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Bygone Doon: Before Cautley’s Canals

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By PRADEEP SINGH 

Evolution in the geomorphology of Doon and the evolution of the district as a society share only the nomenclature for a process, but the two are as markedly different in pace as an earthworm is from a turbo charged Ferrari. While Doon’s physical features evolved over millions of years, human settlement history and society formation are only a few centuries old. The Dehradun district, also often referred to as the Doon Valley, is commonly associated and better known for its connection with the British governance model whose remnants are still visible in the buildings and public amenities like the Railways and especially the numerous canals, left behind following the independence of India in 1947.
Love of Doon’s once ubiquitous canals springs from the heart of a true Doonite and paeans are sung in popular literature about these amazing waterways criss-crossing the valley and many an adventure experienced by youngsters of yesteryears. But let us dwell a bit on how our Doon Valley was before the legendary Proby Cautley decided to change everything in the way the city and its suburbs would hereafter be remembered.
Doon, before it’s annexation by the British as a consequence of the Anglo-Gurkha War (1814-15), was at the edges of the then ‘civilised’ world and even considered terra incognita to the rest of the country and for good reasons, too. The valley was under the most luxuriant spread of centuries old Sal forests and in the intervening spaces were dreaded swamps and wetlands. Beautiful to see from a distance but offering no opportunity to farmers or even pastoralists to eke out a living! Level surfaces were limited and for most of the year waterlogged, only ridges and plateaued areas were habitable. The surrounding water bodies made ideal breeding ground for malaria. The problem was severe in the Eastern Doon where the water table was high and marshes were present at regular intervals, while Western Doon beyond the Bindal towards the Yamuna was better situated for human settlement and agricultural enterprise.
Though much water flowed in several streams of the Valley, yet it did so deep down in gorges while the upland ridges were bereft of any source of potable water, as the stony underground made digging of wells hugely problematic because water was available at depths of a couple of hundred feet or more.
This description can only be an understatement for what must have been the challenges and obstacles for Guru Ram Rai (1646-1687) when he arrived in Doon to set up his Udasin establishment in 1676 at Khurbura. But the Guru and his successor Mahants to the Darbar and those invited by them to settle in the Valley braved all odds like clearing forests, draining the marshes, albeit within the prevailing technological limitations, and provided the basis for further and planned colonisation of the Valley which the British took to its logical conclusion in the next two hundred years and more.
Guru Ram Rai’s Dera gave way to a new urbanism under the British imperium and the Raj Era dawned and spread to include Mussoorie and Landour in its ambit.
Conversations on Doon’s famed canals, also often referred to as Cautley’s canals, are common table talk one hears in Doon and its Diaspora. Admittedly, Proby Cautley (1802-1871) solved the pressing and till then insurmountable difficulty of providing adequate water to the citizens and, more importantly, to the parched uplands of the Valley. Land revenue was the major source for the exchequer of the British East India Company and annexation of Doon would have been a loss making venture if the area under agriculture could not be expanded. Hence, the importance of Cautley’s engineering feat of bringing water down from springs and streams at the northern end of the Valley and foothills through the device of check dams and masonry canals like Bijapur Canal, Rajpur Canal, Raipur Canal, Kalinga Canal, etc. What is perhaps less known is that these canals planned and executed by Cautley had another more significant purpose. Cautley, tasked with the engineering of the Ganga Canal from Haridwar to Kanpur, needed to work out the hydrology of a five hundred mile canal and ensure optimum and perennial flow from end to end. Thus, Cautley experimented with Doon’s canals to establish a foolproof gradient required throughout the five hundred miles of the Ganga Canal, doing it so admirably that the results are there even after two centuries to behold.
Today, Old Doon is a distant recall and Cautley’s canals are fast disappearing from public memory like the pure water that flowed in them.

(Pradeep Singh is author of “The Suswa Saga: A Family Narrative of Eastern Dehradun” and “Sals of the Valley”)