The Vav – An Aesthetic Innovation of Gujarat
Ranjit Pawar | Dissertation - June 2021 | Jnanapravaha, Mumbai
Ancient monuments provide insights into the cultural milieu of their times. In India, we have countless monuments starting from the third century BCE all the way to the colonial period. Stone pillars, stupas, temples, mosques, minars and royal tombs form the majority of historical monuments in our country. Nearly all these are monuments that were erected to either represent power or patronize a particular religion. Very few buildings belong to a functional category, such as astronomical observatories or forts, and these do not have much relevance for our present times. However, structures that were put in place for water management are those rare historical monuments that still function and can be counted in very large numbers. Water tanks, draw wells, stepwells, and even man-made lakes can be found strewn across the subcontinent and those with steps leading to the water source are known by different regional names such as vav, Baoli, Kund, Kalyani, Pushakarni or Barav. Amongst these the vav or stepwell of Gujarat is one of the most impressive monuments.
The vav is a composite structure consisting of a conventional well and an underground stepped corridor. Even today, these stepwells leave their visitors mesmerized with the unique display of subterranean architecture and stone art. The powerful patrons of the vav, which included the Solankis, Waghelas and the Shahs of Gujarat were no less obsessed with these monuments than the Mughals were with their marble and sandstone tombs, the Cholas with their magnificent temples, or the Rajput kings and their palatial residences. This obsession is visible in the lavish ornamentation of these water monuments and the extravagant use of stone in a geography that does not naturally provide it. While temple art is the most visible aspect of India’s aesthetic tradition, the vav contributes something distinctive with its unusual design and alluring beauty.
The term vav comes from the Sanskrit word Vapi or Vapika that occurs in texts such as the Shilpa Shastra which refer to wells with steps leading to their lower levels (Jain-Neubauer 1). While stepwells are not unique to Gujarat alone, the vav of Gujarat has characteristic features such as spacious interiors, significantly deep-reaching stepped corridors, and the artistic ornamentation of the edifice. These distinguishing facets of the vav here present a compelling question as to why the vav evolved in this manner only in Gujarat. Water buildings have adapted or evolved elsewhere too, in their local context, but they do not possess the characteristics of the vav pointed out above, especially its aesthetics. Perhaps, the answers to this question lie in the natural conditions of Gujarat, the largesse of its patrons, religious and mythical beliefs linked with water buildings, or a combination of these factors. This thesis will attempt to establish that these characteristics were common to most vavs in Gujarat, identify the factors responsible for the adoption of these structural and aesthetic elements, and bring out the differences between the vav and other forms of stepwells and tanks, particularly in Western India. This approach hopes to show how the vav is truly an aesthetic innovation of Gujarat. It is useful to begin with a brief background to the development of the vav from its origins as a humble well.
From kuvo to vav - the journey of water architecture in Gujarat
The roots of the vav can be traced to the earliest phase of Indian civilisation, which is commonly accepted to have begun with the Indus Valley Civilization (IVC). This early civilisation flourished along the river plains of the North-western and Western regions of the Indian subcontinent, including parts of present-day Punjab, Sindh, Haryana, and extending all the way southwards to Gujarat. This civilisation is said to have emerged, matured, and declined between the fourth and the first millennium BCE, as inferred from the estimated dates and corresponding dimensions of its archaeological sites. One of these IVC sites exists in a village named Dholavira in the Kutch region which happens to be one of the most arid parts of Gujarat. This site revealed a well-planned urban settlement around a central township, from the mature phase of its development labelled by archaeologists as the citadel. On this hillock-like citadel, a deep dug well was discovered that may have provided for the needs of the core community residing in this enclave. However, even more interesting was the discovery of large tanks excavated in the region surrounding the citadel and fitted with steps leading to their lowest levels.
These were undoubtedly water storage tanks, and surprisingly they were interconnected by a well-designed system of underground inlet and outlet channels. More than sixteen such tanks were discovered in Dholavira, that hinted at an advanced phase of water conservation and rainwater harvesting practices prevalent thousands of years ago in this region (Possehl 69). Mohenjo Daro, the more famous Pakistani counterpart of Dholavira, is estimated to have at least seven hundred brick-lined wells, and many of these were meant for common use by the city’s population (Possehl 104). Water storage seems to have been an essential part of city planning and urban development in India since the earliest times. This comes as no surprise, for the Indian seasons can be broadly split into two halves of wet and dry. The wet season is characterized by three to four months of rainfall caused by the monsoon winds blowing from the south-west. During this period, the rivers, lakes as well as man-made water storage reservoirs are supplied with fresh rainwater. However, following this wet period, most parts of India, especially those not irrigated by glacial rivers, must depend on the stored water, as rivers and streams vaporize under the scorching heat of the summer sun. Therefore, Indians have had to innovate with water management from an early period.
Following the protohistoric period, we notice some examples of rock-cut wells with steps built into their sidewalls, belonging to the Buddhist period of Gujarat. As drawing water from the top became more challenging during the summer months, this seems to have become a common design for wells across India. Many later and even present day dug wells in India are fitted with such staircases that are either cut into the sidewall of the well or added later using stone blocks.
However, in Gujarat the instances of wells with linear pathways connecting to them only begin with the Navghan Kuvo, a squarish rock-cut well, housed in the ancient fort of Uparkot, in Junagadh district. The Navghan Kuvo is dated anywhere between the second century CE and fourteenth century CE (Jain-Neubauer, The Stepwells of Gujarat in Art-Historical Perspective 19). While it cannot be said with certainty if the stepped component of this well was built at the same time as the square cylinder of the well itself, it is apparent that the steps were carved into the same rock as the rest of the well. Navghan Kuvo is an example of a rock-cut stepwell rather than a brick and stone monument constructed with an architectural plan that takes into consideration factors concerning structural design and stability. However, the Navghan Kuvo shows us that increased scarcity of water forced the rulers of Junagadh to consider having a pathway for wider and easier access to the water. The term Kuvo is used until the present day in Gujarat to signify a well, usually a dug well, and it is derived from the Sanskrit term Kupa. Therefore, the Navghan Kuvo was probably a well for the earlier part of its life, and the staircase may have been a later addition.
It is not uncommon for ancient monuments to be implanted with such additions by successive rulers, based on changing needs and circumstances. The stepped tank of the Chand Baoli at Abhaneri Rajasthan is a fine example of such continued development, since its earliest phase belongs to the eighth century CE, but it has additions in the form of resting chambers and balconies all the way into the eighteenth-century CE (Livingston 38).
Examples of a more developed stage of the vav exist at a site in Western Gujarat, not too far from the Navghan Kuvo. The sleepy village of Dhank, which is an hour and a half away by road from Junagadh, boasts of not one but three vavs. These are the first examples of stepwells with a separate underground corridor leading to the deeper levels of their cylindrical well. The earlier form of steps built inside the cylinder itself would have proven insufficient for a larger number of people to simultaneously draw water from the lower part of the well. Especially with the growth of urbanization, which reached its historical zenith around the fourth century CE under the Gupta rule over most of Northern India, population would have swelled in ancient towns and cities such as Dhank, creating an escalated demand for water during the dry season. These social and economic changes were also a result of increased trade between India and the western world, mainly Rome, in which Gujarat’s seaports played a crucial role. Many ports of Gujarat such as Bharuch or Barygaza to the Romans, brought increased prosperity to the region. This economic growth enabled innovation in water management, and therefore we see such examples from the early period in the Western parts of Gujarat.
Earlier forms of water architecture would not have proven to be adequate for this new environment. To allow multiple people to draw water from the same well, without the fear of mishaps or creating bottlenecks at the mouth of the well, the need for a new design would have seemed inevitable. The stepwells in Dhank that are dated to the seventh century CE display these design improvements (Jain-Neubauer, The Stepwells of Gujarat in Art-Historical Perspective 20). The Manjushri vav, Jhilani vav and Bochadi vav at Dhank have an external corridor that connects with the main well and has steps as well as sidewalls built with stone blocks. This is the first evidence of such masonry blocks being used for wells in Gujarat. The corridor descends progressively towards the open pit of the well, much below the ground level. The arrangement of short corridors, arranged in an L-shaped, with intersecting axes is the key feature of these vavs.
Archaeologists and researchers believe this L-shaped architecture was a deliberate choice made to avoid a single long corridor whose walls would have buckled under the pressure of the surrounding soil. Gujarat’s soft and loamy soil texture is not naturally suited to constructing underground structures and that would have led the vav’s architects to consider two short corridors with perpendicular axes which would be able to sustain opposing forces (Mankodi 236). Thus, an underground corridor with descending steps and landings made an appearance in Gujarat during the late ancient or early medieval period. These wells though, remained open to the sky apart from the thin buttressing arches that appeared at intervals.
Following these early vavs at Dhank, there are no clear examples leading up to the eleventh century, when the truly grand examples of Gujarat’s vav began to appear. Even if there are vavs from the centuries preceding the Solanki period, they have not been dated owing to the absence of stylistic evidence that could place them in one or the other art tradition. The eleventh century is marked by the peak of the Solanki rule in Gujarat. King Bhimdeva Solanki and his descendants are credited with many stunning examples of stone architecture in Gujarat such as the sun temple at Modhera, the temple at Somanath, and the Mata Bhavani vav in Ahmedabad. With the Solanki period, temples and other stone monuments began to display what is now known as the Maru-Gurjara style of temple art, which is a synthesis of Gujarati and Rajasthani styles. No wonder that the greatest contribution to the tradition of constructing stepwells came from the Solankis.
The Rani ki vav, named after Bhimdeva’s queen, Rani Udaymati, is a stepwell that marks the achievement of a pinnacle in stepwell construction and especially stepwell aesthetics. The builders of the Solanki stepwells adopted a novel method of creating multiple, parallel trenches instead of one long trench for the corridor complex. The trenches were joined later by removing the baulks between them, leaving just enough to form corners of the former trenches. These baulks once lined with bricks like rest of the structure and then panelled with stone, turned into buttressing walls whose axes ran parallel to the newly formed long trench. Thus, by building such buttressing walls at intervals created by the ends of the smaller trenches, the architects of the Solanki vavs achieved a far more extensive length and breadth for the stepwells (Mankodi 236).
Measuring sixty-five metres in length and twenty metres in width, this vav can easily pass off as a palace or a temple rather than a stepwell. Especially, the extensive sculptural art visible on the walls and columns of this vav makes it hard to believe that it is a water building. A visible addition in the vav’s structural components was the introduction of pavilion towers. These were criss-crossing sections made of pillars and beams that further stabilized the sidewalls. This arrangement of stone columns supporting horizontal platforms that connected to the sidewalls at both ends, acted as a bracing structure. While early vavs such as the Manjushri vav also had arched buttresses touching connecting opposite walls, they were not effective when it came to wider corridors. The use of horizontal platforms also provided a new space within the Rani ki vav, in the form of pavilions, giving these pillar-beam configurations the label of pavilion towers. The platforms were wide enough to walk or rest, and they also allowed access to shrines built at different levels in the sidewalls. The horizontal platform of the upper level of the pavilion tower acted as a roof for the lower level, thus creating the view of a multi-storeyed pavilion tower. The tallest towers in the Rani ki vav have seven storeys, but in more modest stepwells it is common to have three or five storeys. It is these pavilion towers that characterize the unique look of Gujarat’s vav, lending it the labyrinth like appearance which adds to the astonishment one experiences within a vav.
None of this improvement would have taken place without the benevolent patrons who donated lavishly to these monuments. The rulers and wealthy individuals of medieval Gujarat would have seen the wisdom in doing so in an arid region, where water not only supported agriculture, and brought them more revenue, but also earned them the good will of people. Even texts such as the Aparajitaprachha advise rulers to build irrigation facilities to avoid famines that seem to have plagued most of Inda during the early medieval period (Dhavalikar 212). Hence, hundreds if not thousands of such stepwells were built in Gujarat for public use, starting in the eleventh century CE and continuing until the nineteenth century CE. Many vavs found benefactors amongst merchants whose caravans used these stepwells as stopovers on their long journeys (Jain-Neubauer, Rani ki Vav).
One can say that the vav matured by the eleventh century, and inspired replication across the landscape of Gujarat. However, in nearly every vav we can see minor improvisations layered on top of this basic design. For example, some vavs chose to have multiple entrances to the main corridor, leading to classification of vavs by the number of entrances.
Similarly, other wells such as the Rataba stepwell or the Madha vav that belong to the period of the Waghela dynasty between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, showed improvisation with their raised roofs that were shaped like temple Shikharas. The Rudabai ki vav, a slightly later example from the fifteenth century CE, has three pathways leading downward into the stepwell. The artistic and religious preferences of each patron influenced such modifications in the grand vavs that came to symbolize status and power in medieval Gujarat. This is evident nowhere else more than in the vavs from the fifteenth century onwards when Gujarat went firmly under Islamic rule, with the ascent of Ahmad Shah I to the Sultanate of Gujarat. However, unlike the temple, the vav’s importance did not reduce, for it was crucial to agriculture and the survival of the population of the region.
Agriculture had replaced or at least gained as much economic importance as sea trade for Gujarat’s rulers over time. Barring a few ports like Surat and Bharuch, most of the ancient ports had seen a steady decline in trade with the West from the middle of the first millennium CE. Also, archaeological evidence shows the shrinking of earlier cities that had prospered in the Gupta and post-Gupta period, and resettlement in the central and eastern parts of Gujarat under new dynasties such as the Chavadas and Solankis. Therefore, by the time Islamic rule arrived in Gujarat, construction of water buildings had been firmly established as a tradition that was patronized mainly by the king or his nobles. Therefore, in the interest of revenue as well as general stability of their rule, even later rulers such as Muhammad Begada were compelled to continue patronizing vav construction. However, this sponsorship did not come without its demands. For example, strictly religious iconography diminished not only in the vavs directly commissioned by Muslim rulers or nobles, but also in those sites patronized by their Hindu nobles and allies (Jain-Neubauer 23). The practice of carving niches in the walls and columns continued, but these were increasingly left empty or occupied by abstract and inanimate designs such as trees, stars or flowers, steering clear of human and animal forms that were considered taboo by the stricter schools of Islam. Similarly, we can observe octagonal shaped balconies framing the cylindrical well all the way to the top, shifting away from the cylindrical walls that would be raised to the ground level in earlier stepwells. The appearance of these octagonal balconies was no coincidence, since the octagon represented the eight-pointed star, a holy form in Islamic iconography (Livingston 108). Such fusion of Hindu and Islamic traditions is prominently visible in stepwells such as the Dada Harir ki vav in Ahmedabad or the Rudabai ki vav in Adalaj.
This roughly thousand-year journey of the vav explains the reasons behind its peculiar form and how it evolved in Gujarat. However, the vav also developed aesthetically as much as it did architecturally. As we have seen, the functional reasons for its architectural development were mainly driven by the nature of Gujarat’s geology, the economic and social changes, and the importance that water gained with long periods of drought. Equally interesting are the reasons for its aesthetic development since the vav’s mesmerizing effect would not be possible without the beautiful interiors carved in stone. We shall try to understand how this alluring aspect of the vav became an inseparable part of its design.
Stepping into a mythical world
As per Hindu cosmography the universe is split into three parts, collectively termed as the Triloka or three worlds, which include heaven, the earth, and the netherworld. The subterranean netherworld of this Triloka is further divided into seven levels, the lowest one being the Patala Loka which is occupied by the Nagas, or the serpent people led by their king, Vasuki. Different levels of the netherworld are inhabited by the Yakshas, Daityas, Apsaras, Dakinis and other mythical beings. This Patala Loka is described by the Vishnu Purana as more beautiful than Svarga or heaven itself. Indian epics such as the Ramayana and the Mahabharata also make references to this netherworld, and it being ruled by Asuras and Nagas. The Patala Loka is not to be confused with Naraka or the Hindu version of hell which lies beyond the Triloka.
The concept of the Patala Loka is relevant to the vav because this may be one way of understanding the iconography, as well as the motivation to embellish the vavs with such splendid art. Vaishnav scriptures such as the Vishnu Purana and Bhagwat Purana describe the beauty of the Patala Loka in great detail, and these scriptures hold a bible-like importance for Vishnu’s worshippers. The Bhagwat Purana for example, describes the seven regions of the netherworld as being nothing less than Bila Swarga or sub-terranean heavens.
Especially given that the Vaishnav sect was the dominant Hindu tradition in Gujarat during the medieval period, there is a strong reason to believe that the mythical concept of an underground Patala Loka would have provided the vav’s Vaishnav patrons and designers with a ready model for a subterranean building’s aesthetic design. While this view does not have precedents in any of the research conducted so far on Gujarat’s stepwells, it is worthy of further enquiry.
Similar to the netherworld, rivers and oceans are also greatly celebrated by Indian mythology. The perennial glacial rivers of Northern India such as the Ganga and Yamuna were responsible for bringing rich alluvial silt from the Himalayan valleys and creating a fertile region for the development of civilization in Northern India. Similarly, the monsoon-fed rivers such as the Godavari or Krishna enabled the development of societies and states in southern India, also known as the Dakshin, and later as Deccan. Therefore, there is an entire genre of legends associated with these mother-rivers across India, celebrating their powers of creation and destruction. As per these legends, Ganga, for example, was brought down from the heaven to earth by king Bhagirathi, and to ensure that her forceful descent does not destroy the earth, Shiva offered to let her first land on his head and then gradually flow down through his matted locks, which are a metaphor for the various hilly ranges and valleys through which the Ganga rushes before assuming her relatively gentler form on the plains of northern India. This image of Shiva with an anthropomorphic Ganga emerging from his locks, is common in temple architecture and prayer rooms. Similarly, there are many examples in Indian visual art that show how literary imagination was replicated spontaneously in Indian art and aesthetics.
Perhaps, the vav provided a physical point of confluence for individual narratives of Patala Lok and the river goddesses. Hindus believe that the water of their rivers, such as the Ganga, Yamuna, and Narmada meets in sacred spaces, marked by water bodies, known as Tirthas and having a bath in such a pond or tank would wash one’s sins away. Therefore, the water that emerged from underground channels was also considered part of this holy network of rivers, temples and reservoirs (Livingston 7). The icon of the Makara, a creature with a crocodile’s mouth and the body of a fish, can be noticed in many vavs, since this is nothing but the mythical vehicle of Ganga in her anthropomorphic form. Likewise, the Nagas of the netherworld are represented by the serpent images in the vavs. Other Puranic icons such as the Apsaras, Yakshas, Kirtimukha, are also a recurring theme in many vavs. Especially the Rani ki vav contains an array of celestial beings from not only the Vaishnav pantheon but also those belonging to Shaivism, such as the various forms of Shiva’s consort, Parvati.
Other than mainstream sects, the vav became a shrine to local mother-goddesses such as Nimbodji Mata, Amba Mata, Ashapura Mata, Hinglaj Mata, and so on. Therefore, the vav took the form of a subterranean world that held within its otherworldly space the mythical and religious beliefs of its patrons and visitors, thereby creating for them an experience of entering a spiritual space that was made as splendid as the Patala Loka of the Puranas.
The patrons of the vav must have believed that they were not merely donating to the construction of a well, but the very replica of such a sublime space that would leave its visitors in awe. As this turned into a tradition, it probably continued unquestioned like many other monumental forms that have transitioned in India from one sect into another, and from one religion into the other. A good example of this is the continued used of Hindu motifs and structural designs of buildings by the Adil Shahi Sultanate in the Deccan, that were originally popularized by the Hindu rulers of Vijayanagar. Such replication held a political appeal for the patrons even if it did not conform to their religious notions. Therefore, even when the rule over Gujarat transitioned from the Solankis to the Waghelas, and eventually to the Shahs who ruled from Ahmedabad, the core idea of beautifying the vav with rich iconography and carvings continued to be an inseparable aspect of the vav building tradition.
The innovative spirit of the architects and masons of Gujarat deserves to be applauded for achieving such aesthetic excellence while ensuring a safe and comfortable descent. The long-lasting nature of the vavs is due to the skill of the masons, known as Somapuras, in Gujarat, who perfected the technique of using stone blocks and columns in an arrangement that required little by means of mortar or lime to hold them together. The silent contribution of these workers usually goes unnoticed in the haste to bestow all the credit upon high caste Brahmin architects, and hence it is important to recognize their contribution not only to the vav but also to temples and other monuments in Western India.
Viewing the vav through the lens of the Rasa theory
In the spirit of Indian aesthetics, it may be important to view the vav’s aesthetics through the lens of classical Rasa theory to understand how the designers of the vav relied on the ancient Indian system of capturing the viewer’s attention by following a methodical approach, as described in the Shastras. As commonly known to most Indian art enthusiasts, there are eight Rasas or essences of experience such as Sringara Rasa (eroticism), Karuna Rasa (compassion) or Hasya Rasa (laughter) that form the spectrum of human experiences (Londhe). These Rasas are evoked intensely in the observer or the audience when an artist uses a certain universal emotion or Sthayi Bhava strongly through his artistic expression, which could be any of the Lalita Kala or fine arts such as Natya (theatre), Kavya (poetry), Murti Shilpa (sculpture), Vastu Shilpa (architecture), and so on (Poddar). Therefore, the creators of the vav seem to have used the Sthayi Bhava or emotion of Vismaya or astonishment to arouse a corresponding Rasa of Adbhuta or wonder in the mind of the observer of the vav. It appears as though the vav itself embodied the Adbhuta Rasa, giving the impression of a parallel world to anyone stepping into its underground complex, delivering the experience of having entered the splendid Patal Loka described so vividly in the Puranas.
Many, including Morna Livingston have described descending into the vav as a mesmerizing experience, that brings our sense of sight, sound, and equilibrium into focus (Livingston 1). The very idea of entering an ancient building that lies almost entirely underground is enough to evoke a sense of thrill. However, the vav’s intended purpose being unlike that of other underground structures such as catacombs or tunnels, the anticipation of a dark space is dispelled by the steady flow of light into the corridor complex through the gaps between the pavilion towers. The alternating patches of shade and sunlight are comforting and create enough brightness within the vav to not let darkness discourage one from stepping down further.
The subsurface tranquillity also augments the experience of journeying within the vav. At the depth of a few storeys, the solid walls of the vav block all external sounds and create an atmosphere of stillness. While today it may be difficult to experience the original acoustic atmosphere, it is not difficult to re-imagine the sounds made by splashing water as many pots hit the water from the ledges above, accompanied by village urchins taking a dive into the cooling water.
The echoes of chatter and laughter of women awaiting their turn to draw water would have brought the vav alive. These reverberations would have been music to anyone’s ears and a respite from the howling winds of the dreary plains above. Scores of folk songs in Gujarat speak of the journey to a vav in endearing terms. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the shaded pavilions of the vav may also have provided a stage to bards and groups of devotional singers. These are common sights even today in Indian temples and monuments. Thus, alongside the visual elements, the pleasing effect of such sounds would have further elevated the experience within a vav.
Finally, the most natural factor of this experience would have been the depth that was created by the incredible architecture of the vav. The soaring pavilion towers with their many storeyed platforms on which people walk sometimes thirty or even forty feet above the vav’s floor create the impression of being atop the cliff of a mountain. In the absence of modern buildings and skyscrapers, these ledges would have offered an experience that was unlike any other. Especially the navigation over narrow ledges and the risk of a straight drop to the ground would have caused a rush of adrenaline.
Once safely perched on the upper most platforms, one can view the picturesque frames of the pavilion towers, repeating endlessly from the very first to the last tower, giving the impression of an optical illusion created by placing parallel mirrors. This view is one of the most prominent views that is preserved in the memory of anyone who has visited these monuments. Some vavs also have steps leading from the surface level to these upper pavilions, making it easier for those who do not possess the courage to climb across the narrow ledges. Therefore, it is evident that the creators of the vav intended for these pavilion towers to be part of the aggregate experience in a vav.
Although most vavs are now appear shorn of their past glory, as time and erosion have peeled away the paint and lustre that would have once turned the vav into a place of underground bliss, advancing through the vav still has a stirring effect on one’s senses. In summary, the vav was not just an ordinary stepwell that served the sole purpose of storing water, but it was an evocative space made unique by its subterranean nature and the aesthetic layers of its architectural layout and engaging art forms that were steeped in legends and folklore.
Comparing the vav with some of the water buildings from other parts of the country, makes the points of distinction clear and further substantiate the uniqueness of Gujarat’s stepwells.
Comparison of the Gujarati vav with other stepped water buildings
It would be incorrect to say that stepwells were built only in Gujarat. There are numerous examples of stepped wells, stepped ponds and even large lake-sized tanks built in different parts of India. Especially the landscape of Western India, stretching from Rajasthan all the way down south to Karnataka is dotted with various water buildings, revealing the pervasive aridity of this region.
In Rajasthan, Haryana and Delhi water buildings are known as Baolis. These are an extension of the vav’s structural design, and similar in the way that buttressing towers rise in height to hold the tank’s walls. However, in stylistic terms the Baolis resemble a palace or mansion more than any other structure. The access to a Baoli does not begin with a short flight of stairs leading underground as in a vav. Instead, the pathway to a Baoli is quite wide, exposed to the sky, and descending for a considerable distance without any pavilion towers interrupting its course. The sidewalls rise on either side as the pathway descends further, but unlike the geological constraints posed by Gujarat’s loamy soil, the relatively gravelly strata of the northern region did not call for pavilion towers to be erected for a considerable depth. Once the steps descend below a certain level, buttressing towers shaped as arches rise, hinting at the proximity of the tank or well. The sidewalls are carved with numerous niches, mostly empty, creating the illusion of windows opening out from the upper storeys of a palace. In some Baolis, there are chambers created in the side walls that were probably occupied for leisure, entertainment, or even religious events in the case of Baolis that are erected next to mosques. Since a majority of the Baolis were built in the period following the 16th century, we see Islamic influence on their arches, which were largely created using brick and mortar, instead of stone. As a result, the grand sculptural forms in sandstone seen in vavs are missing in the soft-hued, stucco plastered exteriors of most Baolis (Livingston 113,114). The arched pavilions have relatively plain pillars in most Baolis, with a few exceptions such as the Raniji ki Baoli or the Bhawaldi Baoli, both of which are in Bundi and have exquisitely carved pillars and brackets marking the pavilion towers. Most water buildings in the north are designed to imitate the palaces and wide courtyards leading to those grand buildings.
In the case of southern water architecture, there are definite similarities between some structures such as the Baravs of Maharashtra and the vav. The term Barav is said to be a derivation of the vav or Bav. These are tanks or wells with short underground corridors, quite similar to the early stepwells of Dhank. Given the abundance of basalt rock in the Deccan, these Baravs are built using the same material as are the forts of this region. There are hundreds of Baravs across Maharashtra, and a recent survey has created their online presence on digital maps as well, providing far more insight into this region’s water architecture (Kale).
The Baravs were used for domestic purposes and there are many attached to temples as well. However, there is little evidence of ornamentation or any other functional purpose apart from storing water. Therefore, the similarity between the Barav and the vav ends with their basic architectural design of a stepped pathway.
Finally come the Pushkarnis and Kalyanis of Karnataka, built by another line of the Chalukyas that ruled over southern India. There are later additions and creations by the Hoysala dynasty as well. However, these are predominantly religious water tanks, used for bathing and similar rituals considered holy in Hinduism. There is no doubt that these water reservoirs would also have been used to provide water in periods of drought, but access is unlikely to have been open for all, given their religious significance. Most of the Kalyanis are quite plain in appearance, although pleasant to they eye as their lateral steps attached to the sidewalls create varying geometric patterns. These are comparable to the Kunds of Gujarat and Rajasthan which also follow the same design pattern. All the surfaces, including the sidewalls, steps, and the water tank face the open sky, with no underground component. There is little by way of sculptures or carvings since most of the art would have been confined to the interior of the temple.
In some cases, such as the magnificent Kalyanis of Lakkundi or Hulikere, there are shrines carved into the sidewalls of the stepped pond. However, such exceptions are few in number. While the descending steps do create the perception of depth and perform the same function as a stepped corridor, the experience is quite unlike that of descending into the vav.
Climate and geography are often considered the key reasons for shaping the form of functional structures. In the case of stepwells and stepped ponds, we have seen how different regions have evolved their specific water buildings, borrowing universal elements of the design while making local adaptations where necessary. In the case of the vav, it is apparent that the aridity of the Gujarat region and the long spells of dry seasons drove ancient water engineers to find innovative solutions to meet the basic needs of people. However, the vav would have remained at being a simple stone building with corridors and cylindrical wells, had it not been for the role played by human values that pushed it role beyond the functional. We have noted how the effort to expand its scale so that a greater number of people could access water, the desire to transform it into a place that inspired admiration, and the act of unshackling it from the temple, unlike a Kund, to safely navigate beyond the limitations imposed by social norms, were all factors influencing its innovation in a measure equal to environmental and geological conditions. Similarly, many of the donors being women from royal families, also played an important role in venerating water, and therefore its reservoir, with patronage befitting a symbol of fertility and abundance. The inscription at the Rudabai Ki vav in Adalaj proudly divulges the donation of five hundred thousand tankas to the construction of the vav by the dowager queen of the slain Waghela king Virsimha. Therefore, the vav was a result of not only natural conditions but also driven in a great way by human ideas regarding the role of natural resources in our lives, creativity inspired by mythological beliefs, and a sophisticated appreciation of how art evokes emotional responses in the observer.
The uniqueness of the vav lies not only in its size and beauty, but also in the way both art and architecture played a symbiotic role in its evolution. The pavilion towers provided opportunity to exploit the vav’s depth in an inverted manner, while the relative stability achieved for the sidewalls allowed the addition of images and niches to venerate the monument. Similarly, the beautiful brackets and lintels alchemised the pillar and beam structure into stunning art forms. The well also became a canvas as seen at the Rani ki vav and other wells where its shape and sidewalls were exploited to enhance the view from below. Similarly, the use of the vav as a resting stopover for caravans of traders and pilgrims made it more valuable in the social context. Lastly, its transformation into a shrine helped many a vav survive into present times. Even today, several vavs are protected from dilapidation owing to the continuing tradition of worshipping its water and the deities attached to the monument. We have also seen how other water buildings either remained water bodies bearing religious significance and hence never truly became public monuments, or the stability of the terrain did not necessitate an architecture as complex as that of the vav. Patronage also played a big role and perhaps in Gujarat the investment brought exceptional returns for the ruler both socially and economically. This may not have been so in the other regions, although this aspect needs further deliberation.
The vav is almost the last refuge for thousands of people even today during unforgiving summers and prolonged droughts. It holds a lesson for us in water conservation and also acts as a reminder of our environmental traditions that valued natural resources themselves as much as their economic productivity. Many villages that had abandoned these vavs with the advent of piped water supply are now retrieving them from under piles of garbage and debris that have clogged their once beautiful interiors. Research on these architectural wonders can also bring more focus to such restorative efforts. The vav is one of the few monuments that is not only relevant to our past, but also to our future. It certainly deserves more attention from art historians, architects, conservationists, and environmentalists who have a responsibility to preserve these lost wonders from our ancient heritage.
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