Water is the most essential part of life. Water management has been an integral part of Indian civilisation and a large number of water bodies have been developed since ancient times. There are fine examples of wells excavated and treated like temples with multi-storied structures and sculptures. Gujarat’s Rani-ki-Vav is one of the finest examples of artistic wells. Many kings and donors patronised the excavation of large water bodies to benefit the people. In the early historical period, Mauryan emperor Asoka excavated large lakes for water supply for agriculture and drinking. One such example mentioned in the Girnar (Gujarat) inscription refers to Sudarshana lake. Subsequently, digging wells and excavating water channels had become an auspicious duty of the kings and many members of the public also got such works excavated.
Ancient civilisations are found on the banks of rivers. Temples were also built with water sources within the premises. In Karnataka, Chutu Satavahana Princess Shivaskanda Nagashri got a pond excavated in Banavasi, recorded in her Naga image inscription found at Banavasi. Banavasi Kadamba king Mayura Sharma excavated a pond at Chandravalli near Chitradurga. There are a good number of similar examples. The Early Chalukyas of Badami were known for their water bodies and water management. The town of Badami is situated on the bank of the ancient water body known as Agasthya Teertha and even today, the water is used for daily purposes. Similarly, the Mahakuta temples are situated around the ancient water pond Dev Droni. This is one of the earliest ponds that has stone masonry and stone mandapa amidst the water body with a Chaturmukha Shiva Linga.
In medieval Karnataka, many artistic wells and ponds have been constructed. They remind us of temples and in certain cases, there are narrative sculptures depicted on the inner walls. During the Kalyan Chalukya and Hoysala periods, many artistic wells and ponds were constructed. Lakkundi in Gadag District is known as the temple town of the Kalyan Chalukya period. The village is once believed to have had 100 wells and an equal number of temples. It appears to be true as there are many wells that have become dumping yards or closed by the locals. However, a well-known example is still intact near Lakkundi’s Manikeshwara temple. Popularly known as Musukina Bhavi, it has impressive architecture. It is a rectangular-shaped large stepped well. The well is decorated with shrines all around, which were enshrined with Shiva Linga. The well has an entrance that leads into a flight of steps, which take one down to the water. The entrance also has a beautiful double storey structure and side shrines. The upper roof portion, which is like a bridge, connects to the Manikeshwara temple built on the upper surface near the well. The bridge has a mandapa-like structure beneath with heavy square pillars.
The well at Sudi in Ron taluk of Gadag district is situated on the northeastern corner of an ancient temple site. Unlike deep stepped wells, here it is designed like a temple. The well is nested deep into the ground and has a square plan. There is an oblong entrance with a gateway and a flight of steps leading to the well. The inner walls are decorated like any Kalyan Chalukya temple. The inner space of the well gives the feeling that all three sides are the rear walls of a temple. The walls have adisthana (plinth) followed by the bhitti, with koshtas (miniature shrines with pilasters) at regular intervals, creating a perfect wall of a temple. There are also niches to enshrine images inside. The wall culminates with upper decorative motifs. Overall it gives an imposing appearance. Its entrance is yet another interesting feature. Both the Lakkundi and Sudi wells belong to the Kalyan Chalukya period dating to about 1080-1120 CE and follow the contemporary rich temple architecture.
Water bodies in the village of Mudanuru (Surpur Taluk, Yadgir district) have some interesting features. They are large rectangular ponds with stone masonry all around with stepped entrances on the two sides. On one side, there will be a facility to lift water for agriculture purposes. The ponds have narrative sculptures: Samudra Mathana, Narasimha fighting Hiranyakashipu, Vamana Trivikrama, Varaha rescuing Bhudevi and also many themes depicting Krishna Bhagavata and Ramayana stories. The tradition of depicting narrative sculptures on well walls may be first noticed in the Huchchimalli temples in Aihole of the Badami Chalukya period (early 8th century). Here the images are unique in their style and mode of narrations. Only selected episodes of the themes are depicted all around the pond’s inner wall. The ponds have groundwater sources and are filled with copious amounts of water even during the harsh summer.
Water bodies play an important role in rituals in temples and were usually created in the northeastern corners of the premises. The artistic wells with beautiful structural embellishments and sculptures added to the medieval architecture. The Kalyan Chalukya period is rich in temple traditions and equally rich in its water bodies.
R H Kulkarni
Professor, Dept of Art History, College of Fine Arts, Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath