In search for Sacred

Water has been an integral part of Indian culture. Go to any corner of India’s vastly
diverse landscape, each and every culture celebrates water in its own way. Some
celebrate its abundance while some respect its scarcity and consider it as a
sacred resource.

Since Gujarat is located in the semi arid region on the western side of India, water
has always been a scarcity here. This gets reflected in the numerous traditions
and stories which are associated with water. One example of such a celebration
is a Stepwell. It is a well accessible through steps. This typology of building
is found in hot & dry regions of Gujarat, Rajasthan and north India (Delhi).
Locally called Vav in Gujarati, it is also known as Baoli in other parts of
India. It is a structure attached to a well, to make it physically accessible. Usually
built by monarchy for its people and travellers, it is often found in the city
capitals or alongside the caravan routes.

However its built environment is associated with many layers of experiences alongside
its function of making water accessible. It is built in a way that it literally
depicts water as a sacred entity. If looked into closely, one can compare experience
of entering a stepwell to that of entering a temple. Thus a simple utilitarian building is
transformed into a status of social as well as religious center.

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Poetry in Stone

Located near the town of Patan in Northern Gujarat, Rani Ki Vav was built as a memorial
to 11th century AD King. It is listed under UNESCO’s World Heritage
Sites. The building uses stone to portray stories of Lord Vishnu in intricately
carved columns and walls.

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Into the earth’s abode

As one moves near to the structure, a series of steep steps reveal itself leading
into it. This act of descending down into the very abode of mother earth marks
it different from the world outside. As you move down, you can constantly see
your destination, a well at the end of the structure. Thus you are in a constant
visual connection to the water body. As you descend downwards, amount of
natural light keeps on reducing and the scale of the building starts
overpowering. Simultaneously, the arrangement of steps at right angle suddenly
breaks that visual connection and brings your attention the delicately carved
out walls depicting stories from Indian Mythology. Then one has to turn back again
to face the centre. This repetition of turning and climbing down and again
looking at the well ensures that one realizes the importance of what lies there
at the end.

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Framing the center

The amount of natural light keeps on decreasing and slowly one gets used to a dark and damp environment. The presence of water near stone generates that earthy smell that makes one realize its presence. Natural light creates a sort of drama of shadows in the carvings of columns and walls. Slowly it gets so dark that you can hardly see the steps ahead of you. And then the water gradually reveals itself. As you look up from the well, you can see a strong beam of light illuminating the beautiful stone sculptures.

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Walls narrating a story

Since the well was usually used by women to fetch water and carry it to their homes,
they came here with their vessels. They went back carrying those heavy vessels
filled with water. Now this would have been really difficult. Climbing those steep
steps back and carrying water simultaneously would have been a real task. The
very look of those steps tires many young individuals today. That moment of exhalation
when one reaches back to the top with their vessels filled with water would
make anyone consider before wasting it. However this difficult task of
procuring water was certainly made easier by having those beautiful pieces of
art around so that one does not realize the efforts of getting in and out.

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Breaking the approach

“Thus despite its functional obsolescence of fetching water in today’s context, it continues to inspire visitors after more than five centuries.” Even today,hundreds of tourists flood in to see this marvelous architecture celebrating water and elevating the experience of fetching water to a sacred level. A must visit place if travelling around this part of the world.

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Imagination

 

 

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