Posted 15 June 2011, by Arjun Kumar, Economic Times (The Times of India), economictimes.indiatimes.com,
Just as water is best appreciated in summer, stories about step-wells are best read in the dry season. Especially when the step-wells in question are not merely holes in the ground but richly decorated historical structures that were not just a perennial source of water for the people around but also a power statement for those who built them.
Step-wells like the Rani-ki-vav at Patan in Gujarat, the Chand Baoli at Abhaneri in Rajasthan’s Dausa district and the Rudabai step-well at Adalaj in Gujarat’s Gandhinagar, to name but three, are iconic in their size and design. Rani-ki-vav is named after its patron-builder Queen Udaymati, wife of Solanki King Bhimdev (1022-63) and is believed to have been completed in the second half of the 11th century.
Patan, now a small town dwarfed by Ahmedabad, was the capital of the Solankis and was called Anahilvada. The step-well is laid out in an eastwest direction, the main well being in the west and the entrance in the east. While the well itself is dilapidated, the staircase and the walls of the stepped corridor are intact.
The ornamentation on the walls on both sides runs the entire length of the structure and is rich, with a mix of mythological figures, geometrical shapes and floral designs. On the walls and the niches are a pantheon of gods such as Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva, Surya, Ganesh, Kuber, Indra and others, many with consorts. While the place is no longer in use as a step-well, the richness of detailing on these figures still draws people.
Closer to Ahmedabad is the stepwell at Adalaj. As in the case of the vav at Patan, this one too is believed to have a woman as its patron-builder. Ruda, after whom the step-well is named, was the consort of Vaghela chief Virasimha. An inscription in the well dates it to 1499. Unlike the well at Patan, the Adalaj vav is built in a north-south direction and has three entrances that come together in a platform at the first level underground.
The well has a stepped corridor, which descends underground with four pavilions across five levels. Almost as richly embellished as the vav at Patan, the recurring motif here is of fighting elephants. There are fewer gods and goddesses and the most significant icon is that of a lion built into a niche on a pavilion. The lion, which carries a trident on its back, is believed to represent the goddess Durga as her celestial vehicle.
Gujarat is dotted with numerous step-wells, each more beautiful than the last. Move a little to the north and the vavs of Gujarat give way to the baolis (also called baoris) of Rajasthan and Haryana. Buried in the obscurity of the countryside in Dausa district is the village of Abhaneri where the Chand Baoli stands. Built by Nikhumba Rajput ruler Chandra in the 8th-9th century, the baoli is square in shape and has nearly 3,500 steps to the bottom, making it one of the deepest in India.
Two niches projecting into the well from a lower pavilions have iconoraphy depicting Ganesh and the goddess Mahisasura-mardini. Rajasthan and Haryana probably have more step-wells than Gujarat but the latter scores as vavs have extensive structural decoration and more polished iconography. The higher degree of decoration is probably on account of greater funding being available from wealthy merchants in Gujarat compared with Rajasthan where the baolis were a public necessity built by cash-strapped rulers of states that were often conflict- ridden.
Delhi has its share of step-wells too. Of these, Agrasen-ki-baoli is notable. Rectangular in shape and 103 steps deep, the baoli looks like it is out of a time machine because of its location – the towers of Delhi’s central business district loom above it. Maharaja Agrasen is believed to have built the step-well in the 15th century with the mosque being a later addition. There is also a baoli at Nizamuddin, whose water is believed to have had miraculous healing powers.
Another baoli whose waters were said to have healing powers – on account of their sulphur content – is the Gandhak-ki- baoli, in Mehrauli village. There are other step-wells in Delhi, from large ones like the Rajaon-ki-baoli in the Mehrauli Archaeological Park to smaller ones like the Arab-ki-sarai within the Humayun Tomb complex.
While the region running westwards from Delhi to Gujarat via Haryana and Rajasthan has the most step-wells, the construction of such structures to store water went into other regions as well. An example of an early Mughal era step-well is the one built by Babar at Fatehpur Sikri, just outside the Hathi (Elephant) gateway.
A large, long-dry well located outside a garhi or fortified monastery in Ranod village of Shivpuri district is representative of step-wells in Madhya Pradesh. In the south, stepwells occur in proximity to religious places thus doubling up as temple tanks. That point brings us to the question of why the step-wells were constructed in the first place.
It is not mere chance that some of India’s largest, finest and certainly the most numerous step-wells are concentrated in the states of Haryana, Delhi, Rajasthan and Gujarat, extending into parts of Uttar Pradesh and even Madhya Pradesh. From time immemorial, long stretches of north-west India have been largely arid. The only time these parts have ample water is in the monsoon season – a period that lasts barely three months. Water storage was thus critical.
Step-well construction originated in Gujarat in the sixth and seventh centuries when wells and trenches were dug either to reach perennial sources of water below ground level or to dam-up rainwater. To make the place easier to access, walls were lined and the slope towards the lowest level of the well paved with stone stairs. The success of the idea saw it spreading to other parts of the country.
Step-well construction went on for nearly 1000 years with royal patrons recognizing the importance of the concept and giving it a push. The most highly embellished step- wells are the ones where the patron took a greater interest. Step-wells went beyond being just sources of water. They were public places and congregation points, especially for women whose role was to bring water to the house.
Two facts – that numerous patrons of step-wells were women and that iconography depicting goddesses is often found in the structures – are clear pointers to their being used more by women. This is also borne out by the Chand Baoli, where the step-well needs to be seen as a part of a larger complex that also contains the Harshta Mata temple, dedicated to a goddess who represented joy and happiness.
In the case of some step-wells, their water was likened to the holy water of the Ganges, thus giving them a spiritual dimension and making bathing in them a purification ritual. So if the concept was so successful, why is it that almost all such structures have dried up and are in disuse?
The blame for that has to be put on the British. Horrified by the fact that the unsanitary seeming step-wells were the common source of both drinking and bathing water, the British began establishing pipes, pumps and taps. Their objective was to keep out the guinea worm, a waterborne parasite, from drinking water. They succeeded all too well, and in doing so, ensured that step-wells became obsolete even for bathing purposes.
Modern-day India continues to use the British system without any change. However, with groundwater levels dropping alarmingly all over the country, maybe it is time to revisit the use of step-wells to improve groundwater. Remember, step-well construction was done with ground water enhancement in mind: the rainwater running off into the bottom of the well percolated down into the ground till it reached an impermeable layer of soil.
While the soil absorbed the silt, what was left above was clear water. The wishing wells of yesterday may not be sources of drinking water nor do they have religious significance, but in their subterranean recesses may lie a solution to many water shortage problems.