Stepwells Sources of water that need preservation

Stepwell near Nandni Wildlife Sanctuary. Photo/ Arkayansh Paba

Anil Paba
Stepwells were culturally and socially significant structures in India that made it easier for people to access groundwater and maintain the well. Water is significant in Hindu cosmology as the tirtha or boundary between heaven and earth. The stepwells considered as source of life giving water which enabled the land to become fertile and the crops to flourish. To meet the chronic water shortages the inhabitants of the area developed strategies for preserving and storing the water from annual monsoons. For this purpose ,wells, stepweels, Kunds, baulies and other water structures were built from the 7th uptill the 19th century throughout India-in cities, villages etc. We have also witnessed thousand of stepwells, Boulies, ponds of historical importance in Jammu region too. Large number of these stepwells were built to honour a local hero,family goddess,deities etc.
During my visit to the stepwells in various parts of Jammu region, I was struck by their unique architectural structures and the artistic skills of the time. Most of the stepwells in Jammu region have been constructed on the ancient trade routes from medieval period up to Dogra regime. There is a beautiful stepwell situated in ancient Shiva temple, Nagrota (Jammu). As per Pujari Karun Goswami it was built by Pandavas during their exile. This stepwell has 37 large steps to reach the main Kund. The chiseled stone of the stepwell depicts that it was renovated during 16th-17th century A.D.
We also found several ancient stepwells in Purmandal (Chota-Kashi), along Devika river presently Samba district. One of the stepwells in old Shiva temple (Purmandal), is believed to be built by Man Singh during the period of Akbar. Some of them have been built by Maharaja Ranjit Singh and other during Dogra Ruler. There is also a stepwell in the complex of wild life sanctuary in old Nandani marg, covered with beautiful chiseled sand stone on ancient pilgrimage route from Jammu to Vaishno Devi. Another district having this gift of water bodies and popularly known as land of Boulies, springs and stepwells is Udhampur. One of the ancient stepwell is near the ancient archaeological site namely Baili near of famous Krimchi temples.The architecture of this oldest stepwell tells the existence of old civilization and the knowledge of our ancient trade routes to Kashmir.
Stepwell is referred to in Sanskrit as vapi or vapika. The stepwells did not require a rope or any other device to draw water. One could simply go down the steps and obtain water. Stepwells also served a function as a gathering place for women who came here for water, solace, gossip and exchange of ideas. Unlike Hindu temples, the stepwells became the focal point for folk religion and worship of local goddesses and deities.
Origin and early history of step wells.
According to archaeologists, there once may have been as many as 700 wells in the city of Mohenjodaro alone. Archaeological excavations of pre-historic sites are providing evidence of wells and reservoirs, we also have written documentary evidence of their existence from over 2000 years ago. A type of stepwell is said to have been constructed as early as the reign of Ashoka in the third century B.C.E.( the seventh edict on the Delhi Topre Piller).
Types of Stepwells :
The ancient texts such as Rajvallabha, which differentiates between the four main types of Stepwells:
Nanda: a stepwell with one entrance
Bhadra: a stepwell with two entrances
Jaya: a stepwell with three entrances
Vijaya: a stepwell with four entrances
Of these, Vijaya is the most elaborate and is called ‘Dirdhika’, meaning the length of 300 bows.
Construction of wells and inaugural ceremonies:
Construction of step well typically involved not just boring hole from which water could be drawn but the careful placement of a wide, stone-lined, sloping excavation that, once a long staircase and side ledges had been embedded, allowed access to the ever fluctuating level of the water, which flowed through an opening in the well-cylinder. Stepwells are multi-storied subterranean structures with significant ornamental and architectural features; they usually have two parts; a vertical shaft of water and the cascading galleries, chambers and a flight of orchestrated steps. Stepwells are an indigenous system for rain water harvesting and served as water reservoirs. Stepwells also used for farming had drainage systems that channeled water into the fields. Stepwells were excavated several stories underground in order to reach the water table, the level at which the soil or rocks is always saturated with water. Stylistic varied they incorporated flights of stairs leading from the ground level down to the water.
Sanskrit texts like Agni Purana, Shilpa Shastra and other provide detailed guide lines and instructions relating to the construction and opening of wells. Prior to the construction of new well, an expert was recruited to select a favourable site. These experts or water diviners are said to possess unique powers of being able to hear the sound of running water underground. For others, an appropriate site is revealed through dreams. Their judgments was said be unerring. They could predict with accuracy the depth at which the water be tapped.
These are the detailed accounts of ceremonies marking the digging and opening of the well. These involved the selection of an auspicious hour by the priest who, accompanied by the water diviner, the constructor of the well and the labours, would visit the proposed site to propitiate the deities. According to popular lore, Tuesday and other days on which the earth sleeps must be avoided as also the first, seventh, ninth,tenth,fourteenth and twenty-fourth days fallowing Sankranti and day when the Sun crosses from one constellation to another.
On the appointed day, the image of the god Ganpati is installed while the priest recites sacred hymns and offers panchamrit-a mixture of milk, curds, honey, sugar and coconuts to Ganpati and goddesses Jaladevi. A green silk cloth is spread out on the spot and wheat, betel nuts, copper coin are placed. According to Masani, a copper bowl filled with water and gold/silver coins are also placed, and the mouth of the bowl is covered with mango leaves on which is placed a coconut. The ceremony is known as the Khat-Puja. This ceremony prescribed by the shastras is intended to propitiate the mother Earth and to prevent interruptions.
Numerous hymns and verses in the Rigveda, contain elements of water worship and praise for the Apsaras, who represents the anthropomorphic form of water. Water was also worshipped in the form of the god Varunna. People believed that the ancestral spirits resides in the waters and could be invoked in places such as water buildings.
The other ancient texts, the Puranas, provide elaborate descriptions of water worship. From these we know that wells, ponds and tanks became associated with sacred altars, the site for rituals and worship. The belief that water bestows long life, wealth and immortality are clearly evident in these texts, along with the belief that they cleanse the sins of the worshipper. The waters of the step wells and wells, though stagnant, are regards as both pure and clean. This is because of the prevailing belief that the sun is the great purifier of water, and water structures like wells, step wells and ponds were rarely closed or covered.
The water of certain stepwells was regarded as especially sacred and beneficial.
The cool and sweet water of the step well in Kutch was said to have greater sanctity than visiting a temple. Step wells are also seen as the abode of local goddesses or ghosts and spirits.
The ancient texts also describe the healing powers of water said to cure all types of disease and ailments.
Healing are the watery billows,
Water cools and fever’s glow.
Healing against every plague.
Health to thee brings water’s flow.
It is evident that the healing and curative powers residing in the waters of the wells caused them to be venerated.
Various types of offerings were made at the wells which include sweets, sugar, honey, flower, milk, coconuts. Etc. as sacred sites, the wells were covered with Jalis or trollis work and illuminated with ghee lamps.
It is common practice all over India to install dhajas or flags near temples, religious buildings, shrines, pilgrimage sites and sacred trees. This was also the case with certain wells and stepwells which were said to be the abode of deities or spirits. In contrast to ordinary wells, the step wells did not require a rope or any other device to draw water. One could simply go down the steps and obtain water.
Of the thousands of stepwells that proliferated throughout India, most were abandoned as a result of modernization and falling water tables. Local communities neglected their upkeeps, thus allowing them to silt up, filled with garbage, or generally crumble into ruin.
In 3rd century B.C.E these beautiful step wells that represent the finest examples of water architecture ceased to be built after the establishment of British rule in India in the 19th century. The British administration viewed the step wells which horror and disdain, they regarded the water in these wells as unclean, unhygienic and a source of potentially hazardous infections. Regulations imposed by the British prohibited the use of the step wells for drinking water. After nearly 1000 years the stepwells became obsolete and were replaced by taps, pumps and tube wells. Many were sealed and declared off limits while others crumbled to the ground, victims of neglected and disuse. Those that survived and silent reminders of the past when they were alive with the sound of laughter and the voice of women who came here to fetch water, and other who spent a few hours here to rest and drink the cooling waters.
It has also been observed that the chiseled stone of the ancient stepwells were carried away and use in the construction of new buildings.
Stepwells are not just a water source; they are also part of India’s architectural history and our heritage. They are heritage sites, surrounding by native trees and foliage, which need to be preserved. India has a comprehensive water eco-system, but most of the traditional water bodies have become defunct. Reviving the stepwells enable people to reclaim their traditional resources and spaces of community life.
Many stepwells are in shambles or have caved in and some have disappeared completely. But in recent years, many of these ancient edifice are being restored to help tackle India’s acute water problem. The country is undergoing the worst water crises in its history, according to a recent government report. There are hopes that the ancient technology of the stepwells might offer a solution.
(The writer is Director Amar Santosh Museum and Co-convener INTACH Sub-Chapter Udhampur)