Bangalore, September 24, 2015: A residential community gets a message: “Regret to inform: No water supply tonight due to short supply from water vendor”

Bangalore, September 25, 2015: “Water situation did not improve overnight. Shutdown 11am-3pm. Use water only for essentials”

Karnataka is seeing the worst drought in 40 years.


It is Sunday afternoon. Avenue Road, in the central trading district of Bangalore, is pulsing with commercial life.

I push against the flow of hand-drawn carts, men in polyester shirts carrying nylon bags and women in burqas, andside-step bleating goats, lazing dogs and scurrying porters.

Above me on either side of the narrow road, faded buildings and peeling hoardings lean precariously, seemingly held together by the snaking black cables that crisscross overhead. Pigeons flutter from this side to that in silent clouds. Tiny gullies dip away from both sides of the road, chock-full of yet more people and dogs and push-carts. An improvised pulley drops down from the third floor of one of the buildings; a vendor loads it with greens and vegetables while on the balcony above, a lady leans over, shouting instructions. A horse cart idles in the center of the road, holding up the traffic.


I duck into a narrow stairwell and dodge around headless mannequins whose perfectly formed limbs and exaggerated breasts are wrapped in multicolored linen, cross a small hall and climb up a flight of stairs to a tiny balcony.

I look down at the bustling chowk and try to imagine what this place must have been like nearly 500 years ago.

1.cusba_bangaloreSource: British Library (

The year is 1537 CE. In a small clearing in the midst of a forest of thick scrub acacia and bamboo, exactly below where I stand now, four men stand astride four pairs of milk-white bullocks, yoked to richly decorated ploughs, in resplendent stillness.

In the midst of a small crowd of people stands Kempe Gauda I, the ambitious nayak (leader) of the Vijayanagar Kingdom’s Yelahanka Nadu. He has long dreamt of a new, well-laid, fortified city, and he is now ready to turn dream into reality.

Kempe Gauda’s astrologer indicates that the moment is now propitious. The nayak signals to the four men. With a click of their tongue and a flick of their whips, the men set the bullocks moving, each pair dragging its plough, the four pairs heading off in the four cardinal directions.

At a pre-marked point, the bullocks are halted. The elliptical city-to-be now has its vertices, its perimeter. Kempe Gauda puts his energies, his resources, into the task of midwifing a city. The dense jungle is razed and new roads are laid. Strong, fortified gates rise at the four cardinal points, lesser gates at intermediate points. Deep ditches are dug along the boundaries; from them rise tall, thick mud walls bounded by hedges of euphorbia, acacia, and bamboo.

Within this bounding hedge, Kempe Gauda plans and constructs his city as a series of enclaves, each designed for a specific commercial activity. Water, he knows, holds the key. He causes large rainwater tanks to be sunk close to each enclave.

As the dream city takes shape and form, artisans come flocking in. Kempe Gauda I christens his new fiefdom Bengaluru – a name borrowed from a small hamlet near his hometown, Yelahanka.

I look down from my vantage point on the place where it all began – the precise spot where, over 470 years ago, four pairs of bullocks had begun the trek that would result in what, today, is one of the fastest growing metropolises in the world.

The elderly shop-owner, who has joined me on the balcony, listens to this story in awe. He has lived a lifetime here, without being aware of the significance of the location of his little shop. Below us, hundreds of people scurry to and fro, all unaware that they are bustling through a piece of history.

There is no plaque here to commemorate the event; no signpost, no significance.

It is as if Bangalore has lost its collective memory.

2.bangalore_LordCornwallis_Map copySource:

Kempe Gauda I was a master planner, a conjurer who could visualize a bustling city in the midst of a scrub and weed forest.

He understood the lay of the land, and appreciated its intrinsic arid nature. Availability of water, he realized back then, would dictate the prosperity of his city. With this thought foremost, he planned and constructed tanks adjacent to each collection of people.

The city grew and prospered. Pleased with Kempe Gauda’s success, the Emperor of Vijayanagara, Achyut Raya, awards him more villages, more enclaves, in and around the new town. The strategic location of Bangalore in the center of the peninsula, connected to the trading ports of the east coast, spurs its commercial growth. Kempe Gauda provides abundant irrigation facilities to drive agriculture. Deeply religious, he showers the region with temples. Revenues increase exponentially; the success of the town draws more and more skilled artisans from surrounding areas.

After a 37-year rule, Kempe Gauda I passes on the baton to his successor Kempe Gauda II, who shares his father’s sensibilities and planning skills. Kempe Gauda II builds four towers along the perimeter of the town. Any rapid expansion beyond this area, he realizes, will come at a terrible cost, as there are no perennial rivers here, and thus, no dependable source of fresh water. The region is heavily dependent on seasonal rains; thus, rainwater-harvesting water becomes a driving imperative. Small and large cascading tanks are erected in the valleys below the ridges — Sampangi tank, Dharmabudhi tank, Karanji tank, Halasur tank, …

Tank-building in South India has a rich, ancient history. Traditionally a private enterprise, entrepreneurs undertake it with personal profit and altruism in mind. In addition to tanks, homes have open wells. Those that don’t, are visited by water-carriers carting large leather pouches with water drawn from step-wells called kalyanis.

The town grows organically, access to water and other resources growing in tune with the populace.

3.1911_Map_of_Bangalore_Karnataka_IndiaMap courtesy:

The growing prosperity of Bengaluru makes it a magnet for ambitious satraps. Over the next two centuries the town changes hands many times, passing from the Mughals to the Marathas, to Chikka Deva Raya of Mysore — a Wodeyar — before it is presented as a jagir to the valiant general of the Mysore army, Haidar Ali. In 1782, Tipu Sultan inherits the town from his father.

Around this time Charles, first Marquess of Cornwallis, is still smarting from his crushing defeat at the hands of the combined American and French forces in the 1781 Siege of Yorktown, one of the crucial battles in the American War of Independence. Determined to restore his military reputation, eager to strengthen the Empire in southern India, Lord Cornwallis identifies Bengaluru as the prize beyond price. In the brutal battle that ensues, Tipu falls. Bengaluru becomes part of the Empire and Cornwallis, aware of its strategic location, converts it into a cantonment town.

Through the 19th century, the cantonment burgeons and the surrounding city grows in importance. Each successive administration realizes the crucial importance of securing water for the rapidly growing city. As hundreds and thousands of military personnel and civilians augment the existing population, the lakes of Kempe Gauda prove inadequate to ensure continued water supply. The population reaches around 180,000, and is growing rapidly. 

In 1882 the Chief Engineer of Madras Sappers and Miners, Lt Col R H Sankey builds a tank to augment supply to the cantonment; its overflow, directed through channels, feeding a set of three older tanks called Millers Tanks.

The pattern continues over the years. Prosperity attracts people; growing populations increase demand on water supply; more tanks are built.

1hghattaHesarghatta reservoir as it stands today with a feeble skin of rain-water

In 1892, the then Diwan of Mysore, Sir K. Seshadri Iyer, sits with his planners to float the Chamarajendra Water Works. Arkavathy, the river closest to Bengaluru, is tapped at Hesarghatta to form a large tank. This intervention creates a forward-looking rainwater supply sufficient for up to 2,50,000 people, even at a consumption rate of 55-60 liters per person/day.

By 1921, the population of Bengaluru reaches the 2.5 lakh mark.

In peeling back the pages of the liquid history of Bengaluru, we come across an ominous caution from a Conference* called in 1923 to discuss the future of the city’s water supply. Bengaluru sits in a dry belt with no perennial sources of freshwater. The administrators plan water supply keeping in mind a modest 10% annual growth rate in the town’s population, noting that: “[Bangalore] is unsuitable for development as an industrial center on a large scale.”


Today, Bangalore is one of the fastest growing cities in the world. Over the next few months, I will walk backwards in time through the pages of liquid history even as I walk the present water trails, in the  basin of the sacred Cauvery River.

She rises in a thirsty Karnataka and flows across a state border into an equally thirsty Tamil Nadu. These waters are hotly contested. The pulls and tugs on this river basin are manifold. 

How will it all play out, given the added complexity of a drought year? What might growth look like, for a city like Bangalore? 


  1. Mysore, A Gazetteer Compiled For the Government; B. Lews Rice, 1897
  2. *Bangalore City’s Water Supply, A Study & Analysis in Essays on Bangalore, Vol.4; D.K Subramanian, 1985
  3. A Journey From Madras Through The Countries of Mysore, Canara, and Malabar; Francis Buchanan, 1807
  4. Bangalore Through The Centuries; M. FazlulHasan, 1970
  5. Tank Irrigation In Karnataka, A Historical Survey; G.S. Dikshit,, 1993


This article by Arati Kumar-Rao is the first part of an ongoing series called ‘The Politics of Thirst’ and was originally published on The Peepli Project