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Volume 44, Number 5September/October 1993

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Deep Retreats

Written by Caroline Stone
Photographed by Ilene Perlman

Perhaps because of its desert origins and its emphasis on cleanliness and purity, Islam has always sought to conserve and manage water resources. Muslims have time and again brought innovations in water management to the countries in which their faith has flourished. India is no exception.

Hindu India was already quite concerned with the problems of water and irrigation when the Muslims arrived in AD 1001; but the Muslims brought with them important new ideas, and greatly extended the existing water supply systems.

Before Islam, India had numerous artificial lakes, many built as reservoirs; almost every city in the northwestern state of Rajasthan can boast of one. There were also tanks, large, occasionally very large, rectangular pools, often associated with temples, that sometimes enclose a spring and are reached by stone steps; their focus is on assuring ritual purity rather than simply providing water for drinking, for animals or for irrigation.

The coming of Islam brought a new stage in the construction of tanks: the baoli , or step-well. Its origins are unclear. Baolis  do not seem to exist outside India; they may have been known in some form in Central Asia, but have gone unrecorded. More likely they are an elaboration of a simpler kind of step-well found in northern India.

The northern version of the baoli  generally consists of a rectangular stone or brick cistern, with a broad flight of stone steps running from ground level down into the water along one side of the well, sometimes with secondary flights of steps, also underwater and running opposite and at right angles to the main flight. These baolis , while often quite impressive in size, are usually unadorned and architecturally plain.

The most interesting baolis , from an artistic and architectural viewpoint, are those found in western India. Essentially, the western baoli  is a whole subterranean building, constructed around a very deep well that sometimes extends down more than 50 meters (165 feet). The well's circular or octagonal shaft is reached by flights of steps linking underground galleries or chambers that open onto the shaft. The lower reaches of the well, including galleries, may flood during the monsoons or other heavy rains, but the water, no matter what its level, always remains conveniently accessible.

Baolis have other advantages: The water, because it is so deep and so protected, is kept pure and safe from contamination by trash, drainage or animals - a factor of great importance in efforts to preserve the health of the community.

The early Muslim conquerors of India were probably aware of such health factors, and the later ones certainly were: Their records refer often to water and air quality, and they had ways of testing both.

In the case of air, for example, it was customary before establishing a major camp, to hang up carcasses of sheep - similar in age and condition and slaughtered at the same time - at various locations and to study what happened to them. The place where the carcass lasted longest without signs of decay would be chosen as the campsite, on the grounds that the air there was freshest and most healthful.

In the case of water, samples would be examined for detritus, insects and plant life. Experts would assess the camp's distance from springs and other water sources, and determine whether the supplies had been contaminated by seepage from garbage dumps or graveyards.

Baolis made the task of fetching water much easier, and provided a cool and pleasant retreat where people could sit, perhaps even work, during the hottest part of the day - something of no small importance in an area where temperatures can exceed 50 degrees Celsius (122° F). Many baolis  are rather efficiently provided with light shafts, at least at the higher levels. The relief and pleasure of entering a baoli and escaping from the dust and glare of a hot summer's day is enormous; within minutes, wilting small children - Indian as well as foreign -begin to revive. In past centuries, baolis were probably reserved for women and children at certain times of day; some of them were endowed by women - generally a woman of the ruling house, since building one was a costly enterprise.

Step-wells were also often intended for travelers. The Muslim rulers of India, particularly the Moghuls of the 15th to 18th centuries, built and endowed fine roads, equipped with mosques, rest houses and wells. These facilities were especially common on the main arterial road, which would, as it happens, also have been used by Muslim pilgrims on their way to Makkah. Doubtless much of this construction consciously imitated the great pilgrim road across Mesopotamia and northern Arabia to Makkah, built by the consort of Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid and called the Darb Zubaydah, or Zubaydah's Way.

Here is a Muslim ruler's description of digging a baoli  - also known in India as a wain  or vav  - at Agra in 1525:

"Three things oppressed us in Hindustan, its heat, its violent winds, its dust. Against all three, the Bath is a protection, for in it, what is known of dust and wind? and in the heats it is so chilly that one is almost cold.... In an empty space inside the fort, which was between Ibrahim's residence and the ramparts, I ordered a large chambered well to be made, measuring 10 by 10 [roughly 10 meters square, the approved measurements for an ablution tank at this time], a large well with a flight of steps, which in Hindustan is called wain.

"This well was begun before the Char-bagh [a Persian-style garden, opposite where the Taj Mahal now stands]; they were busy digging it in the true Rains; it fell [in] several times and buried the hired workmen...

"It is a complete wain, having a three-storeyed house in it. The lowest storey consists of three rooms, each of which opens on the descending steps, at intervals of three steps from one another. When the water is at its lowest, it is one step below the bottom chamber; when it rises in the Rains, it sometimes goes into the top storey. In the middle storey, a chamber has been excavated, which connects with the domed building in which the bullock turns the well-wheel. The top storey is a single room, reached from two sides by 5 or 6 steps which lead down to it from the enclosure overlooked from the well-head. Facing the right-hand way down, is the stone inscribed with the date of completion.

"At the side of this well is another, the bottom of which may be at half the depth of the first, and into which water comes from that first one when the bullock turns the wheel in the domed building afore-mentioned. This second well is also fitted with a wheel, by means of which water is carried along the rampart to the high-garden. A stone building stands at the mouth of the well and there is an outer mosque outside the enclosure in which the well is. The mosque is not well done; it is in the Hindustani fashion."

Thus wrote the Emperor Babur, founder of the Moghul dynasty. Leaving aside his mixed feelings about India - he was very homesick for Afghanistan - it is a good description of a baoli . Some are, as he describes, powered by a water wheel, while in others the water rises directly from a spring.

A classic example of a spring-fed well is the exceptionally beautiful Adalaj Vav, built in 1498 some 30 kilometers (20 miles) outside Ahmadabad in Gujarat state. Like the well described by Babur, Adalaj still stands in a charming garden, where passersby can rest while their animals enjoy the amenity of a cattle-trough provided for them across the road. The well is about 30 meters (100 feet) deep. Its five floors of galleries open on a central octagonal shaft, and its square columns are carved with delicate patterns almost entirely geometric, apart from lines of elephants - each in a different pose, and set at such a height that one imagines they were intended to delight the children who now play up and down its steps. A carving of a lone fish decorates the wall of the secondary well. A common motif at Adalaj is the stylized sunflower that is so much a part of northwestern Indian art: One sees it everywhere, from the most archaic stonework to the modern country girl's skirt, from the designs clipped into a racing camel's coat to those worked in gold and precious stones for a Moghul ornament.

Baolis in general are remarkable for their functional elegance; they lack the ornamental exuberance of many Indian buildings. There are some notable exceptions, however, such as the Rani-ka-Vav, or Step-Well of the Queen, at Patan, a Gujarati city also famous for its sumptuous weaving.

Baolis are often part of a mosque complex, like the charming Dada Harir step-well, built with its mosque and garden in about 1499 by a lady at the court of Sultan Mahmud Shah, or Mahmud I Begra, of Gujarat. The lady, said to have been the nurse of the prince, built the complex as a waqf  or religious charity at a cost of three lakhs of rupees (300,000 rupees). Simpler in decoration than the well at Adalaj, the Dada Harir well has dedicatory inscriptions in Arabic and Gujarati, just as Babur describes them.

No one can say for certain when the first baoli  of this kind was constructed; there is no record of any before the second wave of Muslim conquest in the 12th century. Although the style is peculiar to the region, especially to Gujarat, a famous baoli  of this type was built in Old Delhi by the Sultan Ala-ud-din Khilji (1296-1315). This step-well is still very much the social center of the busy popular quarter in which it stands, once again built close to a mosque, the Jamat Khana Masjid.

Baolis of various descriptions have been constructed by Muslim, Hindu and civil authorities, as and where needed, for nearly a thousand years. A Hindu prototype of the western-style Muslim baoli  is the Mata Bhavani step-well, in Ahmadabad, believed to date from the 11th century. The most recent baoli  on official record was constructed in the 1930's at Wankaner, in Gujarat.

Other types of water and irrigation systems are also associated with mosques in the Ahmadabad area. The original purpose of such systems was no doubt to provide pure water with which to perform the ablutions before prayer, but the wider benefit to the community at large must have been enormous.

A fine example is the beautiful mosque complex at Sarkhej, about 11 kilometers (seven miles) south of Ahmadabad, begun in 1445 by Mahmud Shah, the Gujarati sultan. A large lake was excavated along one side of the mosque; it was completed with finely designed and decorated sluices by Mahmud's son, Muzaffar Shah II, in 1514. The sluices provided the area with an excellent irrigation system, and the symbolism of the great mosque dispensing both religious enlightenment to a previously heathen population, and prosperity to a previously arid tract of land was certainly not lost on its builders.

Equally important as a reservoir is the Kankariya Lake in Ahmadabad itself, built by Sultan Qutb-ud-din Ahmad Shah of Gujarat (1451-8), who together with his mother was responsible for many of the Muslim monuments in the region. The lake is over a mile in circumference and the steps down to it, the sluices and a causeway to an island garden are all elegantly decorated. The Kankariya Lake was used by the Moghuls as a pleasure garden as well as a camp; today, it is a favorite spot for residents of Ahmadabad to stroll and escape the heat.

On a smaller scale, but still worthy of note, are the huge, vaulted underground reservoirs of certain mosques - sometimes as large as the mosque's courtyard itself - which were designed to provide water for the ablution tank. Good examples of these reservoirs can be found in the Dastur Khan mosque of 1463 and in the mosque of Shah Alam, built roughly a century later. Underground reservoirs were a standard feature of Gujarati mosques from earliest times; they later spread throughout Muslim India. The ablution tanks themselves are often of singular beauty in this part of India, and are usually set in gardens within the mosque compound. As with the step-wells, their waters serve not only to cleanse but to cool.

Caroline Stone, an occasional contributor toAramco World, lives in Seville and writes about Islamic arts and crafts.

This article appeared on pages 14-19 of the September/October 1993 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1993 images.