses to climatic and environmental change with one that considers regionally and
historically specific ‘environmental ethics’ and their respective dietary, agricultural and
medical trajectories and outcomes in the present.
In particular, I will present archaeological evidence for Buddhist monastic engagement with
food production, land and water use in lowland agricultural zones, as well as attitudes
towards, and engagement with, upland forested zones, drawing on the distribution of
monastic sites, prehistoric caves, habitational settlements, water resource structures, and
land-use data from the hinterland of the early-historic city site of Vidisha in central India
(Sanchi Survey Project), together with comparisons from other parts of the Indian
Subcontinent and Sri Lanka. I will argue that both upland and lowland zones need to be
viewed together in order to address critically modes of interaction between religious and
state-level environmental and water governmentalities, and moreover, to transcend
traditional polarisations between assumed-to-be “peripheral” upland forests and their
“productive” lowland agricultural counterparts.

Laura Verdelli

Customary water management systems and contemporary territorial changes in Tamil Nadu (India)

Architecture and spatial planning
Polytechnic School of the University of Tours (Spatial Planning and Environment department)


The territory of Tamil Nadu seen from the sky just after the monsoon appeared as a land full of water up to a couple of decades ago, the network constituted by the open air water reservoirs built to store water for dry seasons was more impressive and more visible than urbanised areas. These reservoirs (commonly called ‘tanks’) were part of larger water management systems, whose beginning dates back probably to the IInd century BC, and their effectiveness was based on a range of practices related to land use planning, maintenance, networks and community management. The overall system was putting together: water and land management, population, a certain notion of ecology, and the economy.
Recent societal, agricultural, and urbanisation developments led to the abandonment and disappearance of most of the reservoirs whose functional and symbolic importance seems to be not recognised anymore by the population. In agricultural areas large tanks survive but are less and less used for irrigation and in urban areas most of the tanks were filled up and built on, while the remaining ones, almost all temple tanks, survive anedoctically for religious purposes and as architectural heritage. The structural link that existed in the villages with water both as a multifaceted resource and in its visible and landscape aspects seems to be broken once access to water is granted by other modern infrastructure (wells, boreholes, urban networks).
Through fieldwork, analysis of the water and land management system, in situ observations and interviews with local stakeholders, we wish to analyse this territorial evolutions and their repercussions on the water cycle.

Keywords: water storage, monsoon climate, water management system, urbanisation

Prakhar Vidyarthi

Water and Urbanism in Western India: The Navnath temples of Vadodara

ITM-School of Architecture Art and Design (ITM-SAAD)


In Western India, water always plays an important role in both social and religious aspect, from small rituals to large religious architectural structures. Natural water body such as lakes and rivers used to be one of the contemplation for the establishment of historic cities. Due to lack of advancement in machinery and technology, historic cities used to rely on simple phenomena of water flow. Gradually, architecture elements (such as stepwells and ghats) started to develop for access of water in urban area and transform into community spaces. Later during 19th -20th century, with the introduction of new hydraulic structures such as centralized water tank and tap water system, the importance of early water structure started to fade. With constantly increasing of urbanization and new technology, the major cities of Gujarat started to encroach early small catchmentarea and seasonal river tributaries.
Considering these observations, this research paper will focuses on the area of Vishwamitri river of Vadodara city (formerly known as Baroda) and study the Navnath temples and their placement during the pre-Gaekwad period. Navnath temples are set of nine Shiv temples that are placed around the old city and it is believed that these temples were constructed before Gujarat Sultanate and Gaekwad rule. As per local oral tradition, these temples were used to surround the city from outside and the purpose of these temples was to protect the city. This paper presents a building archaeological study of the Navnath temples, looking at dating elements and proposes a reconstruction of the Vishwamitri river and its tributaries around pre-Gaekwad’s Vadodara city. This research helps in grasping the early surrounding topography of a pre-modern Indian city and contributes to the understanding of urban development of Vadodara city.

Keywords: Tracing, River Tributaries, Ghats, Western Hindu temples, Stepwell

With great sadness, we announce the unfortunate and premature demise of Professor Sunil Kumar (1956-2021) in Delhi on the 17th of January, 2021. His yet to be finalised paper will not be presented in our workshop, but we will remember his engagement and contribution in rethinking Medieval India.

(late) Sunil Kumar

The riverine plain of Delhi: beyond the Sultan-Sufi dyad

Proposed abstract

My paper studies the geography of the riverine plain of Delhi and the carefully calibrated system of water bodies constructed under the Sultans of Delhi during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. But for some references to the proximate perennial River Yamuna, Sultanate chronicles rarely discuss the hydrological environs of Delhi’s cities. The assumed plenitude of the perennial Yamuna water supply has drowned careful evaluation of textual records, their correlation with local geographical contexts and field work. As my paper shows, early Sultanate cities were cited keeping in mind the seasonal supplies of water from hill streams and not the Yamuna. The careful harbouring and deployment of these water resources underlined the extent to which the geographical location of Delhi, its topography and hydrology left its imprint on Sultanate politics and economy. And yet, although rendering the region populated and prosperous (ābād), obviously motivated the interventions of the Delhi Sultans, the Persian chronicles of the time were unusually silent on this subject. This void was filled by the mystics of the city whose records mentioned their interaction with these water bodies, random associations perhaps, but carefully memorialised as defining moments in later literature. Through a study of the city’s water bodies, my paper draws out the complicated politics of associations, forgetting and remembering that became a part of the history of Sultanate Delhi. It cautions that the study of politics and social entitlement are closely tied to the politics of knowledge production and religion. As in the case of Delhi, this evidence needs to be carefully researched and historicised.