What India’s Stepwells Tell Us About History’s Forgotten Feminine

On the connection between water and women, as conveyed by the architectural marvels of Gujarat.

 

In the book ‘The Alphabet Versus the Goddess’, Leonard Shlain eloquently argues that the worship of the goddess was a ubiquitous ancient phenomenon world-over, and that male gods rose quite suddenly to usurp their thrones. The book strongly makes a case for how the fall of the goddesses might be directly related to the rise of literacy – which he sees as a neurological event.

In light of this context, and the fact that history (his+story) has often overlooked the role played by women in shaping it, I was fascinated to discover that women had a strong role to play in Gujarat in the patronage of its architecturally-brilliant stepwells, as far back as the 7th-9th centuries. Goddesses served as inspirations as well in their art. While male gods rarely featured in the art portrayed, certain strikingly feminine motifs appear to recur constantly. I delve into this remarkable observation in an article on Creative Yatra, through an interview with the brazen feminist force that is Purnima Bhatt, author of ‘Her Space, Her Story’.

 

Amba Maata ni Vav, Maalav Talav. From Anthill Design’s ‘Stepwells of Ahmedabad’ exhibition (2016), photo taken by Malay Doshi and Karan Gajjar.

Amba Maata ni Vav, Maalav Talav. From Anthill Design’s ‘Stepwells of Ahmedabad’ exhibition (2016), photo taken by Malay Doshi and Karan Gajjar.

 

Cover image: Women fetching water at the Adalaj stepwell. From James Burgess’ ‘Photographs of Architecture and Scenery in Gujarat and Rajputana’ taken by Colin Murray in c.1872. (Source: bl.uk)

 

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Niharika Sanyal

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