To governments in India, desperate times call for desperate measures. Whenever there is a drought, they reach out in desperation for solutions such as cloud seeding, water trains and even yagnas, prompting criticisms and accusations of unpreparedness. One view is that there was a great golden era of secular rationality in public life that has eroded over the past several decades. But in truth, governments have always employed seemingly irrational measures to combat droughts. Even during the colonial and Nehruvian period, one practice was to call in water diviners – individuals who claim to have the ability to locate underground water with twitching forked twigs, among other things.

Founded in 1949, the Rajasthan Underground Water Board was the first institution in India to deal exclusively with groundwater. On the board sat the usual array of politicians and civil servants. The only member with expertise in water was a diviner called Paniwala Maharaj, who had reputedly acquired his powers through years of yogic practice. Described by the Times of India as having “X-Ray sight”, he would see “a cloud of haze in the depths of the earth” and indicate the quality and quantity of water with “mathematical precision”, baffling “men of science who were inclined to scoff at this mumbo jumbo of psychic powers”. In addition to paying him a handsome salary, the government also took over the maintenance of his ashram from the Saurashtra government, which had previously employed him.

It is difficult to imagine now the sway held by the largely forgotten Paniwala Maharaj – the geophysicists who work at the board today expressed disbelief that it ever employed such a charlatan – but the employment of water diviners was a longstanding practice. When the conservative Congressman and Premier of Madras Presidency C Rajagopalachari found out in the late 1930s that the Public Works Department employed them, he fumed in an opinion noted on file:

“The employment of water-diviners is a mere device to get rid of the uncomfortable feeling in the mind when we make a choice without reason. The government cannot be a party to such expenditure…I would advise a decisive step putting an end to this practice.”

A nose for water

The last water diviner who rose as high as the yogi Paniwala Maharaj was Major CA Pogson of the Maratha Light Infantry. Having learnt the art from his father in Hove on the Sussex coast, he rose to prominence during the summer and (failed) monsoon of 1925. He was invited to prospect for water for a club in the hill station of Matheran. Faced with drought and fearing famine, the colonial government of Bombay moved to appoint Pogson as its official Water Diviner. This was met with strident opposition in the provincial legislature.

In a speech that the Times of India called his most fiery, Mulund Rao Jayakar of the Swaraj Party satirically suggested that the government also appoint a fortuneteller to predict the party’s fate in the next elections. Moulvi Rafiuddin Ahmad protested “ the name of Oxford and Cambridge and of science and of Huxley and Herbert Spencer” and said that he wouldn’t be surprised if the next appointment was a Surgeon General for Faith Healing. Recalling that the Surgeon General had dismissed Ayurvedic and Unani medical systems, he felt that by placing faith in an “English quack”, the House would lose the right to call for Western science to take the place of Eastern superstition. Calling upon the government to draw upon the belief in the civilisation “which they had been preaching to Indians”, he said encouraging supernatural powers was bad in principle.

The government gave examples to support their choice. In Scotland, water-divining was a regular trade. Diviners were routinely employed by Commonwealth governments in Australia and South Africa. Calling himself a scientific man, the home minister argued that Pogson’s skill was “no magic”. Supernatural powers were merely those that were not possessed by all and were not extra-scientific; civilisation had robbed man of several powers and water-divining was no different from the keen sense of smell possessed by hounds.

Otto Edler von Graeve, a German divining rod proponent. Photo credit: George Grantham Bain/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under Creative Commons]

Major Pogson had merely scientifically systematised his powers. Divining merely implied a process of deducing from facts or guessing from physical experiment, a purely scientific exercise no different from the finance minister deducing what income and expenditure figures to enter into a budget. Appropriating the enthusiasm of science, he called for an experiment in a speech to the Bombay legislature on August 9, 1925.

“If in the past years people did not carry on experiments, where, Sir, would be your steam engines, and railways and steamships? Who ever thought 50 years ago of wireless telegraphy? The progress of science has been so remarkable in recent years that it seems to me he would be a rash person indeed who would protest that it was impossible for a person to develop his physical powers so as to make it possible for him to locate scientifically underground supplies of water.”

A farmer, George Casely, uses a hazel twig to find water on the land around his Devon farm in 1942. Photo credit: Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under Creative Commons]

Drowned out by critics

Calling this “scientific colouring” nothing short of pure superstition, the opposition wanted statistics. Few of the sites suggested by Pogson had actually been drilled and tested. As boring was expensive, only those sites were bored which were recommended by multiple “experts” (a Geological Survey of India geologist in important projects, the celebrity diviner, water supply engineers and perhaps a local diviner). Even if the numbers indicated success, it would be impossible to attribute it to Pogson alone.

Pogson’s achievements in Bombay Presidency were confined to the hill stations. Besides Mahabaleshwar, where club members were invited to feel the twitching of the dowsing rod (it is unknown if a well was actually sunk), a spot he located for the Matheran municipality failed to strike water at an expensive 120 feet around the same time.

Legislator CM Saptarishi of the drought-hit Ahmednagar district said the Deputy Collector there had characterised Pogson’s work there as nothing short of humbug. Critics argued that rather than the government having found a diviner, it was the diviner who had found a simpleton in the government. After a protracted debate, the resolution to employ Major Pogson was put to vote and carried by a single vote.

The next few years saw the controversy reappear every time Pogson’s position came up for renewal. In 1927, the government avoided debate by stealthily moving his salary from the “votable” to the “non-votable” section of the budget, on the ostensible grounds that as a military man appointed by the Secretary of State in London, his salary was protected – neglecting to mention that he was employed in Bombay in his personal capacity. This move was questioned even in the House of Commons in London, and when they discovered it in 1928, Bombay legislators described Pogson as a “Jagirdar of the service” who had glided out of their control.

By the next year though, his employment fell prey to Depression era retrenchment. Ever entrepreneurial Pogson had advertised extensively in the Times of India through the 1920s, which not only gave him space to write several articles but also strongly supported his appointment. In the late 1930s, the Major was still hopeful of a sarkari sinecure, and wrote to the Colonial Office in London offering his services for a rumoured new Jewish settlement in Tanganyika.

A walk with the Yogi

Even at the most conservative end, India’s polity had developed a critique of water-divining early on. It is curious then that there was no debate on the employment of Paniwala Maharaj in independent India – a parliamentary question in 1951 even suggested that he be employed to find oil.

Perhaps the contrast may be explained by the stark irony in Major Pogson’s case of a colonial government imposing a seemingly superstitious practice on natives, as one Bombay politician put it, “East has become West and West has become East”.

The debates over Pogson also had as much to do with Indian-isation of the services, since every new European appointment in the era was endlessly debate. Indeed, some like DP Desai objected to the appointment merely on the grounds that Indian water diviners were available at no expense, divination “was the special monopoly of the East”, and there was no need to turn to the West. The government defended itself by admitting that Indian water diviners were quite good, but argued that they could only locate springs, not underground springs. As Pogson drew excellent graphs indicating the sources and quantity, this façade of science made western water divining superior to the Indian practice.

A traditional water diviner from Saurashtra.

In postcolonial India, no less than arch homo scientificus Nehru was seemingly an enthusiast for the yogi’s skills, exploring two square miles of land with Paniwala Maharaj to find water for a refugee colony in Faridabad (which incidentally now houses the Central Groundwater Board). As Sudhir Ghosh, the man in-charge of the colony, wrote in his memoirs, when government engineers said it was impossible to base a town of 40,000 there due to lack of water, Nehru told him of the Gujarati diviner. Together with a sceptical colonel, Ghosh walked over 3,500 acres with the seer, drilling at points where Maharaj tapped his foot. As he wrote in his book Gandhi’s Emissary in the late 1960s:

“...Up to this day there is no other source of water for this large industrial town with all its big industries except these tubewells… in an area where we were told scientifically by engineers that there was no water and a town could not be built.”

Why do governments employ irrational forces despite criticism? For the British, historians might argue, this was because they saw themselves as possessing a better understanding of the “real India” of peasants than the middle class intelligentsia – the legitimacy of colonial power rested on emphasising this. In addition, for a government stingy with relief measures, a made-for-press diviner offered a cheap way of being seen to be doing something. One may speculate whether similar reasons continue to operate in the employment of irrational means in postcolonial India.

Kapil Subramanian is a historian of science. He is writing a new history of the Green Revolution.