From Kashi to Maheshwar and Ekamra to Adalaj, one sight that is common to all is ghats on rivers, tanks or step-wells – all pointing to one idea, India’s spiritual journey through life giving force, water.
Ghat refers to a series of steps leading to a water body, either a holy river or a small pond and in western India even step-wells. From the beginning of Indian civilization Indians have understood how water was critical, not just for biological survival, but also to meet our spiritual quest.
In Indian tradition ghats in step-wells are like bridges linking with the tropical Indian sun to a clear pool of water. Through ghats people travel from one realm to other. The weakening light descending the ghats conveys a sense of passage deep into the womb of earth, moving further into darkness. The experience is spellbinding. With no ripples, bubbles or sound, the pool has an eerie comforting silence. Here time stands still and you forget that anything is urgent.
Gujarat, Rajasthan and western Madhya Pradesh are a large semi-arid plateau with limited perineal water sources. Here the idea of step-well has found a deep meaning and its origin can be traced to the mysterious Harappan time, 4,500 years ago at Dholavira in Khadir Island of Rann of Kutch.
A well cut in rock with steps leading to it is supposed to be the earliest rock-cut architecture in the word. The well was excavated by the ASI IN 1990S.
Dholavira has been well-known for its complex elaborate water management system. Out of 13, six reservoirs have been excavated by the ASI. Among the six, the grandest is the one to the east of the citadel. It is of rectangular shape measuring 74 metre in length, 30 metre in width and 11 metre in depth. At three corners of the tank it was provided with a flight of 30 steps each.
Inside this spectacular tank is found the rock-cut well adjacent to its eastern wall with a few rock-cut steps and a stone made enclose of a later date.
When the Harappans first arrived at Dholavira they would have encountered entirely a different landscape of rugged hills, surrounded by sea, which has now become a vast marshy salt desert (Rann of Kutch).
It was an ideal location for sea trade, but the problem was water. Dholavira had comparably a better geographical advantage because of two streams, Manhar and Mansar. Both these streams were seasonal bringing water from the hill slopes during monsoon. The early settlers must have felt necessary to dam them, which they did. You have South Asia’s oldest check dams over both the streams built by the Harappans.
The rock-cut well was however first initiative for water conservation. However, it may not have a spiritual connection as the present state of research does not establish it. Reservoirs were added much later during the peak of Dholavira’s civilizational activities.
Seeds sown by the Harappans continued throughout Indian history with relation to water harvesting and worship. And this is the beauty of Indian civilization where traditions unlike Mesopotamian, Greek or Egyptian have continued till the modern time. However, it is pity that the sacred water in Indian soil is today nothing but a heap of garbage. Our rivers are amongst the most polluted in the world. Our lakes and ponds have not been spared either.