Published On: Sun, Feb 26th, 2017

India’s indigenous architectural response to water shortage

“India already, has all the solutions to today’s world problems, but nobody understands!” my mother insisted reading columns about ‘sustainability’ and ‘responsible living’ from a local newspaper that Girish, our newspaper vendor would drop by at home every day. I usually dismissed her rant as nothing more than a nationalistic streak. However, last year, when I trekked to the Living Root Bridges of Meghalaya, I had for the first time understood the true meaning of my mother’s words!

Since then, I have been consumed by this demonic urge to find gems of environmental, cultural, social, economic or political proportions and understand how unearthing these dilapidated ruins or heritage that could offer some insights into 21st century world problems.

So when Tourism Corporation of Gujarat Limited, shared their itinerary for the media tour of International Kite Festival 2016, I was more than excited to find a mention of visit to Queen’s Stepwell or Rani-ki-Vav, an ancient Indian architectural marvel that claims to hold secrets to indigenous ways of water management and storage.


Stepwells are also known as Pushkarnis, down South

Stepwell: The vision of ancient India:

The western part of India has always seen a hot, semi- arid climate with capricious rainfall, causing water scarcity. The indigenous Indians back then, always collected rain water in structures that would stay accessible all the yearlong, while people could draw the water to tend to their daily needs. As our media entourage made our entry into the vicinity of Rani Ki Vav, I picked up a guide book at the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) counter, just at the entrance. Flipping through the book, by Kirit Mankodi, a Mumbai based Archaeology Professor, I read that the origins of Stepwells, can be found somewhere between the 2nd and 4th centuries A.D. One can trace the beginning of construction of Stepwells in Dhank, near Rajkot, Gujarat (550-625 A.D.), followed by the stepped ponds at Bhinmal, in the Jalore district of Rajasthan (850-950 A.D.). After that the construction of Stepwells is known to have gone on vigorously fast spreading from the south western region of Gujarat to the north of Rajasthan, along the western border of the country, to Karnataka in South, where they came to be known as ‘Pushkarnis.’ Excavations in the ancient city of Mohenjo-daro, of as many as 700 wells have led the scholars to believe that these ‘cylindrical brick-lined wells’ might have been invented by the people of the Indus Valley Civilisation and may be the predecessors of the Stepwells, which we see today.


Intricate walls and pillars, leading downstairs

Cultural and social significance:

For centuries, these Stepwells remained an integral part of the western Indian communities as sites for drinking, washing, and bathing. However, the book also suggests that these were used for colourful festivals and sacred rituals. Stepwells, also served as cool refuges for caravans, pilgrims, and common travellers who tried to escape the scorching heat of the day or the cold wind at night. As we took a tour, wondering about the indigenous ideas of an era gone by, our guide for the day, Anant Bhavsar, a sleek looking guide remarked, “The Stepwells also served as uniting force of a 19th century India, under the British Raj, as people used to gather around the reservoirs under the pretext of drawing water from the wells, while secretly scheming mutinies and independence war. Perhaps, that is what led the British to ban the water structures as ‘simply unhygienic structures.’ The real reason behind this was to stop the public revolt against the Raj, even before they begun!” While I couldn’t completely agree with what he said, I could definitely sense that with the arrival of British in India modernization brought into ‘alternative means of accessing water’ must have definitely ensured the disuse of the structures.


Poetry carved in stone


Understanding the construction of Stepwells:

India has always been treasure trove of architectural masterpieces that marry form with functionality and therefore it no surprise that these step wells were born as a result of intrinsic need of water in parched states of India. But these magnificent structures were definitely, much more than utilitarian reservoirs. Adorned with exquisitely carved rock sculptures arranged in panelled niches, these Stepwells, one can concur were actually ‘temple-wells,’ which provide an underground flight of stairs, leading down to the underground water. While the Stepwells, I visited in Hampi, are smaller and plain, the Stepwells upwards in the country are evolved architectural forms, marked by pillared pavilions of multiple storeys and images of apsaras, different avatars of Vishnu, gods and deities,  heaven courtrooms and other such depictions from the Hindu mythology.


Decorative Patola patterns adorning the walls of the stepwells, from the Rani-Ki-Vav, Patan Guidebook

Rani Ki Vav: An architectural legend

Rani Ki Vav or Queen’s Stepwell, lies 2 Kilometres to the north-west of the historic town of Patan a recently created district headquarters of Gujarat and is about 140 Kilometres away from Ahmedabad. Amongst the all known Stepwells in India, Rani Ki Vav is the most magnificent man-made structure not only in Gujarat, but the whole country. It therefore, did not come as a surprise to most Indians, when it made to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list in 2014. The legend surrounding the Stepwell really caught my fascination. Unlike other monuments in India, which are known to have been commissioned by kings, emperors and monarchs, Rani Ki Vav claims a queen as its patroness.  It is believed that most of the temples and other charitable edifices in India, were built as acts of benevolence or to gather some bonus-points with the god (Punya!). In fact, the practice of digging wells for the living, was considered as a commemorative act for the dead. Therefore, Queen Udaymati, the partner of King Bhimadeva I of the Solanki dynasty in the 11th century, commissioned the work for the Stepwell, in memory of the King.


A reclining Vishnu can be seen through the window

A present, where the past lies in ruins and the future looks parched:

While the Queen’s Stepwell continues to be one of the most imposing structure in terms of sheer size, profusion of quality and decoration, there are reports and instances of various Stepwells across India falling into disuse. Many are derelict, somewhere the water doesn’t reach the required the water table. Elsewhere, the ground water is being diverted for industrial purposes. In such times, one just wonders- if we’ll let go off an entire category of indigenous solution slip off mankind’s radar or we can indeed redeem our past to tackle the water scarcity monst

This article was originally published at Feet on The Map Blog.

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