Are Indians Turning To The 'Supernatural' In Subterranean Search For Water?

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Ambadas Raut uses copper rods known as dowsing sticks to locate sources of underground water in a dry reservoir. He's had 400 clients and says he's found water for 80 percent of them. (NPR)
Ambadas Raut uses copper rods known as dowsing sticks to locate sources of underground water in a dry reservoir. He's had 400 clients and says he's found water for 80 percent of them. (NPR)

A drone buzzes a half-mile above the earth in the drought-stricken Indian state of Maharashtra. It's beaming back live video to photographer Raju Shinde. "I've been shooting this area for the last decade," he says, "observing the changes."

They are profound.

Not long ago, Shinde explains, the vast acreage where the drone is hovering was underwater: It was a brimming dam, the Bendsura Project. But after several years of drought the reservoir that once supplied water to the entire nearby city of Beed is now empty. Half of this western state — 28,000 villages — is battling a severe water shortage.

As the drought has dragged on, groundwater has been overextracted. One farmer after the next has drilled a borewell in search of water. Thousands more homeowners have done the same.

But before they dig, they've often sought guidance from men like 56-year-old Ambadas Raut, a retired farmer-turned-water diviner.

By 2015, the dam was dry.
By 2015, the dam was dry.

Raut has accompanied us to the dam to demonstrate how he does it. Raut says when he first started "dowsing," other farmers were skeptical. But that changed once he charged a small fee. Only when they began handing over $20 did they begin taking him seriously, he says.

Raut's profession may be as old as agriculture. The ancient Egyptians etched water diviners on the walls of their temple. The Bible alludes to Moses dowsing for water.

Raut, a slight man, stands stock-still, holding copper rods known as dowsing sticks. As he takes tiny steps forward, his feet barely move off the ground. He's deep in concentration.

Within a minute, the copper rods start to cross. "Water!" he says. "We have found one flow of water and so now I need to move into another direction," to see whether there is a channel. Raut says he will often spend three hours traversing a plot of land to ensure he's found the richest vein of water.

He marks the spot, smudging the dirt with his sandal. On three consecutive tries he finds what he says is a new flow that intersects the original one, copper rods crossing each time. "There is either a good source of water, or it could mean it is very close to the surface," Raut says. As a diviner he can only discern the presence of water, not the depth or volume, he says.

The Bendsura Project is now empty. The white line on the dam wall 20 feet up marks the old water line when the reservoir was flush with water just a few years back.
The Bendsura Project is now empty. The white line on the dam wall 20 feet up marks the old water line when the reservoir was flush with water just a few years back.

Of course, it's all hypothetical until a well is actually dropped. Raut says two years of consecutive drought have depleted water so much that even his line of work is drying up. The last time he discovered water for a client was a month ago.

I asked Raut if he feels any special energy when the rods move. "It's what any normal person would feel when they hold an iron close to a magnet," he says, describing the sensation. "They feel that pull."

Raut has divined water for about 400 clients with what he says is an 80 percent success rate.

The U.S. Geological Survey suggests that may not be surprising. "Some water exists under the Earth's surface almost everywhere," the Survey notes, which it says would explain the dowser's ability to find it.

But that doesn't explain what makes the rods move.

I take up the copper sticks, find what looks to be an especially dry spot, and try my hand at dowsing. Before too long the sticks forcefully cross. There is no scientific explanation for this.

Greg Storozuk, the one-time president of the American Society of Dowsers, says it's not the rods that are attracted to the water. "It's the mind that does the work. The tool just does the indicating," he says. "Science doesn't have the answers, therefore the skill gets swept under the rug," relegated to the province of "folklore and magic," Storozuk says.

When asked whether he has a "gift" for locating water, Ambadas Raut simply says it's an "ability" honed by "practice." The water diviner himself is mystified by the physics at work in this ancient exercise that is both dismissed as pseudoscience and hailed as special sensory perception.

"What is this? I don't know," he says. "Maybe God only knows. I just know it's there."

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.