What Lies Beneath

From the Nagarjuna Sagar, to the Bhakra- Nangal and the great Sardar Sarovar, few realize that these mega dams, pivots in the transformation of India’s economy also led to the wiping out of a lot of its historic sites. It is an irony, that these ‘Temples of Modern India’, wiped out the remains of some of ancient India’s most important centers.

Inspired by the mega dam projects in the US and Soviet Union, India too opted for large scale dams that went on to transform local and regional economies. Sadly they came at a high cost.

Since ancient times, rivers have acted as a lifeline - a source of food, transportation and plenty. No wonder then that many sites of great historical value were alongside the rivers that were damed and so got  submerged, under these dams.

The construction of the Aswan Dam over the River Nile in Egypt in the 1960s drew unprecedented international attention. In Egypt and the world, there was a furore when it was found that the 2300 year old, Abu Simbel temple, would be submerged on the completion of the dam project and this forced the government , to have the entire temple relocated. Sadly, in India there is little memory of what we have lost.

The aerial view of the Bhakra dam reservoir
The aerial view of the Bhakra dam reservoir|Akshay Chavan

Bhakra Dam

Independent India’s first mega dam project was the Bhakra dam in Himachal Pradesh which in 1954, submerged the historic city of Bilaspur and its surrounding areas.  Bilaspur was once an important kingdom of the Chandela Rajputs who were said to have taken refuge here after the fall of Chanderi in present day Madhya Pradesh in the 7th century CE. Bilaspur was their capital from 8th CE to 13th CE and it was a great center of art , even having its own style of Pahadi paintings.

However, in 1954, the town of Bilaspur, along with the palace of the Chandela kings and more than 30 temples, dating back to the 8th and 19th Century CE, were drowned under the dam’s waters. The remains of these temples can still be seen for a few months in the year when the water in the reservoir recedes.

Due to decades of siltation, only shikharas or tops of most of these temples are visible while the rest stays submerged. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) had declared 12 of these temples as sites of national importance and while there are talks about relocating these temples, the damage has already been done.

Nagarjunakonda|Wikimedia Commons 

The Nagarjuna Sagar Dam

One of the greatest Archeological tragedies happened in in 1960s, with the construction of Nagarjuna Sagar Dam in Andhra Pradesh. It drowned the city of Vijayapuri, the capital of the Ikshvaku dynasty the ruled Andhra between the 3rd and the 4th Centuries CE.

On realizing that an archaeologically important site was going under water, in 1954, ASI constituted a team under archaeologist R Subrahmamyam to conduct a survey of the site before it was to be submerged. For six years, the team surveyed the length and breadth of the valley and found more than a hundred sites. They were remains of a magnificent city with baths, a citadel, temples, stupas and a large amphitheater, it was a spectacular capital. A few of the monuments were relocated but the rest drowned when the dam was completed in 1967.

Today, a few of the surviving monuments and a glimpse of what was lost can be found on the island of Nagarjunakonda, in the middle of the Nagarjuna Sagar reservoir.

Dams on the Narmada River
Dams on the Narmada River|Pinterest via On the loss of Cultural Heritage by Klaus Bruhn

Dams on the Narmada

Originating in a small reservoir known as the Narmada Kund, located in Amarkantak hills in Madhya Pradesh, the Narmada is the one of the largest westward flowing rivers in India. As it goes into a largely arid land in Gujarat and Rajasthan, it is not surprising that it has been widely damed

In 1979, a large-scale River Development Project was started on the Narmada . Over a span of 30 years, 30 large dams, 135 medium dams, and more than 3000 small dams were planned to be constructed on the Narmada and her tributaries.  Of these, five major dams have been built and two of these, the Sardar Sarovar and the Narmada Sagar are considered Mega projects with reservoirs extending to thousands of acres.

Historically the Narmada Valley has been very important. The earliest evidence of archaeological remains here come from the Lower Paleolithic period (around 5,00,000 years) and this area has seen continuous human occupation since then. No wonder then that the loss of heritage sites, due to the dams on Narmada river has been enormous.

Omkareshwar dam on Narmada River 
Omkareshwar dam on Narmada River |Wikimedia Commons 

When the Indira Sagar dam was completed in 2005, important Hindu caves known as Kaladeva caves, believed to be the abode of Kalabhairava, a wrathful form of Shiva, were drowned in the dam’s reservoir. The caves had also yielded tools dating back to the Paleolithic period. In 1980s, archaeologist A Nath of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) along with his team had carried out explorations in Kaladeva and other areas which were to be submerged under the dam. Many new historic sites from pre-historic to medieval period were found. But sadly, all these drowned under the waters of the Indira Sagar.

Further downstream, the completion of the Omkareshwar dam in 2007 drowned a number of Hindu religious sites, visited by pilgrims during the Narmada Parikrama, for the pilgrimage around river Narmada. One was the temple of Kuberabhandaritirtha . According to local legend,  it is believed that the Yaksha, Kubera the God of wealth, did penance here for 100 years. Lord Shiva is said to have been so pleased, that he made him both the king of Yakshas and of wealth. Every year, large religious fairs would be held here during the festival of Dhanteras, the first day of Diwali here . The Department of Archaeology had decided to relocate the temple to prevent it from drowning, however due to local beliefs and opposition it could not do so. Instead the temple simply went under the reservoir. The Omkaeshwar dam also drowned important medieval temples such as those of the  Dharmeshvara Shiva, Sangameshwara Shiva and a place called Sitavatika, where a temple of Chausath or 64 Yoginis was present.

Maheshwar fort on the bank of Narmada River, Madhya Pradesh
Maheshwar fort on the bank of Narmada River, Madhya Pradesh|Wikimedia Commons 

While the Indira Sagar dam, Sardar Sarovar Dam and Omkareshwar Dam were already operating by 2007, thankfully the alignment of the Maheshwar Dam was changed to prevent it from drowning the historic city of Maheshwar, the 18th CE capital of Queen Ahilyabai Holkar. Known for its temples, ghats and the famous Maheshwari saris, Maheshwar was deemed too culturally important to be lost.

From Himachal in the North to Tamil Nadu in the South, our great dams have drowned numerous heritage sites . While there are no clear answers in the debate between the need for creating livelihoods and protecting our legacy, what is sad is that most of us don't even know what has been lost.

The global headlines that the the construction of the Aswan Dam over the River Nile in Egypt made, was a turning point for the world heritage conservation  movement. As a balancing act between development and saving heritage, for the first time, UNESCO came up with a unique solution and launched an international safeguarding campaign to save the temples which later culminated in the UNESCO World Heritage Convention and the subsequent relocation of the Abu Simbel temple.

We could have tried that in India too. Can it still be done?


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