Natural springs have been a major water source and a vital part of the hydrological cycle for millennia. The very existence of springs has given rise to unique indigenous biodiverse ecosystems, which act as catalysts for human settlements in highland regions.
Springs are formed when groundwater emerges and flows on the surface. They are known by various names in different parts of India; be it dhara or naula in Uttarakhand, chasma in Jammu and Kashmir, chumiks in Tibet and Ladakh, mul in Nepal, jhoda in Bengal, or jhara in Maharashtra. In India, springs support the water needs of more than 15% of rural and urban populations, with most water supply schemes laid in rural areas originating in a spring. Springs are the main source of water for about 200 million people in India, a majority of whom live in the Himalayas, with the rest largely residing in the Eastern and Western Ghats.
However, in spite of being a source of water for many settlements and hosting unique biodiversity, the management of springs has been a major blind spot in India’s water management sector.
As societies, lifestyles, and worldviews changed, so did our association with springs. The influence of British education and scientific training in India introduced Western concepts and classification systems of springs, which are followed for their benefits even today. However, as this article shows, this scientific rationale evolved in the geographical and socio-cultural context of the European world—which often did not match up to the historical, geographical, and cultural realities of spring management in India.
Historically, springs acted as catalysts in the growth of villages: communities settled around them. Hunter-gatherers and nomads have extensively depended on perennial and seasonal springs since the prehistoric period (9,000 BCE to 7,000 BCE).
Natural springs are an integral part of the ecological cycle—their waters are rich in nutrients and dissolved gases, and are ecosystems themselves in that they sustain a wide range of flora and fauna. Because of steady discharge rates, perennial springs provide water to numerous other streams, as well as lakes, wetlands, and rivers, ultimately contributing to the freshwater capacity of major rivers and coastal ecosystems. Almost all major rivers in India—such as the Ganga, Krishna, Godavari, Narmada, and many others—have their origin sources as springs.
In the mind of early man, water was not acted on by laws of force, but by life and will; the water spirits of the primeval mythology are as souls which cause the water’s rush and rest, its kindness and its cruelty
— E. B Taylor, 19th C Antiquarian, (Chapelle, 2000)
Clearly, springs form the terrestrial origin of all flowing water of the hydrological cycle. Recognizing the intrinsic value of springs for life as well as their ecological significance, early humans ascribe springs with sacred value. It’s no wonder that they did: because springs often appear in Nature in mysterious ways. Even though aquifers and springs abide by the laws of physics and chemistry, springs appeared (and still do) in unlikely places, like rocky terrains or arid regions. The first spring in the catchment is often a source of a river and hence, life in these areas.
In India, temples for water spirits, deities or village totems, and kunds were built around such originating springs, which are worshipped even today . Realizing the need to protect the areas around springs, many communities ascribed the spring and its surrounding forests as sacred spaces. This practice of preservation results in sacred groves named ‘devrai’ in Maharashtra, as well as in other parts of India, which are still revered today. For the Kurumas, an Adivasi population of the Nilgiris, spring water is of the utmost importance for the community’s survival and wellbeing. It is so sacred that stagnant water is considered to be ‘dead’ water, and unfit for consumption.
In many cases, the sacredness associated with springs meant that they were utilized frugally—their ecosystems were largely undisturbed and hence, conserved. As stated in Indian Water Culture by Dr. R.S. Morwanchikar in 2009, “Our ancestors avoided pollution and [the] misuse of precious water by assigning divinity to it, proving their social commitment to water.”
This ecological and socio-cultural association gave rise to customary rules for spring management based on sacral values, which helped preserve and conserve springs and ensure a sense of belongingness within communities. For example, in Kaflad village, Uttarakhand, a new bride is taken to the nearest naula, or spring water tank, to seek the blessings of the water spirit and to pray for the health and well being of her new family and future children. Although still in practice in some interior parts of the mountains, this act has now lost its significance and is merely performed as a ritual.
Region-specific knowledge based on indigenous wisdom was also passed down from generation to generation, forming the basis of informal knowledge systems on water management. Local pastoralists, farmers, water diviners or water witches, and hunter-gatherers were the main holders of such knowledge, which was based on their area’s weather patterns, rainfall, rock structure, and vegetation.
These systems led to many villages and communities developing their own sets of spring-centric rituals and management practices. In some cases, a particular community (based on the caste hierarchy) or a family in a village was assigned the role of maintaining these systems. For example, the Mahadev Kulis, an Adivasi community native to the Bhimashankar Wildlife Sanctuary region of Maharashtra, conserved and managed around 75 natural springs found in the region.
While the customary rituals and rules of village communities and Adivasis governed localised systems, Hindu religious texts also influenced spring management. During the Vedic Period from 1700 to 500 BCE, manuscripts systematically codified knowledge on springs, their management, and the consumption patterns of natural resources including spring water.
The earliest written references to springs are found in Dakaragalam—translating to ‘groundwater exploration’, it constitutes the 54th chapter in Varahamihira’s (505-587 CE) Brihat Samhita . Springs, or anubhida, are described as so:
Groundwater, the hidden secret of nature reveals itself through springs, it is like veins of blood flowing through the body…
— Dakargalam, Shloka 1 and 2
Apart from Varahamira, contributions by other sages such as Kripa, Warta, Garga, Kashyapa, Kautilya are also important in widening the ancient knowledge systems on springs and groundwater. This knowledge system illustrates the philosophy of Prakriti and Parush as the twofold state of existence of cause and effect—hydrologic indicators such as springs can be observed as effects, with groundwater as their cause .
Kautilya’s Arthashashtra (350 to 275 BCE), written during the reign of Chandragupta Maurya (321–297 BCE), also laid out detailed rules on the ownership of water bodies, taxation, and community sharing and management. 1500 to 1700 CE saw the rise of the Maratha Empires. During this time, apart from the caves and temples, forts also began utilizing spring water in an organized manner. During the Maratha rule, sites for forts were chosen based on the availability of water, and many times near an existing cave which already had a well-functioning water system, such as the Nangiri fort in Satara, Maharashtra. The same time period also saw the rise of the Mughals as a major transformative political force—the values of reverence and sacredness attached with spring water continued during this period too.
However, these principles began changing as colonial powers established themselves in India, from the 17th century onwards.
Colonial rule brought with it one major change in governance: government ownership of water bodies, forests, and community irrigation systems. The first major development in the water sector was the Bengal Regulation VI of 1819, which clearly marked a radical shift in spring management—springs were earlier treated as common property, however, the law granted sovereignty over water bodies to the government. The Cantonments Act, 1924 further mentioned: “A cantonment had also power to declare any lake, stream, spring, well, tank, reservoir or other water source within or beyond the limit of it (but subject to previous sanction of government) to be a source of “public water supply”.”
While the utilisation and ownership of springs were identified, the conservation or management of springs was not officially included in detail in any of the newly drafted laws and policies—such as the Charter Act, 1833, the Indian Easements Act of 1882, and many others. They were still managed according to customary laws and rules. However, the newly formalised laws had both direct and indirect effects on these practices, in that they displaced and replaced existing local institutional arrangements, customary practices, and rules.
Why was this a problem? Largely because the customary rules of various communities and rulers related to springs were developed based on the region’s specific demands and requirements. For example, though most of the springs carry ‘pure’ water, some are non-potable due to heavy mineral and salt content and are of varying temperatures based on the geological setting of the source aquifer. Simply put: based on geomorphological structures and numerous other parameters, natural springs are of different types, which is why they were governed differently .
However, with colonial rule, this decentralized system was gradually broken down in order to establish a uniform and centralized water management all across colonial India. The progressive strengthening of state control over surface water and groundwater also weakened community customary rights over springs. Another major change was the introduction of pumps in the late 1800s and 1900s, which shifted the focus from managing local springs and aquifers holistically, towards the random digging of bore wells. Traditional water management practices again suffered as a result.
This centralized governance, along with the influence of western scientific training, usurped the relationship of belongingness and ownership over springs, which earlier propelled the communities to conserve and protect them. With this, the sacredness attached to spring water began to disappear. All of these changes laid the foundation for water laws and management in colonial India, many of which were carried forth into the post-Independence era.
We have been slow to evolve beyond colonial water law in the postcolonial period. Many colonial acts are yet to be superseded, such as the Indian Easements Act of 1882. In spite of the Ministry of Water Resources introducing groundwater bills like the ‘Model Bill to Regulate and Control the Development and Management of Ground Water’ in 1992 (later revised in 1996 and 2005), the conditions of springs continue to deteriorate as the issue of conservation and management of springs was not addressed within it. Given that customary governance mechanisms were never included in formal policies, preservation and conservation of springs broke down consistently, creating a major gap in India’s water management system.
For example, many villages have become increasingly reliant on centralized tap water systems. Electrification has also partially led to the unchecked extraction of groundwater leading to falling groundwater tables. The exploitative usage of water along with rising deforestation, changing land use patterns, extractive industries, increasing populations, and tourism pressures has led to the deterioration of springs. India also saw a major wave of commercialization of spring water. Introduction of concepts such as the ‘cost of water’ and the entry of multinational companies marketing ‘mineral water’ directly led to exploitation and illegal use of many of the springs as discussed in Springs and Bottled Waters of the World. A private monopoly over springs arose, resources which earlier customarily belonged to the communities in their entirety. The sacred cultural values attached to spring water have been completely replaced by utilitarian ones.
These factors, which have also caused rainfall variations and increasing glacial melt rates, are all leading to the consistent deterioration of springs and increasing water scarcity across mountainous regions, like the Himalayas. According to a NITI Aayog report from 2018, around 30% of springs in Himalayan region—which are crucial for water security—are drying and 50% are showing a reduction in discharge.
In the Western Ghats, once perennial springs are becoming seasonal, leaving communities struggling to meet their water demands. The increasing incidents of water shortage in hill stations like Manali in Himachal Pradesh, Almora in Uttarakhand, and in regions like Sikkim, Assam, and Ladakh are the result of increasing stress on water bodies and destruction of springs.
This disturbance to the natural system has already started showing signs of water scarcity in spring-dependent regions. With the water levels of many important Indian rivers changing, this could potentially affect the water security of the country as a whole.
In 2018, the NITI Aayog published a first-of-its-kind government document titled the ‘Inventory and Revival of Springs in the Himalayas for Water Security’. However, translating the spring management recommendations in the document into actual law and policy is still a vision to look forward to.
Currently, the idea that the owner of the land has ownership of all the resources within the land boundary is in practice. The same ownership argument is applied to springs, without understanding the dynamic nature of springs, which link surface water and groundwater. The political or administrative boundaries of a region do not dictate how groundwater moves. A ‘springshed’ of a particular region could spread across multiple villages, districts, states, and at times, even countries.
The trans-boundary nature of the resource requires a holistic understanding by the administration, which is completely absent in our current water management systems. While the utilization of spring water evolves dynamically, understanding how it fits into the hydrological system still remains unclear and rudimentary. The loss of traditional wisdom is not being replaced by modern-day governance principles, one of the major flaws in our current water management systems.
Given that the ‘successes’ of centralized water management systems still fail to reach the interior parts of the country, decentralized systems that responsibly utilise springs can provide relief to water-scarce regions. Grassroot-level organizations are introducing concepts such as ‘springshed management’ and ‘community-based conservation’, while also training ‘para-hydrologists’ from within the communities. Organisations such as Chirag, ACWADAM, Keystone Foundation, Visakha Jilla Nava Nirman Samithi, and many others, are working in collaboration with village self-help groups, state government bodies, and educational institutions such as People Science Institute through The Spring Initiative. The aim of these networks is to create awareness about the importance of springs and capacity building for spring conservation in different villages across the Himalayas and the Western Ghats.
State government initiatives such as Dhara Vikas launched by the Rural Management and Development Department in Sikkim in 2008, the 2014 Spring Protection Initiative undertaken by the Meghalaya Basin Development Authority (MBDA), and the Jharnadhara project in West Bengal for the northern hilly districts, are other such programs which have been trying to promote groundwater or aquifer recharge, mapping, and springshed conservation in their respective states. Grampari, Gomukh, and many other similar organisations have been actively working in Western Ghats with villagers to conserve their springs and thus, provide water security to the hill land villages throughout the year.
A synthesis between local wisdom on traditional water management systems and present-day technological aids needs to be incorporated into spring management at large. Finding a trade-off between local needs and ecological sustenance is a challenge, which needs to be addressed while considering ‘utilitarian’ governance systems for these resources.
Featured image: warm springs originating from Bihar’s Rajgir hills, courtesy of the British Library Online Gallery.
The information in this article has been supplemented by interviews with Vijay Paranjpye, Himanshu Kulkarni, and Saili Palande-Datar, held in Pune in 2019.
 Zenani, V. and Mistri, A. A Desktop study on the Cultural and Religious uses of water. University of Cape Town. 2006.
 Krishnamurthy, Radha. Water in Ancient India. Indian Journal of History of Science. Bangalore. 1996.
 Prasad.E.A.V. Groundwater in Varahamihira’s Brhat Samhita. S.V. University Press, Tirupati. 1980.
 Bryan, K. Classification of Springs. The Journal of Geology, The University of Chicago Press. 1919.
 A springshed is the area of land that contributes groundwater to a spring. Actions within the springshed affect the quality of water flowing from the spring.