March 25th, 2010

Stepwells and Civilization

By Karan Mahajan.

Novelist Karan Mahajan descends into the stepwells of Gujarat and Rajastan to report on one of modern India’s disappearing treasures.



The stepwell lacks a proper analogue in the modern world. Sunk into earth like a man-made canyon, it is impossible to imagine whole. Viewed from the sky, it looks nothing more than series of sandstone slabs laid across a long rectangular pit that ends in a circular mouth — a mysterious keyhole. Once inside, stunned by a symmetrical row of pavilions and columns, your line of vision is forced parallel to the ground even as you descend. You feel as if you are sinking through a series of corridors that have been stacked upon each other, rather than a single passage unfolding downwards. You never know how far you are from the bottom.

In this way the stepwell complicates the idea of a regular well — a cylindrical shaft pressed down for some hundred feet — by providing a means of walking, gradually, underground, to its very base. Built between the 8th century and 20th century in India, before the water-table was cranked lower and lower by pipes, stepwells marshaled monsoon runoff in a heatstruck climate. They were brilliant mixed-use spaces where people came to drink, bathe, wash clothes, socialize, and tether animals — and if you were a traveler seeking a cool spot, steps on which to sleep. Nor were the uses all solemn. Local schoolchildren, skipping class, would strip down to their underwear and dive from different heights into these placid reservoirs, searching, breaths held and limbs tight, for coins.

Of the hundreds of stepwells, or vavs, littered through the country, none are grander than those found in the drought-prone Indian states of Gujarat and Rajasthan, bordering Pakistan in the west. The 15th-century Rudabai Stepwell at Adalaj, some 30 minutes north of Gujarat’s commercial capital, Ahmedabad, was one of my first stops. It is one of the most intricate and massive monuments in the state. Two and hundred fifty feet in length, the structure consists of a rectangular passageway cut into the earth, plunging downward, bolstered with stone walls and stone stairs and five broad landings. The walls and entryways are accoutered with a dizzying range of sculptures, friezes, niches, and carvings. At each landing is a pavilion or gateway with multiple platforms held aloft by thick columns. The roof of each of these subterranean pavilions is lined at ground level, so that the first pavilion has two stories, and the fourth has five, and through the stagger of columns of this last pavilion you see an ankle-deep pool of clear water bent into a square, dappled with tadpoles, and crowned by an opening of sky. Octagonal balconies, stacked one upon the other, rising to the ground level, provide multiple viewing areas for this hidden pool. It is hard not to be moved by the reversal of symmetries at the bottom of Rudabai: the water is at your feet and the light, misting down in a hazy shaft, is what you now crave.

Wading past the pool, I found myself facing an empty semi-circular shaft. This was the true source of the water, a well dug into drenched semi-permeable rock. It’s near-perpetual dryness was confirmed upstairs by the caretaker of the site. By default he became my guide. I had come upon him slapping a shallow landing with a broom so short it would have taken him approximately 6,700 sweeps to dust the entire place. Unlike the racketeers who roam India’s ruins, he was reluctant to attach himself to me, and for that I trusted him. He was employed by the Archaeological Survey of India. His task — cleaning — was impossible, and a little sad. On his head was a mop of wiggish black hair offset by cobwebs of white on his lower-neck; his cheeks were studded with silver stubble, and he had the face of someone who is mathematically sound. He identified 3 entries, 9 stone-colors, 5 floors, 35 balconies, 315 pillars, 216 steps, and 5 government departments (monument office, garden office, chemical office, overgrowth department, and excavation office) he dealt with for the slightest repair.

Drawing my attention to the steps underfoot, he pointed out that the stones were interlocking and numbered, and explained that they had been cut elsewhere and brought here to be puzzled into place. The monument had survived earthquake after earthquake. Now the stepwell’s major enemy — and by association, my guide’s — was bat guano. It took him two hours every day to clean the black turds. Then he took me up a narrow side-flight of stairs that wound from the very bottom of the well to its top. From here I pushed out into the dry air and looked down the main shaft into pigeon-shit-specked emptiness (bats weren’t the only ones fond of Rudabai). Grilles had been laid across the top of the semi-circular opening. The guide said they were meant to discourage suicides.


The user of the well — when it was still operational — could throw a bucket down into the shaft directly, or be social and walk down the steps to the source. The walk wasn’t necessarily arduous; in the rainy season water could rise as much as three stories, subtracting more than a handful of stairs. Now the steps were damp and mossy, as they are for much of the year, and the water was little more than a rain-fed puddle at the heart of the temple. The Rudabai Stepwell, rejected first by the British for fear of breeding ringworm, and then cheated by water-tables that sank past its reach, is desiccated and defunct — like most stepwells. In 1982, water came up to the second landing of the structure; in 1995, to the fourth; now, unless the rain is stupendous, it refuses to rise at all. The groundwater is too depleted. The first structure in sight as you exit into a dusty courtyard is a monstrous water tank shaped like an upturned drum. This is the community’s source of sustainence.

But the religious purpose of the stepwell still persists. On one hand, the Rudabai Stepwell has been co-opted completely by Hindus — a small, squat, whitewashed temple, built a half-century ago, brashly shares its wall with the southern end of the vav — and on the other, it offers up its sandstone ledges as a sort of museum of cross-religious borrowings. Hindu and Muslim motifs abound and interact. The panels of half-lotuses and flowers running along the walls and the voluptuous inner-leaf vines framed in tiny shrines are patently Islamic in their austerity; the friezes and niches are Hindu. Stepping from platform to platform, I came upon a carving of erotic girls churning butter; a conch of Shiva pressed into the ground; and a few freshly-bathed devotees praying to a shrine of Bhageshwari Devi, the 500 year-old statue freshened with dabs of vermillion powder and curlicues of incense-smoke.

Such secular style is highly unusual, particularly when examined in the glare of Gujarat’s troubled communal history. Cleaved by history and politics, Hindus and Muslims have always lived in an uneasy truce here, but since the anti-Muslim riots of March 2002, the truce has begun to feel more and more like an ambush. The Hindu nationalist Government accused of directing the pogrom is still in power and is presiding over great prosperity. The ills of the state are blamed on Muslims, who are said to reproduce at terrific rates. How do the people of Gujarat live with the thousands of lives that were lost and ruined? The caretaker said, “Outsiders did it. Vajpayee” — the then Prime Minister of India — “did it.” Then he pointed across the top of the stepwell to a man who was squatting over its edge, and said, “Look, he’s a Muslim, and he’s my friend. The riots are a city problem. In villages it was never a problem.” And so it was. Other people I met made rote gestures of communal harmony; a few dipped with evident pain into accounts of mutilations; the majority were consumed by the recent spate of bomb blasts by home-bred Islamic militants. But for most the past remained debatable; everyone was too overwhelmed by the present to mourn.

This unwillingness to agree on the past was true of the Rudabai Stepwell itself. I had read two conflicting stories about the eponymous Hindu princess who was the well’s patron — one suggesting she was married to a local Hindu chieftain, the other that she was a bride in a Muslim family — and my guide dutifully added a third. Queen Rudabai, he said, fended off the matrimonial advances of a Muslim ruler by demanding that he first build her a stepwell. She wasn’t being difficult, he explained. The Muslim ruler had recently executed her Hindu husband. Murderous impulses aside, this ruler must have had a heart after all, because he agreed to her terms and even included in the plan Hindu designs. Stone by stone, year after year, the stepwell was excavated in the desert landscape. Then, when it was finally completed and inaugurated with water, Rani Rudabai, mourning the death of her husband, unwilling to convert, threw herself into it, and as legend has it, drowned.


The danger of the Hindu-Muslim interaction is more evident at the Chand Baori (‘Baori’ means ‘stepwell’ in local parlance) at Abhaneri in the adjoining state of Rajasthan: it is built some 50 feet from Harshat Mata Mandir, a temple that was nearly razed in the 12th century by Muslim invaders from Persia, and its own survival is owed to the physical paradox of razing a structure that is underground.

Technically a stepped-pond — a deep tank with steps leading down to it from all sides — the Chand Baori resembles an inverted Aztec pyramid, a square gash in the ground that becomes, depending on the time of day, an arrowhead for pouring sunshine or glimmering moonlight (“Chand” means “moon” or “silver”). Built in the eighth century, it is the largest open-air, stepped structure in India. Except for the royal viewing gallery that rises five stories high from the west wall of the pool, there are no pavilions, no shade, and unlike the Adalaj stepwell, no lack of perspective. In fact, there’s too much of it: 13 steep shelves that de-escalate some 65 feet into a central pool and together exert an exacting gravity on the casual climber. Each shelf is lined with a series of lateral staircases — mini-ziggurats — to help you move sideways on your way down. Imagine pyramid after pyramid arranged on the shelves of an inverted pyramid and you have pretty much experienced the bewilderment of the tourist.

Down below, where there should have been sparkling mineral water, a trough of algae had turned the color of baked spinach. The ash-grey sandstone made the entire place look singed and dilapidated. A local guide informed me that the movie “The Fall” had been shot here. (A Google search yielded a cast list with precisely zero known actors. Its main star appeared to be the stepwell itself.)

Movies, local and foreign, are an important economic engine for internal tourism in India. Everyone watches them and longs to inhabit their scenery. Sitting on a ledge at Chand Baori, tired, hot, and scribbling notes, I was approached by three young men, each thinner than the next. “Here’s a man who knows his history,” said their leader. He was the sort of youth who talks to you indirectly by addressing his sidekicks, who in this case were quiet and deferential. Residents of Jaipur, the three had only recently heard of Abhaneri, and were on a pilgrimage to experience first-hand the opening shots of the movie “Paheli,” in which the actress Rani Mukherjee sings and dances on the steep steps. To establish their seriousness, they pointed out that the superhit “Karan Arjun” had been shot at the adjoining temple. Then they tested me by asking whether the place had indeed, as the myth suggested, been built in a night. It is the sort of question that always befuddles me, given that only a few minutes later the same men interrogated me about the video features of my camera, the website address of this magazine, and my pay package. I politely quashed the building myth and ended speculations as to my pay. In compensation I went along with their contention that you couldn’t possibly climb back up the stepwell along the same route that you came down — even if you made chalk markings. They had a good point, after all. The place was vertiginous.

The leader of the group was a fast talker. Thinking I was a high-minded historian, he’d been flattering to me; later, when the truth emerged that I was a writer, his attitude changed. When another friend who was wandering the monument called out from a distance, “Is he a guide?” the leader shouted back dismissively, “No, man, he’s only doing research.” Thereafter he was almost eager to uplift me, and so it came as a surprise to him that I had taken a plane, rather than a bus, to Jaipur (he had forced this from me). He seized on the opportunity to defend himself. “I am also in the travel business,” he said.

Which was true, in a way. He ran a taxi company. His thinness took on the slightly drained and desperate aspect of an underpaid entrepreneur. Inevitably, the conversation turned to the recent wave of terrorism, and I asked if the bomb blasts in Jaipur, the closest city and a tourist capital of India, had affected business. Last year, in May, 9 bombs had gone off in a single day there, killing 63 people. Two months later, in July, 21 bombs ripped through Ahmedabad, killing 56. Then, in September, 5 serial bombs were detonated in Delhi, killing 30. An Islamic group called the Indian Mujahideen had taken collective responsibility for the attacks. Now tourists were scarce and people were too frightened to celebrate the Hindu festivals of Diwali and the Navratris in November. Though the taxi driver said his business was doing fine, he lamented the growing fear. But when I mentioned, in echoing lamentation, that the Government of Gujarat had ordered an end to festivities by midnight at some temples, he perked up. “If you ask me,” he said, rubbing his hands, “it’s not a bad thing they’re closing early. Navratris are a time for all sorts of dubious activity. Trucks full of condoms are sent to Ahmedabad from Jaipur during Navratris — they don’t have enough condoms!”

Hinduism has always been an exceptionally permissive religion — one need only watch Bollywood movies or the friezes of erotic dancing girls to confirm this — and sadly it is this permisssiveness that more and more Hindus now abhor. Hindu extremism is seen as the only way to battle Islamic fundamentalism. The history of the neighboring Harshat Mata temple is the defeatist history that Hindu nationalists love to flaunt. Built along with the Chand Baori by King Chandra of the Nikumbha Rajputs in the 8th century, the stone temple was ruined in an attack by Mahmud of Ghazni in the 12th century, known for his singular intention to terrorize, pillage, and return to Persia. Nearly all the statues in the temple were lopped off and, in keeping with Islamic custom, defaced — and one can ponder these ruins now under the courtyard that encloses the mouth of the Chand Baori, where they are housed in a desolate row.

Seeing the scratched statues of gods and goddesses, one could understand why Hindu crowds are so easily worked into a frenzy through a litany of historical atrocities. These very crowds had been responsible for the destruction in 1993 of the Babri Masjid which, they claimed, was built on the birthplace of the god Ram. Years later, when Hindu nationalist workers were returning to Gujarat and the bogey of their train caught on fire, burning them alive, the incident was blamed on Muslims, and used as an excuse to attack the Islamic population of the state in general, inciting the riots of 2002. The wave of Islamic terrorism India is witnessing now is a backlash against this. Factions of Indian Muslims are being radicalized, setting up a dangerous stand-off. India is now only a terrorist attack away from a situation in which the Hindus will turn en masse on the Muslim minority.

In the madness everyone has forgotten that this is, in the end, a battle for resources. There isn’t enough food or water or money to go around, and people, inflamed by religious differences, feel they must move fast and violently to acquire what they need. And yet the commonality of need is precisely what made the stepwells so transferable between clans and over eras. Chand Baori was built by a Hindu, annexed by a Persian, and later renovated by a Mughal chieftain in the 18th century, but its function remained unchanged. People from the surrounding village would climb down the steps to scoop up water. The royalty, having bathed, would change behind the latticed pavilions. Two bulls, tied in a room in the royal chamber and forced to move in a circle, would together pull water up from the well. In this way the routine continued until it could simply go on no more.

—September 2008

Karan Mahajan, a former bureaucrat, is the author of the novel Family Planning, which is being published in nine countries.

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