Udhampur, April 22 : 'Udhampur was once popular for its springs, Peepal trees and rumours (Udhampur Ek Time Apni Baai'n, Barh Te Baake'n Tai'n Bada Mashoor Haa) is a saying in the Udhampur district of Jammu and Kashmir. The people here witnessed the depleting of their bowlis or natural springs over time and soon began to accept it as the fate of Udhampur; until a few months back when a few residents of Suki Karlai village decided to revive the life-giving springs, which was their primary source of water for many till even a decade ago.

In February, a few concerned citizens began the task of reviving the dead springs and in just two and half months, they have managed to revive six of them, the last one behind an old age home. The campaign, which started in Suki Karlai village, gained so much momentum that it gave rise to similar efforts in different parts of the district. It even caught the attention of Jammu and Kashmir administrators, who recently geotagged 877 bowlis in the area and have promised to restore as many of them as possible.

How it all started About three years back, Dewan Chand, an octogenarian of Suki Karlai village shared his concern about the declining bowlis (also called baulis or baai'n) with this reporter. He stated that the number of bowlis in the district had reduced from 1000 to a mere 100 or 110. "This is mainly due to human activities like construction of buildings around bowlis, repeated floods, lack of upkeep, and availability of tap water to individual households," he had said. The story about the disappearing bowlis, carried in print and shared on social media platforms, caught the attention of some people in the surrounding villages, who decided to revive the bowlis. Unfortunately, they could not give it time and the movement fizzled out. That is, until a few months ago.

One cold February evening, four residents of Suki Karlai village - Dr Vijay Atri (38), Horticulture and Marketing Inspector with the Jammu and Kashmir Government; Deepak Kumar (28), a student; Keshav Sharma (18), a student, and Naresh Kumar, Block Programme Manager, Jammu and Kashmir State Rural Livelihood Mission- over a cup of tea decided to clean and unearth the natural springs.

"For digging into the buried groundwater springs and clean them, all we need is some spades, sickles, gardening forks, gardening gloves, axes, bleaching powder, and scrubber brushes," says Dr Atri On March 20, the team gave a fresh lease of life to two completely dead springs, locally known as 'Garne Aali Bowliyan' (named after the garna or Carissa Carandas fruit growing near the bowlis), which were in use until 2007 when the Udhampur administration provided tap water connectivity to Suki Karlai residents. Usually, it takes the team two to three hours to clean a small Bowli while a larger one might take a couple of hours more.

After the success with these two bowlis, when the team moved to revive the next dead spring near the Billain Bowli area, two more people turned up to volunteer - Sanjay Kumar (42), a shopkeeper, and Ramesh Sallan (46), a daily wage worker.

"These bowlis are part of Udhampur's rich cultural heritage. While we were children, we used to take bath in these springs. We would also offer the spring's water' to Lord Shiva's lingams," recalls Sallan.

Gaining traction Stumbling upon a video and some photographs on Twitter of the six people clearing muck off the bowli, Indu Kanwal Chib, Deputy Commissioner (DC) of Udhampur, retweeted the video with the caption: "Bowli warriors of Udhampur would love to work with you. Schedule one bowli for me as well to clean." While the DC was unable to actually clean a bowli, Naresh Kumar believes that her tweet did a lot for their cause. "The DC's retweeting has led to social mobilisation for the cause as people across the district have started volunteering to rejuvenate the dead springs in their areas. She has tweeted three similar incidents. Even Panchayat members are involved in this cause now." Chib says that as DC of Reasi (a district in Jammu province) she has worked a lot on water conservation and this is a cause she is going to fully support. "We're ready to consider their suggestions and working with them would a great thing," she states.

The campaign has caught the attention of other districts too. Pawan Dev Singh, a former Jammu and Kashmir National Panthers Party leader, helped clean some bowlis in Ramnagar area and social activist of Nallah Gouran village, Bablu Kohli (31) cleaned some bowlis in his native village.

History of bowlis According to social activist Ashok Sharma, bowlis are gurgling springs that have been used as the main sources of water by people since time immemorial. "It was probably during the Dogra rule that these beautiful springs were developed into bowlis to enable the people of the neighbouring villages to use them as a source of water on one hand and on the other, provide a place of rest for tired travellers and the royal entourage under the cool shade of the Peepal trees planted over the bowlis," Sharma wrote in 2015.

Ram Dass (69) and Raj Kumar (62), both residents of Suki Karlai village, reminisce: "The primitive form of bowlis was groundwater springs, called domb or dumb in Dogri language. They provide odourless and sweet water throughout the year. Since this is groundwater, it turns hot in winters and cool in summers due to the constant temperature under the Earth's surface. People of all faiths consumed the bowli water due to its digestive qualities.

"When these dombs are cemented, they are called bowlis. Some bowlis are shaped like a square, others round, while some are triangular in shape. There are hexagonal bowlis as well in Udhampur town." They have often attained religious significance as well. According to Chander Mohan Bhat's article in India Water Portal, there is a cluster of eight bowlis at the Devika Temple with each bowli credited with its own significance. "There is a natural spring at village Londana near Battal Ballian in Udhampur and people suffering from skin ailments are cured after taking a dip in the spring. It is believed that this is due to the shrine, Shakti of Baba Londana," writes Bhat.

But sadly we lost most of our bowlis, says Dass. "After water started running through taps, people stopped visiting bowlis and thence, began the decline of bowlis. Some others were completely buried in flash floods and no efforts were made to revive them," he adds.

Future plans The bowli activists know that the herculean task of reviving the bowlis cannot be accomplished by a handful of people. "But we're happy that our initiative has been gaining momentum. We're hopeful that this community participation model will lead to a major revolution in preserving our heritage," says Dr Atri.

"After achieving the milestone of reviving around 20 bowlis on our own, we've planned to seek help from the district administration in getting the water of these bowlis stored somewhere, so that it could be filtered and provided to people through pipes," he adds.

Deepak Kumar insists that the district administration needs to get involved in the rejuvenation of the water bodies. "Otherwise, these springs will remain prone to seepage, floods and growing of weed around or getting covered with silt again. Our efforts will be of no use in that case. We could only de-silt or clean the water bodies. We don't have the money to cover the bowlis with cemented walls for their permanent protection from external threats. This can be done by the administration only." DC Chib recently revealed that the Udhampur administration has geotagged around 877 bowlis in the rural areas of the district. "I can say that the number of bowlis is much more than that. We're trying to find the exact number. In urban areas of Udhampur i.e. Udhampur, Ramnagar and Chenani, there are hundreds of beautiful bowlis. We're planning something big for their conservation and restoration. But those details will be unfolded at a later stage," she says.

As far as storing of the water of these springs is concerned, Chib says: "We're working on a project that aims at studying whether the water of all the bowlis is potable. For some bowlis, Public Health Engineering (PHE) Department has clearly mentioned that water is non-potable. In such cases, our plans will be different. Very soon, we'll come out with full-fledged plans for complete conservation and preservation of the bowlis." But a question remains as to why people would use the water from the springs when tap water is available. Dr Atri answers, "Water that we get through pipes come from the Tawi river, which is no longer clean due to increasing water pollution. The freshwater of bowlis could be an alternative. Even if it is not stored or run through pipes, once clean and fresh, people can take the water from the springs home as they used to do until 2006-07." (The author is a Jammu-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)

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