Abhaneri? Where’s that?
Stepwell? What’s that?
In short, it is a must-visit place on your next trip to India.
I had heard of the magnificence of the Taj Mahal, the tranquil beauty of Udaipur and the vibrancy of the blue city of Jodhpur, but I had never heard of Abhaneri and its step wells. If it hadn’t been included on my Intrepid tour, I would have been none the wiser, and what a loss that would have been.
Abhaneri is a blink-and-you-miss-it village 240km south of Delhi. As we travelled around Rajasthan many Indian people would ask about our tour itinerary, and when I mentioned Abhaneri, very few had heard of this village. Perhaps it was my Aussie accent distorting the name, or it remains one of India’s many hidden gems.
Driving into Abhaneri on its narrow, dusty road, there is nothing to really indicate that there is an engineering masterpiece only metres from the main thoroughfare.
Yes, the Harshat Mata Hindu temple does capture your attention, if for no other reason than for its creative and random construction style. Apparently it used to stand over 30m high, but was flattened by marauding Mughal invaders. Not only did they destroy the temple, but they proceeded to smash all the faces off the carvings! Vandals! War certainly has a lot to answer for.
The temple has been partially rebuilt to about five metres high and now resembles a Lego building that Picasso may have constructed if he had been given the opportunity. Nothing quite fits neatly or squarely, but for the local Hindu people that does not detract from its religious importance.
For me, the true highlight of the village, and it still looms large in my memory, was the stepwell complex.
Before visiting India, I had never heard of a stepwell, and this site was revealed as another dazzling example of India’s engineering excellence. Basically, it is a very large hole in the ground that has been lined with many thousands of steps leading down to a well. My description does not do it justice, and neither do my photos, but believe me it is definitely worth a visit.
The stepwell, or baori, complex was more than just a well, it was also the King’s Summer Palace. Ingenious systems were designed and constructed to circulate the water through the palace before tumbling down into the well. Both King Chanda, and his many Queens and consorts, could enjoy the cooling air in the privacy of the palace, while the local nobles would sit on the various steps lining the well, out of the sun, but in amongst the gossip and enjoying the tumbling water.
The stepwell is approximately 30m wide and 19.5m deep. There are around 3 500 steps, heading left and right, and up and down like one of those Escher maze-like paintings.
Our first visit was in the afternoon and the harsh midday light tended to bleach out the colours of the steps. I could have sat there all day watching the light change the play of shadows, but in a tour group, you must go where the group goes. So, early the next morning as the sun rose, I quietly left the villa and joined the throng of local men, women and children walking to work and school. Yes, I looked very out of place amongst the Indian people, but I wanted one more dose of the stepwells and hopefully better light for photos.
As I entered a man approached me, proudly explaining that he was the night watchman. I ‘namaste’d’ him and explained that I had visited yesterday and simply wanted another look. I was hoping to sit quietly and enjoy the sheer wonder of the place, but he was keen to show me everything in detail with, no doubt, the strong hope of receiving a hefty tip. He even offered to take me down to the bottom of the well itself, but knowing I possessed two left feet, and the steps looked dangerously narrow, I reluctantly declined. How would I have explained it to Ankita, our tour guide, if I tumbled headfirst into the lurid green water?
No serenity for me that morning as I snapped my last few photos, shadowed constantly by the devoted night watchman. As I scurried out the gate back to the hotel, he put out his hand for his tip, and I complied, but certainly not the amount of rupee I bet he was hoping for. Enough for breakfast and a hot cup of chai.
With thoughts of my own breakfast in mind, I strolled back to the villa knowing I had seen something truly special. What a privilege international travel is.
Do you have a ‘wonder’ that resonates with you still?
What: Also known as chand bouri. Free entry, except for tips.
Where: Abhaneri, Rajasthan, India.
When: Open 24 hours.
Why: To experience an engineering wonder.
How: By car or taxi or on foot. No public transport connects to Abhaneri.
Who: Recommended for people who are steady on their feet as there are some steps and uneven surfaces.
Related Posts: To find out what to pack for a trip to India, have a look at my post that lists the bare necessities.
Related Blogs: For more stunning photos of the step wells, check out this blog: http://jatinchhabra.com/chand-baori/
Read About It: Don’t forget your Lonely Planet Rajasthan, available from Book Depository.