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Posted on : May 27th, by
Queen's well entrance
Queen’s well entrance

A damp drizzling bank holiday Monday. I feel like reminiscing. Only this morning I had an email from an acquaintance that is developing into a friendship. He is much older than me but I am pleasantly surprised about how similar our thoughts are. The email sent me into a reflective mood as well as in a mood for writing…
I had been meaning to write about water & water wells for some time. My last blog had been about Modhera. But on that road from Ahmedabad instead of turning left if you turn right you reach a unique water well built in 1000 AD called the Queen’s well “Rani ki Vav” – Rani in Gujarati means Queen and Vav is well and ki is the preposition which says “belongs to”. We visited it in 2013 and in 2014 and it is one of two places in India added to the UNSESCO list of World Heritage buildings! It is a great place, a kind of inverted temple built into the ground. A magnificent piece of architecture. It is two years since I have been there now and I often think of it.
But allow me a small detour. I have this painting at my home which Vandana gifted to me in 2005 – a decade ago.

Lotus by Vandana
Lotus by Vandana

It reminds me of two things. One is of the ponds around Mori, my ancestral village which I returned to every year as a child in the summer holidays. You find such lotuses there. Last year, I went to Mori after a gap of some ten years. On the way we stopped at Dindi. One morning my wife and I went for a walk and this is an image from that day. This painting reminds me of that morning.

Lotuses in Dindi, near Mori, May 2014
Lotuses in Dindi, near Mori, May 2014

 

Vandana has also used this image in her thesis for her Masters.

 

Thesis page
Thesis page
Vandana's Masters Thesis cover
Vandana’s Masters Thesis cover

She researched  turning the black dirty waters of Nalas (water drains) into clear channels of running water. And this painting also reminds me of her important work on this modern water conservation concept.

How omniscience is water. All around us and within us. One Harvest festival in Church in Brandsby, our  pastor Liz asked what the members of the congregation were thinking of when the word “water” was mentioned.  People mentioned different things but  I think of human beings being made mostly of water. From birth to death we each have 60 % at least water with all its various salts within our bodies. Perhaps it is my role as a doctor who has to prescribe fluids into the body that keeps my mind on this issue. How wonderfully complicated the human body is. Actually how wonderfully complicated all living beings are. And at the centre of it all is water. You and I are made up of two thirds water. And so is our planet. It is strange that when life finally erupted from the oceans 3 billion years ago, it did so by creating a single amino acid. In time, different amino acids got together to form a RNA and then kept repeating. In time, these little molecules created variations and then a little house for themselves by building a cell membrane and within it, they stored a drop of the oceans. And here I am billions of years later with billions of cells – a human being full of that early process. Every cell in me is water. And I have billions of cells. I am fascinated at how central water is to me and to every one around me.

And the fascination continues. Mankind for millennia have built edifices to store water and so will mankind for millennia after me. I find this an astonishing thought. That rather than the everlasting soul that ‘Gita’ talks about, it will be water that will live for ever. It is eternal. And when the body dies, it lives on in another form in another body. And when water dies, so will life as I know it. Hence, I find it intriguing when they talk of an ocean of water on a moon of Saturn picked by the Casini probe of NASA.

In Gujarat I had an absolute moment of connection with ancient history and that connection was through water.

I stood in Lothal – a city built 5000 years ago during the Indus valley civilisation. I gazed first at an artists impression of Lothal in a small museum.

Lothal, a city of Indus Valley civilisation - Artist impression
Lothal, a city of Indus Valley civilisation – Artist impression

Later I stood at the dockyard which they built and there the people of Lothal received ships from across the oceans – from Mesopotamia. It is dry now but it made a huge impression on me. When you look at the artist’s impression, you can see the ships in the docks. And imagine those journeys taken.

Lothal's Dockyard from Ancient times
Lothal’s Dockyard from Ancient times

The thought crossed my mind that Lothal existed 2500 years before Buddha. And Buddha was born 2500 years before me. I remember mentioning this to my mum. And there was this continuation of water as a vehicle for ships to travel and engage in commerce. There was a well in the city of Lothal that I connected to. I remember so clearly in my mind’s eye standing there looking at the bricks and marveling at their shape – a trapezoid shape and thinking of those times past.

Lothal's water well bricks
Lothal’s water well bricks

My elder daughter took a picture of me marveling them and being pleased I was there.

Impressed at Lothal
Impressed at Lothal

One day I hope to see other cities of Indus Valley civilisation . I would love to go to Pakistan and see Mohenjodaro – the mound of the dead – the largest city of that civilisation.

From Lothal we travelled to Modhera and Rani ki Vav (The Queen’s well). I described Modhera in an earlier blog http://www.vivaart.co.in/modhera/  But instead of turning left to Modhera, let us go right. We will reach Patan and there you will find Rani ki Vav. And the link between the two is that both were built by the same family. In about 1000 AD the king of the area was Bhimdev I. He is credited with Modhera. His wife Udaymati built the Queen’s well.

Inscription at Rani ki Vav, Patan, Gujarat
Inscription at Rani ki Vav, Patan, Gujarat

Two such monumental buildings in what look like sleepy towns. But in those days, this was a great city belonging to a great dynasty. The city that is now called Patan was called Anhilwara Patan and the dynasty that was ruling at the time was Solanki dynasty. In a rich history like that of India it is hard to capture the glory of a place. You are surrounded by fascinating buildings, great architecture and with an imagination you can transport yourself to those times of ages past. Let me tell you one fact that will stand out.

When Tertius Chandler composed his book “Four thousand years of Urban Growth: an historical census” http://www.amazon.com/Four-Thousand-Years-Urban-Growth/dp/0889462070, he used a plethora of historical sources to locate approximate populations of the world’s largest cities over four thousand years. He looked at traveler’s estimates, wagons of food reaching a city every day, size of the army in peace times and at war, area of the city walls, city densities. he then looked at various points in history in the years 100, 1000, 15000 AD etc, And guess what – in 1000 AD Anhilwara was the 10th largest city in the world! A population of 100,000 behind Baghdad in Iraq, Cairo in Egypt, Istanbul and Córdoba!

City population tables
City population tables

Imagine that. When you do, this sleepy little town shows  a different perspective.

And the awe it projected is recorded in the historical text ‘Prabanda Cintamani’, written in 1304 by Merutunga when he described this well amongst other things. Here is a historian recording the Queen’s well’s prominence and fame. By the time of Alauddin Khilji (he of Rani Padmini fame) in 1298, this well was destroyed, having already been sacked by Qutb ud din Aibak (remember the famed Qutb Minar) about 90 years ago. The well got silted up and perhaps those long years of disuse preserved it for subsequent generations form a future long long away from then.

Today as you walk down the steps this is what you see:

Queen's well entrance
Queen’s well entrance

As you descend down the steps the heat of the mid-day sun slowly stopped burning the back of your neck and the golden colour of the walls became noticeable.

Descending down the steps
Descending down the steps

You realise how elaborate the  structure is.

Multiple floors
Multiple floors

At first instance it reminded me of a shopping mall – you are on the first floor and see an array of rooms all around you. You suddenly think it is never ending. But then there is an entire floor below you.

Multiple floors
Multiple floors

Only when you reach right down you see that there were many floors – I think four in all.

Multiple floors in Water well
Multiple floors in Water well

And as you turn around every bracket is filled with a profusion of sculptures.

Brackets with sculptures
Brackets with sculptures

You are only at the entrance but already you feel like sitting to contemplate the extraordinary beauty in amazement.

Amma and Vandana sitting down
Amma and Vandana sitting down

As you go down the steps the walls just gather more sculptures. The whole thing comes live. You need to take a breather…

Mother and her three grand daughters
Mother and her three grand daughters

As you sit your eyes take in slowly the details. There is precision in the design.

Design precision
Design precision

And when you zero in, you find that in each nuance of a curve there is a delicacy of movement.

Delicate movement
Delicate movement

And then at the same time your eyes shift and take in a whole wall that looks well proportioned, too, and is pleasing to the eye.

Whole wall
Whole wall

 

I could go on and on. How I felt truly thrilled at being there. Even now 2 years later, I remember the scenes and how it made me shiver with delight at seeing such exquisite beauty. It amazed me there was all the effort put into an activity of gathering water – something that used to be an everyday chore. And still is in many villages in India. Including my grandfather’s village – even now. And a place of this nature was so adorned with beauty and turned into a place of cultural perigee. Where everything looms in front of you and spreads its light like a full moon perigee! I imagine that at each of its levels people would have sat – like we did.

sitting in the well
sitting in the well

That occasionally generations of women sat near areas they liked. The Queen’s well seemed to have seven levels of buildings. You walked down each level. At the end of these levels was a large rectangular tank of water. For greater technical descriptions, the Unesco website is a good introduction  http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/922

However imagine walking down each flight of stairs. In times of plenty, the water levels rose and it became easy to collect water. In summer, the water levels would fall and you walked further into the well to collect water. I wondered if some ladies (I suppose, it was the women as it still is them in Mori, my ancestral village) saw the sculptures revealed by falling levels of water and derived so much pleasure that they  did not mind the extra load and effort. Maybe the swirling tendrils and flowers just lightened their  day.

Swirling tendrils in stone
Swirling tendrils in stone

The water well is a metaphor of so many things in life. It really touched me. I thought of the artists who worked at this relief.

Design deep inside Queen's well
Design deep inside Queen’s well

or indeed  this one…

Different Design Deep down in the Queen's well
Different Design Deep down in the Queen’s well

How clever to make one a positive relief and one a negative . Was it an illiterate artisan? Or is that a narrow definition? Is it an understanding mind outside the confines of a defined education that produces this level of mastery over stone? Is that not an education as much as squaring a circle is or knowing intricacies of what truth and ethics are?

The Queen’s well seems replete with devotion, too. There were figures galore of Vishnu’s avatars. here is one of him as a Varaha Avatar.

Varaha (Vishnu as a boar) avatar
Varaha (Vishnu as a boar) avatar

The story goes that ten times the Lord Vishnu as protector of the world descends from the Milky ocean (the Milky way seen in the night skies was thought to be an ocean of milk high above) to save the earth. In this story, he takes the form of a boar to save Earth. Earth is sinking as the primordial oceans rise due to floods and Vishnu carries the weight of Earth in his tusks to safety. There are many versions of this avatar story and for a delightful afternoon of reading you should pursue this link https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Varaha Again, here is a story with water as a major protagonist. And that is perhaps why of all the avatar sculptures of Vishnu, this one caught my eye and I photographed it. See Earth as Bhoodevi (Bhoomi is Earth and devi is goddess) sitting of the arm of Vishnu. In one arm he holds the conch which is the traditional representation of Vishnu.

There are other stories, too, like Durga, the female deity of power and staggering brilliance. She is the one my second daughter is named after. Here is the goddess riding a lion and killing a demon in the guise of a buffalo (Mahishasura: Mahisha is buffalo and asura is demon):

Durga killing Mahishasura
Durga killing Mahishasura

We sat there for a long time and we talked. And laughed. And joked. There was pain, too. My father had hurt his ankle while descending. You can see water in the photograph. We were trying to use this to soothe his pain. So many metaphors.

sitting in the well sitting in the well

But ultimately the Queen’s well for me is a microcosm of life, a community space used by many communities across many generations – a place for gathering and observing religion, commerce, gathering water, paying obeisance, making friends, greeting acquaintances a veritable microcosm of life.

And as I walked out I noticed the interplay between traditional deities and abstract forms. Being next to each other, they somehow complimented each other’s presence.

We walked out on to a sunny day. The land around was green. I remember the Banyan trees. Beautiful trees with roots that hang from the branches in their search for water. And then one day the reach the earth and then take anchor. They turn into tree trunks and take the weight off the branches. Such variety and cycle in life.

Banyan trees
Banyan trees

And there were birds.

Birds
Birds

And flowers. Of different hues – of yellows,

Yellow hues
Yellow hues

reds,

Red hues
Red hues

and whites.

White flowers
White flowers

I remember my mother holding a white flower and smiling.  She seemed to like this flower more than the others. I remember the warmth of that smile.

It was a lovely day. I was happy. I think often of the Rani ki Vav.  I was there a year before it was declared as a World Heritage site by Unesco. It was an unexpected and magical finding then for me. And still is. A special memory.