Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Water In Ancient India : IIT-M

Water In Ancient India


Prof. Pradeep’s Research


From time immemorial water has been the driving force of every civilization. Throughout the history of mankind, there has been one major motivating factor behind every dwelling place. Nations rise with water and empires can fall in its absence. The people of ancient times attached great importance to an adequate supply of water for agricultural operations, cooking, drinking, washing etc. Depending on the chemical and physical properties and on a few other factors, our ancestors had classified water into several groups. They had also made a thorough study of varying effects of conserving water under different conditions.

Some Sanskrit texts give very interesting information on different types of water recognized by our people, chemical and physical properties thereof, their effects on the functions of the body and mind of human beings, impurities in water, necessity of purifying water and different methods of purification, types of water most beneficial during different seasons etc. In the present context, it will be very interesting and also helpful to know how people of ancient India maintained the quality of water, and what were the methods of water purification and storage adapted by them. A study of these texts reveals that our ancients were even efficient in carrying out water analysis and treatment of water, scientifically in a simple manner. They were also aware of maintaining an ecological balance for the welfare of mankind.

Water is one of the substances without which life cannot exist. The Mohenjodaro and Harappan ruins dating back 5000 years have thrown light on the fact that even in that early period people gave importance to proper water supply for domestic applications, irrigation and public baths. In ancient India, water was used in all religious rituals and ceremonies because it was believed that the pure, divine and sacred waters conveyed their offerings to gods. Water, though a purifying agent itself, was held to be very sacred and people were often exhorted not to harm waters, which are full of saps and good food. It is needless to point out that water played an essential role in the life of man, in his physical and mental development. It is an essential element bringing health, prosperity and happiness.  

Water and ancient Vedic scriptures:

A study of ancient and medieval literary Sanskrit works and other texts reveals that people in ancient India must have had a plentiful supply of water for drinking, cooking, washing and other purposes. They were particular that water for municipal purposes, drinking and general domestic and industrial consumption should be hygienically safe, reasonably soft, practically colorless and free from objectionable odor and taste. Generally, water must be free from various types of impurities. For medical treatment, water having specific qualities was prescribed for different types of diseases. Giving considerable thought to all these aspects, people of ancient and medieval India put great effort to test and analyze different types of water collected in different places and in different seasons. The Vedic seers, in several hymns, invoked water, the purifying agent to be gracious with mankind, to purify men like mothers and to remove all physical defilements. They believed that waters consumed by men gave strength and that it was an auspicious drink within the stomach. Hence they prayed, "May the waters be pleasant to our taste, be free from diseases, sin and sickness, be the remover of fear of death, be full of divine qualities and be the strength of eternal laws". The hymns invoking waters and the prayers directed to Lord Varuna, the presiding deity of waters, reveal that even as early as the Vedic period, people took precautions to use only the water that was free from all sorts of impurities and that great care was taken for an adequate supply of unpolluted water. 


In the modern period, water is generally classified as hard, soft, medium hard and saline in accordance with its physical and chemical properties. Caraka and other sages of ancient India have said that the entire water is ultimately of one type viz., the one which falls from the sky as directed by Indra. 

Jalamekam vidham sarvam patatyaindram nabhastalat I 
Tatpatatpatitam caiva desakalavapeksate II
                      -                   -Caraka Samhita Suthrasthanam, 196.

It was believed that Lord Indra directs the fall of water from heaven according to the activities performed by the mortals. This water while falling and after having fallen from the sky acquires properties depending upon time and space. Modern scientists say that ultrapure water, without any dissolved matter, will be colorless, odorless and would have a pH value of 7.0. Our ancient seers could distinguish this type of water known as 'antariksham'. This becomes clear from the statement of Susruta:- 

Paniyam antarisksam anirdesyarasamamrtam
Jivanam tarpanam dharanam asvasajananam
Sramaklama pipasa madamurcchatandranidradaha 

                  - Susruta Samhita, Sutrasthanam, 45.3. 

This means that the water that is produced in the clouds when it falls down has no taste, no odor. It is absolutely pure and beneficial like nectar. It gives and sustains life, quenches thirst, cures wounds caused by weapons, etc. and revives the consciousness of those who faint due to fatigue, gives clear knowledge, removes drowsiness and burning sensation of the body, etc. 

Even though it is said in our ancient texts like Caraka Samhita that entire water is ultimately of one type, water was broadly classified into two categories, divya and bhauma. Divya was that which fell from the sky, which in turn was of four varieties, viz., dhara, kara, tusara and haima. 'Dhara' is the rainwater that drops from the sky continuously, 'kara' is hailstones, tusara is snow water and haima is water from the dew. Rainwater was further classified as 'gangam' and 'samudram' based on seasonal variations that were responsible for bringing about the various merits and demerits of water. 'Gangam' water was that which was not contaminated with dust, poison etc., where as 'samudra' water was considered to be contaminated. Generally, 'gangam' water rained in the month of Asvayuja. 

Among the 'bhauma' (surface or ground waters), the following nine types are enumerated in the ancient texts:

1. Nadeya, water of rivers emerging from the mountains and flowing into the fertile regions. This type of water will have the tinge of sapphire.
2. Nisyanda, the slightly warm and clear water obtained by making a pit in the sand with the hands.
3. Sarasa, the water having lotuses and lilies and collected from streams flowing from rivers and mountains.
4. Bhauma, the clear and tasty water with the hue of blue lilies collected from ponds and wells.
5. Kaunda, the water found in the midst of long rocky reservoirs. This water will be sweet, clear, resembling asatipuspa and having therapeutic values.
6. Tadaka, the water which is collected in large lakes by constructing stone culverts and which is mixed with fresh water every year.
7. Nairjhara, the soft, clear, tasty water of waterfalls that flow down by piercing the mountain rocks.
8. Varksa, the water obtained from trees, such as, coconut water. Such water is very tasty, nourishing and refreshing.
9. Audbhida, the water that gushes out with force from a spring.


It is said that the waters falling on earth with different colors like red, grey, reddish white, blue, etc. have sweet, sour, saline, pungent and bitter taste. But the general opinion is that, it is the mutual combination of the five elements in different proportions that are responsible for the different tastes of water. In this context, where the quality of prithvi is more, water has a sour taste and is salty. Where the element of water is more, it has a sweet taste. Where the quality of ether is predominant, water has no taste i.e., taste does not get manifested. This type of water is recommended as the purest form of water. 

The classification of water as 'gangam' and 'samudram' is also based on the seasonal variations, which are responsible for bringing about the various merits and demerits of water. The 'gangam' type is said to be pure while the 'samudra' type is considered contaminated. The rainwater falling in the month of asvina (September - October) is said to be free from dust, poison etc. Even the dust that comes into contact with water does not pollute it by virtue of its neutralizing factors in the season. Hence, even 'samudra' water collected during the month of asvina may be used. Susruta has mentioned that samudra type of water is not to be taken, except when available during the month of IIvina. 

Ancient Indians had tested the properties of water falling from the sky and also of water fallen on the ground. The properties of water vary according to the particular spot in the sky with the predominance of one or the other 'mahabhutas' or elements from where it has fallen. The seasons and also the particular place on the earth where it has fallen. While in the sky, water not only comes into contact with the moon, the air and the sun but also with the earth in the sky in the form of dust particles and poisons of insects etc. carried through the air. Hence the contact of water with all these bodies ordained by seasons and the seasons themselves play a very important role in bringing about specific qualities in water after it has fallen down on the earth. In this manner water gets in touch with various properties of the earth according to seasonal variations. 

A test is prescribed to find out these two types of water, gangam and samudram. A lump of cooked rice should be placed in a pure and untarnished silver vessel and rainwater should be collected in that vessel. If the rice does not change color and remains as it is, the water is 'gangam' and is fit to be used for different purposes: if the rice changes color, the water should be taken as 'samudram' which is not fit for use except in the month of asvina or advent of autumn. Perhaps this test is meant to find out the existence of sulfides in water that is not good for consumption. 


1. Rainwater: 

By nature, rainwater has six qualities, viz. coldness, purity, benevolence, pleasantness, clearness and softness. 

Sitam sucisivam mrstam vimalam laghu sadgunam
Prakrtya divyam udakam 

                      -Caraka, sutra 198 

The qualities of rainwater after falling on the ground are determined by the place where the rain falls. After falling on the earth, since the rainwater gets in touch with the inherent properties of the earth like cold, heat, unctuous (i.e. oily substances), ununctuous (dry substances), etc., its properties change according to the receptacle and season also. If the rainwater falls on the earth that has a white color, it becomes astringent in taste. On yellowish white earth, it is bitter; on brown earth it is alkaline. On saline soil it is also saline and on mountain valley it is pungent in taste and on black soil it becomes sweet in taste. These six properties are acquired by water after it falls on the ground. Rainwater falling from the sky and collected in a suitable receptacle is known as 'aindra'. This is an excellent type of water. Tastes are not manifested in rainwater, hailstones or snow water. Water that is slightly astringent and sweet in taste, exceedingly thin, non-slimy, soft and non-greasy is the best to be taken. 

Rainwater available in the rainy season is heavy and greasy. During the autumn it is thin, light and non-greasy. Persons with delicate health and those accustomed to taking predominantly unctuous food are advised to use this water in the preparation of masticable (or chewable) and eatable food, linctus and drinks. Water available in the season of hemantha (winter) is unctuous, aphrodisiac, strength promoting and heavy. That of sisira season (latter part of winter) is slightly lighter and alleviates kapha and vata doshas. Water in summer is not greasy. Thus great physicians and seers of ancient India were aware of the different properties of rainwater in different seasons. 

Water collected from untimely rains is undoubtedly unwholesome and it is advised that such water should be avoided. Since water of the autumn season is the best, this water should be collected in suitable large receptacles and used by people of delicate health. 

2. Ground water:

If gangam water is not available, water that has fallen on the ground i.e., surface water can be used. Among the ground water sources, water fallen on a spot having more of 'akasaguna' is considered to be the best. There are different types of surface waters, such as kaupam, nadeyam, sarasam, tadagam, prasravanam, audbhidam, caundyam, etc., out of which audbhidam should be used in the rainy season. 

In the autumn season, all types of ground waters can be used. During this season all waters are clear, free from any dosha or pollution. In 'hemantha(winter)' season tadaka water is the best. In the rainy season, caundyam or old water (not fresh) and water not touched by rainwater may be used. 

tatra vasasu antariksam aubhidam va sevata I
mahagunavatvat saradisarvam prasannatvat I
hemante sarasam tadakam ca ! vasante kupam
prasravanamva ! grismesyevam! Pravrsi caundyam!

                      -Anavam anabhivstam sarvam ceti II

Our ancients had given considerable thought to find out the quality of water of different seasons and different surfaces because the purity and the quantity of available water were very important in locating new residential colonies, hospitals, gardens, agricultural fields, etc.

3. River waters:

Among the surface waters, river waters are comparatively soft i.e., low in mineral content and are most likely to contain easily soluble salts and sediments. Therefore, different types of river waters with their therapeutic effects etc. are also discussed in several Sanskrit texts. 

It is said that the waters of rivers originating from the Himalayas that are dispersed, disturbed and hit by stones are sacred and wholesome. The rivers originating from the Malaya mountains and those carrying stones and sand possess clear water like nectar. 

Nadyah pasanavicchinna viksubdhabhihatodakah
Himavatprabhavah pathyah punyah devarisevitah

                      - Caraka, sutra 209-212 

The general opinion is that rivers flowing towards the west possess wholesome and clear water and those flowing towards the eastern sea generally possess carry soft and heavy water. Vindhya and Sahya ranges are responsible for diseases of head, heart, and skin (including leprosy and filaria). 

Rivers carrying rainwater which are vitiated by mud, insects, snakes, mice, and dirt and so, are responsible for all kinds of diseases. Other surface waters like pond, well, and lake share the merits and demerits of the places in which they are situated, viz., marshy land, hilly areas, deserts, etc. 

anupasailadhanvanam gunadosaih

                      - Caraka, sutra 214 


Apart from the suspended impurities like moss, dry leaves, rotten grass, etc. six types of pollution are mentioned viz., sparsa, rupa, rusa, gandha, virya and vipaka. These six types of pollution cause various adverse effects and many methods are also prescribed to get rid of these pollutants and make the water fit to be used for different purposes. 

Only for the past few years scientists of modern times are turning their attention to arouse awareness among the people about the polluted atmosphere, especially the hazards caused by water pollution. But our ancients had already thought of it and had cautioned people against using harmful water for various purposes. They were aware that river-waters were comparatively soft and most likely contained soluble salts and sediments. Ground waters from deep wells are usually free from suspended matter and are much harder than the surface waters in the same vicinity. They knew that in regions of heavy rainfall, surface waters contain less mineral matter because of dilution. 


Susruta explained the six types of pollutions, viz., sparsa dosha, rupa dosha, rasa dosha, gandha dosha, virya dosha and vipaka dosha and has given the ill-effects caused by consuming or using water with these doshas. He prescribed a few substances like clearing nuts, gomedaka, lotus-bulbs, moss, pearls, thick cloth, etc. to remove impurities, including those suspended from water. 

tatra saptakalusasya prasadhanani santi I
tadyatha katakagomedakabhisagranthi-
saivalamula vastrani muktamanisceti II

                      - Susruta, sutra 45.13

Boiling, making sunlight fall on the water, adding fragrance by dropping flowers in the water, dropping red hot iron balls, sand, lump of mud (alum) in the water and allowing it to clear are some of the methods prescribed for purification of water. Water heated by sun's rays is considered to be very good like gangam water. When heated by the sun, bacteria, etc. are destroyed and when cooled in the night, water becomes soft and light. Therefore, it is advised that water should be fetched from rivers and lakes at dawn. Hamsodaka waters heated by the rays of the sun and cooled in the moonlight are said to be pure. Water was also treated with purifying ingredients and perfumed with fragrant flowers. Such water was called samskrta jalam. 

hamsodakam tatha canyam kriyasamskara sambhavam I
diva suryamsusamtaptam ratraucandramsusitalam II

                      - Sivatattvaratnakara, VI 20.66 


If water gets polluted and becomes pungent, bitter, tasteless, saline or malodorous, it is advised that arjuna, musta, usira, nagakesara, kosataka, amalaka together with ketakaphala should be added to it. This will make the foul water transparent, tasteful and fragrant and in addition will confer on it many other good qualities. 

A lump of earth (alum), well mixed with phana, mustaka, ela, usira, and candana should be baked well in the fire of khadira and then dropped in water. This type of treatment is called pindavasa and alleviates all ailments. Similarly, treatment of waters with flowers and powders are also described. They are called puspavasa and curnadhivasa. Such treatment will, to some extent, remove sparsa, rupa, rasa and gandha doshas.

Another recipe for clearing water is as follows: mixture of anjana, musta, usira, rajakosataka, emblic myrobalan and kataka nuts were used in order to impart clarity, good taste and other qualities to water.

A few methods of preserving, storing and cooling water are also given in the texts. Water should be brought in containers made of coconut shells or in earthen or copper pots. Water from the containers should be poured out through tubes. The containers may be wrapped in wet clothes or kept on clean sand to maintain the coolness of water. Pure water should first be sweetened with a piece of sugar candy by dropping it in water. Then by placing it in the cooling machines of pugapatta (bark of areca) the water should be cooled. After filtration, the water should be poured in different vessels and perfumed with the essence of fruits and flowers. Drinking water can be rendered tasty in this way. 


Through many mystic chants, sacrifices and rituals the Rain god was invoked in ancient India. Since Indians believed that the prosperity of a country depended on the amount of rainfall that it received, rainfall was often predicted and also ascertained for different regions. The Krsiparasara, an ancient work, has described at length the planetary influence on rainfall. After categorizing clouds as avarta, samvarta, puskara and drone, this work supplies interesting information on the method of forecasting rainfall in a particular year by observing natural phenomena like the first flash of lightening, course of wind, etc. Immediate rainfall also could be predicted from the sudden croaking of frogs, rising of ants with eggs from their holes, dance of peacocks and so on. Our ancients were able to distinguish these clouds as the same text says that of the four types of clouds one becomes predominant in a particular year, avarta rains in particular areas while samvarta rains everywhere. When the cloud puskara is predominant, rainfall becomes scanty and during the dominance of drone rainfall becomes plenty. In 400 BC Kautilya had identified that there are three clouds that rain continuously for seven days, eighty clouds that pour minute drips and sixty clouds that appear with sunshine. Of course, the texts like Krsiparasara contain many more details regarding the measurement of rains, garbhalaksana of the clouds, garbha dharana and pravarsana of the clouds. 

From these varied sources we can gather that ancient Indians were probably the greatest water harvesters in the world. They evolved a vast variety of water harvesting systems for agriculture, drinking and other household purposes. These practices bear testimony to a highly specialized surface hydrology and water management in ancient India. The art of ascertaining presence of water underground, known by the name dakargalasastra, had reached a fairly developed stage. 


From the above discussion we come to know that our ancients knew many methods for removal of color, odor, suspended matter and bacteria from surface water and in some cases removal of hardness and also the protection of water against recontamination. Coagulation, filtration, and disinfection were the standard treatment methods adopted apart from the removal of color and odor. Coagulation was accomplished by adding some metals and red hot iron balls. Filtration was done through cloth or fine sand beds to eliminate turbidity and bacteria. Alum was used for sedimentation. Even though addition of chlorine is not mentioned in ancient texts, we can presume that disinfection was effected by exposing water to sunlight and cooling it in moonlight because these provide ozone and ultraviolet light. 

The chemical and physical properties of different types of water were thoroughly studied by the people of ancient India and this enabled them to select the correct type of water for different purposes. In ancient India, though ground water was used in plenty and wells were sunk in many places, steps were also taken to check soil erosion by afforestation. Irrigation tanks were well maintained and periodically desilted. Some texts on agriculture speak of percolation tanks and bunds in drought-prone areas where flash floods were transient. No doubt hydrology was highly advanced in ancient India. 

The production of water for different purposes involves procurement, pre-treatment or purification and distribution. In ancient times, large number of lakes, tanks and ponds were dug and river water also was made use in plenty. In smaller towns, where ground water was sufficient, water was obtained from wells. Artisan or deep wells were also used for irrigation in the agricultural fields. Water was procured and preserved in large reservoirs. Impurities and undesirable substances such as sediment, bacteria and dissolved matter did have a bearing on the choice of water supply source, but all impurities were removed by proper treatment. 

(This article is credited to (Late) Dr. Radha Krishnamurthy, Bangalore, India and was published in the Indian Journal of History of Science, 31(4), 1996. The permission for uploading this content was granted by Dr. Radha Krishnamurthy's nephew Mr. B. Srinivas, Bangalore on 2nd August, 2014.)      

SOURCE: https://tue.iitm.ac.in/water-in-india/Water-in-India.html 

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