Chand Baori: Exploring the architectural wonder of Abhaneri

Of the many monuments present in Rajasthan, the Chand Baori is one of the most popular destinations for tourists. Located at an easy distance from Delhi, the stepwell is considered to be the deepest in the region. An exploration report produced during 1925-26 CE by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) by B.L. Dhama provides scant details, mentioning its location in the southwest corner of the village of Abhaneri and its housing of two beautiful images of Durga Mahishasuramardini and Ganesha.[1] It is believed to have been constructed contemporary to the adjacent Harshatmata Temple, and the location of the stepwell needs to be taken into consideration when contemplating the site as a whole. The western direction is considered to be protected by the deity Varuna, who is closely related to various aspects of water. Therefore, the placement of the structure in the western or southwestern direction was not an acknowledgement of Varuna’s authority over water-related matters but also a way of seeking the deity's blessing for an abundance of this vital resource. The baori (stepwell) presents an exceptional example of such water structures in the region of Rajasthan and can be dated from the 9th to the 18th century CE.

Image 1: Floor plan of the Kund at Chand Baori in Abhaneri. Picture Courtesy: American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS), Gurugram
Image 1: Floor plan of the Kund at Chand Baori in Abhaneri. Picture Courtesy: American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS), Gurugram
Image 2: A lattice window showing a flower vase. The room is colonnaded and spacious with cusped arches. The entry within the ‘palace’ can be made through two flights of stairs on both ends. The arcade is four-sided with pointed arches. It is also known as the Summer Palace. Small jalis are present on the windows.
Image 2: A lattice window showing a flower vase. The room is colonnaded and spacious with cusped arches. The entry within the ‘palace’ can be made through two flights of stairs on both ends. The arcade is four-sided with pointed arches. It is also known as the Summer Palace. Small jalis are present on the windows.

The Chand Baori is situated in the southeast direction of the Harshatmata Temple and was built contemporary to it. It can be classified as a vijaya-vapi (literal translation: stepwell of victory; architecturally accessible) based on characteristic features mentioned in the Aparajitapriccha. The stepwell was built in grey sandstone quarried from the Alwar district. It has a square and features thirteen-level staircases arranged in a pyramidal shape which provide steep openings to traverse up and down at the same time. The entrance faces north (Image 1). The structure of the kunda (tank) can be divided into two parts based on the periods of construction. The ancient structure comprises a circular well shaft which is flanked by pavilions and can be accessed via stairs. This lower structure includes a wall facing the step, with two storied corridors featuring ruchaka (square) pillars carved with elaborate foliate patterns. ‘Inferior quality’ reliefs depicting a seated Gajalakshmi and standing Parvati are present on the kakshasanas (seat backs). The pillars alternate between abstract foliate and flower motifs, interspersed with pillars bearing ghatapallava (vase-and-foliage) motifs, similar to those found at the Harshatmata Temple. Remains of large jalis (lattice screens) are still present at the eastern end of the pavilion. An elaborate lattice depicting a flowering vase is also present in the Mughal superstructure staircase (Image 2). The northern wall facing the stepwell has two projecting offsets with small niches resembling shrines with phamsana (pyramidical) roofs. Sculptures of Ganesha and Durga Mahishasuramardini are housed in the west and the east shrine, respectively (Image 3 & 4). An empty niche is present at the extreme ends of the projecting offsets. These offsets are located in a rectangular block, which features a small ribbed dome crowned by an amalaka (crowning member) and a spherical kalasha (pitcher, torus moulding) flanked by makaras (mythical sea monster). Shaded niche shrines of Shiva-Parvati and Durga on a lion are present above the offsets.

Image 3: Four-armed male deity seated in lalitasana on a cushion. It is stylistically similar to the multiple Ganesha images recovered from the Harshatmata Temple.
Image 3: Four-armed male deity seated in lalitasana on a cushion. It is stylistically similar to the multiple Ganesha images recovered from the Harshatmata Temple.
Image 4: Six-armed female deity holding a trident, sword in her right; shield, munda in her left hand, rest is not clear. The leg is pressing on his hump, pressing the demon down. The decapitated head is shown fallen down. The lion chomps at the bull/demon's hip. It is stylistically similar to the multiple Durga Mahishasuramardini images recovered from the Harshatmata temple.
Image 4: Six-armed female deity holding a trident, sword in her right; shield, munda in her left hand, rest is not clear. The leg is pressing on his hump, pressing the demon down. The decapitated head is shown fallen down. The lion chomps at the bull/demon's hip. It is stylistically similar to the multiple Durga Mahishasuramardini images recovered from the Harshatmata temple.

This section dates back to the 9th century CE. The superstructure displays an amalgamation of the late Mughal and local styles, dating back to the 18th century CE. The stepwell is enclosed within a high boundary wall with the entrance towards the north. Surrounding the structure is a flat terrace where loose sculptures from the Harshatmata Temple and the site are currently kept within a meshed enclosure. The 18th century structure has two levels, with the lower one resting directly above the earlier structure. The room is colonnaded and spacious with cusped arches, and entry to the ‘palace’ can be gained via two flights of stairs located at both ends. The arcade has a four-sided design and pointed arches. It is also known as the ‘summer palace’ (Image 5).

Image 5: The room is colonnaded and spacious with cusped arches. The entry within the ‘palace’ can be made through two flights of stairs on both ends. The arcade is four-sided with pointed arches. It is also known as the Summer Palace. Small jalis are present on the windows.
Image 5: The room is colonnaded and spacious with cusped arches. The entry within the ‘palace’ can be made through two flights of stairs on both ends. The arcade is four-sided with pointed arches. It is also known as the Summer Palace. Small jalis are present on the windows.

It is important to note that the architecture of this period reflects a blend of local Rajput elements with the established Mughal style. There was close interaction between the Mughal court and the Rajput areas with the Rajputs breaking away from the empire in the 18th century. According to B.M. Alfieri, the incorporation of the Mughal imperial style into local features symbolized Rajput sovereignty.[2] The movement of artists seeking patronage from the central Mughal court toward emerging regional centres also aided in the development of this hybrid architecture. The tapering columns with the floral bulbous base, prevalent in the upper structure of the stepwell, became stylistically entrenched after Aurangzeb’s reign. Festooned arches with 11 to 13 scallops carved along the edge, along with chattris (umbrellas) are commonly associated with 18th century architecture in Rajasthan.[3] Another distinctive trait was the addition of an open summer house (kiosk) featuring pillars and endless scalloped arches for windbreaks. The Chand Baori's upper level thus unmistakably belongs to the late Mughal-Rajput style. Morna Livingston, in her seminal work on the history of stepwells describes the baori as ‘showing two classical periods of water building in a single setting’. A shaft for cross-ventilation is situated at the back, originally used for hauling water for cattle but currently blocked with sand. Small plain jalis adorn the windows.

The involvement of large-budget media projects, such as using monuments as sites for film shoots, not only boosts the popularity and consequently the tourism of the water structures, but also raises awareness of the sites and facilitates their renovation. The stepwell in question, the Chand Baori, has featured prominently in Hollywood movies such as The Fall (2006), and Batman: The Dark Knight Rises (2012). In a recent economic study, Alka Jain states that the large influx of both foreign and Indian tourists contributes to the financial resources available for the upkeep of the stepwell.[4] Additionally, the reinvention of these stepwells as public spaces for dining such as 'The Stepwell Cafe' in Jodhpur, which revitalized the Toorji Baori, as well as the Rawla Narlai fine-dining experience along with cultural programmes, breathes new life into these structures. However, the social significance of the stepwells transcends their media appeal, as they are imbued with myths, beliefs and practices. After decades of neglect, this kind of engagement with the stepwells rescues a select few from disrepair. Nonetheless questions persist regarding their viability as structures for water management.

The Chand Baori stepwell served as a water source and bathing spot for the local community until it came under the protection of ASI. Presently, it is open to the public during the Gangour, Jal-Jhulani Ekadashi, and the Abhaneri festival. Jal Jhulani Gyaras or Ekadashi is a popular celebration observed in various parts of Rajasthan during the month of Bhadrapada (August-September). This Ekadashi celebration has also been recorded in the paintings of the Jaipur court. In one of the paintings, Krishna is depicted in a boat signifying the act of carrying the idol across the Talkatora Lake from the Jagat Shiromani Temple during the reign of Sawai Jai Singh II.[5] Historical records indicate that offerings were made to 'Thakurji' by the zenana during this festival. Today, the festival continues to be celebrated at the Chand Baori in a manner reminiscent of the 18th century CE. This is one of the times when the water of Chand Baori is made available to the public to bathe the Krishna idols, which are then ceremoniously carried back to the temple of Gopalji at Abhaneri. This event marks the occasion when lord Vasudeva turns during his annual sleep, known as Devshayani Ekadashi.

The cultural festival at Abhaneri, also popularly known as Abhaneri Festival, is a government initiative. Since 2008, the festival is generally celebrated in September-October and displays the local heritage with pride. Activities such as craft competitions, rangoli displays, camel rides and puppet shows make for a fun-filled schedule. Folk performances like Kacchi-Ghori, Kalbeliya, Ghumar and Bhawai along with ethnic music and food draw tourism to Abhaneri. Langa[6] singing and ras lilas[7] are also very popular at the festival. Elements of bardic narrations still live through these songs. There is also a local belief that the festival calls forth the monsoon. The Chand Baori and the Harshatmata Temple are an acknowledgement of the longevity of cultural traditions and a testament to the living traditions of the site.


Footnotes:

[1] Dhama, ‘Rajputana and Central India Circle,’ 128.

[2] Alfieri, Islamic Architecture of the Indian Subcontinent, 282–283.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Jain, ‘Spiritual Marketing in Abhaneri,’ 17–20.

[5] Sachdeva, Festivals at the Jaipur Court, 76.

[6] Folk music of the Langa community of Rajasthan.

[7] A folk dance form composed around the mythological stories of Krishna. The dance form primarily originated in the Braj region and eventually became popular in the surrounding regions.

Bibliography:

Alfieri, Bianca Maria. Islamic Architecture of the Indian Subcontinent. London: Laurence King Publishing, 2000.

Dhama, B. L. Annual Report on Rajputana and Central India Circle. Archaeological Survey of India, 1925-26.

Jain, Alka. ‘Spiritual Marketing in Abhaneri: A Case Study Harsad Mata Temple.’ IOSR Journal of Business and Management 17/9 (2015): 17–20.

Sachdeva, Vibhuti. Festivals at the Jaipur Court. New Delhi: Niyogi Books, 2014.