India is blessed with a rich and vibrant heritage, which hides the secrets and stories of its glorious past. However, it is a shame that many monuments are ignored, forgotten, abandoned and have fallen to ruin, slowly but steadily erasing bits of our history.
But here’s a story of hope in the city of Jhansi.
Here, proactive heritage management has restored a slice of the city’s historic past – the Paniwali Dharamshala. It is an excellent example of how local heritage can be preserved through a collective effort.
The Paniwali Dharamshala, an old reservoir with a stepwell has recently been restored as a part of the Jhansi Smart City project. This project is a part of the national urban renewal programme being implemented across cities in India, called the National Smart Cities Mission, by the Government of India.
Till a couple of years ago, the stepwell looked like just another pond in a busy city, a thick layer of water hyacinth hiding the trash floating on drain water that collected in its murky depths. Lining its perimeter were encroachments and other structures that eclipsed a slice of history that went back more than 250 years.
Even though the pond looked like any other choked and contaminated water body in modern times, this was an important source of drinking water for the city of Jhansi in the 18th century, lending its name to an inn or dharamshala for travellers that was built on its banks.
– Developed by the Governor or Subedar of Jhansi, Naroshanker in 1742 CE, the dharamshala was called ‘Paniwali Dharamshala’. Although the inn no longer exists, the reservoir and stepwell – now named after the dharamshala! – continues to exist as do many other inns built in later times.
Also on the banks of the reservoir is the historic Ganesh Mandir, where Rani Laxmibai, the fearless Queen of Jhansi who took on the might of the British during the Revolt of 1857, was married. The Paniwali Dharamshala area was given a facelift under the Smart City Project of Jhansi in 2020-21, clearing up the area, bringing out its historic value and enhancing its tourism potential.
A Governor’s Gift
The early 18th century marked an important phase in the history of Bundelkhand. This was a time when the local Bundela ruler, Raja Chhatrasal Bundela, raised the banner of revolt against the Mughals. To crush this revolt, the Mughal army led by Mohammad Khan Bangash attacked Raja Chhatrasal in 1729 CE and took him and his family prisoner at the fort of Jaitpur.
In desperation, Chhatrasal appealed to Maratha Peshwa, Bajirao I, for help. It is said that Bajirao, with an army of more than 20,000 soldiers, reached Bundelkhand on 12th March 1729 CE and inflicted a crushing defeat on Bangash.
A grateful Chhatrasal bestowed one-third of his kingdom, comprising the present-day districts of Banda, Jhansi, Kalpi and Sagar, on him. Peshwa Bajirao appointed governors to administer this grant, one of whom was Naroshanker, who was appointed at Kalpi, located on the banks of the Yamuna River, 150 km from Jhansi. Not much is known about him and his early life. In fact, he was just an ordinary officer until Peshwa Bajirao moved him to Jhansi and made him a Governor there.
Naroshanker Takes Charge
As soon as Naroshanker arrived in Jhansi In 1742, he first took over the Fort of Jhansi and evicted the Mughal soldiers who had been living in it. He expanded the fort, including its western section, which is now known as Shankargarh.
Naroshanker realised that the availability of clean water was a challenge for the city and the fort. He learnt of an old stepwell near the fort, which was a source of clean water suitable for drinking. It was being used by travellers as well as the Mughal soldiers who lived in the fort.
Jhansi was an important city but it offered no accommodation for travellers and guests. So Naroshanker built a guesthouse, or dharamshala, near this old stepwell. It acquired the name Paniwalli Dharamshala (a guesthouse near water) as it was built near the well.
Over time, a row of other inns were constructed here. Interestingly, the dharamshala built by Naroshanker survived till the 1970s, when it collapsed due to encroachments. What has survived, though, are inns or dharamshalas built in later times.
Nearby, there’s the old Ganesha temple where Rani Laxmibai, or Manikarnika Tambe as she was known then, married Gangadhar Rao Newalkar in May 1842. The temple had been renovated and rebuilt in the 19th century.
Many Religious Monuments
Also near the Paniwali Dharamshala reservoir are other temples and religious sites such as Marghaata, a cremation site. On the North-East side is a temple dedicated to the Yamuna and to the South East is a temple dedicated to the Ganga. There is also another old temple called the Mahadeo temple.
In the last two centuries, Paniwali Dharamshala continued to host visitors and travellers but the reservoir was neglected and became a victim of encroachment. The stepwell was lost in a pool of dirt and trash, overgrown with water hyacinth. Dirty water from the city's biggest drain, the Natvari nullah, used to drain directly into it, as did sewage and waste water from the neighbourhood.
Now the reservoir has got a new lease of life, as a part of the Jhansi Smart City Project undertaken by the District Administration of Jhansi.
Launched in 2015 by the Government of India, the National Smart Cities project has identified around 100 cities across the country which will be redeveloped and renewed. The programme’s mission is to work on the social, economic, physical and institutional aspects of the city, rework and redevelop them with the idea of innovation and sustainability at their core. One of the aims of the National Smart City Mission is to redevelop and restore various heritage and historical structures in cities across India.
The restoration work on Paniwali Dharamshala began in December 2020. With an estimated cost of Rs 8.13 crore, the project is now in its final stages. When the area was cleaned up and the structures renovated, the old stepwell emerged, from its depths.
One of the major challenges in the project was to clear the silt at the bottom of the pond. It was a four-month challenge and around 12,000 trolleys of silt were removed.
The stepwell, which measures 75m x 70m, was cleared of water hyacinth, the sewage was diverted and the Natvari nullah was repaired and diverted. A boundary has been built around the reservoir to demarcate the area and to save it from encroachment. Benches, lights and pathways are also being developed around the pond.
Andra Vamsi, Collector of Jhansi, says another key challenge of the restoration project has been to control the growth of water hyacinth and to keep the reservoir clean. To ensure this, continuous filtration and an aeration system is being put in place. The waste is also being managed.
As part of the Jhansi Smart City project, other historic structures in the city, such as the Jhansi Fort, Laxmi Taal and Narayan Bagh are also being restored. At the Jhansi Fort, there’s a light and sound show being developed along with the renovation of its facade and overall beautification.
The restoration of the Paniwali Dharamshala reservoir is a wonderful step in local conservation. Most importantly, it has preserved a slice of Jhansi’s rich and vibrant history.
With inputs from Jhansi-based historian, Mukund Malhotra