How India’s past prowess can help the current agricultural crisis?

-D K Hari

-Hema Hari


We are finally becoming eco-conscious and eco-edgy. Tips on water conservation are trendy, small eco-friendly gestures become gratifying while we doff our hats to anyone who seems eco-intelligent.

If only. If only we went deep into our ancient farming methods and our history of agriculture to understand how seamlessly lifestyles were integrated with the environment. Even if we don’t talk about the inherent sacred respect the Indian ancients had for nature. Let’s leave aside metaphysical matters or those of heart. The ancients understood the importance of agriculture, were brilliant at logic, conservation, and intelligent at long-term decision-making. We can clearly appreciate this especially amidst the current water crisis in India and the struggle of the Indian farmer with modern-day fertilizers.

The ancients clearly understood that agricultural yield and water would go hand in hand. Even hundreds of years ago, both collectively contributed to the rich agricultural scenario in medieval India. The intelligent water grid systems connected to different local water bodies across the land and 9,50,000 water harvesting projects ensured a round-the-year abundance of water.

Unfortunately, today’s agriculture has come largely to depend on the monsoon. This dependence has led to fewer crops and frequent droughts. Amazingly, ancient farming methods yielded more crops than today.

The tough climatic conditions in Medieval Europe would allow only for one harvest in a year unlike in the tropics which were more conducive to agriculture. The Indian climate would favor three harvests a year while indigenous water harvesting projects led to sizeable yields of 2.5 times more than today’s deficient yields.

Scientific yet multi-cropping techniques used by the farmers led to rich yields of food and other agricultural products, such as cotton, indigo, and spices. A study in the history of agriculture will include British records that speak of yields as high as 18 tons per hectare.

These rich yields were celebrated in everyday life. Multi-harvests have been glorified in local Bengali literature while Assam had three bhog festivals or Bihus syncing with their farming cycles. To date, the three bhog cycle continues to be the yardstick to measure the industrious nature of farming and yields.

The ancients employed many agricultural marvels. Here are a few:

The 53,000 lakes in Andhra Pradesh

Andhra Pradesh is a land that has many rivers: Godavari, Krishna, Swarnamukhi, Pennar, Tungabhadra, Vamsadhara, Nagavali, Manjeera, Pranahita, Musi amongst others.

This land has had prosperity not because of the rivers alone. A series of lakes, cheruvus, built in the southern Andhra Pradesh region, in the Krishna and Godvari belt, also substantially contributed to the land’s prosperity. In fact, there are over 53,000 lakes and ponds, which were built more than 1,000 years ago in this region of the erstwhile Madras Presidency, of which coastal and Southern Andhra Pradesh formed a major part.


Despite the availability of perennial rivers like Krishna and Godavari, why are there so many lakes in Andhra? Because they understood the importance of agriculture and water conservation. Because, out of 8,760 hours in a year, it actually rains totally only for 100 hours on an average in a year. And during these 100 hours, it really pours.

Without these tanks, it would cause floods and damage during the rainy season and droughts in the non-rainy season. Understanding this topography of the land, the wise men of yesteryears had planned, designed, and built a series of lakes, or cheruvus, to harness the waters as it rains.

When the lake in one village fills up, the waters descend through a feeder canal to the next village in the chain. This is how they took their share of the waters during the monsoon and shared the excess in a planned way with the villages downstream.

The satellite map of these lakes, or cheruvus, shows that many of these lakes are still existing.


Balarama & the bend in the river Yamuna

There is a bend in the river Yamuna near Vrindavan at Kamyavan, Ram Ghat. The path of the Yamuna seems to have deviated and turned unnaturally at this place.

The legend goes that Balarama, the brother of Krishna was a well built and strong man. He was well versed in the art of mal yuddha, wrestling and gada yuddha, fighting with the mace. He is also called Halayudhapani, bearer of the plough, hala, since the plough as we use it today, is considered to have been designed by him. As the legend goes, once in a stupor, Balarama took his plough and changed the course of the Yamuna.

While this legend may seem like a story, there could have been a need for such an act during the times of Balarama. In the tumultuous period around 3,000 BCE, the waters which earlier flowed into the river Saraswati, due to tectonic plates, moved east, changed course and joined the Yamuna. This happened due to a series of earthquakes in the Shivalik range of the Himalayas.

The effort of Balarama in changing the course of the river Yamuna  was probably to adjust the river to the rumblings in the Himalaya. This course correction made the river flow in a manner conducive to the inhabitants of Braj Bhumi.

The legend, the river flow,  geo-morphology, the satellite mapping of the change in direction of the river flow and the location of temple, all tell the same story.