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  • Writer's pictureShila Desai

Falling in love with Stepwells

Although my ancestors hail from Gujarat, I had never heard of stepwells. When planning our inaugural 2013 Gujarat textile tour, my mentor Arti Chandaria mentioned Patan’s Queen’s Stepwell as her favourite amongst India’s thousands of monuments. I was mystified. Better than the Taj Mahal? Was it a step or a well? What was special about a functional and humble well?

I understood what Arti meant when I saw the Queen’s stepwell, or Rani ki Vav. No ordinary well, it was more a (hu)man-made canyon, an inverted temple to water.

Unlike other monuments built to impress as one approaches, Rani ki Vav did not prepare me for what lay underground. In fact, the stepwell is invisible from ground level. Upon arriving at the entrance, I looked down into a seemingly impossible structure. A queen had dreamed it up; architects and engineers had realised her vision, labourers excavated tons of earth, and stone masons chiselled, carved, and embellished over five acres one hundred feet down . . . it defied my imagination.

Commissioned in 1063 by Queen Udayamati, Rani ki Vav was built over 20 years to honour the sanctity of water in this dry region. Upon descending, the stairs open onto pillared platforms built seven storeys down. Each platform is surrounded by intricate sculptures that capture an entire universe: gods prance, dasi adorn themselves, consorts and mortals express awe or piety, animals and plants bear witness to feats of divinity. As one descends further, the temperature is noticeably cooler, sounds are hushed, and in the years before the Saraswati changed course, the bottom would have been abundant with the object of this incredible labour: water.

Deep down was a world unto itself: mysterious, cool, sacred, distinctly feminine. The symbolism was of female divinity burrowing into the earth in search of life-giving water, in contrast to monuments reaching for the sky to honour male energy. I took in our guide, Niravbhai’s explanations. From the inflection in his voice, he too appeared to be under Rani ki Vav’s spell. Everywhere I looked – each vignette, carving, assemblage of sculptures – was a story in stone. From a quiet corner, Arti meditatively absorbed the stepwell. After a while, I joined her. A couple of hours slipped by. So profound was the experience of being cocooned in sculptural beauty inside the earth, that returning to the surface was jarring.

Rani ki Vav became a fixture on our Gujarat textile tour itinerary because guests considered it a highlight among highlights. They expressed astonishment at never having heard of stepwells

My growing fascination led me to research stepwells’ historical and spiritual significance starting with the earliest 7th CE engineered stepwell at Dhank, Gujarat. Each, while different in design and architecture, was a marvel of architecture and engineering, linking surface to subterranean in search for water. Given the sanctity of water, most were also shrines to female deities considered a life-force in Hinduism. When the British arrived in India in the 1700’s, over 3000 stepwells were in active use throughout India, mostly in arid Gujarat and Rajasthan. The British, considering stepwells unsanitary, introduced modern pumps to procure water. Stepwells fell into disrepair and many collapsed or silted. Today, the remaining stepwells are at risk of vanishing. Rani ki Vav is an exception; its 2014 UNESCO status has spurred community efforts at restoring other stepwells.

In wandering around stepwells, I noticed several sculptural motifs echoed in patterns of geometric double ikat or block printed florals. Masons and textiles artisans of yore had evidently swapped design boards. In this land of sand and scrub, colourful textiles signify life and abundance. Underneath, steps to water are a lifeline to survival. Textiles and stepwells are the two strongest defining features of this unique land. Both have moulded society, nourished trade, and shaped history. Both, interwoven in complicity since the earliest times, were vital to the survival of the people of the Thar Desert. Textiles brought trade, and traders plied their trade because royal patrons made water available for their caravans. Water and textiles went hand in hand.

Over my years in Gujarat, I was fortunate to work with Niravbhai Panchal, who helped journalist Victoria Lautman (Vanishing Stepwells of India) and scholar Morna Livingstone (Steps to Water) literally unearth hundreds of stepwells. An idea germinated. Since textiles and stepwells were inextricably linked, why not widen our textile travellers’ horizons to the wonders of stepwells?

Many years of thought and planning later, we have an itinerary for 2021’s tour of Gujarat and Kutch. It ties the two defining features of Gujarat-Kutch and Rajasthan: textiles and stepwells. We will explore the better-known ones around Ahmedabad and Patan. We will also explore lesser known ones where quite possibly we will be the only ones communing with the depths of the earth.

My favourite Indian monuments? I’m torn because India has an embarrassment of riches. But I’d definitely put stepwells up there with the Taj Mahal. Arti would approve.

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