Where Stones Speak | Columns

A mathematical marvel called Chand Baori

rana safvi  

Whenever we think of Indian architecture, we think of the Taj Mahal, the Khajuraho temples, and so on. But the most important contributions of Indian architecture were not majestic forts or beautiful tombs, temples and mosques; it was a unique water management system called a stepwell.

As Gujarat and Rajasthan have low rainfall and are normally dry, rainwater harvesting and conservation of water were of utmost importance in these places, especially during periods of drought. Water has always played a major role in the lives of Indians, as seen in the practice of rivers being worshipped as goddesses, and so it was only natural that the places where people gathered to worship, bathe, or collect water for their daily needs became focal points in their lives.

The steps and platforms built on the banks of rivers, known as ghats, may perhaps have been the inspiration for the baolis or baoris or vavs, as stepwells are called in Rajasthan and Gujarat. These also have places of worship and rooms for relaxation attached to them.

Anatomy of a stepwell

In a stepwell, there is a central, vertical shaft with water, which spreads out to a pool with a broad mouth, around which steps are built. 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 also depended on the same.

The depth of the stepwell depended on underground water levels, and thus inspired 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 the fact that the same water was used for drinking as well as washing and bathing. They already had their own exclusive clubs and smoke rooms, so they developed systems of pumps and pipes. This led to the drying up, clogging, and eventual deterioration of an ancient lifestyle.

Though north India has many baolis, with Delhi alone boasting of around 30, some of which are still functional, my heart gladdened when I visited the one in Abhaneri in Dausa district in Rajasthan. It is one of the world’s oldest, deepest, and most spectacular stepwells.

Called the Chand Baori of Abhaneri, it is a feat of mathematical perfection from an ancient time. It has 3,500 steps built on 13 levels, and with the most amazing symmetry as they taper down to meet the water pool. Said to be an upside-down pyramid, this baori was built between the 9th and 10th century by Raja Chanda of the Chauhan dynasty.

The baori was attached to the Harshat Mata temple. It was a ritual to wash hands and feet at the well before visiting the 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 happiness, always imparting joy to the whole village.

Now there are railings, and so we can’t go down the steps. But the temperature at the bottom is five-six 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. Today, these house the remains of exquisite carvings, which were either in the temple or in the various rooms of the baoli itself.

The Chand Baori is one of the few stepwells, or rather step pond as Morna Livingston writes in Steps to Water: The Ancient Stepwells of India, that 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 trabeated arches used by the Chauhan rulers and the cusped arches used by the Mughals. Access to these rooms is now blocked for tourists. Much as I wanted to, I couldn’t go in, and can only use my imagination.

Imagining the past

If the stones could speak, they would recount stories of a time when royalty sat in these rooms, heard the pitter-patter of raindrops on the roof, saw rain splash on the beautiful steps, even as strains of raag malhar were sung by the court musicians of that period. Perhaps peacocks would have danced on the surrounding walls and court dancers would have performed with abandon on the platforms in front of the royal apartments.

Though stripped of plaster now, these stone walls would have been filled with many paintings to emphasise the feeling of being in a beautiful moonlit oasis of happiness. The chanting of 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 feeling of awe that I felt when I stood there soaking in the ambience of the moonlit Baori under the bright rays of the sun.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jan 25, 2021 7:38:53 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/a-mathematical-marvel-called-chand-baori/article18308759.ece

Next Story