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Champaner, a Water-Intelligent City in India

Sara Keller | Erfurt University

Image of Pavagadh Hill rising up behind the lake
Pavagadh Hill from the Imad-ul-Mulk Lake (picture by author)

Today, climate change encourages us to rethink the nature–culture ‘divide’ and explore ways of more sympathetic (i.e. coherent and cooperative) relationships between humans, animals, plants, and other elements and creatures of our environment. While anthropologists, sociologists, environment specialists and philosophers increasingly engage with these questions, archaeologists and historians also invite us to explore the idea of a nature-culture continuum in the light of past societies. Indeed, many case studies of the past demonstrate that humans did not necessarily understand themselves as removed from nature and that they played in tune and resonance with their environment.

Intricately carved stone archway
Lofty carvings on the entrance pavilion of the Jami Mosque of Muhammadabad-Champaner (picture by author)

The Champaner-Pavagadh Archaeological Park is an invitation to investigate this relationship. In the 1960s, the excavations conducted in the wild region of eastern Gujarat uncovered a large late medieval city nested in the grand landscape of the majestic Pavagadh Hill. The site, locally known as Champaner, is an area where various types of settlements have been evidenced over a long period, starting in prehistory. What interests us here is not so much the medieval Rajput fort on the hill that gave its name to the site (Chāmpāner), but rather the then-called city of Muhammadabad that grew at the foot of the hill during the late fifteenth century. Historical accounts tell us about the ambition of the Gujarat Sultan Mahmud Begda, who, in 1483, ordered the construction of a new city on the foot of the Pavagadh hill, far away from Ahmedabad, the historical city of Gujarat. Historical sources describe the magnificence of the city and its downfall soon after the death of the ambitious king in 1511. The inhabitants who had moved from Ahmedabad to Muhammadabad-Champaner a few decades ago returned to Ahmedabad, a rooted and blooming market. The ruin of Begda’s capital is sometimes interpreted as the victory of trade over politics. Whatever it might be, the ruins of Muhammadabad-Champaner soon disappeared into a thick jungle. Archaeologist R.N. Mehta spent thirty years of his life excavating the site and bringing to light an extraordinary material that makes it possible to reconstruct many aspects of the short-lived yet majestic city. One of them is its complex and ingenious water system.  

A puzzling find was coiling plastered channels on the floor in the northwest area of the urban territory. These fascinating structures appeared to be water channels in a garden of an aristocratic urban residence, the so-called Amir Manzil. This detail tells a lot about the urbanisation of the Champaner-Pavagadh site: first of all, it demonstrates the existence of a sophisticated palatial and garden culture with running water and fountains. As in other pre-modern sultanates of India, the inhabitants of Muhammadabad-Champaner enjoyed the pleasures of the sensual Persian-style pleasure gardens enhanced with lofty trees, blossoming bushes and babbling fountains. Secondly, the spiralling channels speak for the good availability of water that was not just used for domestic activities but also for leisure and aesthetic functions. How could the wealthy inhabitants of Muhammadabad-Champaner manage gardens and water features? 

Circular stone channel in the ground in a spiral shape
Spiralling channels of the Amir Manzil (picture by author)

It is a question worth asking in Western India, a relatively arid region where urban development majorly took place along perennial rivers. How could Sultan Mahmud Begda move his capital away from Ahmedabad, located directly on the abundant Sabarmati River, to the riverless area of Pavagadh? Archaeological work demonstrates that the foundation of Muhammadabad-Champaner was supported by the development of complex water systems based on two principles.

The first principle is gravity. If Champaner has no perennial river, it has another asset: the hill of Pavagadh that stands imposingly in the flat plain of Gujarat. The slopes of Pavagadh allow the rainwater to be collected in a series of reservoirs during the monsoon season. Some lakes, such as the Medhi or the Dudhiya Talao on the hill, already existed when Mahmud Begda took over the site in 1483. This was complemented by the excavation of further reservoirs, in particular, the construction of the large Imad-ul-Mulk tank on the east of the city. A detailed look at the city map of Muhammadabad-Champaner, the relief map of the site and its runoff scheme shows that the urban structures precisely accompany the contour lines: it is particularly clear with the southern and western city walls that follow the runoff of the southern and western hill. Urban structures did not go against the environment but adapted to it.

The second principle might be called the ‘water cycle’. The city took advantage of the cyclic nature of water that gets recycled through infiltration. If this sounds obvious, it is unfortunately not the case in many modern cities in India, which are fully plastered, and where grey water (wastewater) is not recycled, often leading to floods, water shortages, and poor water quality. In Champaner, on the contrary, the aquifers, that is, the underground sandy and rocky layers, are filled with water by the infiltration of runoffs and lake water. Aquifers act as a storage space and natural filter. A number of recent studies have underlined the vital role played by artificial lakes in maintaining the water table. Thus, filling up old lakes and ponds for urbanisation purposes has terrible consequences in terms of water availability in urban areas. The Amir Manzil had at least three wells for the supply of domestic and garden water of the residence, and we can imagine that the entire city of Muhammadabad-Champaner was punctuated by hundreds of wells, successfully filled by a high-water table maintained by the Imad-ul-Mulk tank and other suburban lakes. Other architectural marvels of the city, such as the helicoidal stepwell, also owe their existence to these simple principles.

Large well with spiral staircase leading down into it
Helical well (picture by Prakhar Vidyarthi)

The Amir Manzil teaches us one further lesson of water economics: most of the well-planned water lines of the Manzil ended with soaking pits that allowed the grey water to go back to the ground. The water returned to its natural cycle. The data from the Champaner caused conservation architect Sonal Mithal Modi to title her 2002 paper on Champaner-Pavagadh the ‘Water Intelligent City’. Intelligence, as we know, is not just about acquiring knowledge and skills. It is also about applying it, whereby adaptability plays a crucial role: intelligence can only be measured in the ability to be attentive to varying conditions and to give an adequate answer to them. Champaner demonstrates that human activities can be ‘nature-intelligent’ as they engage with the environment and skilfully adjust to it. Intelligence here is neither about dominating nor surrendering to nature but about cooperation, that is, acknowledging mutual forces and taking advantage of them (rather than playing against them).

The study of Champaner and other pre-modern cities of the Indian subcontinent demonstrates the entanglement of human activities with their natural environment. Modern Western philosophy has accustomed us to seeing nature in opposition to culture. Following this perspective, we generally tend to imagine humans and their productions as separate realities from the external environment. We feel culture should domesticate the wild nature, and humans would only have a happy life if they managed to keep nature under control. The relationship between nature and culture is perceived in terms of struggle, competition, and domination.

As French anthropologist Philippe Descola suggests, it is urgent to recreate the link between man and nature, that is, to break free from otherness and think about continuity. Certainly, this would start with acknowledging our exceptional forces of creation and destruction – in fact, forces of nature.


Further Reading:

  • Philippe Descola, Beyond Nature and Culture (Chicago : University of Chicago Press, 2013).

  • Sara Keller, ‘La tour et la chute. Après le coronavirus, un nouveau regard sur l'homme et la nature’, in Covid-19, Tour du monde, ed. by Shigehisa Kuriyma, Ota de Leonardis, Carlos Sonnenschein and Ibrahima Thioub (Paris: Manucius, 2021), pp. 118-9.

  • Sara Keller, ‘Religion and urban waterscape in South Asia: Kankaria or the ghāt revisited’, Moderne Stadtgeschichte (MSG), Bd. 1. (2022), 69-83.

  • Sonal Mithal Modi, ‘Water Intelligent City- Champaner-Pavagadh’, in Landscapes of Water: History, innovation and sustainable design, ed. by U. Fratino, et al. (Vol. 1, 2002), pp. 103-110.

  • Sumesh Modi, Impressions of a Forgotten City. Architectural documentation of Champaner-Pavagadh (A Heritage Trust & Archaeological Survey of India Publication, 2005).

Sara Keller is a historian of space, specialising in Indian architecture and spatial history. She studied history, building archaeology and heritage conservation at the University of Savoy (France), University of Bamberg (Germany) and Sorbonne (Paris, France). She is particularly interested in the connection of material and non-material dimensions of space, which she addresses with the concept of ‘architectural resonance’ introduced in her recent book Architektonische Resonanz: Das Mausoleum des indischen Sufi-Meisters Shah Vajihudin Alvi (2023).


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