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The Iconography of Water (Well and Tank Forms of The Indian Subcontinent)

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Item Code: NAF169
Author: Fredrick W. Bunce
Publisher: D. K. Printworld Pvt. Ltd.
Language: English
Edition: 2013
ISBN: 9788124606971
Pages: 224 (Throughut B/W Illsutrations)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 11.5 inch X 9.0 inch
Weight 990 gm
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Book Description
About the Book

While numerous Indian monuments are well known in the annals of architectural research and excavation a category of monuments baoli, bawadi, kere, kulam, kunda, talao, tanka, wav and zing was neglected in the oeuvres of architects and art. A few are familiar with the splendid beauty of the Surya Tank, Modhera; the vertiginous Canda Baoli, Abhaneri; the incomparable Rani-ki Wav, patan; the magnificent Kalyatni Tank, Kulikere; and the beautiful rudabai-ni Wav, Adalaj. Thousand of such monument are excellent in architectural beauty and design, apparently based on their primary utility drinking bathing religious purification and ornamental (recreation).

Water plays a quintessential role in the life of man. Its harvesting preservation and careful use are of paramount importance especially in those region where rains tar scanty. Thus took place the construction of these artificial water bodies. Many of them are within the precincts of temple and mosques built in a time span of seventh to twentieth century.

This volume, devoted to the study of water monument is heavily loaded with the design of various structures and other vital information. Every detail in this book is rechecked to present the dimensions proportions and relationship of each of the various elements of the structures. Thus it unravels a number of keys by which other can unlock the mysteries and beauties of these neglected monuments It can be a precious collection for architects historians, researchers and anyone who loves water bodies.

About the Author

Fredrick W. Bunce, a PhD and a cultural historian of international eminence is an authority on ancient iconography and Buddhist arts. He has been honoured with prestigious awards/ commendations and is listed in who’s who in American art and the international biographical dictionary, 1980. He is currently professor emeritus of art Indian state university terre Haute, Indian. He has authored the following books all published by D.K. Printworld.


Generations of historians and art/ architectural historians have lauded and dissected many of the “major" monuments of the Indian subcontinent. Who is the modern, technological world has not heard of the Taj Mahal? Who of those who have been educated in art and architectural history have not heard of the excavated temples of Ellora and Ajanta, the monuments of Sanci, Mahabalipuram, Khajuraho, Ranakpur; of the great places of the Rajput at jodhpur, jaipur and detia; of the magnificent Mughal mosques; imperial palaces of fatehpur sikri or shahajahabad; the tomb of I’ timad-ud-Daulah; and the temple cities of Madura, Tiruchirapalli and Tiruvannamali?

Yet, few are familiar or have even heard of the splendid the magnificent Surya Temple Tank in Modhera (Plate 8), the vertiginous Canda Baoli at Abhaneri (Plate 10) the incomparable Rani-ki Wav of Patan (Plate 11), the beautiful Kalyani tank of Hulikere (Plate 12) or the impressive Rudabai-ni Wav at Adalaj (Plate 19). One is at a loss as to why these monument as a genre have been so generally neglected in the eouvres of art/architectural history particularly those that deal with the Indian subcontinent. Is it because they do not rise above the surrounding areas in which they are found? Is it because they do not exhibit many of the structural/engineering qualities apparent in other soaring structures? Or, is because their raison d’etre was less spiritual and more practical? Certainly it is not because they are so few? In fact there are literally thousands of these structures throughout India. But, they have been generally neglected and one wondered why.

Therefore this brief study will be devoted to a number of these monuments both tanks and step well. The emphasis will be on the plan of the various structure and other salient information. This is not meant to be an exhaustive study rather it is undertaken with the hope that it will offer a number of keys by which others many use in unlocking the mysteries and beauties of these neglected monuments.


Humankind can do without many things that we in our modern world have learned to expect or tol that we need e.g. automobiles, telephones, television, radio, airplanes and paved streets. But suitable, potable drinking water is not one of them! It, like the air we breathe, is an absolute requirement, a categorical necessity to sustain human life.

There are many regions on this planet between the arctic and antarcic circle where the lack of sufficient rainfall simply does not support human life. Areas which do not have sources of suitable drinking water without modern and costly technological applications are sprinkled across the globe e.g. the sahara desert. It these desert, the Namib Desert, the Gobi Desert, the Arabian Desert, the great Victoria Desert and the Atacama Desert. If these desert areas are to support human existence then life giving water must be brought in and frequently at enormous cost. On the opposite side there are other areas which seem quite beneficent to the sustenance of human and animal life. The northern great plains of North American particularly the state of Minnesota i.e. the “Land of Ten thousand Lakes” sees a constant and abundant supply of life giving water via rain, lakes, rivers and easily accessible aquifers. These the water in many areas lies but a few feet below the surface. There are many other region of the world table to easily and regularly supply this basic need of humankind.

Water as a cultural imperative
An abundant supply of water was and is an absolute requirement for the establishment and sustenance of a civilization. The Nile gave birth to the brilliant Egyptian civilization; the Tigris and Euphrates fostered the powerful sumarians the Babylonians, the Assyrians and the Persians; and the Indus sustained Mohenjo Daro, Dholavira and Harappa. However abuse of the environment can create catastrophic effect that may affect the availability of water. Archaeologists and ecological historians posit that the sudden collapse of the anasazi civilization in south west united state and the Maya civilization in central America were due in part to the ravaging of the local ecology.

In Asia, the Irrawaddy supported the brilliant pagan period. The city grew in size prosperity and reputations. Scores, Nay! Hundreds of small and large, brick temples were constructed in and adjacent to that lustrous city. The eventual effect of this building frenzy was the razing the denuding of the forests around Pagan and along the Irrawaddy. These stand of timber were felled to feed the insatiable brick producing kilns. This ultimately created an ecological backlash and the region suddenly suffered a series of servers catastrophic droughts. Pagan was abandoned! It became virtually uninhabitable! Akbar the great raised the fabled fathepur sikri and even provided it with the Anupa talao or cara camana for his own personal imperial enjoyment. It was an indication a symbol an icon of his power and wealth. This small tank served no other purpose than to supplement the aesthetic and personal enjoyment of the emperor. However even the emperor the great Akbar could not command the rains that fed the small river that flowed near the city northern borders nor the rains that were needed to fill the great artificial lake of his new capita. There was simply not enough water to sustain Fatepur Sikri ballooning population. Fatehpur sikri was abandoned! It became virtually uninhabitable!

Indian has witnessed the rise of some of earliest civilization on earth e.g. earth Mohenjo-Daro, Dholavira and Harappa mentioned above. This great subcontinent has evidences the efflorescence of human attainment in religious philosophy and architecture. Indian has seen the growth and sustenance of its population to where it now teeters at the pinnacle of sustainable human population. Like with the genesis of other fledgling civilization a river seemed to have been the agar. In India case it was the Indus Rivers, then the great mother ganga (the Ganga) and the Brahmaputra.

From the thick forests of the Terai along the northern borders of the Ganetic plain to the impenetrable tangle of the Sunderban at the head of the Bay of Bengal to the lush woodlands of the south; from the burning desert of western Rajasthan to the frigid wastes to the high mountains of Jammu Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh India provides a wide range of geologic features. From the Rann of Kutch and the thar desert in the far west where any rainfall at all is seen as a divine gifts to be savored to Assam and Arunchal Pradesh in the north east where some of the heaviest rainfalls in history are recorded India provides a wide range of climatic conditions.

The vast subcontinent extends into the Indian Ocean. South of the Tropic of Cancer it is surrounded by water. But this never ending source of water the Indian Ocean does not give up its liquid riches readily except during the monsoons. The rocky Himalayas and their foothills provides a steady supply of glacial runoff for those who live near the rushing streams. But the eastern ghats and the western ghats the Aravali range the vindhyas the satpuras and the great Deccan plateau do not allow for the retention of much of the water that is deposited during the yearly monsoons. Only the vast gangetic plain and delta region along the caromandel coast and small areas along the western coast of the subcontinent are relatively flat and where the water table is relatively close to the surface providing a readily accessible supply of this life giving liquid.

Water has always been a concern in the arid and semi arid region of India, Particularly Gujrat and western Rajasthan. During the three month wet season the western monsoons generally deposit bountiful amount of rain upon the land. But the monsoons can be capricious! They may come early and stay late flooding the region with an overabundance of rain. Or it may be delayed and deposit only a fraction of the average a fraction of what is required.

Then the day season follows the season of plenty a sere season with a duration that averages nine months. The earth which had drunk inches of monsoonal rain slowly dries out given up that gift of nature and the green shallow root vegetation soon thereafter turns colour and withers.

Water is not only needed for human consumption but is also vital for domestic animals as well. In addition the population of India has for millennia required two crops per year to sustain it. The wet season easily provides for one generally a large crop. Early in the subcontinent history farmers realized that they had to construct large catchment basins to impound and retain monsoonal runoff in order to irrigate a second less abundant crop. This they did. Through necessity and ingenuity they developed forms to capture and retain the life giving rain wells and tanks.

Water as a Religious Imperative
Water for the major religious of the world has had ritualistic and dogmatic important. It is required in a number of sacred rites. The use of water is universally connected with iconic purification and spiritual cleansing in every major faith. In Christianity baptism via sprinkling or immersion is seen as an elemental ritual an iconic application connected with initiation into the faith. Without it some feel that the soul is lost. It is also used in rites of blessing holy water and physically and spiritually Birka (Arab.: aka fishqiye, haud, saqaya, sihirj) or ritual ablution of the arms hands feet face and ears is a requirement of every Muslim before prayer. All mosques have a pond (Arab.: haud) or other sources of water so that this ritual may be practiced. Ritual bathing of the corpse is also required before burial is Islam. For the teravada Buddhists of Thailand it is considered desirable for every temple to face a water source whether a tank pond or river. Water is an integral element in the ritual for the dead in Buddhism. Even in Judaism, water plays an important role in rites for the dead.

However for the Hindu and the Buddhists alike, water is considered elemental. It is one of the panca tanmatras, the five essential elements; the other four being: earth (Ind.: ksiti), ether (Ind.: akasa) wind (ind.: marut) and fire (ind.: tejas). For the Hindu, water is seen as being not only a purifying elemental source it also has regenerative qualities. There are numerous religious and or ritual occasions in which bathing in an absolute requirement. Normally one bathes before prayer at a temple. Tarpana sodhana nd abhisekam are rituals for hindus in which water is a necessary element. Virtually every major Hindu temple will have associated with it a tank or other source of water an iconic necessity. In these tanks the devotees ritually bathe in preparation for puja. Even within individual home devout Hindus bathe or cleanse themselves before their morning prayers at the family shrine. Bathing in the sacred Ganga at least once in one lifetime is the wish of very Hindu. The Kumbha Mela and the Maha kumbha Mela ae sacred rites attached to bathing which are attended by millions of Hindus. There are a number of other rivers in Indian that are considered sacred and bathing in their waters is spiritually seen as beneficial the Godavari, Kaveri, Narmada, Sarasvati, Sindhu and Yamuna rivers.

Water as a source of power
Water may be seen as a source of wealth and or power an emblem of authority and domination. Those who commanded the source of water commanded the people. The puissant Khmer rulers understood this even though their capital, Angkor was constructed near a huge natural lake the Tonle sap. They required that varying amount of water be brought to Angkor as part of the yearly tribute from their many feudatories. These offerings of water were icons of submission. The Sukhothai kingdom announced its separation from the angkorian yoke by purposely failing to supply their yearly quota of water. In India, virtually every fort and or fortified city was strategically constructed where there was a source of water, hopefully abundant. This was a physical necessity. If a flowing source was not present deep wells, great cisterns, vast talaos were constructed of such a size as to sustain the population of the citadel in case of the siege and stagger the imagination. The impregnable Mehrangarh of Jodhpur, resting on its high rocky outcrop possessed a number of deep wells and cisterns for their use and protection. It stood and stand in isolated, sustainable splendor an symbol of power and wealth.

Access to water Sources
Within India, as with many other region of the world there are five naturally availably sources of water for human consumption and use rain (monsoonal) aquifers glacial runoff natural lakes and rivers. India developed a number of forms for access catchment and the retention of water dimple domestic wells, step wells tanks or small pond artificial lakes and channels. Simple wells were an early answer to the dry months and parched throats. These wells were sunk where the water table the aquifer was relatively close to the surface of the land generally no more than 6 or 7 m. they later became elaborated expanded and deepened in the form of a step will to provide not only access to the life giving fluid but also to furnish a commodious place of relaxation a locale that offered respite from the scorching heat of the dry season. Designed to bring the people and the god together these wells attempted to entice the gods to leave their abodes for a cool drink of water the elixir of life. This enticement this step well in the form of a trench dug into the earth and angled downward until the water table or aquifer was reached. In addition a shaft (ind.: kirpa) was constructed which allowed the drawing of water from ground level (figure 1). The sides of these trenches were lined with great slabs of stone suitable flight of steps were laid and frequently there were colonnaded levels where people could gather our of the glare of the sun to relax and cool off in the shade, this was main feature of the stepped well or step well in northwestern India. In Rajasthan they were known as bavadis (ind.: baolts, baoris, bavs, bavdis, bavdis, bavri) or waw (vav, vavadi) in Gujarat or bauris in Bijapur. As mentioned the goal of the stepped well was to dig a hole or trench deep enough to reach the subterranean water table. In some areas this meant the excavation of a mere 20 or 30 ft. in other regions e.g. areas of Gujarat, Particularly around Ahmedabad and patan the water table was 60 or 70 ft below ground levels. In these deep step wells the water level remained relatively constant throughout the year and provided suitable drinking water. This water had been naturally purified by percolating down through the layer upon layer of soil providing ample drinkable water. Only extreme drought or unusually heavy rainfall would effect the level within these wells to any great extent.

Generally, step wells, tanks (baoli) possessed a common architectural feature i.e. there are a flight of stairs leading down to or surrounding the surface of the water. Baolis have one further feature which is a shaft as mentioned above by which water may be drawn up without descending the steps. In most cases the steps of a tank would continue downward in an even decent even below the surface of the water. Only in the driest of seasons or during a prolonged drought would the lowermost step be revealed. A few baolis were constructed over and or around natural water filled clefts in the rock. Step would lead down to the natural drop and end there. These nature balis could be dangerous particularly if ne was not familiar with its geological makes and was unable to swim. Then as now signs are posted warning of the potential danger. However this does not always work. the nizamuddin Baoli (Plate 17) is infamous as it is said to claim at least one life a year, otherwise baolis were relatively safe even during high water periods.

From the earliest of times in the subcontinent tanks and ponds had been constructed to catch the abundant rainfall to contain natural runoff of the monsoon and save it not only for human consumption but also for irrigation during the long hot dry season. The natural runoff would be diverted via raised mitigate excessive evaporation before the water was utilized. Large pond or reservoirs (ind. tadaka) were also excavated for the catchment and retention of water that may later be utilized in irrigation in many regions of the subcontinent. In Karnataka these are known as Kere. In Ladakh catchment ponds (Lad.: Zings) were often constructed on solid bedrock and utilized to collect the runoff of glacial waters. Raised on a high plateau, the builders of the Shadiabad Mandira also included two extensive tanks in their plan i.e. the Munja Talao and the Kaphur Talao (Plate 36).

Smaller tanks, sacred tanks variously known as devara kalyani, kavil Kulam, Kulamn Kunda pusharini tirtha Kulams, rirtham and sarovara for ritual bathing also became a feature of must of the temple complexes in India from the north to the south e.g. the Surya temple of Modhera (Plates 7-8), Virupaksa pampi temple complex at Hampi (Plates 30-31), the vitthalapura also at Hampi (Plates 32-33) or the Minaksi Sundaresvara temple Madurai (Plates 56057). These temple tanks were generally within the precincts proper of the temples and consisted of steps surrounding the whole and leading down to the water level frequently the water in these tanks was supplied by rainfall however most of the sacred tanks did possess outside sources such as streams and or rivers that flowed through channels to the tank to sustain their water level throughout the year. These sacred tanks served four purposes. They provided water for abhiseka of the deity provided aquatic flowers for offering allowed for irrigation within the temple precinct and furnished water for ritual ablution.

Basic Design Features
One detail must be mentioned here. By modern standard the angle of descent and or ascent into or up from a majority of the step wells and or tank appears unduly steep. The rise of a step in relation to the depth of the read is approximately 1:1 in most of the step wells and tanks of India. Ergonomics was not a science that was fully appreciated or know or practiced in India or the rest of the world prior to the twentieth century. In modern residences and other structures which employ stairs the ratio to be 1:15. This allows for greater ease in ascent and particularly descent. A stairway which has an angle of 45 (1:1) presents certain problem particularly in descending a long fight. There is a tendency to stumble downward unless one is conscious of and focused on every step. Furthermore the angle is visually uncomfortable even disturbing for many people when descending. On the other hand a flight of stairs with a 1:15 ratio is far easier and comfortable to descend. It is ergonomically preferable it is seen that in nearly all the step wells the flight of stairs does not descend uninterrupted rather there are landings suitably placed laong the descent. These landings give physical and visual pause to the prson descending or climbing. This angle of decent or the rise of a step in relation to the depth of the tread may well have been employed for purely economic reasons. A 1:1 ration requires less stone than a 1:15 ratio. In a 1:1 ratio with 50 steps would require a third less stone than if a 1:1.5 ration was employed.

On the other hand the staircase at the temples of Angkor the Bayon and Angkor wat are far steeper i.e. 1:5:1 or the rise is one and a half times higher than the tread (see figure 3-C. in order to ascend to the khmer temples one was and is literally forced to do so with not only the feet but with the hands as well. Literally one had to crawl up to the sanctuary a proper attitude when approaching the abode of a deity.

Engineering Constraints and Requirements
Tankas kere zinga and talaos all had one basic feature regardless of their size. They had to provide a volume of space that retained the water without allowing it to seep with unrestrained rapidity into the surrounding earth. In Ladakh the zings were frequently constructed upon solid table rock as the noted above with suitable water proof walls to retain the runoff the table rock was a natural barrier. The zing were supplemental to the normal and plentiful glacial runoff feeding the many mountain streams along the southern slopes of the Himalaya. The area surrounding Bikaner in the Great Indian Desert did not have this luxury. These households built small reservoirs or tanks (Ind.: tankas) below ground level and generally within the confines of the house for the drinking water of the individual families. These small, residential tankas would have a layer of local clay applied to the inner surface. This resisted permeation. These tankas may be further lined with tile fired brick or even stucco to keep the water as clear as possible.

The talaos keres and other catchment areas similarly needed to be excavated to table rock or lined with suitable impermeable material. In many cases such as the Munja talao at Mandu, the construction of these reservoirs these talaos was an immense monumental task. But the necessity for unrestricted access to water far outweighed the cost of construction. The man hours required to excavate these talaos a back breaking task with simple tools were hardly a consideration and by today standard a monumental task.


List of platesVII
List of figuresX
Stepped wells, Tanks and pools17
Manussri Wav, Dhank, Gujarat18
Visnu Puskarini, Mahakutesvara temple, Badami, Karnataka20
Road Kunda, roda, Gujarat22
Natarajar temple, cidamabaram, Tamil Nadu24
Manikarnika Kunda (Cakra puskarini Kunda), Varanasi, uttar Paredesh28
Surya temple modhera, Gujarat30
Pancamahal Kunda, Pancamahal, Gujarat34
Canda Baoli, Abhaneri, Rajasthan36
Rani ki Wav, Patab, Gujarat38
Kalyani tank, Hulikere, Karnataka40
Cennakesava temple tank, belur, Karnataka42
Mahamaya and Navalinga temples tanks, Kukkanur, Karnataka44
Brahma Kunda, Kaveri Temple, Telakaveri, Karnataka46
Gandhak ki Baoli, Delhi48
Nizamuddin Baloi, Delhi50
Ugrasena ki Baloi Delhi52
Rudabai ni Wav, Adalaji, Gujarat54
Dada Harar wav, Asarwa, Gujarat56
Imperial vijayanagara, Karnataka58
Great Tank60
Geometric Tank62
Square water pavilion (Queen’s Bath)64
Octagonal Bath66
Residence Tank (north west of Ramacandra Temple)68
Octagonal well, Malpannagudi (Vijayanagara), Karnataka70
Ramatirtha Puskarini, Santhebennur, Karnataka72
Jami Masjid Haud, Companer, Gujarat74
Virupaksa temple complex, hampi, Karnataka76
Vitthalapura, Hampi, Karnataka80
Krsnapura, Hampi, Karnataka84
Shadiabad, Mnadu, Madhya Pradesh88
Jahaz Mahal90
Jahaz Mahal Pools92
Rewa Kunda94
Inner fort, Gingee Tamil Nadu96
Arunacala (Annamalaiar) Temple, Tiruvannamalai, Tamil Nadu102
Sri Ranganathaswami Temple, Tiruchirappalli, Tamil Nadu106
Ekambaresvara Temple Tank, Kancipuram, Tamil Nadu112
Rajori Ki Baoli, Delhi114
East Well (Baoli), Rohtas, Pakistan116
Fatehpur Sikri, Uttar Pradesh118
Anupa Talao (Car Caman), Fatehpur Sikri120
Elephant Gate Baloi, Fatehpur Sikri122
Canda Bauri Bijapur Karnataka124
Amber Tank (panna Mia), Amber Rajasthan126
Minaksi Sundaresvara Temple Madurai Tamil Nadu128
Fatehpur Bawadi Fathepur, Rajasthan132
Kalyani Kulam (Belagola), Sravanabelagola, Karnataka134
Shalimar Bagh, Srinagar, Kashmir136
Shalimar Bagh, Lahore, Punjabi, Pakistan138
Jagadisa Temple Tank, Udaipur, Rajasthan140
Garden Palace, Deeg, Rajasthani142
Padmanabhapuram, Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu146
Guru Nanak Dev-ji Tank, Tilla Jogian, Jhelum, Pakistan150
Nandavana Baoli, Nagpur, Maharashtra152
Sakkardara Baloi, Nagpur, Maharashtra154
Thathawata Johad, Thathawata, Rajasthan156
Final considerations158
Appendix A
List of notable stepped wells and Tanks in the subcontinent163
Appendix B
Appendix C
Miscellaneous plans and Elevations183
Unverified plans206
Appendix D
Relevant Ruling Dynasties214
Helical step well, Campaner Pavagadh230
**Sample Pages**

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