The Step Well at Patan …

Gujerat is a dry state. In both ways … no alcohol and little rain. It is dry and sandy. Wells, therefore, had to be deep. A form of architecture evolved here where the wells would have steps down to the water, usually on just one side. They are mostly dug close to rivers or lakes and it came to be the case that providing such wells was seen as a meritorious act. The finest of them all is the Rani-ki-vav, or queen’s step well located just outside Patan close to the River Sarasvati. Once again it is a legacy of the Solanki dynasty. This one built by Queen Udayamati as a memorial to her late husband Bhimadeva I.

It is rectangular, the long axis runs east west and is 65m long 20 m wide and 27m deep. The well is at the west end. The walls are sheer except for the steps running down from the east end. It is large among step wells but the richness of the decoration places it above all others. In the lowest third of the rectangle there were a series of pavilions that braced the side walls. These have fallen into a state of disrepair, indeed the whole structure had fallen into disuse and debris had filled a good deal of the well. Considerable restoration has been undertaken.

There are more than 800 elaborate sculptures among seven galleries. The central theme is the Dasavataras, or ten incarnations of Vishnu, which are  accompanied by sadhus, brahmins, and apsaras (celestial dancers dressed in their celestial dancing outfits).  At water level, no longer open to the public, there is  a carving of  Vishnu, reclining on the thousand-hooded serpent Shesha, resting in the infinity between ages.

Rani ki vav from the west end.
Rani ki vav from the west end.

To negotiate the steps from terrace to terrace you turn left and right making patterns of progress as you choose your path. Long diagonals or short diagonals at your whim. Whenever you approach the walls you come close to the carvings including one of Queen Udayamati herself, seated on a cushion with a parasol held above her.

Looking west.
Looking west.
About two thirds down into the well.
About two thirds down into the well.

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And a dancing girl to finish, take note of her plump beautifully formed owls.

This is part of a series that began with मुंबई … published 30/01/2014.

The Sun Temple at Modhera …

History starts when writing starts. Writing, I would venture, is a product of civilisation. We find the first great civilisations and writing springing into existence about 3,100 BC in Mesopotamia and in Egypt. About 500 years later the Indus Valley produced its own version which grew to cover a larger area than Egypt and Mesopotamia combined, built the major cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro and survived for more than a thousand years.

One of the finest archeological sites in India is at Dholavira, in the Kutch region of Gujerat. It is a Harappan site that was occupied from about 2650 BC until about 1450 BC. I hope that one day someone discovers there the earliest commercial brewery and distillery known to humanity.

In Australia we start slapping heritage listings on anything over fifty years old and our oldest buildings are barely pushing 200. Gujerat was there from the beginning of history.

My first glimpse of the glorious architecture of Gujerat was on one of the journeys onto the Little Rann. We passed the walled city of Zinzuwada. This was built in the eleventh century, a troubled time because of  invasions from the north.  The city has four magnificent gates, the best preserved is the Madapol Gate. I wish I could have had the time to explore it properly … next time.

I was able to do better at the  Sun Temple at Modhera. This is dedicated to the Hindu Sun God, Surya.

According to the little guide book one can purchase at the gate, there is an inscription on the rear wall of the central hall naming king Bhola Bhimdev as the builder in the year 1027 AD. That is  around the same time as Zinzuwada and by a king of the same dynasty, the Solanki.

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The temple is in three parts. The weary traveller would first bathe in the pool, the Suryakund, then ascend the steps, pass between two columns to enter the Court or Dance gallery, Sabha Mandap. The next building is the main temple, Garbha-griha. Legend has it that it once contained a magnificent and bejewelled pure gold idol of the Sun God and his chariot drawn by seven horses. This sat atop a pit, fifteen feet deep, filled with gold coins. It was designed so that the rays of the rising and setting sun on the day of equinoxes (round about 20 March and 21 September) fell on the sculpture and filled the temple with radiance. This was taken away by the marauding Mahmud Ghaznavi who is credited with 17 raids on India, carried out for fun and profit. His last invasion, however, was supposedly in 1026. Clearly the legend needs a little tidying up before the insurance claim goes through.

Considerable damage was wrought on the temple by the Sultan of Northern India, Alauddin Khilji, during his reign from 1296 to 1316. Gujerat was one of the first territories he conquered and annexed.

What we have left though is still magnificent. Symbolism is everywhere, just as the sun in its passage causes the lotus flower to open and close so the temple form follows that of the lotus. All the gods are represented in their appropriate forms in their appropriate places with their appropriate vehicles. Various manipulations of the calendar determine the number of pillars, the number of elephants and so on.

Sabha Mandap, built on 52 pillars.
Sabha Mandap, built on 52 pillars.
Pillars within the Sabha Mandap
Pillars within the Sabha Mandap
The dome within the Sabha Mandap
The dome within the Sabha Mandap
Garbha-griha
Garbha-griha

As can be seen from the photos, the stone work is intricately carved. Many of the panels depict what the little guidebook quaintly calls “sexual and amorous acts”…

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This was all completed without the aid of cranes or engines. Once each layer was completed it was filled with sand. Elephants were used to drag the stones up ramps to the new level. Once the building was finished the sand was removed.

Prayers are no longer offered at the temple. The Garbha-griha is now the daytime roost of Greater Mouse-tailed and other bats.

Greater Mouse-tailed Bat
Greater Mouse-tailed Bat

Little Rann of Kutch …

My name is Robert and I am still in Gujerat …

The next destination is Dasada and the Little Rann of Kutch. The Arabian Sea once extended into the belly of Gujerat in two shallow arms. Over time these have silted up to form the Great and Little Ranns of Kutch. Rann meaning saline desert and Kutch being the name of the region. These are inundated in the monsoon and steadily dry out through the remainder of the year. Some grass survives around the margins and within the marsh there are some low islands, called Bates, on which mesquite and some grasses persist but most of the Rann is utterly devoid of vegetation. Beyond the ancient coastline is the Thar desert.

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This place is not as sterile as it seems. It is the stronghold of the Khur or Wild Ass Equus hemionus khur. This was formerly widespread and numerous but has suffered from loss of habitat to the mesquite and herdsmen and also from some diseases. Recently given protection its population and range are currently increasing. Once the only place to see it, this is still the best place to see it. They feed mainly early morning and in the evening. They are more elegant than one might expect of an ass and can gallop at up to 80 km/hr, an impressive beast.

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The Hoopoe Lark is another denizen of this empty landscape whilst the bates provide good habitat for Macqueen’s Bustard. Where there is water in an arid landscape one can be sure of a concentration of birds. We got as far as the tidal reaches of the sea and enjoyed Flamingoes, Ruff, Little Stints, Kentish Plover, Common Cranes, Greylag Goose and some Gulls and Terns.

There are even people who can make a living out here. When the Rann is flooded it becomes a prawn fishery. As it dries out it can be exploited for salt production.

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It appears to run as a small family enterprise with the family living a very humble and remote life right next to the pans.

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