chapter  14
26 Pages

Irrigation Systems

Several of the dams discussed in this chapter have already been mentioned in the course of relating key ritual and habitational sites to their archaeological landscape. These were built to dam streams for irrigation purposes and are distinguishable from ‘excavated’ village tanks, usually fed by rainwater and local runoff. Further suggestions of their irrigation function are provided by their design efficiency in terms of storage capacity and inflow, and by evidence for spillways and other mechanisms for controlling water levels during the monsoon.1 The earliest scholarly reference to these dams was by Alexander Cunningham (1854, 365), who commented on a number of ruined embankments in the short valleys between Sanchi and Satdhara (Sector 1b). No precise locations or descriptions were given, but the following observation, although not substantiated by any historical or theological evidence, has a special relevance to the present study: ‘[The embankments] show that the Buddhist monks were as famous for practical agricultural, as for philosophical learning’ (ibid.). Almost a century later, Marshall (1940, 13; 1918, pl. XV), in the course of his excavations at Sanchi, made passing reference to

the remains of a dam in the 350 m-long valley between Sanchi hill and Nagauri to the south (Figures 1.2 and 9.3; Plate 219). A second dam runs for just over 1 km between Nagauri and Kacchi Kanakhera hill to the west. Again, no detailed descriptions were given, although Marshall suggested that they were designed for downstream irrigation and that they were probably built in c. second century BC, in keeping with the second and most prolific building phase at Sanchi. However, in contrast to Cunningham, Marshall refused to see any connection with Sanchi’s Buddhist history, following the canonical prohibition against monks’ involvement in agriculture. The documentation of an additional fifteen dams in the SSP study area, together with other aspects of their archaeological context (Figure 1.2; Table 14.1), provided an opportunity to assess Marshall’s understanding of the Sanchi dam, both in terms of its chronology and its relationship to Buddhist monasticism.2