About one hundred and fifty stone carved statues of Gods and Goddesses including characters from Mahabharata and Ramayana, ten Hindu Avataras, Shakti and Naga cult, animals, warriors, royal ladies in palanquins besides faces and motifs from epic series beautifully carved and then laid down in stone masonry on the multiple decks of aesthetically designed water reservoirs popularly known as Bowlis are lying hidden from the eyes of tourists and even natives in village Charai Muttal about 23 Kms from Katra town of Mata Vaishno Devi in district Udhampur.
A Union Territory (UT) of Jammu and Kashmir protected monument which is half on a hillock and remaining half on the down slope side of village Charai is believed to have been constructed about 300 years ago wherein every single detail was worked out keeping in view the aesthetics, environment and social needs of local villages. This was the reason, the entire project houses Bowlis, terraced landscapes, channelized water that flows with gravity, ornamental trees besides arches supporting aqueducts that carry water to the edges of Bowlis from where it falls into reservoirs creating an effect of waterfall or fountains.
While historians, archaeologists, engineers and even locals are unable to solve certain mysteries with regard to this site or structures of Charai Muttal Bowlis, it apparently describes craftsmanship of artisans of that era who conserved water in such a tranquil manner that it while catering to the needs of local villagers besides animals also provided a visual delight to heart and soul. However, why all the Bowlis are not in an alignment, are tilted at a horizontal angle or why each one of them stands covered with high rise stairs from three and not all four sides alone remain unanswered.
A visit to the site reveals how artisans of that era might have taken years to first carve stones into different figures and then fitted the same on multiple stair-walls in fine alignments and at equal distances. The best part of these Bowlis is that during their pristine glory water that was taken from main octagonal Bowli and made to pass through channels built on top of arches after reaching edges of same structures fell from top into the main pond/reservoir creating an ambience of waterfall or fountain.
These perennial water sources have so ably been tapped that entire site with the blend of green areas and water bodies could well be imagined coming to life during hay time. The site also keeps the temperature of village at a much lower level than its surroundings. Citing best example of water conservation, the site where water from main source, the spring emanating from Trikuta Hills had been diverted into two small Bowlis of size ten square feet each wresting on different levels is an architectural marvel. These two Bowlies have been constructed with sand stones probably made available locally but are designed with motifs and sculptures carved into stone lines.
From here the water has been taken to another two Bowlies that have been constructed at a much lower level on down slope side but are much bigger in sizes. A survey of the site reveals that architects, planners and masons of that era had made water to overflow above specially designed channels built on top of arches from where it was made to fall in Bowlis like a waterfall or fountain. The site if restored to the lost glory can make anyone imagine how four waterfalls added to this site that stands damaged now.
One strange thing about these bowlis is that they have been made in decks but not in a straight line. Each Bowli is twisted to a given angle and water made to flow in same direction to make the entire water channel a series of multiple waterfalls thereby making the entire area come alive. The biggest Bowli comprises of about fifty-nine carved statues around its main pond that has six steps and four arches. From above these arches specially carved out channels allow water to fall into the main reservoir. This Bowli is approximately forty square feet in size.
Another Bowli above this is approximately fifteen square feet that too has been designed on a similar pattern to the bigger one. The walls of top staircases of these Bowlis have been decked with stone lines separated with carved stones and divided with motifs. Two specially designed corner stones have been placed on the edges of each Bowli that too has been convolutedly carved. The last Bowli houses about forty-one carved stones. Though the department of Archives, Archaeology and Museums had done commendable in restoring this site to a maximum level of fineness yet a lot of work is still required to restore it to its pristine glory.
Artists, architects and historians can very well relate stone sculptures or carvings on the walls of all these Bowlis to Hindu mythology. Some of the stones have been carved so complexly that their details speak of craftsmanship of artisans of that era. Figures of kings, queens, dancers, Lord Rama, his wife Sita and brother Laxman, Varah Avatara, Narsingh Avatara, Krishna playing flute, Matsya Avatara, Arjuna with his bow and arrow, Lord Hanuman, Durga Mata, Lord Ganesha, Lord Brahmha, Lord Vishnu Avatara, Mata Vaishno Devi, elephants, horses, birds, sea creatures and even dragon like figures can be identified at the site.
The crystal-clear water in these reservoirs is contaminated with fallen leaves, filth and dirt flowing from the surroundings and need proper maintenance. Only the octagonal Bowli that is main source of water is clean and caters to the needs of local villagers. First two Bowlis on hillock have been abandoned as locals during illegal constructions have diverted the water and left these structures dilapidated. Krishan Singh (83) when contacted said, “about 300 years ago when Rajasthan was struggling with drought, a number of labourers and artisans moved towards hills and settled here in village Cherai Muttal. It was at that time when King Ghaggar Singh got these Bowlis built.
However, another version of the story says that these Bowlis were built somewhere in between 12th and 18th centuries. Locals have named these reservoirs as Chambe Wali Bowli that’s located near main Temple, Manjli Bowli and then Badi Bowli. The main temple belongs to a Brahmchari Ashram. It is believed that Maharaja Ghulab Singh used to visit this site but Raja Ghaggar Singh of Jij Rajput clan got these Bowlis renovated during his era. Others say that constructions of these reservoirs are influenced by Mughal period as well as Rajasthani art.
A version also says that Tantia Tope, a general in the Indian Rebellion of 1857 who was widely considered as the best and most effective rebel general and Nana Phadnavis, a statesman during the Maratha Empire had also visited the site. These two icons are believed to have stayed here in village Charai for some time before leaving for Nepal. Two Chinar Trees planted at the site are said to be 250 years old and along with them the entire site has been decked with green patches and sacred groves containing Junipers and sacred Peepal.
Strangely, one of the Bowlis, water from which has been diverted, has been constriucted on the edge of a slope which depicts that there might be some more Bowlis at the site but that could be located only after excavation. Today many new constructions in the shape of temples, shops, ponds and even roads have come up right in the middle of site thereby spoiling the entire serenity of the place. The department of archives, archaeology and museums though from time to time been doing its bit to conserve the site and keep it clean yet a consistent effort and a holistic approach is needed to protect this monument and restore it to its primeval glory.
(The writer is senior Journalist)