Belagavi or Venugram as we may refer to it as is not just a city, it’s a witness to centuries of cultural heritage being built, being destroyed, and being rebuilt again. The city is the cradle of the infantry, the birthplace of great freedom fighters, and the hub of industrial growth. When we talk about the origins of Belagavi it is typical that it was built around water as a resource.
Although the origins of Belagavi can be traced to the Ratta dynasty, there were many like the Rastrakutas, the Kadambas the Chalukya, the Yadavs of Devgiri, the Vijaynagar empire, the Sultans Bijapur, the Marathas and then the British who left their imprints on this city.
Let us first understand why Belagavi was selected by our ancestors to be inhabited. Well, the question we should ponder upon is what do you look for when you want to settle down, appears in those days it was fertile land, security, and unlimited flow of water.
Belagavi had all these but the clincher was water. Belagavi was a town that was settled on the banks of a rivulet called Bellary Nala, the Nala which is now reduced in its expanse by continuous encroachment was then a river that took birth at Yellur which then flowed across the land and then merged into the Markandeya river near Karguppi in Hukkeri, it was joined by another Nala again a small stream which arose from Laxmi Tekdi and was a smaller tributary of the Bellari Nala which merged at Laxmi Nagar.
The water flowed all year long and the soil was fertile. The then Venugram was surrounded from all four sides by the majestic Sahayadri range which had lush green forest where there were huge bamboos providing great building materials. The Ballari Nala broke into a small stream that was directed around the Belagavi fort and acted as a moat to protect the fort.
So the initial settlements in Belagavi happened along the Bellary Nala which included Zune Belagavi ( literally translated to old city ), Vadgoan, and the Belagavi fort as the water was abundant in the Nala. The British chose Camp and Nanawadi because of the Tributary of the Nala that flowed there much before the Laxmi Tekdi water pumping unit was established, the existence of the Nala may be the reason for the pumping station being there now.
The initial city may have depended on these nalas for drinking water and agriculture. If you visit the banks of the Nala even today you find lush green paddy fields. The Nala obviously is reduced due to encroachments and causes flooding due to its reduced water outflow, especially in the rains.
This was the beginning of the settlement in the city, the commercial parts like the different Peths, lanes like Darbar Galli, Mahadwar road developed much later.
As the city developed so did the need for water, especially in the now commercial parts. This need was addressed by the then businessmen and the farmers by digging wells. If you walk around the city you will find deep wells starting from the fort till Kelkarbagh. If you visit the old parts of the city almost every locality has a deep well, most big temples like the Kapileshwar temple have wells and most mosques including the Darbar Galli, the Bashiband and the Jumma masjid have their own wells which are now covered within. These wells may have supplied localities around them with ample water supply. The temples and mosques used water not only for religious purposes but also for drinking with local people.
Belagavi had a rich culture of living in harmony, people here believe that water should not be denied even to your enemy and this was the case as there was ample for everyone.
The Adilshahi and the Marathas of whom the Patwardhans were the vassals were particularly keen on developing water resources and one can see the evidence, around the fort and in Vadgoan and this was further carried on by the British who dug wells to cater to the needs of their cantonment.
If you happen to visit the old forts you can witness the excellent water resource management there, the bhoikot fort in the city and the Rajhansgad at yellur have effective water storage systems which are still evident.
Belagavi was also surrounded by small principalities like Khanapur, Kittur and Jamboti which were ruled by Desais who initially under the Bijapur sultans, the nawabs of Savanur and then the Marathas let by the Peshwas brought prosperity to their fiefdom through water management and deep wells. Kittur which was subservient to the Peshwas had an extremely well-developed drainage and water management system.
The city of course did not stop growing and during the time of the British rule became a cantonment and a busy business hub. More wells were built by traders, wells were built for utilities. The Muth Galli and Navagraha wells were built for the fire stations and public utility. The bara gadgada well was excavated and water was carried to various parts of the city on trolleys and plush carts from this well. The need for private wells led to almost every wealthy household having private wells. Then came the wave of the middle class who came essentially from clerical and business jobs, they lived in small apartments called shawls and shared wells for daily needs. Such wells became centers for social interactions. This also was the first attempt to socialize water as now it was available to all.
A job opportunity opened up too, for now, the rich needed someone to pull the water from the well as there were no electric motors, so students who could not afford fees started working as water boys who would pull water from the well and in return they got money to pay their fees. Water used to be stored in bronze and copper vessels as plastics were not available then. There were stone ponds called doni which were used the wash clothes after filling them with water.
There was less knowledge of purifying water and many succumbed to water-borne infections looks cholera and typhoid. This was however more common with those who used waters from rivers and lakes as aquifers of wells could not easily be contaminated. This was the first transition of water utilization in Belagavi from rivers to wells and with this, the Bellari Nala lost its prominence as a source of water.
The growth of the city did not however stop here and the need for water went on increasing, there were fights at the wells for filling water first and sometimes even for the ownership of the wells.
The water usage in those days was unique, water was boiled on chul for bathing, this was later replaced by the bumb a wood-fired boiler in that household who could afford it. Cooking water was carefully kept in copper utensils which gave additional benefits. A typical washroom (nhani) was not attached to the bedrooms and it was usually at the outer corner of the house, pimp, ghanghal and tambyas were typical fixtures of such nhanis.
Infact the well now had become almost equal to God and why not it gave life, it gave water. Every function started with prayers at the well, there was no housewarming without showing respect to the well first.
Post-independence the same system continued for some time save the real change came only in 1964 when a pumping station was established at Laxmi Tekdi. This ushered a new age into the water supply of the city, it brought in the tap water system.
The introduction of tap water was the second big change that happened in the water supply of Belagavi. Like the previous change where the Nala lost its game so did the wells. But this time it did not happen immediately, in fact, there was a lot of resistance to tap water, people claimed that the tap water was full of chemicals and this would take lives and refused to use it. Such was the resistance that the then commissioner Mr Rao closed down a few wells including the iconic Baragadgada well so that people would be left only work well water.
Eventually, tap water did take over the well and the wells went into disuse. Several were filled and the land was used for different purposes. The ones left were converted into dumping grounds for garbage and debris. The tap became the essential fixture of every household.
Like in the past wells were, the tap now became the center of activities, there were public taps, private taps and private taps open for the public, and the fights that took place in the ques for filling water at the wells now took place at the tap. The introduction of taps however brought a new problem in the water culture of the city, now the availability of water was time-bound and water was to be filled only in a given time. Belagavi was not used to such timings and this caused huge dissatisfaction amongst the people.
Initially, only Rakaskop supplied water to the city, the water was pumped to Laxmi Tekdi which was at the most vantage point for the city at that time and the water flowed to the entire city merely by gravity.
The advent of taps also brought in a new concept in water management in the city, one of shortage. As water availability was limited one had to store water for a longer time and there was no guarantee that water would come the next day, this change was greatly augmented by the advent of plastics. Water availability became easy, water came at your doorsteps, you just had to fill the water and store it in plastic ghagri and pimpaa.
Eventually, the city grew more and the population never stopped multiplying. Rakaskop was never going to be satisfactory and Hidkal water was added to the city, this brought the most required water to the city for its drinking and also industrial needs.
This system stayed stable for a few years but then shortages of water started hitting hard. Relying only on tap water we compromised on our rivers and our wells making water supply completely dependent on the government’s efficiency and the monsoons. Eventually, this had to backfire and it did, every summer the water went dry and there was no water supply.
This led to the city corporation looking back at our resources and the wells came back into play. The Navagraha well was revived in 2000 and this led to many more being revived and put to use using filter units. Initially, this went slow the major shift came in the year 2017 when a major drought hit Belagavi, to those for whom water was a luxury, it was an eye-opener, there was no water to drink and all the resources went dry.
It was then that the people of Belagavi realized that water sources needed to be revived and this moment took wings. The wells also became important links to the ambitious 24*7 water supply to the city. Many wells were revived and Pyaas Foundation has also proposed a plan for the revival of the Bellari Nala.
Water has become a precious resource, the luxury of having water at will and using it without limits is no longer tenable. Today there are plans for Belagavi to receive water 24 *7, but the riders are that this will not be possible unless we revive, restore and rejuvenate the resources that made inhabiting Belagavi possible.