Water is a universal need. All living beings need water for survival. Irrespective of geographical location or cultural differences water is a necessity to carry out a multitude of day-to-day activities. For centuries civilizations thrived by relying on the riches of water bodies. Water sources were the central element around which settlements took shape and expanded over the years.
In India too, the history of water systems and their management goes back a long way. Right from water being worshipped for being sacred to making use of water as a decorative element, the history of India is laden with several examples of sophisticated water management systems, that prove that ancient India had a profound understanding of hydrology.
Since shelter is the next essential requisite for survival it only becomes obvious that water and architecture were heavily interdependent and their coexistence led to the creation of some of the greatest masterpieces of architecture and engineering.
Let us now take a look at some such examples.
Water as a front
Just as in many parts of the world, civilizations in India too flourished on the banks of rivers. From providing water for drinking to being a source of water for irrigation, to becoming a waterway for the conduction of trade and commerce, water bodies such as rivers, canals, sea fronts, and lakes were the backbone of several settlements. Evidence shows that several cities of the Indus valley civilization had elaborate water harvesting systems.
The great bath in Mohenjodaro is an example of what could have probably been a huge water storage tank. Many of the Harappan cities were well planned to accommodate water reservoirs, aquifers, underground ducting systems for supply and drainage, and canals for irrigation.
Dholavira, the fifth largest city of the eight Harappan cities, situated on the KhadIrbet island of the Rann of Kutch is an example of a city planned in complete conformity with its water sources. Nestled between two seasonal rivers. By building a detailed system of water canals and reservoirs the entire city was fed with water all year round.
Ancient Vedic texts mention the worship of water and how it was considered sacred and holy with discussions on how water was the original creator of life on earth. The ancient city of Varanasi in the state of Uttar Pradesh is yet another example of a city that evolved on a waterfront. Its mythical connection led to its evolution on the banks of the river Ganges. The most notable feature of the city—its ghats—were laid out of the need to access the rising and falling water levels of the river with the rest of the city taking shape behind them.
The Kumbh mela that sees the uprise of a temporary city on the islands of the sacred rivers too is an example of how the cultural and social attributes of water contribute to architectural evolution.
Water as a Concept
Much like large cities shaping up on the banks of water bodies, the history of architecture in India also has several examples of floating palaces situated on islands surrounded by massive water bodies.
The Lake Palace in Udaipur, Rajasthan, situated on an island in Lake Pichola, an artificial lake, was constructed as a summer palace. A similar concept was used in the design and construction of the NeerMahal in Tripura where the surrounding water body was used beyond its function of aesthetics as a passive cooling device to cool the built mass that was floating on it.
Another interesting example to be discussed here is that of the Jahaz Mahal, meaning a palace shaped like a ship floating on water, in Mandu, Madhya Pradesh. This palace is situated on an island that is flanked by artificial lakes on either side.
“Built with meticulous precision to ensure the comfort of the women of Giyas-ud-din Khilji’s royal harem of almost 15,000 women, this mahal looks like a ship gently floating above the surface of the water.” 
The mahal is further provided with canals connecting the two lakes, rooftop pools, step-wells or baolis, and several water reservoirs and tanks to cater to the water requirements of the residents of the palace.
Water as a decorative element combined with climate mitigation strategies
We see in many historic palaces and fort complexes, the extensive use of water as a decorative element in the form of long-running water channels as seen in Mughal gardens, fountains, and Chadars or textured marble chutes. These were methods of elegantly infusing elaborate water supply systems into daily usage spaces in forts and palaces to make them look aesthetically pleasing.
The Red Fort Complex in Old Delhi, situated on the banks of river Yamuna, adopts a similar concept of using water as a decorative element in integrating its water supply system that supplied water from the Yamuna to the rest of the fort with an additional feature of using the decorative features to conduct passive cooling of the fort.
The architecture of water bodies
Apart from the large-scale applications of water on city fronts and in large fort complexes spanning across the length and breadth of the forts the need for water led to several, comparatively smaller, innovations on the architectural front.
The famous step wells of Rajasthan, the baolis, or vavs are all examples of architectural marvels that our rich history holds. These step wells were particularly popular in arid regions where obtaining a perennial water source was a challenge. Their design as a series of steps winding down to the depths of the well helped water percolate deep and enrich the groundwater table and supply water all year round.
In several temple complexes, particularly in southern India, the concept of temple tanks emerged out of the need to perform sacred religious rituals by the water. But in all cases, from step wells, to temple tanks to ghats on river banks, water would indirectly bind communities together by providing productive socializing spaces while also acting as climate mitigation elements.
The world today is inching closer to a major water crisis and new ways of water conservation and harvesting are being explored every day. Perhaps it is time to look back into the past and take some inspiration from these ancient marvels.
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