The stunning Rani-Ki-Vav in Gujarat.
While I appreciate the gift of modern plumbing my gratitude springs from the sheer comfort and convenience of luxuries such as turn-of-the-tap running water and flushing loos. Beauty is not in the equation. That wasn’t the story 1000 years ago when stepwells emerged to solve the water woes of India’s desert regions, particularly in Rajastan and Gujarat. No holes in the ground to catch the run off, these stepwells brought glory to their financiers, builders and deities through architectural, engineering and artistic brilliance. Many must have taken years and an army of workers and craftsmen to construct.
The exquisite beauty emerging from centuries of Saraswati River silt.
Intricate carving decorating the Rani-Ki-Vav
Stepwells – baori in Hindi and Vav in Gujarati – are unique to the Indian subcontinent. While their primary role was to bring a reliable supply of water to people and animals, the vital life-sustaining properties of water also gave them an important function in the performance of rites and rituals. In Hindu mythology water has a special significance as a boundary between the subterranean, celestial and earthly worlds bestowing the wells with religious significance. Hence their intricate and exquisite artistry.
Early morning ablutions at the ghat – the inspiration for stepwells.
Apart from being structures of great beauty the wells were supremely engineered with stone steps in elaborate geometric patterns leading visitors down many levels to the waters edge. The designers drew their inspiration from the structure of ghats – long, shallow stairs and landings along muddy river banks – which allowed locals and trade route travellers to access the water for clothes washing, bathing and religious purposes. The wells were often built within proximity to temples emphasising their spiritual importance.
Chand Baori in Abhaneri.
Serendipity perhaps, but an Indian travel blogger I follow recently wrote a post devoted to step wells. She was curious, given their beauty and historical status, why so many were in bad states of crumbling decay, full of rubbish and stagnant water. Her research suggested they fell into disrepair during the British Raj because the colonisers regarded them as health hazards and potential sources of infection. So most stepwells, including some we visited, harbour ponds of green, murky liquid floating with discarded carton, plastic bags and assorted detritus.
Elaborate Sun Temple complex, Modhera, Gujarat, built in 1026. Don’t drink the water!
But all is not lost. The Rani-ki-Vav in Patan in Gujarat, built in the 11 Century for the widowed Queen of Bhimdev in memory of her husband, on the banks of the Saraswati River, was World Heritage listed in 2014 and last year won the title as India’s cleanest iconic place. The extent and beauty of the well was revealed by Archeological Survey of India excavations from the 1960s after being submerged for centuries, the victim of monsoonal mountains of silt which had washed down the river. Another of the Bhimdev dynasty’s stepwells is found at Modhera, also in Gujarat, as part of an elaborate Sun Temple complex built in 1026AD.
The earliest stepwells date to about 550 AD, with over 3000 in Gujarat and Rajasthan. The town of Bundi, roughly midway between Udaipur and Jaipur, alone has over 50. Although many wells have fallen into disrepair, and are boarded off, hundreds remain. We saw examples of various sizes and intricacy, and states of repair, sadly many beyond redemption. Others are in the hands of the archeologists, the Chand Baori in Abhaneri in Rajasthan one of the most impressive and visually spectacular. A deep, four-sided structure with an commanding temple on one face, its walls step down 13 stories to a depth of over 30 metres. The well and an adjoining temple, dedicated to Hashat Mata, the Goddess of Joy and Happiness, date back to the 10th century. Both the well and temple have broken sculptures marked and ready to be returned to former glories, a treat in store for both the people of India and overseas travellers to the sub-continent. Let’s hope the end results could match the description of a stepwell visited by mid-19th Century French world traveller Louis Rousselet: “….water covered with lotuses in flower, amid which thousands of aquatic birds are sporting”.
Stone sculptures waiting for restoration, Chand Baori