Gujarat Stepwells tell tales women, water & life (Gujrat Tourism)
Gujarat Stepwells tell tales women, water & life (Gujrat Tourism): Most often, historical monuments tell us the stories of men, power and war. The Stepwells of Gujarat offer a refreshing alternative to this paradigm for they tell the tales of women, water and life, writes Mallika Iyer
Stepwells (known as vavs) are a familiar feature in the landscape of Gujarat. They differ from ordinary wells in that they have steps leading down from the ground to the water-level. Water is not drawn by rope but by descending the steps of the multi-storied structure. But most of all, unlike ordinary wells, they are a world unto themselves and a revelation for a visitor.
Most often, historical monuments tell us the stories of men, power and war. The Stepwells of Gujarat offer a refreshing alternative to this paradigm for they tell the tales of women, water and life, writes Mallika Iyer
Water and Women
Water, being a basic need, has often been venerated for its life-giving properties. The act of providing water is associated with earning merit. More so, in a land with scanty rainfall and an arid landscape, building a well was seen as an act deserving great merit. In this context, water also came to bear a close association with fertility as it was responsible for the growth of crops and cattle.
Women too have a deep association with water for somehow, the duty of collecting water has over the centuries been relegated to them. Even today, women and girls often spend hours each day, walking to and collecting water.
Stepwells were the spaces where the world of women and water converged. It was a space that women could visit freely, not just to collect water but also for socialising and recreation. Secluded below the surface and away from the male gaze, women could gather and be themselves. Friends could meet and chat. Girls could sing and dance. Inhibitions could melt away.
Perhaps in the modern age, serviced with piped water and water pumps, it is difficult to understand their significance, but during medieval times, these wells were a great blessing for people, particularly for women. “Stepwells are a window into the lives of ordinary women. One can imagine the kind of lives they led, the deities they worshipped, the beliefs they held by observing the architecture of these vavs,” explains Shilpa Chedda, visiting faculty at Mumbai University and curator at Heras Centre of St Xavier’s College, Mumbai.
It comes as no surprise therefore that more than a fifth of these wells were commissioned by women. From queens to wives of rich merchants, courtesans to servant girls – women had a large role to play in the construction of stepwells in Gujarat.