Whenever we think of Indian architecture, we think of the Taj Mahal, the Khajuraho Temples etc. but the most important contribution of Indian architecture are not its the majestic forts, beautiful tombs and sublime temples and mosques but a unique water management system known as India’s step wells.
The states of Gujarat and Rajasthan are normally dry with low rainfall and thus rain water harvesting and conservation of water was of utmost importance especially in periods of drought. Water has always played a major role in the lives of Indians with the rivers being worshipped as goddesses and it was just a natural corollary that the places where people gathered to worship, bathe or collect water for daily needs became a focal point of their lives too.
The steps and platforms built on the banks of rivers known, as ghats may perhaps have been the inspiration for the baolis/ baori/vav as stepwells are called in Rajasthan and Gujarat. These also have places of worship and rooms for relaxation attached to it.
The way a step well works is that there is a central, vertical shaft with water, which spreads out to a pool with a broad mouth, and steps are built around it. The baoli itself can be round, rectangular or square and built with the simplicity or magnificence of the means at the command of the builder. The number of subterranean passages and rooms all around it would also depend on the same.
Its depth would depend on the underground water levels and thus inspire elaborate designs for the steps.
These were the precursors of exclusive clubs in ancient and medieval India where people could hang out with each other, provide hospitality to guests from out of town and also get water for their daily needs.
This water management system was discouraged by the British who couldn’t digest that the same water could be used for drinking as well as washing and bathing. They already had their own exclusive clubs and smoke rooms so they just developed the systems of pumps and pipes thus leading to the drying up, clogging and eventual deterioration of this ancient lifestyle.
Though North India has many baolis with Delhi alone boasting of about 30, some of which are still functional my heart was enchanted by the one in Abhaneri. It is just 200 km from and Delhi is one of the world’s oldest, deepest and most spectacular step well.
Called Chand Baori of Abhaneri , in district Dausa of Rajasthan, it is a feat of mathematical perfection from an ancient time. It has 3500 steps built on 13 levels and with the most amazing symmetry as they taper down to meet the water pool.
Said to be the upside down pyramids this baori was built in 9-10th century by Raja Chanda of the Chauhan dynasty.
It was attached to the temple of Harshat Mata and it was a ritual to wash hands and feet at the well before visiting the adjoining temple.
The temple was razed during the 10th century but its remains still boast architectural and sculptural styles of ancient India. Harshat Mata is considered to be the goddess of joy and happiness. According to myth, the goddess is always cheerful, and she imparts her joy and happiness to the whole village.
Nowadays there are railings and so we can’t go down the steps but the temperature at the bottom is 5-6 degrees cooler and must have provided solace during the hot summer days and nights to the locals.
Later the Mughals added galleries and a compound wall around the well and today these house remains of profuse and exquisite carving, which were either in the temple or in the various rooms of the baoli itself.
It is one of the few step wells or rather step pond as Morna Livingston writes in Steps to Water: The Ancient Stepwells of India that it showcases “two classical periods of water building in a single setting.”
An upper palace building was added to one side of the baoli which can be seen from the trabeate arches used by the Chauhan rulers and the cusped arches used by the Mughals.
Access to these rooms are now blocked for tourists and much as I wanted to, I couldn’t go in and can only use my imagination.
If the stones could speak they would recount stories of a time when royalty would have sat in these rooms and heard the pitter patter of the raindrops on the roof and seen it splashing on the beautiful steps with strains of raag malhar being sung by the court musicians in each period.
Perhaps the peacocks would be dancing on the surrounding walls while coourt dancers danced with abandon on the platforms in front of the royal apartments.
Though now stripped of plaster these stone walls would have been plastered with profuse paintings to emphasise the feeling of being in a beautiful moonlit oasis of happiness.
The chanting of the priests as they went down to pray must have accentuated the spirituality of the shimmering water pool and the singing of the women as they went to collect water must have gladdened even the hardest of hearts.
I can’t describe the absolute feelings of awe and wonder that descended on me as I stood there soaking in the ambience of the Moonlit Baori under the bright rays of the sun.