Whenever I visit centuries-old monuments, the one thing that never fails to amaze me is how they were built without machinery of any sort to aid them. I am also struck by how the planners and builders of those times made optimum use of available resources in the absence of technology as we know it today.
A visit to the Sahastralinga Talav at Patan underscored these beliefs of mine.Located a kilometre away from Rani ni Vav, the Talav was one of the many artificial tanks built in Gujarat by Siddharaj Jaisinh (1093-1143 CE), a king from the Solanki Dynasty.
It was past noon when I arrived at the Sahastralinga Talav, after visiting the queen of stepwells. There was no one else at the site apart from a goat-herd and his frisky goats. Even though it was December and winter, it was quite hot and the sunlight very harsh. Due to this, I was initially reluctant to explore further. But I’m glad I did as I would have missed out on exploring a real treasure.
It is around 10.30 in the morning when I enter the Rani ni Vav (or the Queen’s Stepwell) complex at Patan. It’s a sunny day with bright blue and cloudless skies.
I take this as an auspicious sign for I have been rather unlucky when it comes to viewing stepwells. Be it at Hampi, Champaner or Lonar, the wells were full of water when I visited them, and I was unable to see the step-like feature of the wells. So keenly aware I am of my ‘luck’ with stepwells that I cannot help asking the person selling entry tickets to the monument, if there is water in the stepwell.
I get the reassuring reply that the water supply dried up a long time back and the step well is completely dry. So it is with a spring in my steps and a smile on my face that I enter the complex. Manicured lawns and well laid out pathways welcome me, and I pass a photo shoot, as well as coy couples hiding behind bushes on my way to the stepwell, which is a short walk from the entrance.
Soon the stepwell is visible or rather a fenced off rise and depression is visible and it is only when I am almost upon it that I see steps descending into the stepwell. I have picked up a booklet from the ticket office on the Rani ni Vav and settle down on the topmost step to read and familiarise myself with the history of the stepwell.
The town of Champaner is situated at the base of Pavagadh Hill, which is a sudden rise in an otherwise gently undulating landscape. A climb up Pavagadh Hill reveals a heady mix of interesting geology, mythology, religious confluence, history, strategic military brilliance and foresight, clever design and architecture, rainwater harvesting systems, sustainable measures, a hidden valley of flowers, etc.
Geologically, Pavagadh Hill is quite different from Champaner. The Hill is composed of rhyolite, a volcanic rock, while Champaner is almost entirely sandstone, a sedimentary rock. It is this volcanic feature which made Pavagadh an important and strategic location for whoever ruled it. About 830 m high, it descends or ascends (depending on your point of view) in five plateaus, each of which are separated by steep cliffs. This feature enabled fortifications to be built at vantage points around the hill in a circular manner, making it indefensible and non-breachable. And also confusing for the visitor/tourist.
“It has not rained in Champaner for 2 years, and then it rains like this. When it rains…” the guide’s voice trailed off mournfully.
About 20 pairs of suspicious, skeptical eyes looked at the muddy, slushy path that seemed to worsen as it wound its way to apparently nowhere. But according to Manoj, the guide, the path led to 2 mosques, one of them with the most beautiful embellishments imaginable on its walls.
Maybe Manoj did not sound convincing enough, or maybe it was the mud, but most of the owners of those eyes decided to forego seeing those two mosques. But some did agree to go with the guide and see the mosques. I was one of them.
Our tour group was in Champaner for a 2-day visit. We had arrived that morning from Mumbai to a cloudy, rainy and wet day, in the wettest rainy season that Champaner was experiencing in a long time. We were to see the ruins of the medieval city of Champaner, which included many mosques in various stages of restoration or disrepair, depending on one’s point of view. I wondered how many we would be able to see with the heavy rains having made the access roads paths almost impossible to negotiate. (There are reportedly 18 such mosques, and we managed to see about 5 of them.)
Once upon a time there was a prince. He wasn’t particularly a happy prince or, for that matter, an unhappy prince; but he was an ambitious prince. He wanted to be remembered for posterity for his conquests, and his rule. The prince wanted to be like his grandfather, who had founded a great city and named it after himself. But the prince had to first become the king. And one day, he became the king.
The prince, now the king, set his eyes on a neighbouring kingdom, which was very well fortified and was known to have an impregnable defence system. The king’s advisers and soldiers urged him to consider some other kingdom to conquer.
But he declined; it had to be this kingdom. The king’s strategy was not to engage in a battle or a war; he captured the lower fortifications of this hilly kingdom, and then laid siege to it and cut off supplies.
The kingdom’s ruler was amused and offered the king money, women, and jewels, but the king was not enticed. He was firm about his intentions—he wanted the kingdom. Nothing else. To show that he meant business, the king laid the foundations for his palace and a place of worship for his soldiers just outside the fortifications and at the base of this hilly kingdom.