India Futures Project / Illustration

A futuristic look at the stepwells of Chand Baori

We look at the case of Chand Baori in Rajasthan to understand how functionality, beauty and environmental protection can go hand in hand in the Future.

By Ayaz Basrai on 06 September

  • Chand Baori

The geometric precision of Chand Baori’s 3400 steps create moving patterns and shapes throughout the day in a captivating dance

The village of Abhaneri is located just short of a hundred kilometres from Jaipur, on the road to Agra. Driving into this small dusty village, there is little there that can prepare you for the sight that awaits. As you enter, Chand Baori reveals itself.

In cities, our eyes tend to look up at Architecture. But it is surreal to look down into something so intensely awe-inspiring.

Chand Baori’s other-worldly symmetry, and the geometric precision of its 3400 perfectly sculpted steps create constantly moving patterns and shapes throughout the day in a beautiful captivating dance. The term Baori or ‘well’ does absolutely no justice to the breath-taking scale of the place, with its 100 feet deep, immense structure that descends 13 storeys below the surface.

In the states of Rajasthan and Gujarat, the problem of water is a persistent one. Chand Baori’s unique location near the Thar desert means that the seasonal monsoon is torrential, yet the sandy soil lets this precious resource slip below the surface almost instantly. There are age-old aquifers here, waiting to be tapped by local water diviners, who use a deep sense of intuition and an almost forensic knowledge of signs on the surface to precisely triangulate the presence of water deep underground. Ancient knowledge advises against the storage and use of surface water, cautioning against disease and pollution, and prescribes only the use of naturally percolated groundwater as a source of drinking water. It is no surprise then that over 2000 such structures have emerged in a collective mapping exercise, extending into a global network.

The Baori not only makes the aquifer accessible in a purely functional way; it also allows for a community to enter and take charge of the space. The cool confines of the steps allow the space to be used in scorching afternoons, providing welcome respite from the dry, intense heat at the surface. There is even a subterranean palace for the royalty, to be used on hot summer days. Women use and populate the space, whispering village gossip to each other in the shade. Platforms surround each level, and one can vividly imagine culture flowering across its many steps. Religion sanctifies the water, making sure the rare resource is kept clean and the Baori itself visited regularly.

  • Woman In Chand Baori Stepwell Abhaneri India

Baoris use intuition and traditional knowledge to make aquifers accessible to the local community in a purely functional way

A Beautiful Problem

The Chand Baori is a “Beautiful Problem”, a distinct, unique topical issue in which the solution articulated is one of exquisite beauty.

Baoris remind us how intuition and a visceral connect with our context, coupled with a strong sense of art, craft and community can result in utopian structures. Structures built by and for the people, accessible and welcoming, showcasing the best of society for eternity. The process of conceptualising and building, not to mention maintaining and integrating these structures into everyday life, is well beyond our current “problem - solution” mindset. What strikes home most painfully is the amazing contrast between the beauty of this solution, and the terribly unimaginative nature of solutions that we are finding for the same problems today.

Our current attempts at solving emerging problems of power consumption have resulted in mega projects, like the recent 648 MW Adani Solar power plant at Sengapadai, Tamil Nadu. The group has purchased over 2500 acres of land, with the massive undertaking comprising 3.80 lakh foundations, 25 lakh solar modules, 27000 mt of structure, 576 inverters, 154 transformers and 6,000 km length of cables. In a surreal twist, the plant supposedly producing green energy, “takes as much as 2 lakh litres of good quality water to keep its 25 lakh solar modules clean each day. That water is sourced from borewells 5 km away without permission from the district authorities”, according to a report in Indian Express. If the panels are not cleaned daily, production may drop by as much as 25%. Even overlooking irregularities in the land acquisition and agreed rates, this unimaginative deployment of technology is what largely defines our paradigm of building solutions today.

Similar large-scale deployments of opaque technology dot our landscape today, with layers of security to keep visitors and inconvenient observers out, while the ‘sacred’ energy is produced in the most dystopian ways imaginable. Far from engaging community, art and culture, these technologies brutally terraform the landscape they occupy, with scant regard for impact or legacy. What can we learn from our inspiring past to be able to re-imagine these structures for our collective Futures?

The key is to switch from looking at what Technology is to what Technology can be.

  • Monkeyverse Busride Speculative Futures Hd 01 1

Monkeyverse's illustration visualises the future of Chand Baori, where there is synergy between technology and community

The Abha-Nagri Sun Temple 2035

Let us take you to the village of Abhaneri, originally named ‘Abha-Nagri’, meaning ‘City of Brightness’. Abhaneri is most famous for its proximity to the Chand Baori. More recently, the inauguration of the Abha Nagri Sun Temple has made headlines world-over, launching a new community space for the region. The conceptualisation team included residents new and old, members of the Arts Commission and third generation water diviners. Technology and geology teams engaged in a detailed topographical survey of the area, using current geo-mapping tools and subterranean probes to precisely pinpoint aquifer locations. The base frameworks of the new solar pyramids were then laid so as to not disturb any subterranean flows. A grid of algorithmically engineered trees then optimise their own arrangements to make best use of available sunlight, allowing for an ever-changing forest of mechanical trees in a constant feedback loop with their immediate environment. Using available geo-thermal energy and a distributed wind and solar backbone, the temple also generates its own power.

This base framework was then offered to the most progressive creative minds in the field to lend their programming talent, staying true to the venue’s commitment to be a hub for culture supported by technology. The first year’s calendar of events is an eclectic mix of music programs, India’s first radical self-expression festival and adventure sports in the surrounding dunes. The eco-residences that are now sprouting up around the temple complex have adopted much of the centre’s ethos, buying power locally over short distances and developing a new hyper-local barter ecosystem. Locally grown produce has now started proliferating the solar kitchens around Abhaneri, allowing a hybrid food culture to take root. The temple harvests its own rainwater too, stored in the massive community underground water-tanks, and in a beautiful instance of serendipity, managed to energise the aquifers flowing to its sister monument too.

On Future Problems

In order to achieve any synergy between technology and community, our base motivations need examination. The best technology of our times deployed in opaque and unimaginative ways create widespread ugliness and ecological disaster. When technology is paired with community engagement, long-lasting monuments of beauty can be created.

In a stark comparison to our building attitudes from the deep past and mundane present, we see the importance of beauty, craft and nuance in the Future. The breathtaking wonder that surrounds visitors at the Chand Baori sorely lacks in almost every contemporary expression because we have forgotten to look for it, demand it, build it. Technology is now divorced from culture, aesthetics and design. It has a force of its own, creating shapes and forms increasingly disjointed from our expectations of life and its exuberance.

Concerns of place-making and landscape art, which we see only at progressive music and cultural gatherings, need to boldly enter the design process of technocrats. This allows an informed and inspired process to pave the way for the deployment of technology. The importance of achieving a harmonious symbiosis between infrastructure and ecology cannot be overstated. When community participation remains active, we automatically kick-start ideas that have managed to keep culture buoyant and vibrant for centuries. We need to start asking simple fundamental questions before we start grabbing land to roll out endless fields of solar panels: How can this become a vibrant cultural venue? How can it welcome visitors, and leave them with a sense of wonder and awe? How can we inspire community engagement and stewardship that our great legacy of building has managed so efficiently? How can these structures be made increasingly relevant? What deep values can they emulate and create? How can these monuments encourage local craft and built expression? How can we create monuments that will define our notions of beauty for the Future?

What better way to create a Sun Temple than with solar panels? The etymology of the word Konark comes from “Kona” meaning ‘corner’ in Sanskrit, and ‘Arka’ meaning the ‘Sun’, which is almost an invitation to our future selves to build the algorithmically derived ‘Konarks’ of the Future. Think for a moment about what beauty the builders of the Konark temple in Odisha could have achieved back in 1250 with solar panels. Why is beauty so far outside our consideration when we commission solar parks?

Can built beauty actually attract worship and respect? It may well be that the exquisite beauty of built form exists in a close symbiosis with worship and religion, with a simultaneous flowering allowing cultural movements to gather momentum, without one pre-dating the other. In that sense, beauty is the generator, ensuring long-lasting value and stewardship, a sense of place that we are sorely lacking today. Our Future selves will then define inclusive notions of beauty using performative materials that will rival the greatest achievements of the past in articulating new symbiotic relationships with our ecology.

India Futures Project is a collaboration between The Busride Lab and Design Fabric. It will be a fortnightly editorial visualising a better India through Design & Futures Thinking. If you want to contribute or collaborate with us, please fill the form here.

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